In the last month the United States and other nations have been rocked by protests against racial discrimination and the ill-treatment of Black folks. While the origin of the protests is police brutality, the movement has done much to spark conversations on other related issues asides from racism such as economic classism, poverty, and even climate change. In the midst of all these, particular attention has been paid to the views of celebrities on these causes.
Now one of the products of this attention was a video released by a group of actors in partnership with the NAACP. It showed a series of high-profile actors and actresses, apologizing to the black community and expressing solidarity for their causes. The celebrities pledge to “take responsibility” for various acts of racism. Personally, I found the video disturbing at best and at worst, outrightly embarrassing. I found it difficult to look beyond the actors present because I felt that they were in their elements, acting out their assigned roles and providing band-aid solutions to very complex problems.
This got me thinking about the larger issue of whether celebrities should be considered activists and leaders of any or all social justice causes. And this, I think, is an important issue especially because the internet, the media, and so many of us seem to care so much about the state of celebrity philanthropy, whether genuine or not.
In the midst of all the world is currently grappling with, I’m often taken aback by how desperately we cling to the statements, and stances of the celebrities we know. Once they express an exclusive opinion, we either swallow it up as the validation we need or begin to tear these celebrities down for daring to have a contrary opinion; denouncing their careers and dubbing them ‘too flawed’ to contribute to whatever issue is being considered.
Even in cases where the celebrities choose silence, they face various degrees of antagonism, being called out or cancelled. I think these sentiments are misplaced because a huge part of this disappointment comes from us projecting our values onto famous people. We feel that because we watch them closely on our television screens, we can decide where their values stand. For instance, have you ever noticed there’s an assumption that because someone is a celebrity their views have to be progressive and liberal?
Let’s recap on what we do know shall we. We can agree with the fact that being a celebrity very simply means that you are well-known or popular. Your chosen career path or industry isn’t as crucial here as the fact that you are seen by the public and are known by them. Now this popularity of most celebrities has doubled over with the presence of social media platforms and we can agree that this makes sense because their platforms provide them with an enormous audience.
The influence celebrities exert over their audiences on these platforms translate to a lot of power such that in the last few years, it has become normal for celebrities to use their platforms to support various causes and ideologies. These causes have ranged from climate change, sustainability and gender equality to mental health awareness with the most recent being the Black Lives Matter movement. The causes they support most times are quite noble but is this enough for us to hold celebrities to the lofty standards of being the leaders or the authoritative voices in such causes?
I don’t think so and I’ll explain why. My first argument here is a very basic one; we listen to our doctors when we grapple with health issues and when our teachers begin to complain about the lowering standards of education, we all know it is time to sit up. When renowned musicians speak up about their challenges in the music industry we listen, and this applies to politicians, actors, and other entertainers.
How then does it make sense that when it comes to issues of activism, we place unprecedented authority on the stances of celebrities beyond those of the actual activists; the latter having championed these causes for so long that they can tell us all we need to know in their sleep? I mean I understand that social issues are often complex, very nuanced and demand us all to participate if we are to provide lasting solutions. But why then do we fail to realize that the activism of most celebrities are often rooted in public statements (or appearances) as quick fixes and at the end of the day, do not translate as the lasting solutions we need?
The celebrity culture at its very core is the product of trends and fads. Most times, celebrities stand for and represent the most popular views because their jobs demand that they remain relevant. Now when you consider the fact that public opinion is ever-changing, you’ll understand why you rarely see a celebrity on the wrong side of any popular issue.
To be clear, I believe celebrities should be free enough to share their views on social matters. It’s even better when they use their platforms to spread awareness about social issues and channel their influence for the greater good. What we need to understand though is that celebrities are normal people like us, struggling to make sense of whatever issue that is under consideration at any given time. The only real difference between us is that they are famous, they generally have more wealth, and they own nicer toys than we do.
Expecting a higher level of responsibility on social issues from celebrities is worrisome and can only fester public resentment which is the last thing we need. The credibility and authority we should accord their views should be a function of their specific knowledge on the issue at hand and not a by-product of their celebrity-status. Otherwise the celebrity’s name would stick while the cause wouldn’t; and this would only leave the actual experts and activists more desperate for an audience.
Now it’s a different thing altogether if a celebrity establishes an in-depth knowledge of the issue at hand and an example here would be criminal justice reform as championed by Kim Kardashian. She is revered because she has helped secure the release of prisoners; has set up an organisation to work for criminal justice reform and features in a documentary about the issue, is currently pursuing a law career to further her prison reform advocacy and is continually working to ensure that ex-convicts adjust better to life after their release.
So when she speaks on the issue of reforming the American justice system, her views are popular because they come from a well of in-depth knowledge, not just because she is famous. I would expect her views on this cause to be authoritative and I imagine you too would agree with me on this. This would not have been my view if the question of her relevance to criminal justice reform had come up a few years ago because, the validity of her views back then would have been a function of her celebrity status, nothing more.
Related Post: Why the U.S. Needs Criminal Justice Reform
The point I’m trying to make here is that celebrities have a confusing relationship with social change; and this is because we tend to assume that since they are famous, they already are the beacons or real faces of social activism. This is a wrong assumption and you need to realize in their world, staying relevant is a constant battle. Understand that, like you, they are only hustling to pay their bills and take whatever deeply moving statement they share with a pinch of salt.
Ultimately, given the right incentives, most celebrities are willing to take up whatever cause or sell whatever product. They will say what the script dictates and look right at the camera while selling you on ideas they don’t care about because they have been paid for the advert. This, I think, might be the best way to look at their roles or views on social issues; as adverts sponsored by the faces behind the screen.
So the next time you catch yourself mindlessly internalizing what your favorite celebrities preach, remember that adverts are great to show us what to buy. Provided we always approach them with a healthy dose of skepticism.
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Cover image via of Kim Kardashian West at the 2019 Primetime Emmy Creative Arts Awards at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on September 14, 2019. Photo by Kathy Hutchins.