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Impactful Icons or Distracting Divas? Unpacking Celebrity Involvement in Politics and Activism

The intersection of celebrity involvement in politics and activism has undeniably increased in prominence in recent years, particularly in the era of social media. This involvement can manifest in various ways, including through celebrities speaking out, taking action, or committing to long-term advocacy efforts. Through possessing great levels of fame and influence, celebrities inherently possess power, which can wield both positive and negative impacts on societal attitudes and the effectiveness of political and activist efforts. Thus, it is vital to critically examine what responsibilities may arise from celebrities’ power, whether audiences are right to “expect” celebrities to act accordingly to these responsibilities, and under what contexts it is right for celebrities to speak out, or to remain silent.


“Stay in your own lane” sentiments underscore the belief that celebrities should stick to what they are famous for and not venture into politics or activism. It is an unfair sentiment, as each individual, regardless of their level of fame, should have the autonomy to speak out on political and social matters, if they so desire. However, nowadays the more dominant view tends to be the opposite of “stay in your own lane”. Many believe that, as individuals with large platforms, there is an “expectation” placed on celebrities to be vocal activists – indeed, celebrities who do not speak out are often heavily criticised for their silence. For example, in contrast to celebrities who openly urged their fans to be politically active and, in some cases, even endorsed candidates during the 2016 US Presidential election, Taylor Swift remained silent on her political preferences, sharing only a last-minute "go vote!" post on election day[1]. Later, when many took to the streets to protest Trump’s ban on refugees and immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries, Swift was instead sharing links to her new music video[2]. Fans of the artist had never heard silence quite this loud (to paraphrase one of Swift’s own songs)[3]; their consequent outrage was even louder. Known to promote messages of love and equality during his performances and show support for the LGBTQ+ community, Harry Styles was criticised by Black fans for not specifically acknowledging their “Black Lives Matter” signs at a concert[4]. And, in the wake of the death of George Floyd, whose murder as a result of police brutality sparked a renewed attention on the BLM movement in summer 2020, celebrities such as Billie Eilish and Shawn Mendes were criticised for their initial silence on the matter[5]. This expectation for celebrities to be vocal activists, whilst well-intentioned, is arguably unfair, for the same reasons as “stay in your own lane” rhetoric. Since celebrities should be able to possess the autonomy to engage with public discourse; they must, by implication, also retain the autonomy to stay silent, however troubling their silence may seem to audiences. 


A critical question arises from all this: why does society care so much about celebrities’ political stances? In today’s interconnected world, individuals are constantly exposed to the multitude of injustices that persist worldwide. The rapid expansion of social media has played a pivotal role in amplifying these issues, ensuring that they permeate the boundaries of the bubbles of one’s daily life. With unprecedented access to information and diverse perspectives, society (and in particular younger generations) has developed a sharper recognition of the pervasive injustices that demand attention and, more importantly, collective effort to address them. Consequently, many people care about what celebrities believe and say, as celebrities’ microphones are much louder than that of the ordinary citizen. Celebrities’ voices can shape public discourse and motivate others to get involved in fighting for the cause at hand. 


Whilst one may (correctly) posit that this energy should be directed at actual politicians and decision makers, it is nevertheless understandable why so many do care so much about celebrities’ views. In a political age where many – particularly young people[6] –  are disillusioned by politics and political structures, feeling powerless to effect change at that level, harnessing the influence of celebrities seems like a viable alternative. The interactive nature of social media interactions between celebrities and their fans has blurred the line between real and parasocial relationships, making fans feel personally connected[7]. This suggests that fans may not always view a celebrity’s social media message as part of their public persona, but rather as a personal message directed at them[8]. Research on Taylor Swift’s 2018 Instagram post[9] (where, to the relief of many fans, Swift broke her political silence by publicly endorsing two Democrat candidates in the run-up to the US midterm elections, as well as showing support for the LGBTQ community and gender and racial justice) showed that young voters found her words persuasive and significant because they perceived her as a friend[10].  


