By Connie Kwong
While fans rejoiced at Leonardo DiCaprio’s Golden Globe win for Best Actor in a Drama for The Revenant last Sunday, no one expected what the actor would declare in his acceptance speech:
“I want to share this award with all the First Nations people represented in this film and all the indigenous communities around the world. It is time we recognize your history and protect your indigenous lands from corporate interests and people who are out there to exploit them.”
Many applauded DiCaprio’s call for justice, but his words were not immune to criticism. By speaking out about indigenous people’s rights, DiCaprio made an explicitly political statement during an event intended to celebrate the film industry’s achievements.
It’s no secret that Hollywood is a stronghold for progressive politics, but the main criticism against statements like DiCaprio’s is that celebrities simply should not be pundits. For instance, last year’s Academy Awards made headlines because many of the winners’ acceptance speeches were likewise politically charged. After all, the occupational division of labor tells us that actors act, and politicians politic. With all the current political tension, can’t we simply enjoy entertainment for its entertainment value? What business do wealthy A-listers who don’t hold office have in advocating for causes that don’t affect them personally?
Frankly, these are weakly-founded criticisms. They ignore history, and they ignore the realities of a pluralistic society. Regardless of one’s political leanings, we can’t deny that celebrities are people, too. And while their lives are dramatically different from ours, it would be naïve and fallacious to claim that celebrities exist completely separate from society. The movies they act in, the sports they play, and all the other things they do have always existed in and engaged with a world connected by mass media, mass culture, and most importantly, mass politics.
Celebrities are not neutral figures. Our own fascinations with fame and glamour created the concept of “celebrity” in the first place. We’re curious to know who they are and what they think, and are therefore partly responsible for giving them the platform to share their views. Brands like Nike, Chanel, and Clinique capitalize on this by seeking out actors and athletes for endorsements and brand ambassadorships, because they know that people want to emulate the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Tabloid magazines are rife with celebrity quotes on every topic under the sun, political or not.
Regardless of our tendency toward hero worship, celebrities, like all other citizens, should care about politics and current events. The fact that they do is not a new phenomenon. Many older viewers probably saw parallels between DiCaprio’s speech and Marlon Brando’s refusal to accept his 1973 Oscar for Best Actor in protest of Hollywood’s poor treatment of Native Americans. Likewise, Jane Fonda’s vocal opposition to the Vietnam War, Yoko Ono’s environmental and world peace advocacy, and John Legend’s contributions to the movie Selma are all prime examples of famous people championing political causes. Furthermore, a paper from the Brookings Institute points out that more than ten percent of Americans get their political news from late-night shows like The Tonight Show and The Daily Show, which frequently host celebrity guests. For those under age thirty, the figure is even higher at nearly half the population. In other words, popular culture doesn’t only exist in the context of entertainment. It’s also shaped by our values and politics.
And the truth is that there’s always been some sort of exchange between the star spotlight and the political spotlight. For instance, during the height of 1950s McCarthyism, hundreds of actors, directors, and other film industry professionals were blacklisted on suspicions of communist affiliation. But over time, this exchange has become much less antagonistic, and perhaps even symbiotic, as evidenced by celebrities-turned-politicians. Ronald Reagan was an actor and president of the Screen Actors’ Guild before he was Governor of California and President of the United States, Arnold Schwarzenegger recently served as Governor of California, and the current mayor of Sacramento is former NBA All-Star point guard Kevin Johnson. And we’d be mistaken to overlook the fact that, conversely, we’ve also projected celebrity status onto many politicians. Consider the American public’s love for Joe Biden’s antics, the Kennedy family’s popularity, and the world being smitten with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s good looks.
But like the rest of the political landscape, celebrity politics isn’t clean-cut, nor is it exempt from criticism. There’s a valid concern that celebrities-turned-politician and celebrities donating to political candidates are further evidence of how the wealthy unfairly dominate politics. Many celebrities have also used their status as a platform to spread bigotry (Exhibit A: Donald Trump). Although DiCaprio’s speech did deserve positive feedback, it was also a classic example of how many people only start caring about a cause once a celebrity has given it their support, after years of ignoring non-celebrity activists. While we can applaud the fact that celebrities can use their status to spread awareness about important issues, one journalist of aboriginal descent wrote about DiCaprio’s speech: “Sometimes it takes a white person to speak for us, to bring our stories to the world. It is sad but still true.”
Influence and politics have always been embedded in each other’s processes. There are plenty of instances in which stars leverage their fame, power, and privilege for good causes. However, celebrity politics demonstrates that we must be critical and skeptical of how celebrities’ fame, power, and privilege can shape or skew our understanding of complex political issues. After all, politics is an inherently performative field that depends heavily upon presentation. As Ronald Reagan once famously said to his political consultant, “Politics is just like show business. You have a hell of an opening, coast for a while, and then have a hell of a close.” No wonder they call it “political theater.”