Approximately 4.6 million Americans participated in the Women’s March last Saturday, and many a well-known celebrity walked among them. Lena Dunham, Katy Parry, Rihanna, Charlize Theron, Chelsea Handler, James Franco, Mandy Moore, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gina Rodriguez, John Legend, Miley Cyrus and Jessica Chastain were all in attendance.
Each and every one of these celebrities posted an Instagram broadcasting their presence, which begs the old tree-in-the-forest question: if a celebrity protested in the Women’s March and didn’t ‘gram it, was he or she even there??
Sorry if that sounds cynical. I’ve been thinking a lot about activism in the age of social media and its maddeningly complex implications for the relationship between “entertainer” and “role model” — especially in light of the shade that got thrown by and at celebrities vis-a-vis Women’s March participation. The most blaring example is the controversy around Taylor Swift’s tweet:
A stream of criticism poured out in response:
thanks for your endorsement in the presidential race!!! https://t.co/gfBjWjFdPY
— Audrey Gelman (@audreygelman) January 21, 2017
In addition to this flood of twitter rage, Jenni Konner shared an Instagram praising Katy Perry and simultaneously side-eyeing the rarity of a pop star who gets down and dirty in the trenches of political activism. Comments @-ing Taylor Swift flooded in below the post. I had the same thought before I even scrolled through them: Was Jenni subtly throwing shade at Taylor, a “pop star” (and close friend of Lena Dunham, or so I thought) who has remained comparatively mum on politics?
This brouhaha leads to a whole slew of subsequent questions: If people got mad at Taylor for speaking out in support of the March without physically marching, would they have been even more furious if she said nothing at all? Have celebrities like Lena Dunham, who took time off from her film and acting career to campaign full-time for Hillary Clinton, or Meryl Streep, who delivered a rousing anti-Trump speech at the Golden Globes, set an expectation for celebrity activism in which simply dipping your toe into the pool with a supportive tweet is considered half-assed?
Dunham and Streep have reminded us — rightfully so — that celebrities aren’t here on this Earth to entertain us like monkeys. They are human beings with real opinions and enormous platforms with which to amplify them. The privilege of having these platforms comes with a certain degree of responsibility, but does it also come with obligation? Many, I’m sure, would answer yes.
What irks me is how often that obligation seems to be pinned on women, which is doubly complex considering the particular vulnerability of female celebrities’ public “image”: Be pretty, but not alienating. Be a feminist, but not too aggressive about it. Be political, but also widely appealing. Be normal, but also aspirational. Entertain me, clown(!), but also express a potentially divisive opinion that might estrange half your fan base in a very public way!
I understand that people are frustrated with Taylor Swift for seemingly picking and choosing the women’s rights movement when it’s convenient or cute (i.e. “girl squad”) and never actually getting her hands dirty (i.e. campaigning or marching), but when is the last time someone said the same about Leonardo DiCaprio and the environment or George Clooney and Darfur?
We live in a very interesting time where both fame and activism have unprecedentedly viral potential, not to mention an opportunity for personal branding — gross as that may sound. But if we are going to continue policing which celebrities do or don’t use their platforms for social justice, or who’s being genuine and who’s not, we better start considering how gender plays into our judgment.
Photo via Getty Images.