The Woes of Celebrity Activism

On the rise of commodified philanthropy, consumerism, and capitalistic stardom.

Kim Kardashian West wears several hats—she is a television personality, a businesswoman, and, more recently, an activist. Explaining her current involvement with criminal justice reform, Kardashian said, “I’d gotten to the place in my life where I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to do the right thing.” Be it freeing dozens of prisoners serving harsh sentences for petty crimes, her relentless lobbying of former President Trump on prison reform, negotiating with governors and legislators, or helping fund the 90 Days of Freedom Campaign, Kardashian has been successful in more ways than one. But she is also an international sensation, and her feature-length documentary along with a Spotify deal, presumably covering her work on social justice issues, compels one to ask: is the documentary, the various partnerships, the glamourised photoshoots for her activism all a part of her big heart and altruistic nature, or are they covertly a means to advance her brand? 

Even in seemingly selfless acts of philanthropy, there are often stinking trails of personal gain. With the enormous support of Kardashian, Alice Johnson, a first-time offender in a drug trafficking case who was given a life sentence in prison, was granted clemency and her freedom. Interestingly, this ‘genuine’ act also turned out to be the touching finale of season 15 of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, her family’s reality TV show that has continued for 20 seasons. Kardashian posted heavily about Johnson during the season until the finale. Curiously, there was no mention of it afterwards.

Activism by celebrities has become one of the many acts they are supposed to perform as a form of virtue signalling. Not only do public figures need to show what good craftsmen they may be, they also need to prove what good people they are. It earns them money and it entertains the public. In the past, celebrities had to excel at, or achieve something to become famous, they now must also perform their achievements (through activism or charity) to retain their fame. Such performative activism allows them to remain oblivious to their privilege and also earn them the recognition of being “on the right side of history”, the exact words of global pop star Taylor Swift who became vocal about her political beliefs in 2017. Swift was heavily criticized for her notorious silence in the 2016 American elections,  and her unclear stand led the white supremacists to appropriate her as an “Aryan Goddess” which proved to be severely damaging to her image. Swift’s drawing of political conscience is the central arc of the Miss Americana documentary that paints her as somebody who broke her silence on politics despite several obstacles. But in reality, she was on the brink of becoming irrelevant because at the time every celebrity had lent their voice. Taylor Swift was too late in the game. Miss Americana is an interesting look at a woman pop star in the music industry but it also serves only one person and her image. 

Such self-serving activism, which doesn’t involve any level of introspection, keeps the system that celebrities are protesting against, intact. Actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas who has endorsed fairness creams for most of her career, posted ‘I can’t breathe’ on her Instagram last year as a way to condemn the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis—an unarmed 46-year-old black man who was kneed to death by a law enforcement officer. This betrays a lack of self-awareness of her own questionable conduct in the form of the products she advertises. Her open condemnation of racism and police brutality seemed disingenuous given her stone silence when her home country was recently engulfed by violence around the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act. Indian film actors often find it convenient to advocate for issues that are happening in a distant land, retweeting and resharing countless messages expressing how shocked and heartbroken they are by the injustice happening in the world while keeping completely mum about the injustice and violence outside their very mansions. 

The above examples are by no means a complete condemnation of celebrity activism which has been beneficial and can generate good results. But it is also a complicated phenomenonalways bordering on an understated hypocrisy. The history of celebrity goes back to the 18th-19th centuries, as new modes of communication such as large scale print culture and image reproduction came into existence. In some ways, celebrities became a product of industrialisation as well-known figures were regularly seen in newspapers, magazines, and the likes. The mechanised production of such outlets democratised visual access to famous faces. 

Celebrities were faced with an inevitable paradox in the face of the increasing power of the media—to appear like ‘normal’ people while still being above them. P. David Marshall’s book Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture argues precisely how modern capitalism promotes figures who can be seen as part of the crowd but are also sufficiently articulated as individuals. The celebrities are at once larger-than-life and next-door neighbours. They can maintain their ‘aura’ without sacrificing their mundane ‘authenticity.’ The concept of individuality, which forms “the ideological grounds of Western culture”, also lays the groundwork for the notion of celebrity. In an exceedingly capitalistic society that prefers and prioritizes individualism, celebrities are characterized as transcendent beings. Their seemingly ideal life explains why they hold agency as role models. Richard Dyer’s star theory explores the idea of celebrities as institutionally manufactured commodities that represent ‘real people’ experiencing real emotions. Celebrities are real people, but celebritiesas they exist in the mediaare also brands with economic value that sell entertainment, endorse products, and even market an authentic image. Their brand further bleeds into philanthropic and political causes. Stars grapple with balancing their individual choices and interests, public expectations, and the capitalist industry network they constitute and seek to distinguish themselves from. 

