In recent years, celebrities have adapted to an increasingly politicised world by themselves becoming more outspoken and vigilant on the issues. On various chat shows and through social media outlets, they’ll let their opinion ring out, regardless of research, originality, or grammar to attain that seal of approval needed to go on working in the industry without being seen as problematic.
So what’s the problem then?
On the surface, it’s not that evident. Celebrities should be entitled to their opinions. They don’t necessarily have to play ball with any mandate. You can simply scroll by if you don’t like what Whoopi Goldberg or Matt Damon has to say. Big whoop!
Well, the problem is that this politicisation has begun to affect the art itself and the culture surrounding it. For example, the other day I decided to punish myself by watching 10 minutes of the Video Music Awards (VMAs) to see what was what with the youths of today. They had a category for “Best Video With A Message” which was delivered to Billie Eilish for her (unusually) unremarkable song “Your Power”. She proceeded to offer vague insistences of people using their power responsibly or recognising privilege. I wasn’t able to pay attention, really. I was transfixed on the fact that this was an actual category at the VMAs- the dumbest awards’ ceremony ever created. After she had finished her speech, several performances then followed featuring twerking and lyrics about haters being haters and speaking one’s truth or something equally embarrassing. But back to the category. When did this vapid, moronic ceremony feel the need to pay tribute to ambiguous social issues? When did these issues, furthermore, become so commercialised?
If one has something genuine to say about race, mental health, addiction, or inequality, you shouldn’t bemoan or ridicule them necessarily. Sometimes, even celebrities can offer nuggets of wisdom with first-hand experience or a good depth of knowledge. Nowadays however, it’s enough to just hitch your ride to this wagon for the sake of trending on Twitter or getting a few, click bait likes. (It’s Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s career plan.) What was once seen as pandering and distasteful is now seen as courageous and important. (One has to wonder, on a side note, how courageous it is to say something you know will go down well?)
It happens in the music industry with many of the top-charting songs today addressing empowerment on a fundamentally basic level, in literature (with an increasing number of novels tackling issues and story/plot trailing behind as a casualty), and in TV/movies. With regards the latter, this problem is most evident. On press junkets, actors will often be asked to elaborate on an issue or theme in their work (better suited to a director or doctorate student) that their PR has clearly tapped them on. When they don’t answer quite convincingly, it can elicit a Twitter storm. For example, Margot Robbie’s lack of dialogue in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood garnered negative reactions from those who sought to make a sexist out of Quentin Tarantino (ignoring Jackie Brown and Kill Bill) when he refused to pander and answer the question. (Poor Margot wasn’t quite sure what to say but felt she’d been given a good opportunity.)
Hollywood has always been a predominantly liberal market. This is nothing new. Politics have aggressively come to the fore in recent years however, as evident with the movies put up for major awards that lack general popularity or remote commercial appeal (Nomadland) and an increased emphasis on ideology over art. Too often now, I see reviews focusing on the importance of the subject rather than the quality of the project itself, e.g. Black Panther. Similarly, many of the reviews for the Star Wars sequel trilogy were built around subverting expectations and the promotion of a female lead rather than the nonsense stories roughly hewn together without a plan (not even my analysis; J.J. Abrams confirmed it would’ve been better with a plan).
This trail of thought can go a little awry though so it should be stated that diversity is, in fact, a good thing in cinema and TV. It gives an increased number of actors, writers, and directors an opportunity. It promotes a wealth of stories, not seen before. And it attracts a wider net of audiences.
It can’t be the be-all and end-all of creating art however. Problems arise when producers think it’s enough and don’t do the proper work involved in actualising the reality of the stories represented by various cultures. For example, the female-reboot of Ghostbusters was widely ridiculed because it felt, from the offset, like a cheap cash-grab. By ridiculed, it is worth noting, I mean by audiences. Critics are a different matter.
As aforementioned with the Star Wars sequels, reviews can be skewed. Social media dictates a lot of what we’re willing to say today which is why any Marvel criticism can cause a stir online or why super popular figures are beyond criticism in their camps (Beyoncé, Obama, Oprah, etc.) With the politicisation of entertainment, it’s only become a tougher job to give an honest critique of a musical performance (lest you undermine how women are perceived by criticising Little Mix) or a movie like Nomadland (which said a lot about America without the distraction of remote entertainment or story). It takes tact to be a successful critic, these days.
We live in a time when politicians try to grab the public’s attention with the flair or a celebrity and when celebrities speak with the calculations of a politician. For all the good that’s come of these last years, opening the floodgates for diversity and tackling subjects previously not remarked on, we’ve somehow permitted political correctness to infect the arts. If history has taught us anything, it’s that many of the great pieces of literature (Huckleberry Finn), film (Citizen Kane), and TV (The Sopranos) were not created in a space of orthodoxy and permissiveness. Simply stated, the problem lies in thinking we can mandate artistic relevance and excellence.