Last week, Jennifer Aniston wrote an article condemning the media for incessant speculation about the state of her uterus. The letter was originally posted on The Huffington Post, then quickly picked up by numerous online news outlets and covered on several entertainment shows.
The irony in the media coverage of Aniston’s letter complaining about media scrutiny of celebrities who are dogged by media is obvious, but none of these outlets addressed it. There was also no acknowledgement of the fact that the legions of fans who jumped to Aniston’s defense are also probably the ones whose demand for photos of her leads to the profit media outlets gain by supplying them.
Aniston’s letter got me thinking about election season and the active role celebrities have played in endorsing, fundraising, and critiquing candidates. Of particular interest to me is celebrity culture’s almost universal support for liberal politics. In the country overall, Democratic and Republican supporters are almost evenly split (though a far larger number identify as independent). Why is Hollywood different?
Some generally accepted facts:
- Celebrities tend to make a lot of money
- The average person does not
- Celebrities rely on large fan bases to maintain their fame and income
- Their fan bases are made up of people who do not make nearly as much money as them
- Celebrity culture is dominantly liberal
It’s unlikely there’s a conspiracy here, but there is a clear pattern. More plainly put, it’s convenient for wealthy celebrities to claim liberalism. The hypocrisy of hyper wealthy celebrities attacking the one percent and positioning themselves on the side of ending income inequality is laughable. But what would happen if they didn’t? Would people turn on celebrities if they did not at least pretend to oppose income inequality?
Publicity is the grimy oil of the entertainment business and it would be naïve to think celebrities do not consider public image when making public political statements. Evidence that an entertainer’s personal political beliefs have an impact on public support for them and their products is growing.
A study published in American Politics Research discovered that participants were not politically affected by celebrity endorsements, but that knowing a celebrity’s political beliefs impacted their opinion of the celebrity as a person. A Hollywood Reporter poll revealed an actor’s personal political beliefs would impact whether people paid to see them in a movie. In the survey, 52 percent of Republicans and 36 percent of Democrats said they had previously chosen not to watch a movie because of a star’s political beliefs.
Producer Rob Long believes celebrities are more likely to lean Democratic because they view “membership in the Democratic Party as sort of your bonafides as a good person.”
Susan Sarandon, Neil Young, and Mark Ruffalo were avid Bernie Sanders supporters. They have net worths of $50 million, $65 million, and $20 million respectively. They are the one percent, the starkest examples of the banality of income inequality.
Just because they are wealthy does not mean, of course, that their support of Sanders was contrived, but it raises questions, namely: Can a rich person truly advocate for the redistribution of wealth while hanging on to millions of dollars?
The principle applies to everyone who cares about making the world better. Most people have moments where they question how they can possibly spend any money on themselves when there are so many unmet needs in the world. It’s a harder question to ignore when the person in question is a millionaire entertainer.
Yet despite this contradiction, the entertainment industry has positioned itself as anti-capitalist, an industry on the side of the underprivileged, impoverished, and middle class. Walter E. Williams points out that anger toward corporations for exorbitant executive salaries fails to acknowledge celebrity earnings are far higher than most businessmen. In 2011, the average earning of the country’s 10 top earning CEOs was $43 million, while top celebrities average $100 million.
Tina Fey is one of the few insiders who have openly questioned this positioning. After the Oscars (filled with thirty second acceptance speeches criticizing the many injustices in the world) she asked, “Why are you all yelling at me about corporate greed? You’re all so rich, like what’s happening?”
The most cynical view of these political endorsements is to perceive them as diversionary tactics, designed to distract the average person from the pointless wealth of celebrities.
A pair of studies from North Carolina State University found celebrity endorsements did not do much to help candidates, but could hurt politicians depending on public perception of the celebrity doing the endorsing. In another study at California State University, Fullerton it was discovered that young adults (presumably the most celebrity obsessed demographic) did not trust celebrity endorsements, preferring the advice of family and friends. Similarly, a study at Sussex University found that celebrities who become spokespersons for charities often receive more positive benefits than the charities themselves.
Research shows these words are helpful for the celebrity—not the causes the celebrity is supposedly trying to benefit. However committed celebrities may or may not be to liberal causes, their actions speak louder than their words. No one has liquidated their assets and given them entirely to the poor, charity, or government programs. Many continue to actively evade taxes.
“Celebrity politics must not only be seen to have social value, but needs to provide the conditions through which a transformation in democratic behavior may occur,” Mark Wheeler, the author of Celebrity Politics, says. He argues celebrities should be defined by their “affective capacity,” which he defines as their ability to move beyond political rhetoric to actually working to incite change.
Perhaps if the legions of fans whose support finances the lifestyles of the rich and famous decide nice words are not enough to justify the existence of an elite entertaining class, this capacity might be fully realized.