Meghan Markle on feminism, Leonardo DiCaprio on climate change, and Angelina Jolie on humanitarian rights. Celebrities are taking over our screens for the cause. Just look at celebrities who are picketing with writers in Hollywood for a better guild contract. Or, the World Cup 2022 headlines, which focused more on which celebrities boycotted the games in Qatar than on the soccer players themselves. Going back to Jane Fonda protesting the Vietnam War, and alternately, Elvis advocating for conscription, we have allowed celebrities to influence not only our storytelling but also our political and social views.
Have we mindlessly prioritized the message of celebrities over that of professors, experts, victims or activists? Or, is it possible that celebrity activists are the perfect vehicle to effect the change that we need?
The following are three positive, and three negative positions on celebrity activists.
Taking the Stage (The Pros)
A Wide and Captive Audience
Conversations are being instigated by celebrities every day, even indirectly. Even amid the tumult at X, formerly known as Twitter, there are still tons of celebrities on the platform, not to mention on Instagram, who have tens of millions of followers, some even have more than 100 million followers. #MeToo first surfaced in 2006 at the keyboard of activist Taran Burke, but with one tweet from Alyssa Milano in 2017, a worldwide movement was launched. Simply being famous provides a wider platform for celebrities to get a message across. When Michelle Obama took to social media in 2016 to raise awareness for kidnapped Nigerian girls, the world paid attention. In 2018, after Taylor Swift broke her long-held silence on politics, voter registration spiked by 65,000 new registered voters in the first 24 hours. And, in recent years, once Kim Kardashian took up the cause for prison reform, she was able to make significant political impact on the issue.
Using Old Tactics to Change The World
When a celebrity gives their endorsement to a product, they generate brand recognition and provide a sense of familiarity and trust, which equals sales. So, if celebrity endorsement can push product sales, why not use the same model to boost social responsibility? The UN has been using Goodwill Ambassadors as representatives for decades. Becoming a UN Goodwill Ambassador means going through a vetting system that requires having a sizeable number of followers as well as producing the right kind of image. To represent a charity means living your life in accordance with their message, which many celebrities embrace and embody willingly. In these cases, celebrity activists can do a world of good.
Celebrities Are People Too
In terms of mental illness, abuse and poverty, no one is immune, not even celebrities or royalty. Members of the British royal family (especially estranged members) have openly discussed depression and therapy, peeling back the stigma surrounding mental health and celebrity, showing the world that everyone is susceptible. Comedian Jim Carrey speaks frankly about being homeless as a young teen. Actress Tiffany Haddish openly discusses growing up in foster care. Actor-turned-podcaster Dax Shephard talks about being molested as a child and subsequent drug addiction. Everyone has a story, yet some of us are given a larger stage than others on which to express it. Celebrity activists should be commended for embracing such a stage.
All That Shimmers Is Not Gold (The Cons)
Where Have All the Experts Gone?
By giving our time and educating ourselves through celebrity activism, we discount experts who have given unwavering dedication to the cause. Sixty-six percent of people surveyed in a poll could not link a celebrity with their sponsored charity. This suggests that celebrity is not enough to sell an idea; yet you’re more likely to hear about climate change from celebrities or social activists turned celebrities (think Greta Thunberg) than professional environmentalists or actual climate scientists. In many cases, the celebrity name will stick while the cause won’t, leaving actual experts desperate for an audience. Plus, in today’s golden age of podcasts, almost anyone can have an audio platform from which to spout “advice” and different degrees of “truth.” This has sidelined the real experts. For instance, professional health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci faced challenges to get their messages out to the public when podcasters like Joe Rogen were espousing unsubstantiated claims and misinformation about Covid and Covid vaccines.
When Your Audience is Focused on Image Over Education
Supporting celebrity activists contributes to the culture of failure and promotes what is called “Slacktivism.” This relatively new term describes people who consider themselves online activists but are actually more concerned with appearing to join the right cause but, in actuality, doing as little as possible to make a difference. When activism is a trend, misinformation runs rampant. The culture of failure puts so much pressure on succeeding that we forget how to sit back and educate ourselves, and to take the time to decide what we believe in and, more importantly, how to act on these beliefs. And it’s not just the audience’s focus. Sometimes celebrities need a reminder that image isn’t everything and that efforts or messages to try to inspire activism in others can backfire. Gal Gadot’s Instagram 2020 pandemic Imagine video failed because a bunch of rich celebs were singing about a world with no possessions to a world of non-celebs suffering physically and mentally from the global health crisis.
100% Exposure with 0% Accountability
When a politician endorses a candidate, or a doctor endorses a program, there must be accountability. However, in the world of celebrity, staying relevant is a constant battle. This means that celebrities often need to reinvent themselves, which can affect the cause(s) they are supporting. When New York City made Taylor Swift its Global Welcome Ambassador in 2014, officials were counting on her “wholesome” image, as promoted in her strategically timed release of her single “Welcome to New York.” However, by the time her next album dropped, her previously wholesome image had dramatically changed. Or, take Beyonce. In 2011, she joined former First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to combat child obesity. However, just one year later, she sent mixed messages to America’s youth when becoming the face of Pepsi and promoting sugary soft-drink consumption. In such cases, the image as an entertainer comes before their cause, adding a layer of hypocrisy to some celebrity activists.
The Bottom Line: The old adage goes: There’s no such thing as bad publicity. There are many voices trying to be heard on the stage of social reform. Is this a case of leaving it to the experts, or does every voice count in the push for social reform?