On Screen and the Political Scene

By Zach Montas
Spring 2017

Lately, it’s impossible to escape politics. Even in entertainment — normally a respite from the constant flow of news — we cannot avoid opinions on the great injustices of society.

Most celebrity news is frivolous, but the media coverage it gets suggests it’s important, and when celebrities get political, it’s covered more than the news that actually affects people.

As comedian Dave Chappelle joked, no one cares what someone like Ja Rule has to say in a time like this; however, celebrities are bringing up politics more and more frequently. In early 2016 the only topics I heard about were Donald Trump and Kanye West. Now the two have collided, with messages on Twitter and meetings at Trump Tower.

In the country’s polarized state, this omnipresent political dialogue causes controversy. From Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech, to Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem, to Kanye West’s emergence as an unapologetic Trump supporter, when celebrities use their wide reach to say something controversial, it riles people up.

Although celebrities’ large audiences may imply that they have significant influence on public beliefs, Robert Thompson, Director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University, disagrees.

“Celebrities speak out about a political issue, and it changes the minds of people not about that political issue, but about that celebrity,” Thompson said.

I had my own reckoning with this, when Kanye, one of my favorite musicians and personalities, went off about how he didn’t vote but that if he had, it would have been for Trump. Ignoring the fact that Kanye didn’t vote, I was hurt that someone I respected was endorsing policies I vehemently disagreed with. I tried to defend him but eventually resigned myself to the fact that he is just as crazy as people say.

Of course, I still regularly bump Pablo. How could I not? I can enjoy his art without sharing his views. Celebrities can have their say, and I can ignore them.

MPH senior Liam Meisner can relate. He’s a fan of Sir Christopher Lee, known for playing Saruman in the “Lord of the Rings” movies. Before his death in 2015, Lee supported the British Conservative Party, whose policies Meisner opposes.

“I love his acting, so I’m not going to let [his beliefs] get in the way of my appreciation for him,” Meisner said.

Conservative senior Lisa Morocco agrees.

“If I have a political opinion, I do not look to a celebrity to agree with me or to learn about the topic that I’m interested in,” she said. “If a celebrity agrees with what I think, it’s just another person who feels the same way I do.”

It seems these students’ opinions are more level-headed than those of the general public. Compare the responses to the halftime performances at the past two Super Bowls. Beyoncé’s 2016 performance was contentious, generating both praise and rebuke for her unambiguously pro-black message.

In 2017, Lady Gaga’s performance was lauded contradictingly on both sides. Some loved it for its seemingly LGBTQ-positive message, while others loved it all the same for remaining apolitical. Some thought what little statement she made was still too much, but I found the performance very mild.

Tomi Lahren, former conservative commentator for The Blaze, rejoiced at Gaga’s lack of politics. “Yes, [Lady Gaga] has political opinions, but on Super Bowl Sunday, America’s game day, Lady Gaga chose to keep her political opinions and/or distaste for the president to herself,” she said. “How about a round of applause, a hallelujah, and a ‘Thank you Jesus.’” Lahren then contrasted her praise for Gaga with her criticism of “Mrs. Drug-Dealers-Anonymous, Beyoncé ‘Black Panther’ Knowles,” whose halftime show Lahren despised.

According to Thompson, there are three layers to the reasons behind criticism of celebrities talking politics. The first and most significant is a disagreement with what the celebrity says. The second is a disconnect between what the celebrity is known for and the topic they’re discussing; it’s jarring when someone who typically doesn’t engage in politics speaks out. The third reason is context: a celebrity endorsing a political candidate at a campaign rally is expected; the Super Bowl or the Oscars are not inherently political functions.

This criticism manifests most often, as Lahren demonstrated, with people denouncing celebrities for talking about a hot topic. Following Thompson’s theory, because celebrities tend to lean left, the criticism most often comes from conservatives. There is a caricature of the “Hollywood elite” mocking liberal celebrities for speaking out on social issues despite being much wealthier than much of the population. The idea is that celebrities are out of touch and therefore shouldn’t speak out at all.

Of course, as with anyone else, when a celebrity says something inane they should be ignored or countered with a better argument. MPH history teacher Edward Curtis said in his U.S. Citizenship class, “The great thing about this country has always been the freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and that means freedom to express your opinion, even if it’s not a very well-thought-out opinion.”

Celebrities can give their opinion, and others can comment on it.

One of the most infamous examples of the implications of free speech is the Hollywood Ten during the 1940s and 1950s. Cold War fear-mongering brought more than 40 prominent filmmakers before the House Un-American Activities Committee for leftist sympathies. Most complied and sought leniency, but 10 stood up to the charges on the grounds that the First Amendment allowed them to support any political party they wished. They were cited for contempt of Congress, sentenced to a year in prison, and blackballed from the industry.

Like the Hollywood Ten, celebrities have historically leaned left. Athletes like Muhammad Ali, writers like James Baldwin, singers like Madonna, and artists like Keith Haring have engaged in sociopolitical movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Vietnam War effort, and HIV activism. Modern celebrities are similarly engaged.

There have been many different responses to the statements and actions of celebrities. Right-wing political minds such as Lahren, the staff of Breitbart, and President Donald Trump act as if any outspoken liberal is a communist sympathizer who is personally assaulting their existence by saying “Black lives matter” or “We are all immigrants.” Just like anyone else, celebrities have the right to free speech, and we lack the reciprocal right to choose our sources of political commentary. At the same time, the neoliberal response of acting like a celebrity is revolutionary for saying “Love trumps hate” is also annoying.

The nonstop updates on new political developments, celebrity endorsements, and opinions from both sides of the aisle can be exhausting, but the subjects fascinate me. Politics is inherently divisive. There would be no discussion or development if everyone agreed with one another. While I tire of constantly hearing about it, I understand its significance. These events shape today’s world, and celebrity engagement can make people feel represented or isolated.

While some celebrities may be out of touch, they have the same right to free speech as others. We have the same freedom to say how we feel about their statements. In an open democracy, both celebrity commentary and criticism thereof should be encouraged in order to present the greatest diversity of thought possible. Differences in opinion shouldn’t be the cause of arguments but learning opportunities for both sides.