Transnational Celebrity Activism in Global Politics: Changing the World?

Liza Tsaliki, Christos A. Frangonikolopoulos and Asteris Huliaras, Editors
Intellect/University of Chicago
ISBN: 978-1-84150-349-3
A Review by Susan Froetschel

At first glance, celebrity activism would seem a win-win trade: Worthy causes attract attention. Celebrities serve as selfless role models, sacrificing time for greater good while convincing droves of fans to contribute.

But celebrity activism at the global level warrants scrutiny for many reasons, including cultural differences, the lack of accountability of cross-border assistance and questionable motivations. A collection of essays edited by Liza Tsaliki, Christos A. Frangonikolopoulos and Asteris Huliaras delivers a thorough scrutiny. Transnational Celebrity Activism in Global Politics: Changing the World? analyzes the trends and serves as an engaging guide for assessing the consequences of celebrity activism and a culture “dominated by a politics of pity rather than a politics of justice.”

Too many celebrity endeavors emphasize the sense of otherness, the vast expanse between the glamorous haves of the West and the have-nots of the developing world. Media-hyped  events overwhelm other pressing causes, and fair warning, these essays could make Bono or Bob Geldof squirm.

Celebrity activism is not new, explains one essay, and has roots in the 14 Points address by Woodrow Wilson on bringing World War I to a close. In 1918, the US president encouraged citizen diplomacy, and his first point stressed that “diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.”  A few decades later, the United Nations formalized roles for entertainers, artists, athletes and royalty as goodwill ambassadors and messengers of peace.

Ana Jorge’s essay highlights the individual and structural challenges by analyzing the emotional, energetic activism of Portugal’s Catarina Furtado, dancer, journalist and UN goodwill ambassador. Claiming to speak for those who cannot, Furtado mixes her private life with activism on youth and maternal health causes. Her pregnancy, clothing and lifestyle make a jarring contrast in Guinea-Bissau, one of the poorest nations in the world. Jorge describes how celebrities draft a narrative, “influenced by the powers at the centre of the globe, such as the North American, how it envisages the fight to inequality and how it establishes relations with its periphery.”

Rising inequality, fast global travel and communications, have spurred the rush for global activism. The marketing successes of a few celebrities have drawn more celebrities to causes. Yet “in terms of political lobbying, celebrity activism has not had very impressive results,” write Huliaras and Nikolaos Tzifakis. 

Too often, the media and public focus on the individual, and the cause becomes afterthought. “We should not confuse the grand presence of celebrities (the seemingly endless camera flashes and publicized interactions with presidents and prime ministers) for real impact in drawing substantial attention to conflict situations,” urges Virgil Hawkins.

Motivations matter, and cynics view the activism as a shortcut for boosting fading careers, distracting from personal troubles or connecting with growing, lucrative foreign markets. “As much as celebrities are admired for such efforts, they are also criticized for selfishly using global media outlets to deplore poverty and war for the purpose of furthering their own careers and creating images of themselves as universal well-doers,” explains Annika Bergman Rosamond. “Celebrities’ efforts to rub off the values of their own political community as well as their privately held beliefs on global politics are not innocent since they risk including some distant others while excluding others.”

The public has keen radar for detecting hypocrisy or self-aggrandizing from the celebrity publicity machine. Hyperbolic, pedantic or polarizing language, the smallest of slipups in understanding the issues from celebrity spokespeople, let alone fraud, can doom a cause or NGO.  The public’s attention wanders, star’s impact is fleeting, needs are plentiful.

The essayists anticipate celebrity diplomacy, as coined by Andrew Cooper in his book of the same name, to become more pervasive, leading to more exposure and less tangible support. Diplomacy is the art of conducting negotiations between nations to produce policies, while celebrity contributions are often highly stage-managed and symbolic, suggests George Pleios. “[C]elebrity diplomacy and celebrity activism are processes of cultural and ideological transformation of international issues to a consensus in favour of those who belong to the strong pole in the world.”

As the famous and would-be famous stumble over one another, seeking causes in exotic places, the fierce competition for publicity results in parsing problems too finely. The most fundamental difficulties – poverty, climate change, war, lack of family planning – are overlooked. Riina Yrjölä describes the existential despair and false promises of celebrity narratives:  “[T]hese celebrity discourses, rather, end up repeating and maintaining western authority over Africa than radically opening up new ways for Africa to be or become.” 

The celebrity spotlight, intended to expose injustices and acts of humanitarianism, inadvertently reveals entrenched layers of inequality. And the skepticism of these essayists unites in an unspoken, yet unavoidable conclusion: Celebrity activism is part of an unfolding morality tale that lauds a few glamorous, superior individuals for identifying world crises and criticizes the bumbling, insensitive governments incapable of solving big problems.

Politicians increasingly adopt celebrities’ marketing tactics and piecemeal approach, suggest Mark Wheeler, Graham Finlay and Pleios in separate essays: Politics is theater, diplomacy has become celebritized; governments find it easier to rely on the assistance of elite outsiders, and the public is content with benefits distributed by lottery. Weary donors, like the governments, must set priorities, too.

These are troubling trends that undermine democracy.

For celebrities and politicians with an authentic desire to help, Transnational Celebrity Activism recommends participation in activities that are less staged, making use of professional skills and motivating others to learn the big issues and act. Governments should set priorities and resist the bias and bloated influence of a few powerful, passionate mouthpieces that often lack understanding of a crisis’s context. Several essays question whether it’s ever appropriate for anyone other than elected politicians, accountable to their constituents, to engage in active diplomacy.

Celebrities stir the public to handwringing, but effect few fundamental changes. Responsibility rests not with celebrities alone. Nonprofits and global agencies must choose their spokespeople with care. Fans select which artists achieve and keep their fame. All involved should know that changing the world won’t come by heeding the frequent, shallow, well-meaning siren calls to attend a concert or text a donation. Those who hope to change the world must take action, but only after educating themselves, thoroughly understanding the global issues and participating in politics at all levels. The well-edited book offers thoughtful analysis and recommendations on the politics and challenges behind the modern gold rush to do good deeds.

Many facets of globalization have combined to spur intense celebrity activism at the global level.
Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization