It is almost a truism in modern America that celebrities engage in various causes aimed at overcoming myriad challenges plaguing society. Much of this is accepted and even celebrated. This is not new. Writers in the nineteenth century used their celebrity power to lead charges for alterations in the public sphere. Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Harriett Beecher Stowe loudly supported the abolition of slavery. Mark Twain denounced American imperialism and atrocities in the 1898-1902 wars against Spain during the Filipino insurrection. Twain famously wrote that there are “two kinds of Civilization–one for home consumption and one for the heathen market” and “two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him…then kills him to get his land” (Mark Twain, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” North American Review, February 1901, reprinted in The Freeman, December 14, 1921, pp. 324-27, quote from p. 325).
More recently, celebrities from many arenas have stood for societal change. From Hollywood—such stars as Angelina Jolie, Sean Penn, Robert Redford, Marlin Brando, and many others—to rock’s recording studios—John Mellencamp, Bono, and 50 Cent come to mind—to others famous for being famous—perhaps Paris Hilton and John F. Kennedy Jr. are the best American examples—celebrities have long used their influence to change the world. They have something that others lack, the ability to gain an audience and make a statement to anyone. Their telephone calls are returned, their tweets are re-tweeted, and their causes gain note because of their championing of them.
This is the theme of Mark Wheeler’s theory-infused study, Celebrity Politics: Image and Identity in Contemporary Political Communications. What he seeks to do is to ascertain the significance of the cult of celebrity in the political discourse. Activists, endorsers, diplomats whose fame is predicated on something else are forever working to coalesce divergent beliefs into action. Wheeler spends considerable time focused on the evolution of this phenomenon. He emphasizes the place of “celebrity politicians” (Sarah Palin comes to mind) and “politicized stars” (think George Clooney or Alec Baldwin) in this mix of activities. One might rate their effectiveness—what Wheeler calls their “affective capacity” to energize actions—as the core element they bring to a cause.
Let me suggest that there are arguably two types of activists, and while many are of one type few are known for the other. The first type is the celebrity as do-gooder writ large. Most of the people mentioned thus far are in that category. Unless there is some scandal associated with their charitable activities, and that occasionally happens, these people are universally praised for their civic-mindedness and efforts to “give back to the community.” These individuals, for all of their positive attributes, do not challenge power but rather they embrace it. Unlike Mark Twain, they are more likely to appear in photos with political leaders than to call them out in any meaningful way.
The second type of activist is more like Mark Twain, a persistent and powerful voice for change that questions the power structure and demands a fundamental restructuring of society. They are revolutionaries rather than reformers. John Lennon, as an example, was a different type of activist. He called out those who occupied the corridors of power to “give peace a chance” and to “imagine” a world without countries, war, or oppression.
Celebrity politicians of this sort tend to be shut out of the process of reform over time. That is one of the reasons why when a celebrity activist articulates sophisticated criticism of the status quo, regardless of the purpose, it is such a delight to journalists and such a threat to those minding the power structure.
Wheeler’s book is a strong analysis of many of these themes. It is jargon-laden and heavy sledding much of the way, but well worth the energy required to understand its sophisticated argument.