Celebrity activism is varied, and can broadly be categorised into speaking out, actions, and advocacy. 


  1. Speaking out

As the quickest and easiest method of activism, engaging in public discourse is the most common form of celebrity activism. A simple tweet or Instagram post can reach millions of people within moments; this immediacy allows celebrities to respond to current events or emerging issues promptly. Compared to other forms of activism that may require significant financial investments or extensive time commitments, engaging in public discourse does not have a high barrier to entry: celebrities can express their opinions, share information, or advocate for causes without the need for investing substantial resources or undergoing extensive training.


The “me too.” movement initially emerged in 2006 through the efforts of survivor and activist Tarana Burke[11]. What really ignited the worldwide movement was a 2017 tweet from Alyssa Milano[12],  in which she encouraged those who had been sexually harassed or assaulted to write “me too”, so as to underscore the “magnitude of the problem.”[13]  The ensuing hashtag “#MeToo” provided the movement recognition and momentum, as many others were encouraged to share their own experiences of sexual harassment and assault. This transition from a grassroots to global movement – which, as well as increased awareness and solidarity, has given rise to the establishment of new advocacy organisations, increased focus on preventative measures and training in the workplace, and the passing of legislation to protect victims [14] – underscores the immense reach and influence that celebrities can have when they lend their voice to a cause.


“For a lot of us, we may never find a candidate or party with whom we agree 100% on every issue, but we have to vote anyway,”[15] wrote Swift in her 2018 midterm election Instagram post, in which she encouraged her 112 million followers to educate themselves on the candidates running in their state and vote for a candidate who most closely represents their values. In the 24 hours after her post, there was a significant surge in voter registrations in the US, with 65,000 people registering to vote[16]. Of course, not every single one of these new registrants can be directly attributed to Swift’s post; nevertheless, it is undeniable how influential her message proved to be. This highlights the potential for celebrities to serve as catalysts for civic engagement, particularly among their sizable and devoted fan bases. Swift’s ability to mobilise such a substantial number of individuals in a short timeframe reflects the potent combination of celebrity influence and the immediacy of social media as a platform for driving political participation. It also speaks to the resonance of her voice with her audience, who perceive her as relatable, authentic, and trustworthy. Thus this reinforces the idea that celebrities can wield considerable persuasive power in influencing public opinion and encouraging civic action, particularly among demographics like the youth who may have otherwise been disengaged from the political process.


Of course, this is not to suggest that electoral or policy influence can be solely attributed to celebrity involvement. Majic et al demonstrate that endorsements by celebrities do not uniformly translate into public support or opinion alignment. The example of Bono’s statement on a fictional foreign policy crisis illustrates that celebrity status alone does not necessarily make them trusted sources of information, and individuals may not adopt their positions. It was noted that respondents may align with their (party) political preferences rather than celebrity endorsements[17]. Other factors, including broader social movements and cultural shifts, and individuals’ personal experiences, will undoubtedly also come into play.


Moreover, many celebrities tend to use simplified slogans or make brief, generic, tepid statements. Pretty artwork, sanitised words, and bandwagon hashtags dominate celebrities’ online profiles, Hanna Flint notes, but rarely is there “any depth of discussion underneath especially for those who have weaponised their white privilege against Black people.”[18] Of even more concern is when performative language is not just futile but also causes tangible harm. During The 1975’s headlining set at the July 2023 Good Vibes Festival in Kuala Lumpur, lead singer Matty Healy brazenly denounced the Malaysian government for its anti-LGBTQ+ policies, and kissed bassist Ross McDonald on the lips. The band’s set was promptly cut short, with the band being banned from Malaysia, and the Malaysian government ordered the cancellation of the remaining two days of the festival[19]. Speaking to The Guardian, Dhia Rezki Rohaizad, the deputy president of Jejaka (a social support group for gay, bisexual and queer men in Malaysia), said that Healy’s speech did not align with the preferred approach of many Malaysian LGBTQ+ rights activists: “We’ve been doing a lot of work on the ground, community organising, and having stakeholder meetings with local government agencies. Doing it at this scale, with a lot of people who are not aware of the discussions going around with regards to queer activism, that is what is harmful.”[20]  Furthermore, Malaysian anti-LGBTQ+ laws are a product of British colonial laws[21]. These two factors make the Healy situation all the more troubling: a privileged white British man going to a former British colony and lecturing it regarding the very laws his country established is patronising, self-centring “white saviour” behaviour. Regardless of his right to freedom of expression or his supposedly good intentions, Healy’s behaviour harms the very community he claims to be helping, with years of local activist work disrupted and vulnerable minority communities endangered[22]. 


