Star Power: The Case for Celebrity Involvement in Politics…Ready For It?
Taylor Swift made headlines recently for breaking her typical political silence. In a lengthy post on Instagram, she condemned the Republican candidate Marsha Blackburn, cited several reasons for her disagreement, endorsed two Tennessee Democrats (Phil Bredesen for the Senate and Jim Cooper for the House of Representatives), and called her fans to action by begging them to perform their civic duty and vote in the midterm elections.
As a result, Donald Trump commented that he likes her music “25% less.” (Making him still a Swiftie? It was a strange comment, to say the least.) Mike Huckabee took to Twitter to air out his displeasure with her decision—proving his ignorance of her fan base by saying that her message fell on the ears of fans that aren’t old enough to vote anyway. She ignored them both, and has gone on to share pictures every single day of her fans adorned in ‘I Voted’ stickers from all around the country. She has also posed in front of a ‘Phil Bresden for U.S. Senate’ poster, waving an American flag with her mother.
Beyond President Trump and Huckabee’s criticisms, dozens of others have been weighing in on social media and in news articles with the position that celebrities should stay out of politics.
But Taylor Swift is not the only star using her large following to spread a political message. From Shailene Woodley’s participation in the Dakota Pipeline protests to supermodel Emily Rajakowski and comedian Amy Schumer's arrests at a D.C. protest against Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, celebrities have been physically present on the political scene, and their presence has only grown in recent months. Jimmy Kimmel has discussed legislation and policy on his late-night show, Colin Kaepernick is famous for taking the knee as a statement against police brutality during his games, and stars like Emma Watson, George Clooney, and Leonardo DiCaprio have all spoken before the United Nations to advocate for education/literacy/gender equality, human rights, and the environment, respectively.
Is this wrong? The subject has been up for debate for as long as celebrity culture has dominated our society, which could be argued to trace back to ancient Greece when athletes were lauded as heroes, given gifts, and had songs and poems written in their honor. Ancient Rome treated their performers and gladiator fighters with the same reverence, and it has continued on in different forms ever since.
Around 1920, when the names of performers were displayed at the end in the film credits, actors and actresses began to experience star power (in the modern sense, familiar to us) for the first time. The movie industry went global and suddenly, celebrity names and faces were recognized by audiences in countries all over the world. With this shift and increase in influence, ties between celebrities and the political sphere became the norm.
Critics of celebrity endorsement argue that celebrities are largely entertainers and audiences come to see them act, sing, or play a sport for an enjoyable form of escapism that takes them out of the real world and allows them to focus strictly on something else. So, they do not want to hear the political propaganda that they are already bombarded with in other aspects of their life parroted by a performer.
Others argue that celebrities are privileged and out of touch, making them unable to represent the views of average American citizens, so they should not vocalize opinions about what is going on in the country.
All American citizens have the right to exercise their freedom of speech and the press. I would argue that all of these criticisms are based on hypocritical condemnations that are grounded in personal opinion and prejudice. Some celebrities are born into wealth and others build their careers out of nothing. They vary just as much as regular American citizens who come from a variety of distinctive backgrounds and upbringings. For example, Swift was born on a Christmas tree farm in Reading, P.A. Her parents were rural ranchers and anyone who saw little Taylor helping out in the fields would have never predicted that she would be the recipient of 650 award nominations and 316 awards, a regular Artist of the Year winner, and a TIME magazine cover star and Person of the Year.
Swift’s story is not unique and plenty of other average Americans have pursued a big break in Hollywood—and earned it. And isn’t going from small-town girl to a roaring success story not the American dream? But even so, there is no set ‘American experience’ to live, and the fact that her life has one of a global performer does not mean that she is any more ‘out-of-touch’ than any other person. If anything, her profession has forced her to travel and interact with people of all ages, demographics, and backgrounds from all 50 states through national tours and meet-and-greets. As an individual, she has had more contact and communication with people around the country, than an American who was born and raised in their hometown and never left it.
There is no ‘better’ way to live, but both perspectives are valuable and provide distinctive insights during an election. What is working in this country? What is not? The opinion of a well-traveled celebrity and the opinion of a more stationary and local citizen will vary considerably, but we need both to understand the problems the nation is facing.
While I understand that you may not go to a concert, stand-up show, sports game, or other entertaining event wishing to hear about politics, the spotlight is on them and they have the liberty to use it as they will. Besides, Swift is not spewing her political opinions into the microphone in the middle of a concert. She is writing about them on her personal profile and you can choose not to follow her page if you do not want to see it. Yet, even if she did choose to express herself on stage, she has every right to do so. Telling Swift to “shut up and sing” because you do not think that it is right for her to voice her opinions as a performer is ridiculous and unfair.
The only difference between your average American citizen and a famous American citizen, is the fact that the famous one is a public figure with a far-reaching platform. Being a celebrity puts you in a unique position where all eyes are on you and millions of people are concerned with what you have to say. A post made by a celebrity online—even a minor celebrity—will garner hundreds of thousands of views, likes, and comments. To give celebrities a voice and then tell them that they cannot use it is absurd. Who gave them the microphone in the first place? Who made them a celebrity? We did.
Even if you personally do not care about Swift or Rajakowski or DiCaprio, that does not mean that they don’t matter. Thousands of other people appreciate their work and subscribe to what they say and do. It’s the fans that promote these people to star status and build them up into who they are. To then turn around and punish them for using the platform that we, the fans, gave them is hypocritical.
It’s a free country—and in order for us to best preserve that status, we need to stop barring people from holding and voicing opinions. Celebrities have a right to say what they want and other citizens cannot, and should not, stop them from putting something out that other people don't agree with.