Say What You Want, But Let Celebrities Do the Same
What role, if any, do celebrities have in politics and activism?
Celebrities making statements and taking stances on hot-button political issues is nothing new, but it seems that now more than ever, everybody has an opinion about whether doing so is right or wrong. With this election cycle in particular, the lines between celebrity and activist have often been blurred, with many celebrities boldly supporting certain political views or candidates- like Beyonce’s active support of 2016 presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton.
Most recently, these celebrity statements on political issues are occurring on largely televised events with national audiences, such as sporting events and awards shows. With Lady Gaga, a known champion for LGBTQA rights, slated to perform at the Super Bowl halftime show, many expressed fear that she would make the performance “political”. In fact, some Trump supporters feared this possibility so much that they began a movement to boycott the performance, stating that they would turn their TVs off during the halftime show.
Lady Gaga delivered an outstanding and memorable performance, starting with patriotic American music, and moving through many of her top hits. After the show, we saw many of these boycotters coming back out of the woodwork, saying “Bravo, Gaga, for not making it political”…OK.
In my opinion, there was never really a question of whether or not Lady Gaga’s performance would be political- the question was to what extent she would use the platform to push certain views, and how explicit she would be about doing so. While she may not have made any outright statements about Trump, or the current political state, it cannot be overlooked that the entire essence of Lady Gaga and what she values is political. She performed her song, “Born This Way”, and I’d bet money it was the first time the word “transgender” was ever uttered in the Super Bowl setting. It may not have been an aggressive, show-stopping political statement, but it was certainly political.
That being said, there were folks on the other side of the spectrum who criticized Lady Gaga for not being political enough. They claimed that she did not take full advantage of this huge platform that she was given, and said that she should have been more bold in advocating for her political views.
The debate over Lady Gaga’s halftime show really just sheds light on a bigger question: what role do celebrities play in politics and activism? And do we, as people, really have the right to police that role?
Celebrities have certainly received negative backlash for being upfront about their political stances and the causes that they support. Still, at this point, I think that the claim that celebrities should be apolitical and focus solely on their art is ridiculous. In fact, it doesn’t even make sense. These celebrities are creating content- music, films, TV shows, etc.- that is entertaining to us, sure. And some try harder than others to cater to a wider group of people so that they can expand their audience. That being said, these people, ultimately, are creators. They create from within, and what they do is not simply fodder for our entertainment as consumers, but rather an expression of themselves, or a part of a larger expression of a group of people. How, then, can people demand that these celebrities do not have any thoughts or expressions about issues that are important to them?
Many people criticize celebrities for trying to be activists, saying that they don’t really understand the real issues, and that they don’t really do anything to solve them. “They are too privileged,” people say. “They don’t understand what real struggle is.” I disagree with that, on a number of fronts. Sure, many celebrities do enjoy some levels of privilege that the average person does not. That being said, if we allow someone’s level of privilege to determine how much of a right they have to participate in political and activist discourse and action, we’re just screwing ourselves over. I personally attack the notion that if somebody only does a little bit to help, then they are better off doing nothing.
Every little bit helps. And when it comes to celebrities taking stances on certain issues, it’s not a little bit- it’s a lot. We can’t ignore that these people have huge realms of influence. What they say does matter. While it may isolate some people who disagree with them, it is simply not fair or true to say that celebrities using their status to make important statements is a useless endeavor. Can celebrities do more than simply make statements, or perform some crazy act at an awards show to make a point? Of course. Should they? Well, yes, they should try. Nobody is ever complete or perfect in their activism- there will always be something more that can be done. But I think it is helpful to move away from criticizing those that are trying to play a role in positive change, and move towards focusing on those that are actually inhibiting that positive change.
People who accuse celebrities of being to be too political seem to forget that the general population does not actually consider celebrities to be political experts. Most of us are capable of separating those two spheres. We don’t expect to know every celebrity’s political opinion, and we don’t automatically take everything that those that do share their thoughts say as something that we, too, should believe in. Still, the role of celebrities and entertainers is widening, with more blurred edges. These celebrities are people, and they are more than what they do, or make, or star in. With social media and the internet, celebrities and their level of influence seems more omnipresent than ever.
Another thing that those who accuse celebrities of being too political seem to forget is that their own argument can be turned against them- can’t people say “Hey! Politicians are becoming too “celebrity”? Why is a reality TV show star my president now?!!! Why is the president more active on Twitter than Kim Kardashian??” The reality is that the shape of politics is changing too, thanks to the internet and social media. Our President can engage real-time with people on social media, something that is still very new, in the grand scheme of things. The power of politicians and celebrities alike is increasingly pervasive- we know so much about them, we know what they’re doing and when, and we have the ability to interact and engage with them much more.
In conclusion, I believe that a lot of the debate surrounding what role celebrities should play in politics and activism is unfounded. We could talk circles around this issue, and try to compartmentalize different types of people into different roles and rights and responsibilities. But the reality is, we can’t put people into boxes like that anymore. Celebrities are influencers, but more importantly, they are people. They are not only entitled to their opinions, but to how they want to express them. If a celebrity wants to use his or her platform to make a bold political statement, they should, knowing and accepting that people will react however they see fit, whether positively or negatively. If they choose not to, they should not be shamed for that either. And we, as consumers, should recognize that the identities of our favorite celebrities go way beyond the entertainment that they provide for us. Just as they are not required to stay silent about issues that they care about, we are not required to agree with them.