Performative words fail to contribute anything substantial to the broader public conversation. In particular, celebrities speaking out when they are not educated enough about the topic at hand or whilst failing to recognise their own privilege can cause immense harm. Celebrities should do more than simply raise awareness in order to contribute to meaningful change. They can do so by providing resources and information to help their followers gain a deeper understanding of the issues, promoting specific actions like donating to reputable organisations or volunteering in grassroots movements, and amplifying the voices of and working collaboratively with those directly affected by the issues they champion, thereby keeping the focus on the people and communities in need.


2. Actions


Celebrities have taken concrete action beyond simply speaking out, often leveraging their fame and resources to effect change. Some have engaged in fundraising activities, such as hosting or participating in events to support charities, or have made substantial financial contributions to causes. Others have physically participated in protests and demonstrations. In some ways, this is more helpful than simply speaking out: charities need financial backing to carry out their vital work, and active engagement in protests can inspire and mobilise a wider audience to get involved and provide support.


Actions, like words, can also be incredibly performative and shallow. Some celebrities may capitalise on trending issues to enhance their personal brand or sell products rather than solely focusing on the cause. For example, a 2017 Pepsi advertisement, of which Kendall Jenner was the star, was criticised for co-opting and trivialising BLM[23], and Madison Beer faced backlash for allegedly using the BLM protests as a photoshoot opportunity[24]. Such marketing strategies are distasteful, offensive, and opportunistic, undermining the credibility of the cause they are supporting. Moreover, these marketing strategies unhelpfully shift public focus from the issue itself to celebrity involvement. For example, Showbiz CheatSheet published an article highlighting how Selena Gomez is (supposedly) a better BLM activist than Kylie Jenner[25]. The existence of such articles and the ensuing online discourse, which both fuel the creation of articles and stem from the articles, pose issues and cast doubt on the merit of comparing celebrities: more attention is being placed on the celebrities’ relative merit than genuinely addressing concerns related to BLM support. When audiences are more interested in celebrities’ actions and statements rather than the underlying problem, the impact of the activism is diluted and it detracts from the work of real activists and experts.


There is also the issue of hypocrisy, where celebrities may advocate for causes while their own actions or lifestyles are contradictory. Of course, celebrities cannot single-handedly eradicate societal issues, for example climate change – but it is disingenuous for celebrities who speak up to then not only continue flying on private jets (an issue which the media particularly emphasises), but also live in energy-inefficient homes or promote unnecessary products likely to end up in landfills, amongst many other environmentally-unfriendly activities. It is fair and reasonable to expect celebrities who choose to speak out to align their actions with their words – inconsistent actions can undermine their words and again be perceived as mere marketing strategies. While nobody is perfect, anything short of a demonstrable commitment to improvement in the particular cause is insulting. Moreover, once again, the focus on celebrity behaviour can overshadow the efforts of ordinary individuals who are genuinely working toward these causes. 


3. Advocacy


Celebrities can commit to sustained advocacy for a cause rather than jumping from one issue to another, which over time can have a more significant impact. However, celebrities are increasingly invited to participate in political discussions and offer testimony on various issues, despite often lacking professional, scholarly, or other expertise[26]. There are two linked concerns that arise from this. 


