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12 May 2011, 12:00 pm No Comments

Not Your Average Prom Queen: Full-Time Celebrity, Part-Time Revolutionary

This post was submitted by Jean

Activist and musician Bono (WikiCommons)

Activism used to be a full time job. Today, young people rely more on accidental activists –not politicians or pastors but writers, musicians and actors who use their celebrity to bring attention to a cause. Everyday Facebook or Gmail let me know that XYZ celebrity supports gay marriage and demands that I click “like” to join the pack.

It used to be that activism and protest were counterculture – that to be normal and accept the way things were, to respect the decisions made for you by God or the government was patriotic and polite. Often it was average Americans who brought inequality to the forefront of our minds by becoming embroiled as heroes or heathens in headline making legal cases. Vashti McCollum who fought against religion in schools in the 1940s and Norma L. McCorvey who, under the alias of Jane Roe, fought for women’s right to choose in the landmark case, Roe v. Wade.

There is a fair amount of organizational activism and grassroots activism, but it seems that young people flock to causes because they align with their favorite celebrity and that celebrities flock to causes to achieve the same effect. This is activism by herd mentality (the same way conformism by herd mentality has existed for so long) but it works. And it works in both conservative and liberal circles – the same way Ellen Degeneres has swayed people to support gay marriage, the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus popularized abstinence, and Justin Bieber has been hauling his fans aboard the God bandwagon since he got out of diapers 3 years ago.

This type of activism might not be as altruistic or genuine as the MLK Jr.-type stuff, but it is activism nonetheless.

There is no doubt that activism is often driven by a celebrity leader, but what happens when that celebrity leader whose primary job is not, for instance, to ensure the nation’s young people have good manners, but to provide the voice of Bart on the Simpsons, retires from their activism or moves on to a new pet project after a year or two or ten? When the voice of a celebrity activist is silenced, what happens to the volume of their followers?

I’d like to be optimistic in thinking that the Jennifer Hudsons, Julia Roberts, Bonos and Dan Savages of the world and their involvement in social and political causes does not do more harm than good. Certainly, it can be dangerous for celebrities to grace magazine covers and TV commercials garnering support for a cause that may fall off their priority list when their new movie or album comes out, but hopefully the initial support of a cause and the popularity fame brings to that cause can be considered a jumping off point for other activists.

The gay marriage issue straddles both sides of this line: street demonstrations and protests, court cases brought to local jurisdictions, bloggers and online activism, and celebrity endorsements. It’s an unfinished argument about which side is more powerful, but I have a feeling that without celebrity approval, the fight for marriage equality would continue raging.

Do you think the retirement of a celebrity activist silences the voices of their followers, or provides room in the ranks for new leaders to rise? Is celebrity a goal of all activists? Is celebrity activism less affective than grassroots?

I also recommend this interesting article from Naomi Klein on the “Bono-ization” of Activism here.

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