Art has a history of being heavily influenced by political and social change. For decades, entertainers have captured the pulse of culture through their music and art, and commented on current events through their award show speeches and television appearances. Many famous people have also acknowledged that they are not just entertainers, relegated to speaking exclusively through and about their art — they are, in fact, public citizens, with the right and responsibility to participate in social discourse. From “We Are The World” to Rock The Vote, celebrities have often chosen to use their prominent platforms to directly address political issues or advocate for various causes.
To them, speaking out in favor or against a hot-button issue might be seen as an opportunity to relate to the general population. Doing so can make the celebs appear as if they are “just like us,” and shows that they have some awareness of the world outside of their Hollywood bubble. However, this isn’t always well-received by the average Joe. Celebrity activism is often taken as condescension, dismissed as uninformed, or assumed to be motivated by a paycheck.
A popular opinion is that singers should sing, not talk about politics. Likewise, actors should act, and basketball players should barely even speak. Entertainers shouldn’t get involved in presidential elections, humanitarian issues, environmental causes or basically anything else outside of their professional scope. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this “shut up and entertain” argument also often comes from people who don’t agree with their political views.
Many will remember the controversy that surrounded country band the Dixie Chicks. In 2003, when frontwoman Natalie Maines told a London audience that the band was ashamed of then-President Bush over his decision to enter the Iraq war, her words reverberated all the way back to their (and Bush’s) home state of Texas, where longtime fans were soon lining up to trash and burn Dixie Chicks albums. The trio’s reign at the top of country music charts quickly came crashing down, as radio stations across the country shed their playlists of Dixie Chicks songs under pressure from irate listeners.
It took almost three years before the band made its way back to favor with their next Grammy Award-winning album, but the past incident remained a controversy and topic of conversation in the media. Fifteen years later, many country music fans still associate Maines and the Dixie Chicks with those supposedly unpatriotic comments, and their story remains a telltale example of what can happen when celebs aren’t mindful of their audiences, and fans use their buying power against opinions they don’t want to hear.
Sometimes, celebrities speaking up even pits power against power. When Jimmy Kimmel used his “Live!” show platform to criticize Congress’s proposed healthcare bill last year, it became a war of words between entertainment and government. Republican lawmakers dismissed Kimmel’s assessment of their replacement for the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, telling media that, as a comedian, he isn’t authorized to speak on such complicated policy because he doesn’t understand it.
It was such a big conversation, however, that Kimmel became a prominent figure in the healthcare debate, and a spokesperson for the Affordable Care Act. The awareness through his show shed light on an important voting issue for many of his viewers. Kimmel is, after all, a tax-paying and voting American citizen, who became passionate about a cause that was pertinent to his personal life. However, those in favor of the health bill accused him of using his TV platform to spew bias.
The TV host spoke openly and emotionally on air about his infant son, who was born last year with a heart defect, and whose treatment for severe health problems appeared to be in jeopardy under Congress’s newly proposed bill. Louisiana senator Bill Cassidy, who authored much of the proposed Obamacare repeal, soon coined the “Jimmy Kimmel Test” in reference to Congress’s revisions of the bill, saying Kimmel’s requirement of “not bankrupting parents of children with heart conditions” had to be met.
For some critics, the issue is not so much with what celebs say, but whether or not a national platform is the appropriate place for them to say it. This is the argument against entertainers usurping award show podiums and other nonpartisan entertainment events for their causes. One recent example of this is Beyoncé’s supposedly divisive performance of “Formation” at halftime of the 2016 Super Bowl.
In front of millions of viewers, the superstar singer made a bold statement that many took to be in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement during her special appearance in Coldplay’s set. Beyoncé wore a black leotard and jacket with a bandolier of bullets, while her all-female backup dancers wore berets and afros, resembling the iconic look of members of the 1960s-era Black Panther Party.
It may not have completely landed as a commentary on race relations, if not for the fact that the singer had dropped her “Formation” music video the day before — which featured overt references to Black Lives Matter and police brutality, among other particularly pointed themes at the forefront of black political discourse.
Needless to say, the pop star’s gesture at America’s most celebrated annual sporting event overshadowed most news coverage of the football game itself. It was met with swift backlash from conservative groups, in addition to reported calls for boycott of security detail for Beyoncé’s concerts from at least two prominent police unions, citing the performance’s supposed anti-law enforcement sentiment.
The Super Bowl performance was also the first time that Beyoncé — arguably the world’s biggest female superstar, with fans of all races — aligned herself with black America in such a powerfully political way. Her “Formation” video ignited conversations about its intersectionality, while challenging any previously held assumptions that Beyoncé and her music are a symbol of a post-racial America. That performance of “Formation” brilliantly set the pace for the outspoken Beyoncé that emerged afterwards with her “Lemonade” project.
Today, aligning with the Black Lives Matter movement has been perhaps the most contentious move to make for celebrities who appeal to white demographics. But it’s nothing new. In the past, alignment with the Civil Rights Movement also hurt the docile mainstream perception of several black entertainers — from singers like Paul Robeson and Harry Belafonte to athletes like Muhammad Ali.
