The reach of our icons and celebrities is not confined to pop culture, social media or TV and film – now they directly impact upon cultural identities and processes of self-identification
There is no doubt that we’re living in a celebrity-obsessed world. The rise of celebrity is an exchange of commodity: the relationship between consumer and consumed, performer and their public. Stardom and fandom can only survive through obsessive documentation of the lives, the loves, and the politics of our cultural treasures. Media coverage and social media feeds the celebrity vortex as it shapes our sense of identity and belonging, and how we relate to each other. And while celebrity culture has often been segregated from the political sphere, the two worlds have collided in unprecedented ways, and what we’re now seeing is a veritable jumble of mixed ideology and aesthetics.
Take US First Lady Michelle Obama’s recent girl squad, which includes Missy Elliot, Kelly Rowland and Zendaya, a crew that released a girl-power record named ‘This Is For My Girls’ aimed at elevating education amongst adolescent girls. Such trailblazing A-listers lend their voice to politics and Obama shows us the funky side of charity campaigning: a win-win for everybody involved. This kind of mutually beneficial relationship was seen most famously and prominently in Bob Geldof’s Live Aid concert in 1985, where artists like Queen, Madonna and Bono vowed to put an end to world hunger and literally ‘feed the world’ (although Queen were heavily criticised for also playing a gig in apartheid South Africa around the same time).
While the worthiness of such a cause cannot be disputed, celebrities espousing humanitarian salvation while they count their cash is problematic. Allowing showbiz stars to lead radical movements inevitably poses the question of monetary gain, and for whom. The cynic in all of us can see the hypocrisy of millionaires invoking images of third-world or working-class suffering to further their careers, but perhaps we need a more nuanced discussion about celebrity political involvement today.
Genuine or as a form of self-marketing, various stars are now choosing to proclaim their love of diversity, feminism, LGBT rights, to name a few, as the relationship between celebrity and politics deepens. This year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy over the lack of non-white and female nominations saw prominent figures such as Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith boycott the ceremony in political protest.
“Although movements such as feminism have been co-opted to fit systems of commodification, one thing is clear: there is no longer a clear dividing line that separates celebrity from politics”
Nicki Minaj has been extremely vocal about racism within the music industry, and last year’s VMA’s saw her call out Miley Cyrus for cultural appropriation and racial ignorance. Afterwards, Minaj told New York Times Magazine: “If you want to enjoy our culture and our lifestyle, bond with us, dance with us, have fun with us, twerk with us, rap with us, then you should also want to know what affects us, what is bothering us, what we feel is unfair to us.” The rapper transcended her position as simply an entertainer and used her platform to challenge industry inequality, and has since been praised and criticised alike for her no-bullshit approach to notoriety.
The transition from pop icon to social campaigner is something we are seeing more prevalently (just watch Beyonce’s Formation video and Superbowl performance, which are both protests against police brutality). There is now an expectation that celebrities should be political figures as well as cultural, leading to a confusing public narrative about issues such as sexism and racism. Whether inherently political or not, pop culture figures have more global power than many of our politicians, and in effect have the tools to effect real societal change.
“It is difficult for celebrities to express genuine political views without being deemed cynical or ignorant, which makes this the largest tension between fame and activism”
Back in 2012, Rihanna was made an official poster girl for the Kony campaign which sought to raise international awareness of the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army head Joseph Kony. Leonardo DiCaprio is now a UN eco-warrior. Vivienne Westwood, Mark Ruffalo and Emma Thompson are currently calling on the British Museum to end ties with BP due to climate change. Even Pamela Anderson is a representative for marine life conservation. The list goes on. And while motive often dictates the discussion, it is difficult for celebrities to express genuine political views without being deemed cynical or ignorant, which makes this the largest tension between fame and activism.
The politics of simply being a celebrity – the weird, dystopian reality of stardom which permeates our culture in wildly complex ways – is what makes the pop-icon-turned-activist process so strange. From Hollywood A-listers to reality stars, sports icons, chat show hosts, Youtubers, bloggers, Insta-stars, there is no escaping the pull of celebrity culture.
The Kardashian powerhouse, whether you like it or loathe it, has reconstructed celebrity and power in the global arena: we now live in a post-Kardashian world. Daniel Boorstin, the author of The Image: a guide to pseudo-events in America, theorises this phenomenon as being ‘well-known for their wellknown-ness’: famous for being famous. Anyone remember when Kim and Khloe met with Armenia’s president? That was weird. And illuminating. The reach of celebrities is not confined to pop culture, social media or TV and film, now they directly impact upon ‘real life’, cultural identities and processes of self-identification.
With the rise of social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, stars have become engrained in our cultural conscience. There is now a public space for political discourse, and household figures can jump on any movement regardless of whether they truly engage with it or not. Recent hashtags such as #blacklivesmatter and #freekesha have been a huge area of contention for celebrities, as those who offer support are revered, and those who avoid involvement are vilified. Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus are among the stars who were bashed for not speaking up about #blacklivesmatter, illustrating how apathy is now criticised as heavily as a robust political stance (the ‘damned if you do/damned if you don’t’ paradox).
The idea that #hashtagsmatter makes it hard to sift through the clutter of ideology being thrown at us and identify the true political advocates from the herd. But perhaps we don’t need to. Amber Rose, a controversial figure and self-proclaimed ‘slut’, recently joined the #FreeTheNipple campaign at a time when feminism has hit the celebrity political agenda like a tonne of bricks. She has been particularly vocal about the damaging effects of slut shaming and has successfully established herself as a modern-day feminist crusader with her YouTube video Walk Of No Shame and organised protest marches.
Sexual politics in the mainstream is tricky, but Rose’s unified message that girls can both suck dick and be respected is one of the many modern guides to womanhood. Outspoken, unapologetic, angry: she has all the echoing of Pussy Riot without the overtly political mantra. Has Rose simply turned fame into feminism? Perhaps. But it’s definitely working. Ex-arch-nemesis-turned-best-friend Kim Kardashian has grappled with the same issues, and look where she is now: the most googled person on the planet. With a sex tape, naked selfies, and a recent open essay about body-positivity, Kim is now championed as a female role model, rightly or wrongly.
Although movements such as feminism have been co-opted to fit systems of commodification, one thing is clear: there is no longer a clear dividing line that separates celebrity from politics. Compare Kim’s massive 42.9 million Twitter followers to, say, US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ 1.81 million, and you can easily argue who has more sway in shaping American youth culture.
While many stars may not be strictly or intrinsically ‘political’, so to speak, their ability to influence global perceptions is the kind of power most politicians can only dream of. Maybe it’s time to stop completely casting aside the efforts of A-listers and actually reimagine the political landscape. If the kids are listening to Kanye more than reading a newspaper, let’s be cautious about disregarding the politics of our cultural trendsetters.