Are Celebrities the New Political Influencers?

VotoLatino Campaign Celebrities Politics
Image Credit Voto Latino Campaign 2016

As per usual, we’re talking about celebrities. I, personally, find relief from my daily stressors by listening to some low-brow celebrity news shows and seeing what the latest Kardashian plot twist is… Who’s the richest now? Who’s having a baby? What did she wear? I consider myself a supporter. You do you, boo boo. Especially because celebrity activity is inconsequential, right? It’s just another distraction…right?

Maybe not. In these tumultuous times, many celebrities have not shied away from political conversations. Some have even decided that now is the time to break their silence regarding politics, ignoring the potential repercussions to their brand. For example, Taylor Swift broke her political neutrality during the 2018 midterm elections, urging young people to vote (in not-so-subtle support of the left). CNN speculates that her post increased overall voter registration by an estimated 65,000 people. Having famously advocated for two democratic candidates for Tennessee’s midterm election, voter registration in Tennessee totalled 2,144 people in just the 24-hour period following her post (nearing the total registrations for the entire month of September, a close 2,811 people). Coincidence?

It seems to me that questions like “Should celebrities be voicing their political views?” and statements such as “Just shut up and dribble” are superficial at this point. I mean, if we choose to believe that celebrities are people, and people are human, then they have every right to free speech (at least, in this country) and can use their platforms however they want. Maybe the question should be: Are celebrities the new political influencers and what does that mean for the rest of us? In a time where everything we know about the world is hyper-mediated, it is imperative that we strive to be critical consumers of media. Three words: follow the money. You are reading, watching, or listening to news because it is in someone’s economic interest to have you do so. Understanding the corporate interests that own or otherwise sponsor media outlets and create the media content you consume will help you better decide what you want to take up as your belief.

That’s right, being a critical consumer doesn’t just mean getting quotes for the perfect washer-dryer combo at Best Buy, Sears, AND Lowes, it means making yourself aware of the agenda of whatever source you’re getting your information from. We know CNN has a liberal agenda, and their information is going to be skewed slightly to persuade their viewers that they are the good guys. Similarly, Fox News has a conservative agenda, despite their lack of grace in maintaining credibility. It’s easy enough to point out the slant in these mainstream news sites, but what about the kind of information we get from other sources like celebrities?

The standard on social media is that when you are being paid to post something, you put #ad in the caption. However, with the pesky business of celebrities being people and all, their views will probably be influencing the way they post even when it’s a personal photo. Not to mention the posts that are deliberately political and are meant to influence you one way or another.

For example, one of my personal favorite hyper-political celebrities is Ilana Glazer, you may know her from the hilarious break-out comedy television show Broad City, which she writes for and created . One of the storylines is that the show’s central characters, Abbi and Ilana, rally for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election, Clinton even made a cameo in the episode (I loved her for this, if nothing else). It follows that Glazer’s instagram posts during the the election is 2016 and 2018 were equally assertive. She would film herself calling her local representatives and partaking in other mundane civil duties that do not provide the instant gratification that has become standard for the human experience in the West. You can probably tell that Glazer has influenced, or at least encouraged, my political beliefs. She practices what she preaches and upholds in the importance of voting, specifically, against number 45. So much for that!

Here we are, in a dystopian 2019 and wondering if we’ll even make it to the next election. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if the government shutdown lasted until the 2020 election at this point. I’m not just speaking in hyperbole. Today, I saw a video of Cardi B advocating for progressive political action in a video she took of herself on her phone. They’re just like us, aren’t they? In the video, she makes a reference to the way conservatives are comparing the ongoing government shutdown with Obama’s 17-day shutdown in 2013.

However, Cardi makes the astute observation that Obama’s shutdown was “for healthcare. So your grandma could check her blood pressure, and you b*tches could get your p*ssys checked at the gynecologist with no m*therf*cking problem.” Does Cardi B really need to be the one to bring this truth to our attention? That healthcare is more important than a wall that only stands to represent hate? I’m not even mad that it’s her; she’s clearly enraged like the rest of us, using her celebrity privilege to shed light on a serious current event, and she’s not wrong either! However, we all know she’s going to get her check at the end of the day. After all, the federal government doesn’t fund her albums or tours. What does this mean for the message she’s sending? How invested could she really be when she isn’t going to be directly affected? Does this point even matter?

The Yeezy Issue

For those of you that don’t think it matters, I believe it’s high time I bring up another hyper-political figure: Kanye West. We all know that Kanye has been donning a MAGA hat since before number 45 was officially number 45. Liberal media sites and other celebrities have demonized him for using his influence to support a racist, misogynist, narcissistic man-child (was that excessive?). However, if we take up the point I was making about Cardi B, how invested could he be when he celebrity status separates him from direct impact?

Let’s think about who Kanye West is: A musical genius? Yes. An undeniable narcissist? Also, yes. West identifies with Trump. He has managed to overlook all of their differences. What does he see? He sees another self-obsessed celebrity (yes, I do believe West is self-aware). In the Oval Office. Leader of the free world. Have we forgotten West’s infamous proclamation: “I have decided, in 2020, to run for president.” CNN even predicted back in 2015 that, should West run, his opponent in the “Battle of the Narcissist” would be our current Commander-in-Chief. Kanye West believes that if number 45 can land himself in La Casa Blanca, then so can he! For him, it’s as simple as that.

With celebrities, we can’t look away. This sense of embeddedness leaves us vulnerable to a new kind of influence; it’s not just subconscious, it’s all encompassing. We’re not just fans, stans, or gainless onlookers, we’re their followers.

What about for us? I’m just here to ask the questions. Are celebrities the new political influencers? Whether or not Taylor Swift, Ilana Glazer, Cardi B, or Kanye West are actually invested in the politics they advocate for, they are having an impact on us. We begin to feel attached, a sense of knowing, of trusting. How can we not feel connected to a person when we are kept up to date with every pregnancy milestone, every vacation, every photoshoot, every party, every family event? It starts to feel like they are just as much a part of our lives as our best friend from college we haven’t seen since graduation or our neighbor from our childhood homes who we only see when we visit our parents. The only difference is, with celebrities, we can’t look away. This sense of embeddedness leaves us vulnerable to a new kind of influence; it’s not just subconscious, it’s all encompassing. We’re not just fans, stans, or gainless onlookers, we’re their followers.

However, that’s not all we have to be — we must be critical consumers of media. I’m not suggesting that you throw out your primetime viewing schedules or apps, but it may be a good idea to shift your perspective. With social media, celebrities have more control over their public image and more access to their fans than ever before. If a celebrity starts identifying with a certain politic or position, see this as a learning opportunity about a new issues. Don’t let celebrities supply you with your opinions. Do we think sex work is synonymous victimhood because that’s how Meryl Streep sees it? What about the actual sex workers who seek to decriminalize their profession as a means for sustainable living? Celebrities will continue to showcase their privilege, and speak from a privileged platform.

As a critical consumer, you must not be ignorant to the contradictions that arise. Moments of contradiction are exactly where we need to hear pushback from individuals positioned differently in our unequal world; celebrity voices cannot be the only ones that matter. However, celebrities may be the ones opening a dialogue on a global scale, which makes them reliable for one thing: gateways.