The conversation about celebrity and activism is ongoing – should they or shouldn’t they? It seems like celebs who don’t use their reach/fan base as a catalyst for change are considered ignorant and selfish, yet those who are involved in political activity and campaigning are accused of only doing it to look good, or merely inspiring clicktivism. Nevertheless, there are countless celebrities who are committed to charity work and campaigns; in fact the UN currently has at least 175 celebs working as goodwill ambassadors (Bunting, 2010). It is indisputable that celebrity affiliation does grant a broader reach and more efficient information disseminate, but whether or not this relationship is positive is hotly debated.
Perhaps one of the most well known examples of celebrity activism currently is Emma Watson’s UN He for She speech, delivered last year.
This bears strong similarities with Angelina Jolie Pitt’s speech at the biannual African Summit. According to Blay (2015), Jolie Pitt addressed the violence and human rights failures women and girls face globally, everyday.
“Women and girls are bearing the brunt of extremists that revel in treating them barbarically. This is inextricably linked to our overall failure to prevent and end conflicts worldwide, which is causing human suffering on an unprecedented level.”
(Jolie Pitt, as quoted by Bartlett, 2015).
There are also figures such as Jesse Williams, known for weighing in on issues such as police brutality and racism (Rothkopf, 2015). Or, Kristen Bell and husband Dax Shepard, who did not wed until same-sex marriage was legalised, and also led a campaign to stop paparazzi photographing celebrity’s children.
So this all seems pretty harmless, right? Maybe, but there is a dark side to celebrity activism. Often there is an over simplification of issues; grassroots campaigns are demeaned, and valid space for serious policy analysis becomes unnecessarily crowded by celebrigods (Bunting, 2010). According to to Cole et al. (2015), celebrities often de-politicise policy and activism. The complexities of power and socioeconomics are underestimated and celebrities opt for simple, immedate solutions that are usually not effective. But surely, something is better than nothing, right?
Well, that really depends on the issue. In the case of Boko Haram and the #bringbackourgirls movement, perhaps not. 276 school girls were abducted by this terrorist group in Nigeria, Chibok. In less than 3 weeks, this hashtag was used more than 1 million times, by the likes of Cara Delevinge and Michelle Obama (Shearlaw, 2015). Despite this, six months after the kidnapping 219 girls remained captured (Ogene, 2014).
According to Balogun (2014), if you are not Nigerian, you literally cannot make a difference in the activities of Boko Haram. In fact, urging the US military powers to intervene can actually be detrimental to Nigerian people, as “when you pressure Western powers … to get involved in African affairs, and champion military intervention … you become a complicit participant in a military expansionist agenda on the continent of Africa” (Balogun, 2014). Balogun (2014) also explains that by using this hashtag, the US military is given greater legitimacy to expand their military presence in Africa (anyone else getting Iraq War vibes here?). Essentially this hashtag, when supported and spread by celebrities, further encourages paternalistic practices of the US government and military, when it is integral the issue be solved internally.
Thus, celebrities seeking to make a difference must ensure they do not speak half truths that uphold interests of power. A move away from top-down advocacy is essential, and may allow for meaningful socioeconomic change in Africa (Cole et al., 2015). Should this cycle of advocation over simplification be broken, and genuine commitment to and engagement with those who are being advocated for, a welcome step away from the status quo may prosper (Cole et al. 2015). For now, be careful what you hashtag for.
Balogyn, J 2014, ‘Dear Americans, Your Hastags Won’t #BringBackOurGirls; You Might Actually Be Making Things Worse’ Huffington Post, May, viewed 2 September, < http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jumoke-balogun/hashtags-wont-bringbackourgirls_b_5292312.html?ir=Australia>
Bartlette, E 2015, ‘Angelina Jolie’s powerful speech about ending sexual violence against women across the globe’, Independent, June, viewed 3 September 2015, < http://i100.independent.co.uk/article/angelina-jolies-powerful-speech-about-ending-sexual-violence-against-women-across-the-globe–WJ1gVmoIWx>
Blay, Z 2015, ‘Angelina Jolie’s Powerful Speech on What Women Really Need From Men, Huffington Post, June, viewed 2 September, <http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2015/06/15/angelina-jolie-africa-summit_n_7585514.html?ir=Australia>
Bunting, M 2010, ‘The issue of celebrities and aid is deceptively complex’, The Guardian, December, viewed 2 September, < http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2010/dec/17/celebrity-aid-development-bono-brad-pitt>
Cole, G, Radley, B & Falisse, J. B. 2015, ‘What’s missing from celebrity activism in Africa? The people’, The Conversation, July, viewed 3 September, < http://theconversation.com/whats-missing-from-celebrity-activism-in-africa-the-people-44103>
Ogene, A 2014, ‘Abandonment of ‘Bring Back Our Girls’, Aljazeera, October, viewed 2 September 2015, < http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/10/abandonment-bring-back-our-girls-2014101494119446698.html>
Rothkopf, J 2015, ‘“There is nothing ‘black’ about rioting”: Actor Jesse Williams unloads on Baltimore critics in passionate Twitter essay’, Salon, April, viewed 3 September, <http://www.salon.com/2015/04/28/so_exactly_what_kind_of_violence_dont_you_like_actor_jesse_williams_baltimore_rant/>
Shearlaw, M 2015, ‘Did the #bringbackourgirls campaign make a difference in Nigeria?’, The Guardian, April, viewed 3 September < http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/14/nigeria-bringbackourgirls-campaign-one-year-on>