I have to admit that I’m a little in love with the Hello Sunshine channel on Direct TV. Maybe it’s my huge girl crush on Reese Witherspoon, who certainly seems like anyone’s dream gal pal and my BFF — you know, if she actually knew I existed. Maybe it’s the fact that she focuses her channel on empowering and inspiring women by interviewing her own heroes and role models. Whatever the reason, I’ve been hooked to Shine on with Reese from the very first episode. It occurred to me while watching that some of the problems celebrities experience come from the fact that we have a consumer culture that wants to turn our celebrities into commodities.
We want a product we can package and take out at will, and it can be easy to forget that whatever talent or circumstance brought about their celebrity does not cancel out their humanity. The last few years of polarized politics has highlighted this fact. It’s okay if a celebrity expresses an opinion that agrees with our own. If, however, they present an argument that we don’t like, many people feel entitled to tell them to shut up and sing or not to quit their day jobs, as if celebrities aren’t entitled to have opinions. As if we didn’t put a B-list reality show hack into the White House.
You’re going to think that comment makes me biased, but I feel that any celebrity has the right to express their opinion. When Tim Allen stepped up to Trump’s defense, I didn’t do a happy dance. I like him as an actor, and I’ve enjoyed his show, Last Man Standing. It has even managed a balance that I think is helpful in our polarized society. When I heard he was a fan of a man I call incompetent when I’m trying to be nice, I didn’t stop watching his show. It’s a decent family show that presents a variety of view points. I didn’t call for him to zip it because I don’t agree with his point of view. I managed to, somehow, get on with my life and enjoy his work.
It doesn’t always work that way though. Many of us are old enough to remember when the Dixie Chicks received public censure for coming out against the President at that time. They received hate mail and death threats for daring to express their beliefs from the platform earned by their talent and celebrity. Their audience might be larger, but they have as much of a right to air their grievances and support their causes as anyone else. But that sort of backlash didn’t quit in the 90s. Even now, celebrities are told to shut their mouths- but only when they say something that someone didn’t agree with.
That’s where the hypocrisy comes in. We can’t just support free speech when the person with his or her mouth moving is stating an opinion we support. Free speech has to be present even when we don’t like what someone has to say. Especially then.
Celebrities aren’t actually commodities. We can’t keep them in the box of that one particular thing they do; especially because they are also citizens and fill many roles. They are often spouses, parents, and community members. If we want to have access to music and films and other arts, then we have to respect that the people who entertain us are also human beings- just like us. They put on their pants the same way we do- even if the price tag is vastly different. They just have a larger audience than most of us, and when they say something, the scrutiny is more extreme than when an average person posts a status update on social media.
With that being said, if a celebrity expresses a racist, misogynistic, or otherwise bigoted viewpoint, by all means stop supporting their work. It’s the same as un-friending a friend or family member for showing their prejudices. It’s a boundary, and we all have the right to be conscious consumers, not supporting people whose values don’t align with our own. But at the same time, we don’t have to publicly call for their censure or a boycott of what they do. Instead, we can raise awareness about our own motivations for no longer supporting their work without lighting up the Hobby Lobby tiki torches and heading out with a mob of angry citizens.
We’ve bought into the consumer culture so much that we think that because we buy an album or a movie ticket we have the right to tell the artists to keep their mouths shut. And we do actually have that right; again, it’s a part of our free speech. But that doesn’t mean they have to listen. In fact, if we’re entitled to express our opinions freely, it means that they are as well. Telling them to shut up is the equivalent of burning a book you don’t want other people to read because you didn’t like it. We can’t stand behind free speech only when it suits us.
Our celebrities aren’t supposed to represent our own belief systems. We have people for that: they’re called representatives, and they are voted in by the small number of constituents who actually vote at elections other than just the presidential one every 4 years. In the United States, representatives can be found by going to this website: https://www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative . We can figure out who is being paid to represent our viewpoints, and those are the people we’re supposed to be holding accountable. We need to be aware of how they’re voting, and if their votes don’t represent our value system, we can contact them regularly to let them know. If our calls and letters don’t create the necessary change, we then go out and vote for someone who will better represent our core values.
These are the people who are supposed to be held accountable because their very job description includes representing voters in their district. When we don’t vote, we really don’t have room to complain about what they do. But it’s more than just casting a vote at different intervals; we need to be involved in our communities and advocate for those values that we feel so strongly about.
What we don’t need to do is turn our celebrities into something they’re not. We don’t need to try to make them represent our own beliefs and censure them when they don’t. They’re going to to work and earning a paycheck just like us — even if theirs have a few more zeroes added at the end. They have just as much right as any other citizen to offer a dissenting opinion or to participate in civic activities or leadership.
We need to stop trying to pack them tightly into one box, allowing them out only when it suits us. We need to remember, instead, that we didn’t buy them with that album or movie purchase. We bought the experience their art provides, and while free speech allows us to express any opinion we’d like, it’s truly ignorant to tell them to be quiet when they express an opinion that differs from our own.