Full article: Celebrity activism – Taylor & Francis Online

Identifying as an ‘activist’ is akin to saying ‘I am an artist’, in that it is a foundational identity. The unspoken assumption is that an activist must ‘live the issue’ and demonstrate remorseless dedication via a comprehensive ‘alignment between personal identity and collective identity’ (Bobel, 2007). It generally refers to volunteer and professional campaigners, theorists, and analysts who oppose any or all of racism, misogyny, bigotry, war, economic inequality, and climate change. From Los Angeles to London, hipsters and the not-so-hip alike introduce themselves as ‘activists’. Their means of financial support and socio-cultural theories and practices are generally left undisclosed by this term, but it is understood axiomatically that they are not nationalistic, militaristic, sexist, or skeptical about climate change, and participate in progressive social movements.

Celebrities are rather different from such common-or-garden activists. They are famous for being famous; creatures of marketing and carefully-directed gossip – fabulations of the culture industries. Activism is generally a hobby and a branding for them, rather than a thoroughgoing self-definition. In Hollywood, for example, agents select causes with which their charges might associate, based on image and status. An ‘A-lister’ is connected to different issues from someone trying to break through or fallen from the heights; straight men may be articulated to different organizations from feminist women.

What do we find if we look at the main talent agencies? UTA’s ‘Culture and Leadership Division’ is dedicated to ‘thought leadership’ and ‘social impact’ (https://www.unitedtalent.com/news/darnell-strom-to-lead-uta-culture-and-leadership/), while the ‘Politics department’ at ICM (currently subject to a potential merger with CAA) ‘works to form the connective tissue between talent and the political landscape by cultivating and seeking out opportunities that support and amplify what our clients are most passionate about.’ This is because ‘Creativity has the power to spark change’ (https://www.icmpartners.com/icm-politics/). CAA promises ‘limitless opportunities’ to ‘thought leaders who shape popular culture’ (https://www.caa.com/about-us) and can ‘ignite and champion efforts to improve the world around us … to create positive social change,’ with environmentalism on the list (https://www.caa.com/social-responsibility). WME lays claim to ‘one of the largest cultural footprints on Earth,’ enabling it to ‘influence perception and frame collective understanding … to shape and promote a better world’ through ‘Cause Consulting’ (https://www.wmeagency.com/responsibility/). Throughout, service to talent of course remains a lodestone – in this instance ‘advising clients in their philanthropic, social responsibility, and cause-making endeavors’ (https://www.caa.com/social-impact).

These activities are denounced by reactionaries as the left’s ‘grip on Hollywood’ (Ng, 2021). But here’s the deal – and it’s perfectly ordinary: whereas full-time activists are organic intellectuals of left and right, celebrities are organic intellectuals curated within the culture industries. Gramsci maintained that each social group creates ‘one or more strata of intellectuals which give it homogeneity and an awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields’ (1978, p. 5). The ‘‘organic’ intellectuals which every new class creates alongside itself and elaborates in the course of its development’ (6) assist in the emergence and triumph of that class, for example via journalistic expertise. Intellectuals operate in ‘‘civil society’ … the ensemble of organisms commonly called ‘private,’ that of ‘political society’ or ‘the State’.’ They comprise the ‘‘hegemony’ which the dominant group exercises throughout society’ as well as the ‘direct domination’ or command exercised through the State and ‘juridical’ government.’ Ordinary people give ‘‘spontaneous’ consent … to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group’ (12). Environmental concerns, notably animal rights, are among the fields where celebrity intellectuals seek to intervene to counter this hegemony. What Hollywood talent agencies are doing is normal. And as for being on the left – UTA and its kind are as far from socialism as one can imagine.

Celebrities are often both the subjects and the objects of spectacle – that is their use- and exchange-value to corporations and social movements alike. In the latter case, when we ponder the public use of spectacle by organized vanguards in the name of a connection to the wider population, it is easy to fall into either a critical or a celebratory camp. Critics would say that rationality must be appealed to in discussions of climate change; competition for emotion will ultimately fail; and grassroots ties are wildly imaginary or mechanistically cliché. Why? The silent majority does not like direct action; corporations outspend activists; such occasions preach to a light-skinned, middle-class eco-choir; media coverage is inevitably partial and hostile; and crucial decisions are made by elites, not in streets. This critique has particular resonance in the case of events that are always already animated by spectacle, such as celebrity appearances or rants.

Conversely, the celebratory camp would argue that a Cartesian distinction between hearts and minds is not sustainable; a sense of humor is crucial in order to ameliorate the image of environmentalists as finger-wagging scolds; corporate capital must be opposed in public; the media’s need for vibrant textuality can be twinned with serious discussion as a means of involving people who are not conventional activists; and a wave of anti-elite sentiment is cresting. The lugubrious hyper-rationality associated with environmentalism needs leavening through sophisticated, entertaining, participatory spectacle that can blend dark irony, biting sarcasm, and cartoonish stereotypes.

What part can celebrities play in achieving these goals? Whilst their activism often attracts media coverage, the public doesn’t show great interest in messages from such folks when they are politicized rather than commercial (Becker, 2013; Thrall et al., 2008; Till et al., 2008). For example, when celebrities urge boycotts of tourist spots for burdening donkeys with visitors, eating dogs, or hunting dolphins, the record is unimpressive (Shaheer et al., 2021). Celebrities may embody yet depoliticize the fashion industry’s complicity in environmental despoliation by favoring ‘green’ clothing, but simultaneously turn their habiliments into simply ‘the esthetic of the wearer’; one more fetishized commodity ready to be featured – as they have been – by Vogue, Elle, Flaunt, Marie Claire, Surface, or Glamor (Winge, 2008, p. 512; Doyle, 2016). The effect is to adorn stars with some level of seriousness – and free promotion – rather than highlight the cause in question. Yet such campaigns may have an impact when there is no party-political component – so celebrities might encourage the public to contemplate veganism, based on their assumed altruism and capacity to de-stigmatize a favored target of red-baiting by the right (Lundahl, 2020; Phua et al., 2020). This normalization is ironically secured through spectacularity (Abidin et al., 2020).

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