Posted by Jessica Elisberg
| September 25, 2007
I attended a panel discussion this morning on the topic of celebrity diplomacy, and it gave me some food for thought. In the past few years, celebrities like Bono and Angelina Jolie have been gracing the covers of magazines not for their accomplishments as artists, but for their accomplishments as activists on global issues. This isn't a new phenomenon, of course - before the Live 8 or the MTV specials in Kenya, Audrey Hepburn was traveling to Ethiopia for UNICEF and Princess Diana was calling attention to landmines in Angola. But there seems to be a trend of increasing celebrity participation in world affairs. Is this a good thing?
On one hand, because of their status as public figures, celebrities have the ability to draw attention to causes that ordinary citizens can’t easily achieve. I applaud celebrities who use their power with the media for a cause other than their own ego, and it’s even better when they back up their words with funds. Actors, musicians, and professional athletes have a global reach, so combining that with a sense of purpose makes a powerful tool for change. These people also have the power of popular appeal through their crafts – music, cinema, and sport appeal to our emotions in a way that scholars and diplomats can’t.
On the other hand, why are celebrities suddenly becoming the authority on issues like poverty and AIDS? Most of them have very little personal experience or education on the subjects they address, and there is a whole industry involving the grooming of celebrities as spokespeople for issues that they may know very little about. While their public image brings attention to a problem during their two-day stopover in a refugee camp or hospital, what happens to all those people who have been working their whole lives on solutions, and what happens to the people who don’t have the option of hopping on a plane to leave the camp or hospital?
It makes me wonder whether there should be limits to celebrity advocacy. For example, is it really appropriate for actors to make speeches about their political ideals while accepting an award for a role in a movie? And then there is this trend of “celebritizing” politics: the upcoming US presidential race seems to be more and more dominated by people who have the right kind of style, leaving very little room for those who have the right kind of experience. Are we making our society better by increasing popular appeal and participation in politics and global issues, or are we setting a dangerous precedent by handing over the reigns to a bunch of actors?