How Róisín Murphy became the most vilified female celebrity since J.K. Rowling

Róisín Murphy has been the centre of a toxic culture war  (ES)
Róisín Murphy has been the centre of a toxic culture war (ES)

The specific words that got Róisín Murphy cancelled are just about the only thing both sides of the ensuing culture war can agree upon.

Those words were written at approximately 6.47pm on August 23, 2023 — just a fortnight before the release of the Irish singer-songwriter’s new album, Hit Parade — when she responded to a Facebook thread from her private account. “Please don’t call me a terf, please don’t keep using that word against women,” Murphy, 50, wrote next to three prayer hands emojis. “I beg you! but puberty blockers ARE F***ED, absolutely desolate, big Pharma laughing all the way to the bank. Little mixed up kids are vulnerable and need to be protected, that’s just true.”

Murphy did seem to pre-empt some kind of backlash at the time, begging viewers of the thread not to call her a TERF [trans-exclusionary radical feminist]. But neither she nor most people on the internet could have foreseen the extent of the persecution that ensued. Little did the former Moloko frontwoman know it then, but that late August evening was to be the last time she would simply be referred to as Murphy, an Irish singer-songwriter and Mercury Prize nominee. In the 22 days since that post, she has been called many things, few of them aimed at her before last month: an ignorant transphobe with cis privilege. The victim of a vicious witch-hunt. A fearmongering bigot. An innocent woman Twitter-shamed into silence. A fraud who claimed to be a queer ally. A strong and fearless woman who gave voice to a caring, sensible, rational belief.

Whichever of these descriptions you agree with — if indeed any — there is one fact that has been widely agreed upon in the three weeks since. Not since J.K. Rowling has a woman in the public eye seen their whole career hang in the balance for expressing an unfashionable view on gender to quite the extent Murphy’s has.

Six days after that now-infamous Facebook post, the songstress issued an anguished apology. Strikingly, she did not take back her comments on puberty blockers, instead begging her fans to understand that her “concern was out of love for all of us” following a week-long internet pile-on that saw press engagements and two of her London shows cancelled at short notice and rumours that her label Ninja Tune would be donating the proceeds from her new album Hit Parade to charity.

“I have been thrown into a very public discourse in an arena I’m uncomfortable in and deeply unsuitable for,” she wrote in the apology on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter. “I cannot apologise enough for being the reason for this eruption of damaging and potentially dangerous social-media fire and brimstone. To witness the ramifications of my actions and the divisions it has caused is heartbreaking... I will now completely bow out of this conversation within the public domain.”

Róisín Murphy (Yui Mok/PA) (PA Archive)
Róisín Murphy (Yui Mok/PA) (PA Archive)

Murphy did indeed bow out, much to the disappointment of many of her supporters. But the online mobbing only escalated as a series of ‘in defence of Róisín Murphy’ essays attempted to challenge the rising torrent of comments and articles accusing the singer of transphobia and bigotry, their flames seemingly fuelled by the vindication of the singer’s apology.

“Deflecting the issue and ‘bowing out’ is not an apology,” was one of the responses from critics — many of them trans activists — accusing Murphy of claiming to be a queer ally while buying into so-called gender critical transphobic conspiracy theories. Fellow artist Billy Bragg, a singer-songwriter and labour rights activist, pointed to the extent of Murphy’s witch-trial. “Reasonable? The reaction she got suggests otherwise,” he wrote on X earlier this month. Others urged fans to boycott Murphy’s then-upcoming album, due out on September 8. A tweet liked more than 1,000 times stated that Murphy’s apology was lacklustre and did not contain any “commitment to learn or grow”, while other X users accused the singer’s statement of having a “complete absence of any knowledgement or support of trans people”.

Offline, Murphy’s cancellation continued, too. There were reports that her label Ninja Tune had decided to stop its PR campaign for the new album and release it without promotion, and even the question of what would happen to the album’s proceeds became a matter of controversy, a source telling the Toronto Star that the label planned to donate them to organisations combatting transphobia — a claim Murphy has since dismissed.

On the other side of the debate, Murphy’s supporters said her public “unpersoning” was a sign of how sinister cancel culture has become. If a woman who happens to be a successful singer can’t post a view about protecting children from harm on a private Facebook page without being rebranded as a bigot, free speech is surely lost, they argued. “A perfectly decent woman, talented singer/songwriter, expressing a reasonable view that medicalising children is wrong. And she’s brought to the ground,” feminist writer Jean Hatchet wrote in an X post that has been liked almost 2,000 times. “Activists decided to make an example of Murphy, in order to terrify anyone with similarly reasonable concerns into silence,” another wrote for UnHerd.

Columnists quickly started asking which part of the whole Murphy story was the most shocking. For Telegraph columnist Suzanne Moore, it was that Murphy made her comments in private. “It’s like the Stasi are out there, informing on you,” she told the Evening Standard. For Spectator writer Brendan O’Neill, it was the line in Murphy’s apology that she “should’ve known that [she] was stepping out of line”. “There it is,” he wrote. “Proof of the extraordinary pressure put on women to know their place.”

British writer Victoria Smith compared Murphy’s treatment to that of Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling, who has frequently been lambasted for her comments on transgender issues and the use of the term “people who menstruate”. While ex-Mumford & Sons member Winston Marshall, who was himself driven offline for expressing controversial views two years ago, called Murphy’s treatment “ridiculous”. “She was correct. Nothing to apologise for,” he wrote on X in one of notably few defences of the singer by her fellow musicians.

J.K. Rowling (Ian West/PA) (PA Archive)
J.K. Rowling (Ian West/PA) (PA Archive)

The angry warring continued for the best part of a fortnight, all evidence suggesting Murphy’s was to follow the likes of Rowling and Marshall and become the latest in a string of public figures thrown to the cancel wolves. Or at least it seemed that way, until Hit Parade was released this week as planned.

