One of the most standout elements about the current presidential administration is the war that now seems to be on between it and the news and Hollywood. Ever since Donald Trump began making his outlandish claims about Mexicans and Muslims, celebrities have been waging a campaign against the millionaire: first making fun of him and attacking him personally as a racist, and later urging Americans and Trump’s supporters to not vote for him.
Obviously this all failed spectacularly and since then there has been a war for the hearts and minds of social media users, as well as for control of the outflow of information that has been invading our lives. Donald Trump and the election are not the point of this article though. The elections inadvertently brought forth an issue that has been long brewing just beneath the surface of American life; the influence of the entertainment industry over our social lives, choices, and morals.
The Birth of American Royalty
One of the principles that America was founded on was that it should not repeat the mistakes of war-torn Europe by having royal lines rule the country. Each man was left more or less to their own devices to forge their lives as they individually saw fit, with no crown to answer to. However, in recent decades this has hardly been the case, though not appearing as the founders thought it would.
Since the early 20th century, Hollywood has been building creating spectacles both real and fantasy, for our eyes and imaginations to feast on. It has been one of the main sources where Americans got their information from. No, it was never an arm of the government, nor was actors like Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh sitting in the White House making executive decisions. However, Americans recognized early on the role it played in their lives and as such, Hollywood was sought to support national causes and traditional values.
The power of the celebrity arose during this time, not as kings and queens per se, but rather visible icons of the ideal of success. A performer became a celebrity most often against their own will. They were what a successful and good life looked like to the public and if they weren’t seen as gods outright, they were damn near close. However that power was seen as a support tool and nothing more. It wasn’t an agent for change.
Any inkling that stardom could become something more came during the post-war period of the 1950’s. America began to enjoy the fruits of fifteen years of labor and struggle. It also began to fear a growing rival to its support column of capitalism, known as communism. Hollywood reflected this duality in their movies, creating classic films that furthered an idealistic American image, while also becoming a battle ground where communism was believed to be thriving. Actors, producers, and studios suspected of having communist and socialist ties were blacklisted from working.
This ban would last into the 1970’s as conditions between America and the Soviet Union escalated from bad to worse. The Blacklist did not do the government any favors in show business and it created a quiet but palpable sense of rebellion. Producers began to become more in tune with the changes in American society as the American teenager now became a society unto itself. In this new subset, traditional social values were questioned and its members sought to create a new identity for themselves: or at least one that was not their parents.
Both Hollywood and the usurping musical revolution known as rock and roll began to reflect this shift. Movies like Rebel Without a Cause, and rock stars like Elvis Presley became indirect champions to a new set of liberal values. This was when Americans took notice of the influence that performers could have on their society, or more specifically their younger generation. This potential cancer was feared and seen as a genie that needed to be kept in its bottle.
Conservative watch dogs shared a view recently voiced by President Donald Trump that specific brands of American media were enemies of American society, though for differing reasons. They saw it as a corrosive element that was eating away at the values that they believed made America great and was the reason for its newfound prosperity. However at this time, the entertainment industry had not yet developed a social consciousness. Celebrities were not outright speaking out against their own society. That would change.
Enemies of the State
By the next decade, the surge of social evolution was now approaching full steam as teenagers became college students. Their education meant that they were beginning to think for themselves and now openly ask questions about the values of their youth. Seeking alternatives to the parents’ lives, young Americans began a grand social experiment that included sexual openness, values based on self, other ways to gain spiritual meaning through drugs and eastern religions, and standing up for the rights of the oppressed. Media followed this momentum and films like Easy Rider and The Graduate, and musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Rolling Stones became cultural icons of a new America.
Still though there weren’t any public statements made by celebrities of what society should be like what we see today like at awards shows. Any alternative lifestyles and beliefs they may have adapted were kept out of the public eye. Any values they promoted were done so through their performances.
That changed when actress and bombshell, Jane Fonda, infamously visited North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Images of the sex symbol fraternizing with the enemy that was killing Americans was seen both as a statement against an unpopular war, and the ultimate betrayal that even many Hollywood studios found hard to defend.
A Rebellion’s Legacy
The idea of using one’s social status to make public statements about what they felt about their country’s decisions was mostly then a child of the 1960’s and 70’s. Fighting against corrupt traditions was in the air and everyone who was against injustice in some form was speaking out. This tradition would become engrained in the industry’s genes and would continue long after. By the 1980’s, media was seen no longer as reflecting American values, but now directing it.
