When an important event takes place, particularly if it divides opinion, is linked to human rights or politicised issues, some celebrities decide to speak out, while others stay on the sidelines. This is not a new phenomenon. However, the importance of social networks has changed this perception and celebrities, whatever their field, are increasingly encouraged to speak out on current affairs. This can be on substantive issues such as feminism, the defence of sexual minorities, the environment, and so on. Other subjects linked to a particular current event, such as the death of Mahsa Amini in Iran last year, or more recently the 7 October attacks in Israel and the crimes committed by the Israeli state in Gaza, can provoke reactions. Some celebrities are very committed to a particular cause, others are silent at first, but eventually take a stand, others claim a certain neutrality, some say they don’t want to take a stand for fear of backlash, and many denounce the pressure put on them by activists on various issues.
Is it really the role of actors, singers, comedians and influencers to take such positions? Can we really expect a reaction to current affairs from people who are mainly known for entertainment? Are they legitimate?
“People in the media should use their influence for good causes”
To take the example of the crimes committed in Palestine in recent weeks, a number of celebrities have posted, in varying degrees of detail, about what was happening, siding more or less either with the Palestinian civilians or with the Israelis. Some celebrities have been heavily criticised for not doing so, others for being too neutral, for not taking sides, for simply defending “peace”. When the news is so sensitive, and such atrocities are being committed against civilians and children, it may seem untenable to continue to entertain on their usual subjects without taking stock of the situation. Some subjects are perhaps too serious to accept that people with such influence should remain silent and go on with their lives as if nothing had happened.
In cases of sexist and sexual violence, the idea that the person should not be separated from the artist is often defended. This could also be applied in the case of taking a stand. Whether they are actors, singers, influencers, comedians, etc., they are generally followed and appreciated for what they are as well as what they do. So, as human beings, they should be touched and do their utmost to inform and try in their own way to move the debate forward. It is possible to say that famous people, because of the scope of their influence, have a moral duty to share educated resources that provide well-founded information to as many people as possible and to highlight well-constructed opinions.
In the case of people who are not experts on a given subject, which is mostly the case with entertainment celebrities, they could use their influence not to give a personal opinion, but to share resources, articles or pages that provide information on a given situation, without necessarily giving an opinion, or to give a voice to a more marginalised person or group. Public figures can also take part in marches and demonstrations for a cause, without having to speak directly or develop an argument, and try to rally other celebrities and participants thanks to their notoriety. Lastly, social networks make it easy to “share”, so celebrities can very easily, without having to add any substance, take part in the media coverage of certain battles, events, fund-raising campaigns, and so on.
Celebrities are by no means expected to be experts on every subject, or ambassadors for every cause. However, it may seem appropriate to expect people with such influence to try to use it for just causes.
“Celebrities are there to entertain us, not to inform us”
There are a number of arguments in favour of the idea that it is not the role of the people we follow and appreciate for their art to inform their audience about subjects that go beyond their speciality. In fact, it is perfectly acceptable to say honestly that you don’t know anything about a particular subject, and that you are therefore not in a position to talk about it. Celebrities, especially actors, singers and influencers, are famous precisely because they entertain us, not because they are ambassadors for a particular cause.
Additionally, pushing celebrities to take a stand on every issue presents several risks. Firstly, there is the risk of essentialisation. Women are sometimes expected to take an absolute stand on feminism, just as queer people or religious groups are. It is not because you belong to a community that you necessarily have to be its spokesperson; that would be putting an enormous burden on each of its members.
Furthermore, the relationship between a celebrity and his or her public, particularly the fans, is by nature asymmetrical and necessarily involves issues of domination and power. The point of view expressed by celebrities is authoritative. To return to the question of knowledge of the subjects, insofar as they are not always sufficiently informed to give an opinion and a well-constructed argument, it would therefore be preferable for them to refrain from influencing the debates. This is in addition to the fact that if a large number of celebrities take up the same position on a debate, their influence can create an environment in which opposing opinions are less valued, reducing pluralism. This relationship of domination and the significant influence of celebrities can, in cases where their opinions are shared, be seen as a good thing, but in the opposite case, the sharing of false information, the defence of human rights violations or the normalisation of fascist political parties, for example, could present a major risk for democracy and human rights defenders.
Lastly, since many people push celebrities to take a stand, some may be aware that this could make them more popular, help them promote their projects while they are being promoted, and so on. This phenomenon of “faketivism”, of false activism out of self-interest, in the same way that brands can put forward certain values to increase their customer base, is something to be taken into account. It also risks discrediting the commitment of other campaigners to be associated with celebrities who are not sincere in their commitment, for example in the case of well-known people who claim to be campaigners against global warming, but who in no way adapt their lifestyle, and in particular have a huge carbon footprint.
For all these reasons, we need to qualify and limit our expectations of celebrities. You have to bear in mind that they evolve in their own environment, with their own interests. It may also seem human not to want to risk years of work to take a stand.
Our generation is sometimes accused of not being sufficiently politicised, of not voting enough, and so on. On the contrary, it is also accused of being too radical, of developing a “cancel culture” (see our article on this subject), of seeing everything in a Manichean way. In any case, it’s difficult to make generalisations, whatever the generation. There’s no doubt that for people like myself, who are activists and aware of human rights, who are trying to inform themselves, educate themselves and take action at their own level, it can be difficult to say that life goes on, that we can simply enjoy ourselves and that it’s not necessarily everyone’s role to speak out. Indeed, with social networks, it’s possible to reach such a large number of people that we know that fans are capable of following a position just because their idol embodies it (which can be a problem in itself), there’s a big risk around that, of expecting too much from people who are only human beings, with their weaknesses and their faults. I think it’s good and important that certain celebrities use their voices to inform, raise awareness and try to take action. However, whatever the source of the information – a newspaper, a politician or a celebrity – it’s essential to take a step back and keep a critical eye on the positions taken.
It seems to be up to each individual to choose whether to follow only people who take a stand, raise awareness and inform, or people who, in a way, stick to what is theoretically expected of them: entertaining.