The celebrity-turned-activist is hardly a new phenomenon, but it is an increasingly popular one. And as with all celebrity activities, their efforts and endorsements are recorded across the internet – on social media, news outlets, and celebrity gossip sites – and then critiqued from every possible angle.
While often unfair, ridiculous, or irrelevant, the unveiling of the hypocrisy of celebrity activism is often painfully true and it poses the question – can celebrities make good activists? More specifically, how can actors make good activists?
They face the common impediments to successful activism – most obviously, the privilege which surrounds them like a bubble and makes them irritatingly oblivious to many “real-life” problems and experiences, and which comes across as incredibly hypocritical when they attempt to highlight poverty-related issues in a designer dress or ask fans to donate their own hard earned cash before flaunting their extravagant lifestyle on Instagram.
But beyond that, actors have the more specific problem of working in an industry where they commit to representing someone else’s creative vision. Major production and distribution companies will often put pressure on their actors regarding what they can or cannot say during promotion and it can be difficult to find roles which align perfectly with their personal convictions. Building a profitable or successful career often means putting these convictions to the side or trying to bend them just enough to convince an interviewer that their latest film is actually a glowing recommendation for their chosen social stance or charitable cause. Some actors are better at this than others. The “others” do an embarrassingly poor job of hiding the hypocrisy behind their activism. Here are some of the most cringeworthy.
Leonardo DiCaprio – One of Hollywood’s most committed environmentalists, he has protested, fundraised, and given a fair number of speeches in aid of climate change, culminating in the production of his 2016 film, Before the Flood.
But DiCaprio was revealed to be something of a hypocrite when it was revealed that he owned his own private jet and was prepared to “fly around the world doing good for the environment.” Apparently, his own documentary didn’t quite manage to convince himself of the need to watch his carbon footprint.
Daniel Radcliffe – He may have praised fellow Hogwarts alumni Emma Watson for her campaign for gender equality, but he also described it as “bemusing” because his “cool parents with a very equal marriage” were enough to convince him that gender equality had already been achieved. His advocacy for LGBT charities is somewhat undermined by his apparently very sheltered upbringing and narrow world view.
Emma Watson – Her aforementioned feminist campaigning has been heavily criticised for a variety of reasons, some of them sexist, but accusations of advocating for a version of “white feminism” which fails to extend far beyond her own experiences with sexism have often hit uncomfortably close to the mark.
Of her 22 acting roles, she has only been directed by a female twice and her films are barren in the way of racial or LGBT equality. These issues are part of an industry-wide problem but one that Watson has done little to change.
And her roles in 2015’s Regression (where she played a young girl who lies about being raped) and 2013’s This is the End (where she engages with uncomfortable rape jokes) play into dangerous filmmaking tropes surrounding the flippant mistreatment of rape, a surprising choice for a feminist. Finally, her environmentalism has proved to be equally privileged – recently promoting eco-friendly clothing on her Facebook account that is so far from affordable you apparently need a magic wand to dress sustainably.
Matt Damon – His support for clean water initiatives is obviously praiseworthy but Damon undermined his own positive image when he expressed his inability to understand why gender equality in filmmaking is important and argued that actors should keep their sexuality private (a comment which counteracts positive LGBT visibility.)
Scarlett Johansson – Her punchy endorsements of gender equality took a recent hit when she was accused of contributing to whitewashing for her role in Ghost in the Shell. Johansson thought the sacrifice was worth it to make a film with a strong female lead, but box office figures have not agreed.
Not only this, her global activism turned sour when she resigned from her role as an Oxfam ambassador after starring in a very well-paid Super Bowl commercial for SodaStream, a company whose headquarters in Israel “further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we [Oxfam] work to support.”
Samuel L. Jackson – Known for being outspoken, Jackson nevertheless decided not to contribute to the discussion which followed Tim Burton’s controversial commentary surrounding the almost all-white casting of their film Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.
Burton described diversity as being unnecessary in some films, Jackson responded merely by acknowledging that he was indeed one of the first people of colour to be cast in a Burton film, and referred to Burton as a “really great guy.”
Maybe this is a prime example of a conflict of interests – a promotional tour is probably not the ideal place to criticise your film’s director. It also reveals that as passionately as an underrepresented actor highlights the lack of representation in Hollywood, fixing it requires a willingness, at least to some extent, to take roles and work with filmmakers that do not perfectly fit your creative ideal. Unfair accusations of hypocrisy will follow.