While many Americans by this time were moderately conservative, celebrities continued to push the line of what could be said and done on screen and stage. Music became more outlandish, controversial, and often did talk about social issues in their lyrics. Movies began inserting road posts of what being a success looked like that included hot women, muscular manliness, and being successful and White. The values more and more seen on screen took on a progressive nature that was both self-involved and tackling social issues.
I remember this time well because when I was in church, secular media was often the target of many a sermon on the evils of the world. Or as my youth pastor had once put it, “garbage in, garbage out”. Celebrity influences on society seem to have come from an unspoken idea that to be famous was to be liberal or post-modern.
This direction, while capable of being expressed in words, was more often done by actions. What you wore on stage, how many people you were having sex with, and what you said, were all tools of their power. And because of this, the concept was born that celebrities needed to take responsibility for the actions that impressionable minds would be influenced by.
The Entertainer’s Cross
This is where the power of stardom becomes dubious. I said at the beginning that celebrities were like American royalty, but unlike real royalty, it wasn’t something one was usually born into. Performers were literally thrust into the position and by extension of that, the public office of moral officer. These people were just trying to work and get jobs in their chosen professions. I doubt most of them woke one day and said, “I want to be famous and determine the morality of America!”
A celebrity was someone who stood out from their peers with their performance or charisma. They would go from being a no name actor or singer, to being on commercials and playing the SuperBowl. And like any prince or princess being coronated, it also came with other responsibilities they did not desire to take on. Therefore many of them tried to keep their lives private by becoming extremely introverted and saying little unless promoting a new project. Others would flat out state to the public that they were not role-models, thereby relieving them of any responsibility their viewers might take, or so they thought.
Those who did embrace this unintended authority began to advocate for causes that were both continuing and giving voice to new problems that had arisen. The fight against racism and sexism was still ongoing. AIDS was now an epidemic and now needed champions to promote the fight against the disease, as well as the violence against Gay people who were blamed for it. All of this was a social consciousness created by legacy and circumstance.
By the 1990’s the role of moral watch dog was accepted by many performers under good intentions. Yet many people were beginning to feel that what had begun as well meaning effort had now turned into proselytizing. In Western society there is almost no greater sin. Fighting against social ills now extended from donating money or supporting your neighbor, to watching what you said in public life. Tolerance was the watchword of the day, but only for what was accepted politically correct. By the 2000’s, the novelty of celebrity activism had fully worn off.
True it still worked for many people, usually younger or when that celebrity was preaching to the choir with values the people already had. However, many though were beginning to feel an increasing resentment towards the guilt and control they felt was being shoved upon them. And others still felt that the media had now become too full of themselves, believing that they could dictate to them how they should live and think as if they were…well, royalty.
The Real Question
Which bring us to today. Many famous performers were caught off guard by the success of Donald Trump, despite their influence, presumed or otherwise. Former Daily Show host influential icon himself, Jon Stewart said that performers in his business of comedy/news sometimes mistakenly feel that they have more influence than they actually got. If this is true then it would explain the disbelief, having gone against thirty years of what celebrities were taught to expect. Even some among their peers like Mark Wahlberg and Matthew McConaughey are starting to feel that celebrities are over-stepping the grounds and should shut up and stick to performing.
The actual power that celebrities wield is contradictory in nature and its something I am not sure anybody gets. It’s clear that there is something to be said when people start imitating your style based on your performances and lifestyles, or give money to something they otherwise would not care for. But that also exists with the unspoken reality that it is up to us, the spectators and buyers, to accept their power as fact and something to be followed. Just like with politics or religion, when we stop choosing to accept what is being told to us, the power of the celebrity ends.
The real question becomes, how celebrities who have power thrust on them negotiate that unspoken contract between us and them?
Jamal Smith (author) on February 20, 2017:
Gerbals said something similar regarding if you tell a lie often enough and loud enough that people will believe it
Donna Welty on February 19, 2017:
It's not so much as power, as power of in your face media. Through the years I've watched politicians get elected by the simple fact, that every time you turned on the television, or radio there they were. People are so easy, and I hate saying this, but simply put, people will believe anything that is constantly in their face. Donald Trump, I met him many years ago. I found him arrogant, a womanizer, basically an asshole. Through media that he so took advantage of, he showed daily a man with a moral conscientious. He used the media skillfully by showing Hillary at her not so flattering moments, she tried, but seriously! Yes, I voted for Donald Trump, not the media nice guy, the asshole who I believe is needed in the white house. That guy who has got money,can make more, and isn't afraid to say fk you. Yes that guy. So I stopped watching the media and tried to form my own opinion. Not many like my opinions, but that's ok at least I didn't get it off fox news.