The Problem With Celebrity Activism

The Problem With Celebrity Activism

“I’d eat dirt before an animal.”

Those were the words – reproduced over and over on colourful backgrounds for social media memes – uttered by worldwide A-lister Miley Cyrus. The singer, passionate about her vegan lifestyle, spoke out for animal rights on red carpets and in media interviews for years. Awarded by animal rights organisations and applauded by activists, Miley became a poster child for modern veganism: fun, vibrant, accessible. It’s safe to say many packets of meat and cartons of eggs were left on supermarket shelves in favour of seitan and tofu thanks to her influence.

The bubble burst in late 2020, when the singer revealed, on the podcast The Joe Rogan Experience, that she had started eating fish to supposedly help her health. “I cried for the fish,” said Cyrus of her first non-vegan meal after following an exclusively plant-based diet from 2013 to 2019. “It really hurts me to eat fish.”

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Miley Cyrus chat with podcaster and comedian Joe Rogan about quitting veganism. Image via The Joe Rogan Experience/YouTube.

The backlash that followed from the vegan community was monumental – but what disappointed fans failed to realise was that electing Cyrus, and others like her, as their activism beacon in the first place may have been misguided. While it’s without a doubt positive that celebrities use their star power to promote causes – and their presence has helped many organisations successfully attract more people to their important message – famous people are still only human, and as such, following their life choices as a roadmap for our activism may be a risky move.

This is also evident when an activist gains star status, as has happened to James Aspey, an Australian animal rights advocate who famously took a year’s vow of silence in the name of the cause. Aspey rose to fame on social media, gaining a quarter of a million Instagram followers – people whom he asked for donations earlier this year, staying bafflingly silent on the topic of what the money was for. It later emerged that he had invested in cryptocurrency and was calling for followers to do the same if they were so inclined. Fans were enraged, calling for a de-platforming of Aspey – but once again, platforming him and other individuals to activism role-model status in the first place is a surefire road to disappointment.

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Celeb attempts at activism that famously missed the mark include the I Take Responsibility anti-racism video produced in the wake of the wave of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. Stars such as Aaron Paul, Kristen Bell, Kesha and Stanley Tucci posed solemnly in black and white, “taking responsibility” for not calling out acts of everyday racism perpetrated by their fellow white people, in what was largely perceived to be a performative show devoid of meaning, and more geared towards gaining attention and do-gooder points for the celebrities themselves than shining the spotlight where it belonged: on effective ways to end racism.

The “I Take Responsibility” advertisement was heavily accused of performative activism. Source: Confluential Films/YouTube.

In a cultural climate where standing for something is more important than ever – which is undoubtedly a good thing – pretty much every famous person is now also the face of a social justice cause. But while raising awareness can never be negative, often initiatives such as I Take Responsibility stop at that, neglecting that what is necessary for social change is action. Awareness is just the first step, and impressionable followers of opinionated influencers may also limit themselves to performative actions, failing to see the crucial difference between that and true activism.

Our fame-crazed society tends to be forgetful of the fact that celebrities are people. They jump on bandwagons, show off on social media, and mess up just like the rest of us. Taking a message to heart – perhaps one that less glamorous, grassroots activists may have been repeating for years – only because it has been championed by a celebrity can be a double-edged sword: what happens if and when the star does something that doesn’t align with their activist image? While we are quick (and, occasionally, correct) to label people like Miley Cyrus hypocrites, we should ask ourselves why we waited to go vegan until people like Cyrus made it cool. Apparently, the abundance of information spread by activist groups, animal rights organisations and experienced advocates was not enough – in these Instagram-fuelled times, we need a glitzy celebrity to tell us how to make the world a better place. And perhaps that is where the problem truly lies.

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