Firstly, lack of expertise may lead to suboptimal decision-making. For example, when celebrities testified about human trafficking in front of the US Congress, Dina Haynes found that they often chose to emphasise sensational tales of women and girls being sexually trafficked by criminal organisations and individuals from non-Western or non-white backgrounds, and that they frequently advocated for law-and-order approaches that prioritised punishment rather than prevention[27]. This is, interestingly, in spite of UN research which shows that labour trafficking in various sectors of the economy is arguably more widespread, and that a significant number of men, boys, and transgender individuals are also vulnerable to trafficking[28]. Consequently, Haynes asserts that “celebrity activism isn’t significantly advancing the fight against human trafficking and might even be detrimental by diverting attention away from critical aspects of the problem and its solutions that urgently require focus.”[29]


This is not to suggest necessarily that politicians would not have raised these ideas themselves. Rather, it raises a second issue with advocacy-focused celebrity activism efforts: celebrities possess an arguably illegitimate power to shape political agendas, as they are not democratically elected and there is no proper mechanism of accountability for celebrities. For example, George Clooney and Ben Affleck endeavour to promote peace and development in South Sudan and the Eastern Congo, through their partnerships with Nespresso and Starbucks, respectively. Alexandra Budabin argues that Clooney and Affleck are able to wield power and influence in such a way that reinforces neoliberal politics and market-oriented approaches to humanitarianism and development (rather than development approaches that focus on social welfare and poverty alleviation), which may consequently prioritise profit over people. This not only amplifies the influence and access of privileged individuals within the humanitarian sector, despite their lack of expertise and formal qualifications, but also amplifies public-private partnerships that often evade public scrutiny[30]. This is because these partnerships may operate with less transparency than traditional government or non-profit organisations, making it difficult for the public to assess their impact, motivations, and potential conflicts of interest. 


It is undoubtedly concerning that celebrities, without any formal expertise, possess the ability to influence politics and policies, and, unlike democratically elected officials, they lack a constituency whose views they are obliged to represent impartially, and who could potentially vote them out of their positions through elections. Noteworthy, however, is Kim Kardashian’s involvement in the US political and legal spheres. Through leveraging her fame to gain high-level connections (including with Trump), Kardashian was able to help push for the granting of clemency for Alice Marie Johnson (an African-American woman who had been served a life sentence for a low-level drug offence), as well as a prison reform bill. This, amongst other efforts she has been involved in, spurred her to pursue formal legal education, which will equip her with expertise to further enact change[31]. Her commitment to this endeavour is commendable – however, it is important to recognise that the majority of celebrities will not opt to pursue formal education in order to enter legal or policy spheres. Ultimately, it is vital for there to be careful examination of the motivations, methods, and consequences of celebrity engagement in politics and policy.


The role of celebrity activism in modern society is complex, marked by both benefits and pitfalls. Celebrities (or any specific individuals, for that matter) should not be overly relied on as the primary drivers of systemic social and political change, nor should they be viewed as infallible authorities on these matters. It is crucial to remain critical of the approaches taken by celebrities, as bad practices must be called out to maintain the integrity of activist efforts. Ideally, everyone should strive to contribute to making the world a better place – celebrities are not exempt from that. But it would be both inaccurate and unfair to suggest that being an activist is a part of a celebrity’s job description [32] – one can undoubtedly still be a celebrity without spearheading any kind of activism. What is more reasonable to suggest is that, if celebrities do choose to be public about their views, then due to their substantial platforms and influence, they should assume the responsibility of doing their activism thoughtfully and meaningfully. Celebrity activism is undeniably a part of our cultural landscape, and it should be harnessed in the most effective and meaningful ways possible. By recognising the limitations and potential of celebrity activism and by actively participating in the causes we support, society can collectively work together towards becoming more just and equitable.


References:

[1] Elizabeth, D. (2017) Does Taylor Swift Owe Social Media Activism to Her Fans? [Available online at] https://www.teenvogue.com/story/does-taylor-swift-owe-social-media-activism-fans [Date accessed: 18/09/2023]

[2] Ibid.

