Editor at ReformerMag, Writing on Governance, Institution, and Liberalism.

Star struck

Why we like it when celebrities get political

It’s difficult to stay away from critiquing coverage of current events, especially when it comes to the hysterics of US ‘politics’. From Trump’s tweets, fake news, to celebrity reactions and political statements, it seems that the media frenzy will cover close to everything but policy.

This is not to say that they are necessarily the ones to blame. The election of Donald Trump as the next president has cast a large shadow of doubt concerning what exactly is about to happen, especially from a policy perspective. So it seems that until he actually assumes office, we will have to bear with nothing more than the coverage of social fallout regarding the election from both sides of the political spectrum.

The most recent of such were the outward displays of disdain with Trump’s election by actors at the Golden Globe awards.

Celebrity status

Celebrities’ being involved in the political scene isn’t anything new, and if anything is becoming an increasing trend on the global political level. The UN has pushed the boundaries with this and besides having Leonardo DiCaprio as world ambassador on climate change, they have gone so far as to select a fictional celebrity to represent woman’s rights.

During the campaigning months of Hilary Clinton’s presidency bid, quite a few of her speeches were accompanied by those with celebrity status. This strategy, although criticized by many, may have allowed her to reach a far wider audience and help her secure the popular vote.

Our affinity to celebrities and the causes they champion is actually quite rational. For the majority of us, these are individuals we identify with, we see with wide eyes as we revel in their accomplishments. These are the individuals who believed in themselves and against all odds were able to meet their potential and reach a noteworthy level of self-actualization. As such we regard them as individualistic authorities, objective commentators who have earned their right to a wide audience and now rightfully access that audience to promote platforms that they believe in.

There is a high level of validity in this rationalisation and this makes celebrities a social force to reckon with not just as individuals but as an industry.

Media and Social precedence

The impact celebrities have does not end at their direct engagement with politically driven speeches, they also do this by setting important social precedences through the characters they play and the values they emulate.

Meryl Streep was not wrong in saying an actor’s role is best described as allowing someone else to connect with a character belonging to a different place, be it a different country, a different experience, a different race or gender. And in doing so the film and TV industry play a major role in normalising many of the social ideals we would like to see a reality. It’s true that Modern Family did bring the idea of same-sex marriage into the mainstream, and the same can be said about the first cartoon on nickelodeon to feature same-sex parents. But ultimately, the objective of the industry remains entrenched in one objective: entertainment—profitable entertainment.

And it remains as easy for the medium to be used to entrench and capitalise on standing stereotypes and misconceptions, as it is to bridge different perceptions. This year has seen no such shortage of these items. And with entertainment being an open market, even if we did reach a point where “Hollywood” became the social representative we want it to be, the market is more than willing and able to provide alternatives for those who disagree.

In this way even if all movies or TV shows became ‘socially righteous’, a ridiculous hypothesis, they will only lose those who do not agree with their social message, and that gap will be filled by something else, reality TV, or the plethora of easily accessible tube based shows.

The moral industry

Taking this argument even further, it’s critical to remember that beyond the moral messaging of movies and TV shows, their sole purpose is to entertain. And if they are successful at eliciting an empathetic response from us, this only takes us away from the realistic empathy needed, and that which accurately represents the current political landscape.

It also creates the image that ‘Hollywood’ is also somehow above the different forms of entertainment out there, something Meryl Streep did not shy away from eluding to as she casually put down MMA and Football as lesser forms of entertainment.

As a matter of fact celebrity involvement in politics hasn’t always been regarded positively. In 1973, Marlon Brandon boycotted the Oscars in a bid to push for fairer treatment and inclusion towards Native Americans. The move was seen as slap in the face and uproar ensued. Further proof that the entertainment industry is far from morally just, and is subject to its own internal politics. Reducing social messages to near jest, making it clear that you will only receive applause if your message is in line with a predominant and predetermined industry ideal, is hardly representative of the lighthouse of humanity usually attributed to the arts.

Couch potato

When we started Reformer, a friend of mine jokingly proclaimed that soon enough I’ll be writing about celebrities, I laughed at his statement.

But we have indeed entered a dangerous era in media and entertainment, an area beyond elusive echo chambers. Now, the echo chambers are clear, and instead of choosing to break out of them, we have decided to embrace the increasing claustrophobia, showering those occupying it next to us with social validation, as if their mere presence there were a moral accomplishment of some sort.

As for those who don’t stand with us, well we have decided not only to exclude them, but to shame them. The fact that celebrities have shunned performing at Donald Trump’s inauguration is proof of this shaming, as if this ‘boycott’ will change the political leanings of a person who have proved time and time again to be able to manipulate messaging to suit his political agenda. Funnily enough, no one seems to be asking the question of why is it that we need celebrity validation at a presidential inauguration in the first place. It’s almost as if to confirm that politics has become nothing more than entertainment, a shouting match fought by video collages, conspiracy theories, and memes.

It’s time to step away from this sensationalisation of politics. What celebrities do or don’t say have no impact on political trajectory, especially when it’s conducted in an environment of reinforcing self-validation. Not to mention that saying what is already known, and also quite obvious, should not merit a commitment of our emotional energy unless we like hearing our thoughts repeated to us (which, psychologically speaking, we do).

Politics, however, does not belong to this circus of ego, and will not be impacted by the revelations we experience on the couch behind a screen. Politics involves impacting policy, and this means moving away from declarative statements projected into the void and projecting them to those who represent us in our democracy, especially if those representatives are not the ones that we have chosen. And since you’re already on your couch, why don’t you look up who that is and find out how best to contact them, or who else is organizing to put pressure on them in regards to the social issues that matter, the social issues that your celebrity crush has mentioned. Because sharing a video in awe, that is not enough.

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