By Aidan Cullis
From the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to women’s issues, celebrities are placing themselves front and center to use their privilege to raise awareness and promote their charitable organization work. Throughout history, celebrities have donated their time, money, and emotions to various causes, and the 21st century has only seen an increase in celebrity involvement in social issues. While many of these figures have contributed a great deal to the advancement of certain social movements, I can’t help but reflect on some of the issues with celebrity politics and the economy of attention.
1. It’s a PR move
Let’s talk about #BringBackOurGirls. Everyone from Amy Poehler to Michelle Obama was repping the hashtag. It was the hot topic that everyone was following, lasting a few months before it pittered out and now it occasionally gets a mention from someone in the crowd on social media. What came out of #BringBackOurGirls? Why, absolutely nothing. To this day, some 300 Nigerian girls are still missing. Ramaa Mosley, a documentarian and part of the project called Girl Rising managed to make over $14,000 and promote her documentary by fraudulently posing as the founder of the #BringBackOurGirls movement. But that was about all that came of it.
2. What’s Hot/What’s Not: The Selection of Social Movements
Sophia Bush boycotted Urban Outfitters over their “Eat Less” shirt. However, Urban Outfitters has long been a company based on profiting off controversy. Bush made no fuss over the racist, anti-Semitic, culturally-appropriative line of fashion and accessories that has emerged from the company over the years. Bush was also mum when Urban Outfitters fashion promoted prescription drug abuse, binge-drinking, and is notorious for displaying images that sexualize young girls. But I guess the “Eat Less” shirt was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.
3. Celebrity Economics
Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz received backlash from their Hollywood executives when they voiced their support of Palestinians and declared the attack on Gaza as genocide. Fearing a negative impact on their careers, they quickly backtracked on their statements, issuing a letter that took a more neutral, but vague stance on the issue.
Similarly, Scarlett Johansson had to relinquish her role as spokesperson for Oxfam after she signed a contract with a lucrative Israeli soda company stationed in the West Bank, proving that yes, it is all about the Benjamins, baby.
Essentially, celebrities must maintain an enigmatic equilibrium when it comes to the public eye. In order for them to use their platform for charity work, they must be well-liked. As “well-liked” equates to money in Hollywood, if you lose your adoring fans, there goes your endorsements and you can soon resign yourself to the closing curtain.
4. Co-opting and misinformation
By now I’m sure you’ve all heard Emma Watson’s U.N. speech. I’m sure there’s a good chance you’re rolling your eyes and muttering, “Yes, can we please move on?” No, not yet. The problem with celebrities using their platform is that they essentially become the face of the movement they vouch for, and when they misunderstand the subject matter, their opinions and exposure can hinder or cause damage to a movement. Emma Watson’s comments were hailed as “game-changing”, but in reality were very basic. It was simpering, trying to cater to an audience, a plea of necessity as if feminists really need to devote time to convincing people to fight for gender equality. More indicative of Watson’s lackluster attempts to promote feminism was the binary language peppered throughout her speech, enforcing cisnormative identities and excluding non-binary trans people. It was nothing the feminist sphere hasn’t heard, and subsequently tried to resolve before.
Back in 2012, Macklemore wrote a rather interesting ode to the LGBTQ community called Same Love. Its lyrics are tantamount to Macklemore saying, “It’s okay to be gay. But I’m not gay. I want you to know that I’m not gay. But it’s totally cool if you are”. It became a media pinnacle when Macklemore performed the song with Madonna during the Grammys, ultimately allowing this straight man to exploit and capitalize off the struggles of the gay and lesbian movement, making millions. If he wants to convince us otherwise, he’ll release a song telling us all it’s okay to be a trans person, drop the patronizing tone, and donate the profits to LGBTQ organizations.
Celebrities are not experts, and a lot of them simply don’t understand the harm they are inflicting through dialogue or failing to be an appropriate ally. Then again, a lot of them do and simply choose to keep the cash flowing.
While I think it’s fantastic to see people engaging themselves with the issues that affect our world, I really wish it didn’t take an attractive, wealthy individual on a platform compelling their audience to care about something in order to draw attention to an issue. I feel that celebrity involvement often diminishes the role of the everyday person because the fascination with their public stature can cause us to second-guess our abilities to initiate change. We should be educating ourselves on what is going on, not just through news and social media, but by actively listening and engaging with one another in a discussion for a course of action, not throwing money at something and hoping it goes away if enough people know about it.