The practice of placing celebrities on the boards of social service organisations and the committees organising around social causes is nothing new; before we even had the term ‘celebrity,’ public organisations were turning to prominent people in society to lend their faces, names, skills, reputations. Today, though it seems increasingly common to see celebrities as the faces of public campaigns, the spokespeople for social causes, and the authorities on issues ranging from shark conservation to mental illness.
Celebrities, in turn, experience increasing pressure to ‘get involved’ and seek out causes even if they aren’t particularly interested, because if they do not, they are likely to become topics of scrutiny and speculation. They may be condemned for failing to behave in a socially responsible way. ‘Go volunteer at the homeless shelter, because it will make a good photo opportunity.’ ‘You should really pick a cause, even if you don’t really care, so you’ll be media-friendly.’
Some celebrities obviously also feel very strongly about the causes they support. They are clearly delighted to be able to use their clout for a social cause, to attract attention to an issue that members of the general public might otherwise ignore. Their involvement in social causes is not just done to look good or to fit a specific model of socially responsible behaviour. They’re doing it because they care, and they want other people to care, and they know that they may be able to make more of a difference than other people working on the ground, because they are known. Because they can put a famous face to the cause, and this will make people think about the issue.
Which creates a feedback effect, where people may only care if celebrities are involved because they have come to expect that, which is a problem in and of itself. When caring is conditional on who else cares, when empathy is based on whether the people involved with a cause are important enough, you create a situation where causes that cannot get celebrity endorsement do not enjoy nearly as much public support. Major celebrities are not, for example, working on prison abolition in the United States, and have not identified this as a priority. That means that many members of the general public are not aware of issues with the prison system and the urgent need for reform, and would not support attempts at reform because they lack the necessary information and tools.
Celebrity spokespeople occupy a position of immense power, and it is not necessarily a good one. Just like the rest of us, they can be misinformed, they can advance incorrect views and information, they can promote things that are actively hateful. Unlike us, they do so with the benefit of an extremely large and powerful platform that ensures their messages reach far and wide. When a celebrity spokesperson makes a mistake, when someone speaks for a group of people against their will and has tremendous social standing, the opportunities for correction are extremely limited.
Jenny McCarthy is a particularly notable example. McCarthy has been on an autism elimination quest. She was one of the heaviest promoters of the ‘vaccines cause autism’ scaremongering, which caused real damage; for public health, for children, for autistic people. She’s also been, consistently, a major public supporter of getting rid of autism, which means getting rid of actual human beings, not just an abstract ‘disease.’ Despite cries from autistic self advocates asking her to stop promoting eliminationist rhetoric, McCarthy appointed herself, as the parent of an autistic child, as the spokesperson of autistic people everywhere. And argued that what we wanted was ‘prevention,’ and that society should focus on a cure for autism.
As it turned out, McCarthy’s son was not autistic, but her message hasn’t been diluted by that fact. She’s already done her damage, her views and information are out there, and self advocates will spend decades trying to clean it up. For every radio appearance of hers, for every television interview, scores of self advocates are going to have to push back individually in their own communities. We are going to have to fight every bitter step for even the most basic of accommodations, for respect, for the right to be treated like human beings, because society believes that we want to be eliminated, because that is what the celebrities speaking for us tell them.
This is not the only social cause with a radically dangerous spokesperson, not the only celebrity actively harming a cause while claiming to support it. In their eagerness to do good, to be advocates, to ‘help,’ celebrities can do tremendous damage that is costly and time consuming to repair. Many are unaware of the damage they do because they cannot hear the population they are harming, since their voices are being drowned out by the celebrity PSAs and gourmet $500/plate dinners ‘for the cause’ and balls and who knows what else, a distancing tactic that allows many members of society to support causes while avoiding direct contact with the people they are allegedly helping. To feel good, without finding out if what they are doing will actually help.
When communities with unhelpful celebrity spokespeople do manage to get heard and to communicate their complaints, they’re labeled as bitter and resentful and ungrateful. They are asked why they can’t appreciate all these great things being done for them; why oh why would you have a problem with campaigns that position your nation and culture as backward, outdated, and oppressive? How could you possibly object to someone who just wants to cure people like you? Why do you think you’d have anything to add to a conversation about environmental conservation and indigenous communities, as an indigenous person?