[3] Swift, T. (2023) The Story Of Us (Taylor’s Version) Speak Now (Taylor’s Version)

[4] Leszkiewicz, A. (2017) Why Harry Styles fans are taking #BlackLivesMatter signs to his gigs [Available online at] https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/music/2017/11/harry-styles-fans-black-lives-matter-signs [Date accessed: 18/09/2023] 

[5] Dodson, P. C., Khan, A. I. (2020) White Celebrities Are Now Speaking Out About Black Lives Matter, Thanks to Fan Pressure [Available online at]  https://www.teenvogue.com/story/white-celebrities-speaking-out-black-lives-matter-fans [Date accessed: 18/09/2023]

[6] Bennett Institute for Public Policy Cambridge. (2020) Faith in democracy: millennials are the most disillusioned generation ‘in living memory’ [Available online at] https://www.bennettinstitute.cam.ac.uk/blog/faith-democracy-millennials-are-most-disillusioned/ [Date accessed: 18/09/2023]

[7] Click M. A., Lee H., Willson Holladay H. (2013) Making Monsters: Lady Gaga, fan identification, and social media. Popular Music and Society, 36(3), 360-379. https://doi.org/10.1080/03007766.2013.798546

[8] Driessen, S. (2022) Campaign Problems: How Fans React to Taylor Swift’s Controversial Political Awakening. American Behavioral Scientist, 66(8), 1060–1074. https://doi.org/10.1177/00027642211042295 

[9] Swift, T (@taylorswift). (2018) <Instagram post> “I’m writing this post about the upcoming midterm elections on November 6th, in which I’ll be voting in the state of Tennessee. …” [Available online at] https://www.instagram.com/p/BopoXpYnCes/ [Date accessed: 18/09/2023]

[10] Nisbett G., Schartel Dunn S. (2019) Reputation matters: Parasocial attachment, narrative engagement, and the 2018 Taylor Swift political endorsement. Atlantic Journal of Communication, 29(1), 26-38. https://doi.org/10.1080/15456870.2019.1704758

[11] Burke, T. (2023) History & Inception [Available online at] https://metoomvmt.org/get-to-know-us/history-inception/ [Date accessed: 18/09/2023]

[12] Zarya, V. (2017) ‘Me Too’ Didn’t Start With Alyssa Milano. Here’s the Woman Who Created It. [Available online at] https://fortune.com/2017/10/18/me-too-sexual-assault/ [Date accessed: 18/09/2023]

[13] Milano, A (@Alyssa_Milano). (2017) <tweet> “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet. …”[Available online at] https://twitter.com/Alyssa_Milano/status/919659438700670976?s=20 [Date accessed: 18/09/2023]

[14] Reddock Law Group. (2020) 6 Impacts of the #MeToo Movement & the Harvey Weinstein Case [Available online at] https://www.reddocklaw.com/6-impacts-of-the-metoo-movement-the-harvey-weinstein-case/ [Date accessed: 18/09/2023] 

[15] Swift, T. (n 9)

[16] Snapes, L. (2018) Spike in voter registrations after Taylor Swift pro-Democrat Instagram post [Available online at] https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/oct/09/taylor-swift-pro-democrat-instagram-post-causes-spike-in-voter-registrations [Date accessed: 18/09/2023]

[17] Majic, S., O’Neill, D., Bernhard, M. (2020) Celebrity and Politics. Perspectives on Politics, 18(1), 1-8. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1537592719004602 

[18] Flint, H. (2020) Black Lives Matter: Too Many Celebrities Subscribe To A Superficial Activism [Available online at] https://graziadaily.co.uk/celebrity/news/celebrities-protests-black-lives-matter/ [Date accessed: 18/09/2023]

[19] Duran, A. (2023) The 1975 festival set in Malaysia cut short after Matty Healy criticises anti-LGBTQ laws and kisses bassist onstage [Available online at] https://www.nme.com/news/music/the-1975-good-vibes-festival-malaysia-set-cut-short-matty-healy-criticises-anti-lgbtq-laws-kiss-bassist-3471738 [Date accessed: 18/09/2023]

[20] Ratcliffe, R. (2023) Malaysia’s gay community fears backlash after Matty Healy’s outburst [Available online at] https://www.theguardian.com/music/2023/jul/24/the-1975-frontmans-outbursts-over-lgbtq-laws-angers-malaysias-conservatives [Date accessed: 18/09/2023]

[21] Ibid. 

