With the super bowl and award season wrapped up, there is no shortage of examples of celebrities using their clout to further a social agenda. In recent years, we can observe, with greater frequency, celebrities using their platform to make political messages, and being met with mixed reactions. Ricky Gervais’s recent Golden Globe speech impaled many of the people in the audience by calling them out on their hypocrisy and discouraging them from getting political in their speeches. The Super Bowl sparked a debate that the whole country weighed in on about female sexuality in performance art and the Latin American themes of the evening.
Oftentimes, I hear celebrities making statements that I agree with, while other times it’s hard to read their comments without rolling my eyes. Unfortunately, it would seem that I can’t have it both ways. I can’t wail in frustration when a famous person says something that I disagree with, but support them when they say something that I do agree with.
Maybe it’s Lady Gaga calling out Mike Pence’s wife at a concert or Spike Lee’s Oscar acceptance speech. Maybe it’s Kristin Bell saying that she does not allow her kids to watch “Sleeping Beauty” because it teaches problematic lessons in consent or maybe it’s Joaquin Phoenix’s recent BAFTA acceptance speech in which he calls for more diversity in Hollywood. Maybe it’s the Hamilton cast calling out Mike Pence at their performance or T.I. forcing his daughter to go to the gynecologist, but celebrities’ opinions on social issues can be found everywhere.
Celebrities have been pulled even further into the sociopolitical landscape with the “me too” movement and on top of that, the Trump administration has become a very contentious time of vocal activism regardless of where you look. The modern-day concept of cancel culture does have celebrities thinking more before they speak, but the ubiquity of celebrity political commentary can be overwhelming. Since people can’t decide on what social input is appropriate and what isn’t, it leaves us with a gaping question: how should we feel about celebrities making political statements?
Like many people, I find it annoying when an out-of-touch celebrity attempts to discuss a serious issue that they know nothing about and I am definitely not alone in thinking that most famous people are in no position to lecture the public on moral issues. On the other hand, it feels unfair to demonize an entire group of people and to tell them that they can’t express their opinions, especially when it can lead to positive social change. Freedom of speech does mean freedom of speech for everyone and I am not comfortable with telling people that they shouldn’t speak up about issues that they care about.
So where does that leave us? I arrived at the conclusion that we shouldn’t look at it like it’s a binary question: should celebrities speak up or not? Instead, I think that it can exist on a spectrum, by gauging celebrity responses the same way that we gauge the opinions of people in our everyday lives.
If the person isn’t well-educated in general or is ill-informed about the topic that they are discussing, then the public as a whole should take what they say with a grain of salt. Sometimes the decision does get easier, like supporting Jon Stewart’s crusade to get health benefits for 9/11 first responders. Since Stewart’s whole career consisted of him being a political commentator, it seems only fair that he should get involved in the actual participation and not just the commenting on the process. But should Jimmy Kimmel be taken seriously when discussing a complex and nuanced topic such as health care? Since his insight on the issue came from personal experience then probably so, but otherwise we would have to question why we’re listening to him.
Despite his lack of knowledge in the area, Tom Cruise stated in 2004 that psychology wasn’t a real science and that postpartum depression did not exist. He is a prime example of someone who did not receive what is typically considered a substantial education in America and did not know what he was talking about, but still made dangerous comments on serious mental health issues anyway.
While Gwynth Paltrow did attend high school, she did not graduate from college and is now making more of a name for herself as an influencer. She has received some controversy for her advocacy of vaginal rocks, vaginal steaming, and many other “alternative medicine” products that she sells. Her selling of these products shows an alarming disregard for legitimate medical practices and women’s health, but as a public figure she has a massive following, giving her a platform to make these assertions.
The next question should be if they are articulating their point in a comprehensive way. If they’re spouting off opinions with little to no filter then it doesn’t feel appropriate to take their ideas too seriously. Robert De Niro opening up an acceptance speech with “Fuck Trump” is a sentiment that you might agree with, but does not result in his cause being taken seriously and serves to make Trump supporters feel like they are being unfairly vilified. Kanye West’s pro-Trump rants on SNL did not come across as very wise, leading to further backlash.
If their opinion does not have the merits of a well-crafted argument to back it up, then it might work against whatever they’re trying to achieve. Taylor Swift’s introduction to politics came when she endorsed a congressman running for office in her district, something that actually has some relevance to her life. Her statement, which she posted via Instagram, was well-written and well-thought out, making it a respectable entry into politics and in the state in which she votes.
Finally, I believe that we should take into account whether or not they’re being hypocritical. If so, then they deserve the backlash that they receive. Sean Penn claimed that people should have their guns taken away in order to quell ensuing gun violence and yet has starred in countless films glorifying gun violence. Leonardo DiCaprio telling people to take action against global warming in his Oscar speech and then boarding a private jet to get to an after party, is a peak example of “do as I say, not as I do” and might explain why people are tired of celebrities lecturing the public. Mark Ruffalo led protests down Wall Street and rallied against the one-percent, despite being in the one-percent himself. Natalie Portman wore a Dior dress that was embroidered with the names of female directors that she believes have been snubbed by Hollywood, despite the fact that her production company has only ever produced one film directed by a woman— and that woman was Natalie Portman.
However, not all political commentary is bad. I would argue that Meryl Streep’s now-infamous take down of Trump is an example of political commentary done well. She had remained silent on social issues for most of her career, she is well-educated having attended Yale, she is at the top of her field, she articulated her point well, and she brought up a specific event that took place that bothered her.
In a similar vein, Jane Fonda’s recent escapades for climate change is another example of protesting done well. She has famously been an activist her whole life, she is willing to get arrested for her cause on a regular basis, and she has stopped buying new clothes in an effort to protect the environment.
Matt Damon, who attended but did not graduate from Harvard, has taken a stand for teacher’s rights, having a mother who is a teacher. Matt Damon has also helped millions of people in developing nations receive clean drinking water through the water.org and the water equity foundations, which he co-founded.
Jennifer Lawrence has recently taken time out of filming to speak to young people across the country about the importance of getting involved politically. In her quest to elevate the political-consciousness of teenagers she has attacked both sides of the aisle. She did not receive any higher education, having dropped out at age 14, but she was well-spoken and did not make lofty claims on topics that she could not speak on with authority.
You might disagree with some of the people listed above, but it is worth mentioning that when political commentary is done well, it can do so much good. In previous decades, celebrities helped get the U.S. government to tackle the AIDS crisis and to help end Appartheid. I believe that overall, the rule should be about whether or not they have skin in the game. If a famous person is practicing what they preach, knows what they’re talking about, and stands up for it in a cohesive way, then they are deserving of our attention.