Celebrity activism: do we really need another hero?

In Media and Society (6th ed. pp. 380–382), we discuss the pervasiveness of celebrity activism, particularly in recent times, considering social media’s ubiquity. Celebrity activists, including celanthropists (celebrity-philanthropist) and other cause endorsers and advocates locate themselves under multiple ‘issue’ banners. Some of these include humanitarianism, feminism, and political activism. Such celebrity engagement is not a new phenomenon. Now, though, it seems that connection to a cause is almost an expectation of celebrities as a method to leverage individual celebrity ‘brand(s)’. However, the explosion of celebrity activists providing opinions on various social, economic, environmental, and cultural issues, and pursuing charity and aid as self-interested pursuits can be problematic.

Critiques of celebrity activism include that it oversimplifies issues when celebrities lecture the public by assuming authority about complex matters, and that such activism tends to centre on the celebrity and their brand while diverting from substantive issues. By reflecting on some examples of celebrity activism aimed at counteracting the success of Donald Trump during the latter stages of the 2016 American Presidential campaign, we can briefly contemplate these critiques of celebrity activism in political and media landscapes.

We saw many politically motivated speeches, memes and videos by celebrities become ‘viral’ during the US election campaign. Some celebrities spoke out in the mainstream media, while many also regularly took to their social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to discuss politics. Further, they often spoke about the candidates personally – Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton, in particular – in both positive and negative ways. Often, sharing opinions and having these opinions re-shared on social media amplifies the celebritisation of politics. Whether such activism achieves its intended political goals may be questioned. However, what can’t be disregarded is the way these uses of social media and celebrity attract mainstream media attention. This, therefore, reinforces the perception of celebrities as effectual activists, and the tools of social media as politically valuable ones.

One of the viral videos during the Trump campaign featured Hollywood royalty, Robert De Niro, declaring: ‘I’d like to punch [Trump] in the face’. In another of the key anti-Trump videos, celebrities such as Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. used humour to mock their own fame in an to attempt to encourage people to vote. Since Trump’s election, Meryl Streep, also a member of Hollywood’s elite, took the stage of the 2017 Golden Globes to accept a lifetime achievement award, and used her time to discuss Trump, without actually naming him, but drawing attention to Trump’s behaviour in imitating a disabled journalist, and how this might be indicative of his future leadership style.

Each of these instances of celebrity activism received varied reactions. De Niro’s allusion to violence was considered troublesome, the ‘shit ton’ of celebrities in the Ruffalo campaign were regarded as incompatible with everyday Americans, and Streep was rebuked for misusing and misunderstanding her privilege to allege that those in the room at the Golden Globes ‘belong to the most vilified segments of American society right now’. This last critique represents perhaps both problems raised above: the distraction of celebrity (in this case drawing attention to Streep herself), and the oversimplification of issues. Streep’s statement about the vilification of celebrities failed to recognise the distance between elite ‘outsiders’ such as celebrities and the sectors of American society less able to protect themselves from condemnation and marginalisation because of their absence of wealth, status and power. None of the celebrity activism resulted in Trump’s defeat, due to a myriad of other concerns and forces at play in democracy, although it’s worth considering what such activism that resulted in mass media attention did achieve. Does the attention it brings signal that many people feel alienated from traditional politics?

Celebrity activism, as noted, can be controversial for several reasons. However, celebrity political activists can sometimes articulate what others cannot by using their privilege to speak up and out in mainstream and online media cultures to mass audiences. Therefore, even for this reason alone, there can sometimes be a place for celebrity activism in the quest for social and political change in the current cultural climate. Celebrity activism thrives during this time of dissatisfaction with traditional politics, and it is unlikely that this will be the last election that celebrity activists take to the stage to perform supporting roles.

9780195597240Sarah Casey  works at Griffith University and is an author on the sixth edition of Media and Society (2016).

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