The Trump-era culture wars reached a new peak in the US over the last week as the latest Republican health-care bill reinvigorated the debate about whether it’s all right for late-night host Jimmy Kimmel to weigh in on policy, and President Donald Trump threw a profane temper tantrum over Colin Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence.
In the midst of America’s first reality-television presidency, it’s worth asking: What obligations do we think celebrities have by virtue of being celebrities? And what do those expectations say not just about the stars and athletes who refuse to conform to them, but about us?
It’s easy to think of fame and celebrity as qualities that exist in a closed, self-perpetuating environment. When you become famous, you often have opportunities to become wealthy, and then you have incentives to stay famous so you will be able to continue to make exceptionally large amounts of money, and so on.
If you play in the NFL, perhaps you hope to maintain your wealth and fame so you’ll be able to find a second career as a broadcaster, or as someone involved in meaningful community work once your playing days are done (especially now that more players are choosing to retire at younger ages). If you’re an artist, maybe building a solid base of celebrity allows you to keep moving from one project to the next, or to transition from acting to directing or running a television show.
For lots of us, this probably sounds like a better career challenge than most. It’s also a limited one. Money is an absolutely wonderful thing, but at a certain point, many famous people will have more of it than they ever need. Professional sports or acting, even in a demanding role such as late-night host, takes up only so much of your time and so many years of your life.
Given the finite things it’s possible to do with fame and celebrity if your only interest is in continuing to stay rich and famous, is it really so surprising that some stars choose to spend some of their celebrity even in circumstances where there’s little possible chance of recouping it?
If you have an extraordinarily large platform and deeply held convictions, after a while it might start to feel more wasteful – not to mention hypocritical – to keep silent than to speak up even at risk of losing some of your influence.
When people complain that it’s somehow against the natural order of things for a late-night host or a football player to make a political statement, they’re talking about the way that celebrity functions for them.
They’re essentially arguing that they want famous people to anaesthetise and distract them, and that anything that disrupts their entertainment is a grave affront.
If an artist takes a stand, their position can force audiences to confront the truth that real ideas inform their favourite art, even if they’d rather not acknowledge them. If an athlete takes a knee during the anthem, it might suggest that football, basketball or baseball isn’t, in fact, that player’s sole reason for being.
And if a celebrity is willing to alienate some of their fans to speak up about what they truly believe, that breaks the imagined contract between stars and their fans – the one that suggests that the famous person needs the people who worship them just as much as their fans need them.
Fans’ response tends to reveal as much about them as it does about the stars they suddenly see in a new light. Are we really so wedded to the roles we’ve assigned celebrities in our minds that we can’t take it when they diverge from them ever so slightly? Are we really so limited that we’d suggest that it’s fine for a very famous person to use their celebrity to promote athletic-wear or Nespresso, but not ideas?
If we are, what does that say with our own obsession with commerce and wealth over intellectual substance and personal honesty? And when it comes to issues like the NFL’s national anthem protests, why do some observers insist on the least-charitable interpretations of what athletes are doing rather than listening to what they actually have to say?
As long as Trump is president, and as long as he’s more skilled at stirring the culture wars than governing the country, these kinds of bitter debates are likely to continue. As they continue to flare up, it might be comforting to pontificate about what actors and athletes ought to be doing instead of making statements.
It’s certainly easier than the introspection that might show us that what we want from our favourite stars doesn’t make us look so good.
The Washington Post