WILL 2020 SEE THE DEATH OF CELEBRITY CULTURE
Remember back when quarantine started, and Wonder Woman sang a John Lennon song on her iPhone?
If you don’t know, or in case you forgot, I’m referring to the time in early March where a number of celebrities, led by Gal Gadot, all came together to sing John Lennon’s “Imagine” in front of their iPhone cameras. This all happened as a truly unique and cringe-worthy experience for all of us.
Or, at least, it was unique, until the “I Take Responsibility” video came out. In that one, another large group of different celebrities pledged to “take responsibility” for their complacency to racial microaggressions All the while, they completely failed to see the point of the Black Lives Matter movement.
There is no doubt that both of these videos, while incredibly embarrassing, had good intentions. I’m sure when Gal Gadot got the idea for her video project, she was picturing it akin to the “We Are the World” track. However, while “We Are the World” is still regarded positively by history, both of the recent “Imagine” and “I Take Responsibility” videos were met with swift, negative criticism on nearly every facet of the Internet.
The best I can say is that the “Imagine” video in particular brought everyone together, but only in the sense that we all came together to say that the video is terrible and we all hate it. To its credit, other celebrities seemed to find it charming; actress Jessica Chastain commented on Gadot’s original Instagram post that the video was “beautiful.”
But the general public was less impressed. Gadot’s caption to the original post read, “We are in this together, we will get through it together. Let’s imagine together. Sing with us ❤.” But many in the comments were quick to point out that we are all certainly not in this together—a group of multi-millionaires singing in their mansions could not possibly imagine the struggle of losing your job due to COVID-19. They don’t have to worry about paying rent, or the price of groceries, or if they will ever be able to find employment again. Regardless of how this pandemic goes, they will be fine. The rest of America doesn’t have the same assurance.
As of today, the video has more than 50,000 comments, most of which calling it “tone deaf,” “out of touch,” “disconnected from reality,” or “cringey.” It’s spiritual successor, the “I Take Responsibility” video, got a similar reaction for a similar reason.
Just as nobody was asking for encouragement from celebrities after the beginning of the COVID-19 quarantine, absolutely no one was asking for white celebrities to come out and apologize for racism. It is performance activism in its most melodramatic form. It is such a spectacular example of missing the point that it shoots the moon and comes back around to saying nothing at all.
“I take responsibility for every unchecked moment, for every time it was easier to ignore than to call it out for what it was, for every not-so-funny joke,” said Ke$ha, Kristen Bell, and Justin Theroux, in sentence fragments across the video. They are not apologizing preemptively for their own privilege as rich, white Americans in the media industry; they’re apologizing for being silent in the midst of the hypothetical racism of an imaginary person. It’s doing the most juvenile possible thing: excusing racism as the mean-spirited acts of the bad White people, therefore all we have to be is the good White people.
The video simplifies racism to Crash-style logic, saying (perhaps unintentionally) that racism is a character flaw that some people have. It frames racism as unpleasant at best—as “not-so-funny jokes” or “stereotypes,” rather than complex systems built to work against Black people. That part was probably too difficult to explain in a two minute video.
Many have pointed out that this internet challenge approach to racism does more harm than good. The puzzling detail remains, however, that a number of generally well-liked celebrities singing a beloved song in the name of unity was met with such loathing criticism, while “We Are the World” is still beloved to this day.
The most prominent difference is money. “We Are the World” reportedly raised $75 million for famine relief in Africa, and the song still earns money to this day. A Latino version called “Somos El Mundo” raised money for Haiti as well. In contrast, despite GQ writer Sophia Benoit calculating that the “Imagine” celebrities had a total net worth of $527 million, there is no talk of any of them (except for Jimmy Fallon) donating anything to any relief funds.
But the Imagine people aren’t the only celebrities who would rather talk big than open their wallets. Singer Pharrell Williams received backlash after asking his fans via Twitter to donate to hospitals during the pandemic. This came from a man with a net worth reportedly as high as $150 million. Earlier in the year, Kylie Jenner—once credited by Forbes as the “youngest self-made billionaire,” despite her literally being a Kardashian—was described as being out of touch for posting a single photo lamenting over the Australian wildfires on her Instagram story, and following up her apparent distraught by posting about her “baby pink toes” on the same story just hours later.
All of the Kardashians have lamented about how nobody knows how much they donate because they choose to do it in private. I’m sure Pharrel can say the same. It seems odd, though, that celebrities are very quick to sing on camera, or literally document their entire waking lives for their fans, and yet are hesitant to put their grandiose wealth to good use.
This unchecked wealth has caused an impossible rift between celebrities and the people they entertain. Often watching them try to come across as relatable instead resembles an alien trying to communicate with humans. Back in April, when Americans were already dying of coronavirus by the thousands, Ellen DeGeneres received backlash for comparing quarantine in her ten-thousand-square-foot Beverly Hills mansion to “being in jail.” DeGeneres similarly received flack for being friendly with former president George W. Bush during a baseball game, and then subsequently comparing it to the ability to be friends with someone you don’t agree with.
This inability to communicate wasn’t limited to the coronavirus pandemic alone; the “I Take Responsibility” video proved they don’t know how to talk to the common man about racism, either. Celebrities on Twitter created a massive thread of them matching each other’s donations to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, just to ultimately cause disappointment and confusion when it was discovered that the donation they were all matching was a measly $50.
This is not a blanket statement, as I’m sure some celebrities are putting their fortune to good use—director Jordan Peele and his studio, Moneypaw Productions, have reportedly donated $1 million dollars to various organizations, including the Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective, Black Lives Matter, and the Transgender Gender-Variant & Intersex Justice Project. But too many of them want to pretend like they’re just like us when they’re undeniably not. A person working minimum wage donating $50 to a noble cause is generous. The same cannot be said when the same amount is donated by the star of The Office.
The relationship between celebrities and their fans has always been parasocial, meaning that, according to Psychology Today, “while a fan may feel like the celebrity is being truly close with them, the one way nature of the interaction means there really is no relationship.” With the way many celebrities have failed to correctly empathize with the people who made them millionaires, it seems the value of that parasocial relationship is beginning to lose itself on many people. More are enforcing the idea that it isn’t enough to “raise awareness” by speaking alone when one is sitting on a net worth in the millions, and it comes at the death of the unneeded idolization of people whose songs and movies we like.
It was a long time coming, and it is all summarized best by the top comment on the “I Take Responsibility” video, posted by the YouTube user 108johnny and amassing 1,800 likes. It is a Robert A. Heinlein quote: “[the] United States ha[s] become a place where entertainers and professional athletes are mistaken for people of importance.”