IN HIS recent book Celebrity Culture, sociologist Ellis Cashmore argues that ‘popular fascination with the rich and famous is an inescapable part of contemporary consumer culture’. While a preoccupation with ‘celebrity’ can be traced back to ancient times, Cashmore suggests that the concept has gone into overdrive since the mid-2000s, driven by rampant consumerism, technological innovation and a palpable nihilism where the attractions of celebrity provide a religion-like fascination for many.
Arguably, the cult of celebrity has taken on a sinister new meaning in recent times, its power being harvested by governments, corporations, and third sector groups to drive a range of nefarious and darker messages to the general population. Driessens (2013) calls this process ‘celebritisation’ – the use of celebrities to capture the attention of the public and to trade on their popularity to influence the way people think on relevant policy issues. The last three years has witnessed many celebrities promoting different ideological composites of Klaus Schwab’s great reset. Examples include:
· Shadowing the rollout of ‘experts’, celebrities such as Sir Michael Caine, Sir Elton John and the Rolling Stones drew on the attractions of ‘insider status’ (‘we have had it, we are special, so YOU should’) to promote Covid jabs. Elton John wore a mask on the cover of his 2022 album The Lockdown Sessions.
· Taking up the woke banner with a gusto not witnessed pre-2021, Eddie Izzard and Sam Smith have both undergone image changes as figureheads of the LGBT+Q community, where they are actively highlighting the importance of ‘inclusiveness’. In a similar way, Sigourney Weaver and Jamie Lee Curtis have been active on social media publicising the lives and virtues of their (previously unpublicised) transgender children.
· Environmental issues have been at the centre of both transnational and national policy agendas in the last few years and innumerable stars have leapt on the bandwagon.
· Some in the celebrity spotlight, such as Gary Lineker, appear to see it as their duty speak out on a whole range of issues – Israel/Palestine, the war in the Ukraine, and the recent arrest of Greta Thunberg during a recent climate change demonstration in London. The BBC, while claiming impartiality, seem happy for Lineker and others to be their spokesmen.
The concept of celebrity has the power to connect with people in a unique and powerful way. In The Psychology of Celebrity (2018), Gayle Stever writes that celebrities’ ‘desire for recognition, the desire to be remembered, the desire for wealth, sex and power’ are all intrinsic motivations, which are projected back to those who desire those attributes themselves and can live these values out vicariously through the cinema screen, the TV screen, through the tabloid press, or through social media. Van Krieken (2012) says that these desired qualities and values are reinforced by a clear ‘status hierarchy that is specifically determined by being a member of an elite class of people who are well known and talked about’. Moreover, he argues that this focus on celebrity as a driving cultural and economic force in society is reinforced and perpetuated by the mass media, and refracted through multiple platforms of engagement eg Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, offering a unique and powerful influence.
In his 2015 book The Reinvention of Politics, Ulrich Beck argues that politics, and its relationship to society, has undergone a radical transformation in the modern age. One such change has been a blurring of the boundaries between entertainment and politics. Regarding the discussion here for instance, is it ethical for high-profile members of society to air their views in public, set out petitions, and act as if they were members of the Cabinet? While there is an argument around free speech, can it be right that messages that derive their credibility from someone who appears regularly on TV screens, radio etc are trusted as an authentic and credible authority? Degges-White (2022) has made the point that it is important to examine someone’s actions as well as their message, particularly when a celebrity uses his or her platform to speak out on an issue. Surely, if they are simply hoping to increase sales of their latest autobiography/record/TV show or are trying to garner ‘likes’, retweets and other signifiers, this constitutes an important conflict of interest?
As a case in point, Leonardo DeCaprio flies around the world in a private jet and lives the life of a multi-millionaire while telling us the end game of environmental justice is nigh. In a similar way to the hypocrisy of Al Gore on the same issue, does DeCaprio’s celebrity status absolve him of personal responsibility for the planet’s wellbeing? Mark Dice has written a number of books on the relationship between Hollywood and CIA propaganda, including Hollywood Propaganda, suggesting a close relationship between the two. Is DeCaprio promoting the woke Hollywood environmental position or his own? The celebrity spotlight can obfuscate the issue.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of celebrity virtue signalling is that it is arguably much more influential in a world where the credibility and popularity of politicians and governments is fast declining. In a complex and multi-layered world where attention is both a scarce and valued resource, why waste time listening to a boring politician when a much more interesting celebrity is offering the same (but more exciting) message? When viewed from this perspective, the entertainment industry is undeniably a useful tool for the establishment to call upon when more formal means of communication require an extra push.