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Are Celebrities Obsolete?

Our country is currently experiencing a time of crisis, fueled by 200 years of white supremacy, rampant social media misinformation and abuses, and a global pandemic. We also live in a time where we have unprecedented access to celebrities through platforms like Instagram and Twitter. Famous people often have millions of followers, and when they say or do something, like it or not, we all see that. What results is the crushing realization that celebrities are human. More than that, they are often tone-deaf, cringe-worthy, and sometimes disappointing humans.

A New Era of Celebrity

Celebrities used to be symbols of the American Dream. Famous people were defined by wealth and glamour and flashing cameras. In the old days, we saw celebrities in movies, we listened to their music, and we saw photos of them in magazines. Sometimes, they gave interviews to give us a glimpse of their thoughts, but that was the extent of the general public’s insight into famous people. But then, something came along that completely redefined our relationship with famous people and their lives: social media.

With the advent of social media came an entirely new perspective on fame and the lives of those who live it. Now, we can see Natalie Portman making vegan latkes on her Instagram story and see a fight between Kanye West and Kim Kardashian play out in real-time on Twitter. Just like the rest of us, celebrities use social media to share their thoughts, routines, and upcoming projects. Sometimes, this can be really cool. A side effect of this, however, is that we are now exposed to almost every movie star and singer’s thoughts on every tragic event. We expect it, even. This can, and often does, go terribly, horribly wrong.

What We Want? No. What We Need? Also no.

After last week’s insurrection at the Capitol, celebrities took to social media en masse to respond to the historic and horrifying events. Responses ran the gamut from activism to remarkable tone-deafness. One such latter response came from singer Demi Lovato.

Lovato’s response was well intentioned, but falls victim to the most common of celebrity sins in times of crisis. Instead of centering the issues, or the people directly involved in what’s happening, Lovato’s response firmly centers herself and her music. There is an incredible ego in thinking a former Disney star in the studio is going to provide anything positive to a country facing an insurrection amidst a global pandemic. The whole statement is laughably unhelpful.

I don’t mean to be hard on Lovato. I understand that it’s hard to find the right thing to say in such difficult and emotional times. We live in a culture where everything is picked apart and criticized. However, celebrities have massive platforms and with those platforms comes a certain responsibility to use it wisely, or face criticism.

Lovato is not the only one in the last year who’s enacted a tasteless response to a serious crisis. In June, David Guetta faced backlash for a DJ set he played in honor of George Floyd. Like Lovato, Guetta artfully centered himself and his music in a time of crisis. Like Lovato, the whole incident came off as utterly ego-based.

Both Lovato’s insurrection themed studio session and Guetta’s misguided DJ set sat poorly with the general public. We live in a time where we’re all feeling cynical, and the problems we’re facing run far too deep to be fixed with a song. It’s not just Lovato and Guetta, so many celebrity moments this year have felt like that Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial. There are entirely too many to count.

A Place in This World

These tone-deaf missteps beg the question: is there a place for celebrities amidst the historical events that have taken place in the last year? Is there a place for celebrities at all going forward?

It feels like, slowly but surely, our society is slowly growing disillusioned with the idea of famous people. As the average person is sitting at home, trying to make ends meet and grapple with an often tragic historical event once a week, we’re subjected to near-constant content of celebrities on a beach somewhere or lounging in their multimillion dollar compounds. It’s not their fault. They’re just living their lives, but that resentment builds, and then when someone famous goes off and says something stupid, we completely lack the patience for it.

The Authenticity Question

This isn’t helped by the fact that the modern era of celebrity is defined by the Kardashians. Not literally, but through what they’ve built and set precedence for. Fame now is just as much about content creation and photo editing as it is about the art. Nothing feels authentic anymore, and folks are steadily losing patience.

That lack of authenticity easily extends to the social justice realm. When someone famous posts all over Instagram with infographics and social justice memes, we have a hard time believing it. We call it performative activism because we don’t feel or see the authenticity there. Famous people are constantly engaged in the age-old curse of fame, struggling to remain relevant. In this era of celebrity, that means an excess of content, not all of which is good. Celebrities seem to feel that they have to speak out on every tragedy and injustice, but sometimes in doing so completely miss the point. 

Those Who Do It Right

Famous people are not a monolith. There are, of course, some celebrities who use their platforms in genuinely beneficial ways. Jane Fonda, for example, has been walking the walk for her entire career. Even into her 80’s, she uses her platform to promote activism tirelessly in a way that feels unquestionably authentic. Kerry Washington uses her platform to promote various social justice causes, and occasionally to lead virtual yoga classes because self-care is also very important. She is careful not to center herself, except where appropriate, and her content always feels authentic.

Even those who are not necessarily known for their activism can use social media in a positive way. Chrissy Teigen is the perfect example of someone who posts about issues very carefully, when necessary, but doesn’t dedicate her entire internet personality to it. When she does speak up, however, it is always thoughtful.

There are other celebrities who are, at the very least, shutting their mouths when their mouths should be shut. It is legitimately difficult for celebrities to walk the line between using the platform we’ve all given them, and going too far. Performative activism is something we’ve seen so much of this year from celebrities. If you can’t talk about an issue without somehow centering yourself, it might be better to simply say nothing at all. Some, however, interpret this silence as complicity.

The Final Question

So, are celebrities obsolete? Maybe not, but the landscape of fame is certainly changing. With these new platforms, with ever more popping up every few months, celebrities with millions of followers have a certain responsibility. It’s a responsibility that some are clearly unable to handle. In many ways, most celebrities are ill-equipped to handle responding to police violence and insurrections at the Capitol. It’s why they might be headed out of style. The world we live in can no longer tolerate the goofy ignorance of famous people, especially those walking around with millions of followers and millions of dollars to match it. It’s unclear whether the virtues of the few will be able to overpower the sins of the many. Only time will tell.

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