The Dynamics of Fame and Moral Obligation

By: Emilia MacDonald

Edited By: Julia Neves

In a time of constant media barrage, paired with social and political unrest, populations have turned to the one constant that has lasted through climate crisis, elections, and a pandemic: celebrities. The increased importance of social media influencers, actors, models, and musicians has led to the question of whether celebrities owe their supporters a certain standard of moral responsibility regarding socio-political issues and movements that are occurring around the globe. 

With the public calling for their icons to comment on these issues, it is incredibly important to note both the positives and negatives regarding the intervention of social media stars and celebrities on these topics. Fame is accompanied by intense cultural power which can be leveraged to promote awareness and actionable change toward social causes.

Celebrities are granted the capability to stimulate passion among their followers and access the power of the masses, this is exemplified through increased voter turnout after fans are urged to vote by Taylor Swift. Yet, it is vital that the organizers of social movements consider why and how they might collaborate with fame-holding allies to advance their mission. Many artists or performers have originated from creative subcultures or countercultures that are progressive and sympathetic towards social plight and justice-seeking leaders. In contrast to this point, social movement organizers have also been averse to collaborating with the power that comes with fame, as typical grassroots movements are angled towards ordinary people who would come together collectively to lift each other up. This can possibly be attributed to the feeling of detachment that comes with celebrity status which is based on the notion that celebrities live very different lives from the normal person, and their participation in grassroots organizations could be taken as ingenuine. 

Recognizing the hesitancy of grassroots organizations to collaborate with celebrities, it has been noted that smaller and more independent artists are more likely to collect and distribute resources to their followers to amplify social movement organizers. Other examples of movements typically supported by smaller artists include the publication of bail funds to support arrested protestors, share information, and physically attend protests themselves. Due to the activity of smaller artists and creators, the passivity of larger industry names has come to light, calling into question the moral responsibility of those with increased power and sway over the public. 

Unfortunately, in order to save face, celebrities will also perform acts of superficial social justice, with a prime example following the Black Lives Matter Movement and the use of the hashtag: #BlackOutTuesday, which displayed vapid and surface-level concern on behalf of those with power. Acts of superficial social justice may end up doing more harm than good, resulting in public numbness regarding social issues both locally and worldwide. By adopting risk-averse rhetoric, celebrities display lazy activism and alienating displays of ‘moral support’. In general, some viewed celebrity participation in this movement as somewhat performative since no action beyond social media seemed to occur; many feel that celebrities should also lead by example by donating to fundraising initiatives or lobbying policymakers. 

To answer the question of whether those with fame and cultural power owe something to the society that placed them upon that pedestal, it is hard to give an answer that is purely black or white. Like most things in this world, the result of this question is a definite shade of gray. To expect or force every person with fame to be educated in the world’s conditions or be prepared to speak on an issue publicly is naive, and in fact could propagate uninformed commentary and spread of misinformation if a celebrity feels pressure to comment on an unfamiliar subject. Yet, as typical in human nature, it is beneficial to have hope that those in the public eye will choose to use their influential status to advocate for social and political causes worldwide to support those facing violence, oppression, war, or displacement. 

References

Image Source:

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Coley, J. (2020). “I Take Responsibility” And The Limits Of Celebrity Activism. The New Yorker. Accessed from: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/i-take-responsibility-and-the-limits-of-celebrity-activism

Engler, P. (2023).  Harnessing the enormous untapped power of celebrity to help social movements. Waging Nonviolence. Accessed from: https://wagingnonviolence.org/2023/02/harnessing-the-enormous-untapped-power-of-celebrity-to-help-social-movements/#:~:text=Among%20prominent%20entertainers%2C%20there%20are,be%20learned%20from%20their%20examples