Kanye West was almost blacklisted after his claim during a national Hurricane Katrina telethon that George Bush “doesn’t care about Black people,” and a modern-day Ali example has been made out of American football player Colin Kaepernick. The overwhelmingly-white ownership of the National Football League has refused to sign Kaepernick, and many believe this is because of his decision to take a knee during the national anthem to protest social injustice and the treatment of African-Americans at the hands of police, while conservative media lobbied a smear campaign against him, calling him “anti-American.” Kaepernick is still seen as an unpatriotic, flag-hating nuisance by some, but he remains a new age civil rights hero and martyr to many others.
There’s no denying that some celebrities get behind a cause for their own personal gain. After all, feminist groups have criticized Beyoncé for not being a “feminist” until it was en vogue, and many civil rights leaders have called out the superstar and her husband Jay-Z for not rallying for black rights earlier than 2015. Even the Super Bowl performance can be seen as opportunistic for Queen Bey — she was, after all, promoting a new single.
To be fair, there are plenty of instances in which a celebrity’s opinion has done more harm than good. When Gwenyth Paltrow’s lifestyle platform Goop promoted “vaginal cleansing” and the use of jade eggs, Paltrow fans responded by selling out the overpriced questionable products. Bewildered gynecologists chimed in, debunking the dangerous pseudo-medical claims that Goop writers were making, and warning women not to turn to Paltrow for any medical advice. But trivial beauty regimens hardly compare to igniting potential epidemics.
When Jenny McCarthy went on the Oprah Winfrey Show and blamed her son’s autism diagnosis on his childhood vaccines, the former Playboy model and actress caused an international firestorm. McCarthy joined a quiet movement of parents following a later-debunked British study that linked the prevalence of autism to vaccines — specifically the one commonly given for measles, mumps and rubella. Encouraged by her public advocacy, parents around the world began opting out of childhood vaccinations.
The “anti-vaxxers” drew the ire of the scientific and medical communities, which swiftly condemned McCarthy and the movement for causing epidemics of almost-extinct diseases. An outbreak of whooping cough in 2012, and a dip in numbers of MMR vaccines in 2015 were also blamed on the movement, and on McCarthy’s apparent role in inspiring it. The actress and model has since backtracked on her claims, saying she was never “anti-vaccine,” but instead in favor of “safe vaccines.” However, in this case, the damage has already been done.
“People have the misconception that we want to eliminate vaccines,” McCarthy told TIME Magazine at the time. “Please understand that we are not an anti-vaccine group. We are demanding safe vaccines. We want to reduce the schedule and reduce the toxins.”
Complete avoidance of controversial topics and questions is the PR tactic often encouraged for the rich and famous. More commonly, you’ll find celebrities refusing to wade into political waters at the risk of alienating any fans. Comedian Kevin Hart said he attributes much of his multi-million dollar success to doing this “at all costs, every way that I possibly can,” explaining why he doesn’t ever joke about President Trump, like fellow comedians such as Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock have.
Pop star Taylor Swift is another big celebrity who’s notorious for avoiding controversy. When almost all of Hollywood rallied for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 U.S. elections, Swift was singled out in the media for expertly staying silent. Despite having activist or politically vocal friends like Lena Dunham, the singer never disclosed who she was voting for, and made sure not to comment on any issues that might have given an indication of her political leanings. As a result, both Democrats and Republicans took Swift’s avoidance of the questions to mean that she was likely voting for Trump, and conservatives enjoyed having at least one big star on their side — or so they thought.
The “Shake It Off” singer finally broke her silence on at least one telling issue, taking to her Instagram on March 23 to back the “March for Our Lives” protest and effort in support of gun reform.
“No one should have to go to school in fear of gun violence,” she wrote, a day before the protest. “Or to a nightclub. Or to a concert. Or to a movie theater. Or to their place of worship. I’ve made a donation to show my support for the students, for the March For Our Lives campaign, for everyone affected by these tragedies, and to support gun reform. I’m so moved by the Parkland High School students, faculty, by all families and friends of victims who have spoken out, trying to prevent this from happening again.”
Swift turned off the comments for her Instagram post, making it clear that her support of the movement is not up for debate or discussion. And good for her — that’s what more celebrities should do. The reality is that celebrities are damned if they do speak up, and damned if they don’t. Their decision to say something is often not an easy one, since they already know the chances of repercussion will be high.
If politics are the avenues through which humanity understands itself, then it’s better that everyone get involved — celebrities included. Are they wrong for speaking up? Absolutely not. Any entertainer who advocates for controversial causes is actually still doing her job. Entertainment isn’t limited to making us feel good. It can make us think, or even make us angry. The point of entertainment is to make us feel something.
The rest of us need to manage our expectations, and not give more credence to people solely because they are in the public sphere. After all, we know that fame is not always awarded by merit. For the same reason, opinions from the famous shouldn’t always be weighted more heavily.