It’s Oscar time and once again actors are using the awards show to make points about American culture. From the wage gap to racial issues, the Oscars were packed with political and social commentary this year. But with these impassioned speeches, there always comes backlash. It always begs the question, should these people who are not politicians or by any means experts in their issues of choice, be talking about these issues at all? Many discredit them because they’re actors. Hollywood responds in kind to these allegations with their own refutations, but what neither side really seems to appreciate is the context in which the actors make their points.
It’s a bit pedantic to debate whether celebrities, from sports figures to movie stars, should be speaking– if it’s an abuse of power, or if what they’re saying will reach anyone important– because they will always have the means to speak to millions of people. A more interesting question then, is what does it mean to be a celebrity speaking about social issues? Many stars fail to understand that their inherent fame is not sufficient for many people to care about what they are saying. It’s entirely fair for people to question the validity of celebrities when it comes to opinions outside of their expertise. Hollywood culture in the eyes of the American public is defined by a set of preconceived notions; they are assumed to have a liberal agenda, they are assumed to be wealthy urbanites with a lot of money and free time, and most importantly they are assumed to exist within their own privileged bubble. The only way for a celebrity to reach people outside of their urbanite echo chamber is to carefully study what it means to be part of Hollywood, and subvert those expectations; they must establish an ethos surrounding the idea that they are more complex than the image that Americans construct when talking about stardom.
Look at Ashton Kutcher for example. Recently Kutcher went to Congress to speak on the role of technology in human trafficking. He made it apparent that he understands how to use his status to make a point. He says, “I’ve been on FBI raids where I’ve seen things no person should ever see… I’ve been on the other end of a phone call from my team, asking for my help because we had received a call from the Department of Homeland Security telling us that a seven year-old girl was being sexually abused and that content was being spread around the dark web and she was being abused and they watched her for three years and could not find the perpetrator, asking us for help… an actor and his foundation.” I highly recommend you watch the entire video; I was surprised at the quality of Kutcher’s speech. Kutcher does two critical things that separate him from other actors with social causes. First, he makes sure to acknowledge that he is an actor, which highlights the audience’s preconceived notions of who he is. Second, he subverts the idea that he is a part of the Hollywood bubble by establishing an active role in the field. Crafting an ethos is an ancient speaking practice, and Kutcher establishes his identity quickly. His acute awareness about what it means to be an actor in the modern era benefits his cause.
Compare this to speech given by Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes. The speech generated a lot of press due in large part to the negative responses of people who are critical of Hollywood culture. Streep tries to define Hollywood as a complex amalgamation of ethnicity and class, but fails to transcend Hollywood elitism when she claims that if you kick out immigrants Hollywood would be empty and all we would be able to watch is football and MMA, which are “not the arts.” She then goes on to talk about how she watched the events of the election unfold. Her attack/argument falls flat because she does not convince anyone that she is an active player. She’s passive. She talks about her own feelings, she talks about what she saw on TV and she gives a bit of a cookie-cutter response. To me it feels like she’s speaking from an ivory tower. Don’t get me wrong, I love Meryl Streep– she’s a great actor– but she kind of whines about her feelings for a bit and then tells us there are dangerous people out there. She talks about privilege, class, and race, which let’s be honest, is pretty ironic. The result was a polarizing public response. People who agreed with Streep came out to defend her speech, and for some reason made her out to be a hero for using her spotlight to talk about social issues, while those who disagreed with Streep fairly and easily dismissed her speech as more Hollywood mumbo jumbo. She didn’t really say anything that had a particular effect.
Ultimately, those in the public eye, from news anchors to journalists to athletes to actors, often fail to understand that their ability to reach millions of people must be put in context. Whether their main goal is to gain viewership, sway public opinion or be considered a trusted source, they must understand that they are placed within a population that has preconceived notions about their positions. Apathy or lack of awareness toward what it means to be a public figure in American culture has left many celebrities unable to change the minds of many Americans. For anyone to take advantage of the platform given to them, it’s not enough to assume that what they have to say is valid. The debate over whether celebrities should speak on social issues is pointless. We would be better off discussing both what it means to be a celebrity, and how they make use of their ability to reach millions of people. Celebrities can talk about social issues just because they are celebrities, but being heard is a privilege. This is an assumption they need to overcome before they can sway anyone’s opinion.
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