[22] Lee, J (@iamjoelee). (2023) <tweet> “If anything, what Matt Healy and The 1975 have done, is discount and disrupted YEARS of work…”[Available online at]  https://twitter.com/iamjoelee/status/1682646891119661057?s=20 [Date accessed: 18/09/2023]

[23] D’Addario, D. (2017) Why the Kendall Jenner Pepsi Ad Was Such a Glaring Misstep [Available online at] https://time.com/4726500/pepsi-ad-kendall-jenner/ [Date accessed: 18/09/2023]

[24] Savin, J. (2020) Madison Beer denies staging photos at Black Lives Matter protest [Available online at] https://www.cosmopolitan.com/uk/reports/a32778824/madison-beer-black-lives-matter/ [Date accessed: 18/09/2023]

[25] Varnham, E. (2020) Kylie Jenner Isn’t Helping Black Lives Matter Nearly as Much as Selena Gomez, Critics Say [Available online at] https://www.cheatsheet.com/entertainment/kylie-jenner-isnt-helping-black-lives-matter-nearly-as-much-as-selena-gomez-critics-say.html/ [Date accessed: 18/09/2023]

[26] Majic, S., O’Neill, D., Bernhard, M. (n 17)

[27] Haynes, D. F. (2014) The Celebritization of Human Trafficking. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 653(1): 25–45. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24541773 

[28] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). (2016) Global Report on Trafficking in Persons. Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/glotip/2016_Global_Report_on_Trafficking_in_Persons.pdf 

[29] Haynes, D. F. (n 28)

[30] Budabin, A. (2020). Caffeinated Solutions as Neoliberal Politics: How Celebrities Create and Promote Partnerships for Peace and Development. Perspectives on Politics, 18(1), 60-75. https://doi.org/10.1017/S153759271900241X  

[31] Cornwell, E. (2019) <YouTube video> Lawyer reacts to Kim Kardashian studying law. [Available online at] https://youtu.be/MoLj4pLWw3Y?si=4oWbGOioFF_f7QLq [Date accessed: 18/09/2023]

[32] As suggested e.g. in: Geall, M. (2022) Gen-Z celebs are proving that authenticity is the way forward (and we’re so here for it) [Available online at] https://www.glamourmagazine.co.uk/article/gen-z-authenticity [Date accessed: 18/09/2023]


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Amanda Amaeshi is a second-year LLB Law student at University College London (UCL).

Amanda is an award-winning activist and campaigner, specialising in gender equality, anti-racism, and youth voice and political participation. She is currently a Council Member of Phase Two of the First Minister’s National Advisory Council on Women and Girls in Scotland, Young Spokesperson for Girlguiding Scotland, Youth Project Assessor for the National Youth Agency in England, and an Anti-Racist Education Ambassador for Intercultural Youth Scotland. In these roles, she consistently engages in collaborative policy and practice evaluation to drive positive change.


Amanda also speaks out through her writing, raising awareness on a variety of issues, from the lack of women in STEM and the harms of fast fashion, to period poverty and the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement. She won the Young Reporters for the Environment competition in 2017, writing about problems and potential solutions concerning food waste in Scotland, and has written for websites such as the Scottish BPOC Writers Network and the Scottish Feminist Bloggers Network.


For her writing and campaigning work, Amanda was named on the YWCA Scotland’s 30 Under 30 list for 2020 and the WOW Foundation’s Young Leaders Directory 2022. In April 2021 she was named the Glasgow Times Young Scotswoman of the Year 2020.


Twitter: @amandaamaeshi


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