By Heidi Hai
It has become common for talk show hosts, singers, basketball players, comedians, and entertainers of all genres to make public statements on current political events. Celebrities are entering the realm of politics, and politicians have frequently employed popular media to deliver political messages. This situation, called “celebrity politics”, can be traced all the way back to 1967 when movie star Ronald Reagan was elected Governor of California. However, it was the election of former television personality Donald Trump and the subsequent wave of celebrity political statements against his policies, that has brought this issue under spotlight.
Celebrities rise to stardom because of their talents in entertainment, not because of political expertise. Are celebrities qualified to talk about politics in public media? Supporters claim that celebrities provide good representation of ordinary people, while others doubt whether celebrities deserve to have so much voice over issues to which their expertise is irrelevant.
Since celebrities’ popularity legitimizes their roles as representatives of popular opinions, some claim they can provide good representation of the public when politicians’ narratives are problematic or insufficient. Jimmy Kimmel, for example, acted as a representative for his fans when he berated Senator Cassidy’s healthcare plan on his own show in September 2017. He delivered a passionate and straightforward speech on how the new plan will endanger the well being of sick kids whose parents have only moderate income, like the majority of his fans, successfully raising awareness for the issue.
However, Kimmel’s success is by no means reflective of the efficiency of the system. Having a son with heart disease, Kimmel is particularly knowledgeable as to how the healthcare plan could cover surgeries for sick kids. For general issues, however, celebrities are unlikely to be informed enough to be qualified to talk about them. They may have average knowledge, but they have giant microphones.
The aggrandization of celebrities’ voices may not be fully justified by their fandom. Critics rightly point out that celebrities often lack the expertise required to make sensible comments. In extreme cases, so-called political representation can be turned into a farce of meaningless personal attack, as when comedian Samantha Bee called Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt” in her show addressing Trump’s family separation policy. Such explosive words certainly catch attention, but they diminish political debates to a gladiator fight for applause.
By elevating celebrities’ cryptic and inappropriate unprofessional political opinions, we risk people growing impatient with subtle and necessarily long arguments, since short, loud, catchy phrases are widely available. Their often limited knowledge of political issues are worsened by a systematic constraint of celebrity politics. To appeal to their audiences, celebrities have to make their arguments in a populist style, and populists often leave us with grandiose statements whose meanings are so vague upon scrutiny that we can only imagine what these statements exactly entail. Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again”, for example, is indeed simple and memorable, making it dangerously attractive to the general mass. The most heated battlefield of Trump versus celebrities is Twitter, a social medium marked by quick exchange of short comments. Celebrities, limited by the nature of their relation with the audience, engage most effectively with politics when making loud and simple arguments, a situation that doesn’t help enhance public understanding of what’s at stake.
Despite sporadic exceptions, celebrities are unqualified to act like elected officials when it comes to political issues. Even though fandom may justify their representational status, relevant expertise and distance from populist narratives are insufficient compared to qualified political representation.