The 13-track solo album — Murphy’s sixth — was released last Friday, 48 hours after Murphy chose to break her silence and promote it on social media, saying the early reviews were “fantastic” and that she was very proud of it. At this point something even her supporters weren’t expecting: the boycott that haters had been calling for didn’t happen. Instead, sales skyrocketed. Feminists and women’s rights campaigners who might not have listened to Murphy’s music before the puberty blockers affair bought her album out of solidarity, the hashtag #IStandWithRoisinMurphy quickly trending on social media. Reviewers called it some of the most euphoric, danceable music of her career; the album of the year, even. Early data suggested that it was set to claim the second spot on the UK albums chart — the highest of Murphy’s career so far, with supporters celebrating the Murphy’s so-called “triumph” over the cancel mob.

“How refreshing it is to see an attempted cancellation fail so spectacularly,” one supporter wrote in a piece for Spiked. “It shows that the British public has grown thoroughly sick of cancel culture, and is determined to support its victims... being cancelled has actually made Murphy more popular than ever,” another wrote in The Telegraph. Could this be a watershed moment for cancel culture? Had the so-called woke bullies finally met their match?

Róisín Murphy (PR Handout)
Róisín Murphy (PR Handout)

This question, it transpires, has quickly become one of the most contested points of debate in the whole Róisín Murphy saga. While some commentators have suggested that record companies might actively choose to get their acts cancelled to boost sales figures, a much larger number contest this view. Silencing celebrities— so far mostly women — is hardly an effective or desirable PR strategy, they argue. Just look at the BBC, which was due to be celebrating Murphy in 10 hours of shows on its 6 Music channel next week but decided to axe them on Monday without explanation, supposedly much to the dismay of some staff.

The BBC has since issued a statement denying that Murphy was removed for her views on puberty blockers, claiming that its archive collections “frequently change”, that Murphy’s music has been played on 6 Music “recently”. “Little Simz [Murphy’s replacement] was scheduled to reflect 6 Music’s Way With Words programming, which celebrates poetry, rap and spoken word, and airs the following week, tying in with National Poetry Day,” a BBC spokesperson said. “There was no other reason for the change. Róisín Murphy has been played on 6 Music recently and her Artist Collection remains in rotation.”

But the move has done little to settle the fears of Murphy supporters concerned her reputation will never recover from what they believe to be a misogynistic online mobbing. While Murphy herself has stood firm, posting a series of enthusiastic social media posts about album sales “doing really well!!”, some (Left-wing) reviewers have continued to stoke the pitchfork brigade waging a war on the singer. The Guardian’s review of Murphy’s album deemed Hit Parade a “masterful album with an ugly stain”, as though it were a work by a Weinstein-type character: genius, but now morally corrupt.

Some have pointed to the fact that only a notably small number of fellow artists have publicly defended Murphy since her puberty blocker comments, suggesting one of two things: either very few of them agree with her, or very few of them are willing to speak up about it. “I don’t know which of those two scenarios is worse,” columnist Michael Deacon wrote in The Telegraph this week. Other defenders of Murphy’s say they wish she had never apologised to the so-called mob. It has only emboldened them. “Cancel culture grows fatter and more crazed with every retraction it extracts,” says O’Neill. “It’s this tyranny that should be cancelled”, he says, not Murphy.

The true extent of Murphy’s social punishment will only be known as the weeks go on, but the general consensus among her supporters is that her new album’s success — while far from signalling a death knell for cancel culture — is at least a promising sign that the misogynistic mob attitude of recent years might be slowly losing its bite. Some have said a silver lining of the whole affair is that it’s forced some of those who were previously on the fence to pick a side. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas author John Boyne, for example, wrote on X that Murphy’s story was “the straw that broke the camel’s back” for him on the trans issue after watching activists try to “destroy the life of a woman who has done nothing” other than to “suggest that vulnerable children should be protected”.

Others are less hopeful. Author and journalist Hadley Freeman, who left The Guardian after 22 years last year citing an “atmosphere of fear” on trans issues, says she finds it both shocking and totally unsurprising that the war against Murphy seem to have got only worse since her apology, not better. “I think it’s disgraceful, the way so many women have been silenced and lost work for saying, actually, incredibly mild and scientifically-proven, biologically-true, medically-backed-up things,” she said in an interview with the Evening Standard last week.

Freeman’s former Guardian colleague Suzanne Moore, now a columnist at The Telegraph, agrees. “Apart from Graham Linehan [an Irish comedy writer and anti-trans ideology activist], which guys ever get cancelled?” she asks. “That’s what these people criticising Murphy need to ask themselves: why are they going for another woman?”. Moore believes Murphy is strong enough to survive this particular internet pile-on. Yes, she continues to be attacked online. But fortunately for Murphy, “there’s also the real world where people who like her music and know her will continue to support her — at least I hope so, because I don’t want the bullies to win”.

In Moore’s eyes, what happens next is largely predictable: “the circus will move on”, someone else will say something controversial and the pitchfork brigade will turn their attention to that person instead of Murphy. In the meantime, Moore hopes the record companies and publications like the BBC take a look at themselves and ask why they’re still publishing work by men accused of sexual assault. “None of these guys are called out and yet somehow [Murphy] is,” says Moore.

Time will be the real teller for Moore’s prediction, but one thing is for sure: Murphy and her album will certainly be remembered for reasons they never set out to be remembered for. Many are now asking whether she’ll fall on the right side of history, looking back. But if the cancel mob has its way, the even bigger question seems to be whether she’ll make it into those history books at all.