Lately, I’ve spent my precious free time reading HuffPost articles about the varying degrees of social consciousness from our favorite celebrities. Whilst perusing each article, I realized celebrities have a confusing relationship with social change. Either these people are considered beacons of social change or bigots fighting adamantly against any type of progressive action. Because the internet and other media outlets care so much about the state of celebrity philanthropy, it begs an extremely important question:
Are celebrities activists?
Celebrities and “celebrity status” seem to invade every part of our lives. Some celebrities are entertaining and thought-provoking, while others are obnoxious and confusing. These reactions depend entirely on personal taste in entertainment, and an individual’s rationale as to what type of celebrity speaks to their inner obsessive fan. When I searched for the word “celebrity,” I received an ad for an “elite” cruise line called “Celebrity Cruises,” which is both hilarious and interesting. It’s hilarious because, well, based on the site’s promo pic, no celebrity actually uses “Celebrity Cruises.” However, this search is interesting because “celebrity status” is such a large part of American culture that Google does not even bother to define what a celebrity is. We should just know what it means.
Defining the state of being a “celebrity” is actually very simple: you become a celebrity once you are well-known. With such a high level of presence in the world, a great deal of power and influence comes with being a celebrity. However, the debate-turned-saga of whether or not celebrities should be role models continues because of this high level of power and influence. This concern is not a new one by any means. The question of whether or not celebrities are appropriate role models for the youth existed when I was a child in the early 2000s. A time modern anthropologists refer to as “pre-emoji,” the early 2000s were a time when people used the phone for its original purpose of calling other human beings and speaking to them with your voice.
Despite the longevity of considering celebrities as problematic for children, the world we live in now asks this question in the context of a more socially conscious world, operated and supported by social media. Because of the immediate nature of social media, the question of whether or not celebrities should be role models seems more constant and pervasive than before. Every I time I check my Facebook feed, it shows a string of contradictory articles from the same news sources and even the same writers about the good and bad deeds done by celebrities. More importantly, these articles focus on the social impact that the actions of the inept and ignorant celebrities have on the free world. In the midst of this constant stream of contradictory information, it amazes me how much we care about the sexism, racism, and general “ism”-ing of each celebrity. Once they express an exclusive and bigoted comment or opinion, we seek to tear these celebrities down, denouncing them as too flawed to contribute to the cause. We do this instead of educating those celebrities of why this is wrong. A notorious example of the types of celebrities we subject to this back-and-forth is the Kardashian-Jenner clan. While Kim K is praised for her nude photos that take down body shaming, her sisters, Kylie and Kendall Jenner, are taken down by us for their fashion choices that may or may not (usually do) appropriate other non-white cultures.
The most recent scandal of the Kardashian’s “ism”-ing involved Kylie Jenner’s wheelchair photo. It was taken for Interview Magazine by photographer Steven Klein, and the wheelchair was used as a prop for Kylie Jenner to pose in a black leather corset and heels, making a face that says “I have to pee” rather than “high fashion.” The reason for the general outrage that followed the photo was that Kylie Jenner can, in fact, walk. This photo concept was insulting for many reasons, including the fact that no one considered using a disabled model for the photo, once again having a normative person pretend to be a member of a marginalized group for “fashion” or “art.”
While I do agree that this instance and others involving these people should be criticized in the name of social change, we forget the most important reason why celebrities such as the Kardashians make these choices: the Kardashians are not activists. In fact, we should not expect any celebrity to be an activist. The disappointment we collectively feel regarding this incident is due to the fact that we, the general public, feel that they, the celebrity population, should be held to a higher standard of equitable representation because they produce and star in the media the larger population consumes. However, this expectation of the celebrity world will consistently disappoint.
Many celebrities use their clout to spread awareness about social issues, using that influence for the greater good of mankind. This contribution from people who hold that much power does affect the world for the better most of the time, depending on the intentions behind the actions. However, the darker side of this influence is the general public then expects a higher level of responsibility from all celebrities. If these celebrities do not meet our expectations, we vilify them instead of educate them. We especially do this to celebrities who have taken a stand for or against things in the past. However, we often forget that celebrities are people too. I don’t mean they’re people in the way People Magazine says they’re people. I’m saying that they’re flawed. They make mistakes, and more often than not, they become representatives of social change without fully realizing the importance and impact their influence has as representatives of social change.
As I discussed briefly in the last paragraph, socioeconomic status is the second and perhaps most important reason that celebrities are not activists. Do not get me wrong, I love money. Money is important because we need it to do literally everything. I don’t necessarily fault celebrities for having a ton of money because wage disparity is the fault of social biases influencing wage and employment regulations, which is a conversation for a different post. However, the extreme wealth of celebrities reinforces the “us” versus “them” rhetoric. In a battle between the super rich and the super poor, celebrities attempt not to take sides but ultimately benefit from their elite status. It is a privilege that is ignored when celebrities discuss the horrors of Hollywood. Celebrities I personally adore have recently spoken out about the lack of diverse roles and the pay gap that follows these lack of roles for actors of color, gay actors, and female actors. These are all valid concerns of the industry, but the substantial amount of money these celebrities earn from their films allows these celebrities to “buy” their access. This ability to “buy” access allows celebrities to ultimately participate in a system in which they have the privilege to consider a different set of social issues as top priority for the betterment of society in general. However, prioritizing the desires of celebrities over everyone means that celebrities will successfully advocate for issues that may fall on a lower priority for the general public, such as media representation versus equal pay for equal work.
Let’s return to the Kardashian example. The net worth of Kylie Jenner, the offender of the disabled community, is around 5 million dollars. While that is a substantial amount of money, this wealth is very small in the celebrity world, especially when compared to JLaw, JLo, or the older Kardashian sisters. In the celebrity world, the stars we look up to in order to change social norms have a socioeconomic status upwards of millions, or even billions, of dollars, which often skews their relationship to the larger systemic issues which are interconnected to socioeconomic status.
While these celebrities are free and welcome to aid in social change, their constant presence and importance in our lives makes their flawed, misguided actions seem incomprehensible. Because we assume celebrities are immune to the moral weaknesses that make us human, we assume that they have an all-consuming concern for the general public. However, celebrities are people, and people are generally concerned with the goings-on of their individual lives before worrying about the greater good. There is nothing wrong with this; it is simply the truth. As we should know, being rich does not automatically make you a decent person. Your personal preference to choose a celebrity as a role model is ultimately up to you, but remember that celebrities are not activists.