Professor looks at role of celebrities in social justice
While society may hail celebrities for bringing awareness to important social issues, their passion for the causes may be one side of a double-edged sword, according to Prof. Michael Strand (SOC). Strand opened up his class, Sociology of Celebrity, to the University community and local high schoolers as part of ’DEIS Impact College, which places emphasis on incorporating social justice into the classroom.
Celebrities can draw attention to struggles for social justice and empower those who may not have the power to fight for these causes, Strand said. A celebrity sponsorship can also broaden the movement and make it more inclusive, as more people can identify with the movement and feel empowered to support the cause.
A broadening of a movement, however, can be fatal to the cause, he said. “When you draw attention away from the main cause, it makes it so it doesn’t get attention anymore,” local 12th grader Keith Mukire said. Celebrities may also not be the right people to speak out about a cause if they are not personally affected by it or if they are not as educated about the topic.
However, Strand believes a celebrity’s involvement can also increase media attention and thus make a conflict “sexier.”
Audience member Izabella Nickel ’19 gave the example of Shailene Woodley getting arrested during the protests against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Though the protest was about Native American tribal lands, the media covered her arrest much more voraciously than the other protesters, and her involvement was praised by activists. In the case of Shailene Woodley and DAPL, Strand said, “it changes the movement’s concerns, in a way; it becomes more about indigenous rights and environmental justice.”
“[Celebrities] live in Hollywood, not North Dakota — they have to justify why they’re there. If they don’t live there, they have no specific sake of being in a place like Standing Rock; they have to kind of house their involvement in this more general discourse. This is not about these specific people; it’s about indigenous and environmental justice,” Strand said.
Celebrities also tend to focus on issues that don’t affect their position in society and avoid issues that threaten the status quo — like classism — and issues that may affect their popularity, such as religious issues and abortion. One of Strand’s points was that celebrities find it “easier to ally with ‘distal’ social movements in which they can justify their involvement.” One example is the Occupy Wall Street movement, in which there was no celebrity involvement due to the fact that it would have affected their position in society.
Strand also said that it is “extremely difficult for celebrities to advocate credibly for structural change.” They tend to advocate for a charitable fix because structural change could jeopardize their power and wealth, he said. This results in celebrities forming their own charities, such as the Mark Wahlberg Foundation for Opiate Awareness, an example given by Waltham High School student Loretta Mugisa.
When a celebrity starts their sponsorship of a certain social issue, they tend to personalize it, Strand added. For example, Taylor Swift advocates for feminism but makes it about herself and her female friends. “You need your actions to reflect what you say,” one audience member said. In the case of Taylor Swift, she tweeted her support for the recent Women’s March on Washington but did not actually march.
Another audience member said that when a celebrity starts to sponsor a cause, they bring their past with them, which can hamper the cause. In some cases, critics can decry the celebrity’s past as a reason not to support the cause, which ruins the chances of those who are trying to advocate for it, they said. If the celebrity missteps, all of the media attention is on that, which further destroys the cause.
In his lecture, Strand also discussed the meaning of power and its sources. He defined power as “the capacity to influence or control the behavior or beliefs of other people.” He gave examples of the government, military and social movements as examples of sources of power. When he opened the event to audience discussion, audience members spoke about the powerful social capital that celebrities wield.
Though these sources of power are very important, Strand said that celebrities “have a unique capacity to influence processes of social change.” He said that celebrity power is detached from “institutionally derived sources,” like the government, and that it brings great public attention to certain causes.
“There is no celebrity without a cause. I can’t think of any celebrities who don’t have a cause [or] … charities they support. You have to have a celebrity sponsor,” Strand said.