These interests may not always fall into clean, demarcated lines. At a BeautyCon event in Los Angeles, Ayesha Malik, a person in the audience, confronted Priyanka Chopra Jonas for her tweet, “Jai Hind #Indian Armed Forces”, which was meant to show solidarity with the Indian Army-led Balakot airstrike in Pakistan as a response to the Pulwama suicide attack. Accusing Chopra of “encouraging nuclear war”, Malik called her a “hypocrite” since she served as the UN Ambassador for Peace. Replying to her in a patronizing tone, Chopra asked if Malik was done “venting” and went on to say that war was not something she was proud of, but that she was nevertheless “patriotic.” In a recent interview with The Guardian, Chopra said that “there should be a bifurcation between people who actually make the laws and influencers.” On being asked whether her tweet was an instance of her using her influence irresponsibly or simply expressing an honest individual opinion, Chopra’s publicist answered on her behalf, “Simon, if we could move on, that would be ideal. I don’t want to put Priyanka in a position where she answers in a way that would jeopardize our relationship with her philanthropic partners.” Chopra, when pressed further, said, “I consider myself as apolitical as can be. I prefer to be a humanitarian. Perhaps Chopra’s preference to be apolitical could be attributed to the fact that her brand image as the Peace Ambassador may fall into jeopardy should she reveal an ideological leaning.

The association between celebrity and activism, thus, happens in the public view and under the scrutiny of the media. Given the attention celebrities garner, it is not surprising that they try to associate with a good cause since it produces public approval and translates into endorsements, entertainment projects, awards, and positive media exposure. Charity might be deemed yet another way of generating capital for public figures. With their enormous traction on social media, celebrities can draw the public’s attention away from the structural inequality propounded by the neoliberal policies upon which their very construction rests. Consider the case of Hollywood sensation Scarlett Johansson, also the global ambassador for Oxfam, a global charitable entity. Her star power was both conducive to her fame and crucial to Oxfam, with Johansson serving as a poster girl for the organisation. Campaigning for female literacy, visiting schools in Sri Lanka and India that Oxfam had reconstructed following the 2004 Tsunami, Johanson gained huge public appreciation. 

However, she also was engaging in commercial endorsements, one of them being with SodaStream—manufacturers of domestic soft drinks machines and it was here she found herself embroiled in controversy. Oxfam opposes Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land in the West Bank, believing Israeli ‘settlements’ there to be illegal and that they ‘further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights.’ Thus, it opposes trade with companies operating from occupied Palestinian territory. SodaStream housed a factory in this location which created a conflict of interest and the controversy ended with the Hollywood actress choosing Sodastream over Oxfam. Johansson was soon dubbed ‘Ambassador of Oppression.’

Is it possible for celebrities to bridge the gap between the act of giving and the pursuit of economic self-interest? Is it possible to resolve the antinomy between charity and capitalism? Celebrity activism has thus morphed into philanthrocapitalism—the endorsement of products to fund good causes. It aims to harness maximum profit to achieve social good. The idea is that business is good for charity. While philanthrocapitalism can prove to be helpful in making resources available and financially backing  worthy causes, the idea in itself seems a little troubling. Instead of engaging in or fostering different ways to deal with the crisis at hand, the objective is to change the world through shopping and in turn, commodify the crisis itself. A classic instance being that of Irish singer-songwriter Bono, who established a campaign called Product (RED) in 2006 with Bobby Shriver that aimed to donate corporate profits to fund AIDS prevention programs in Africa. The manifesto of Product (RED) explicitly stated that the campaign was a “business model.” Associated with brands like Apple and Gap, Product (RED) was convinced to change the world through consumer power and consumer spending. Mr Bono sincerely believed, and wanted the public to believe, that by buying an iPhone, they were treating HIV in Africa. But he never considered that the plight of Africans might have more to do with complex historical processes and endless exploitation by the West to serve their consumers as he intended to do. In the light of this, Bono’s answer to treat HIV not only looks unreliable but even slightly counterproductive. 

Activism by celebrities like Bono, nevertheless, continues to incite polarised reactions from the public. As the lines between newspaper and tiktok continue to blur in the age of spectacle, celebrities’ grip over the public imagination also tightens. They seamlessly permeate every area of modern life; seep and enter into our most intimate spaces. They mirror our personhood but also sustain an illusion; they are our everyday companions but forever out of reach. Their life is played out like a television show in front of everyone as the public debates, anticipates, cries, and laughs over their stories. We continue to be fascinated and disgusted by their existence, perpetually entrapped in their snare.  As much as we enjoy their rise, we also crave their fall. 

Shanna Jain
Shanna is pursuing her Masters in English Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. In her free time, she is either deconstructing a film or listening to Taylor Swift.