You’ve seen it before. Perhaps you’re watching the Academy Awards and expecting the winner of Best Supporting Access to give a quick acceptance speech thanking her cast, director, crew, and family, but perhaps she takes more time to pontificate about human rights, war, or politics. Most people I know groan when yet another entertainment superstar shares his opinion about issues unrelated to acting, singing or dancing. But skills in entertainment may not always preclude intelligence or sincerity.
Tom Hanks knew this when he published his stump video for Barack Obama on Youtube. He says sarcastically, “As an official celebrity, I know my endorsement has just made your mind up for you.” (Hanks managed to slip into his endorsement a mention of George Washington’s transference of power to John Adams, an event recently depicted in the John Adams miniseries he recently produced for HBO, but perhaps that is beside the point.)
I like Tom Hanks’ approach. By posting a Youtube video, he is not forcing anyone to listen to his message; those who are interested can seek it out. Additionally, I find Tom Hanks to appear to be an intelligent figure in entertainment, always making smart and challenging choices in his own career. I would then extrapolate and assume that he is likely just as intelligent with other decisions as well. But his argument in favor of any presidential candidate is only as persuasive to me as I want it to be.
This is just a recent example, but there is no doubt that it is common for celebrities to use their voice and popularity to bring awareness to a human rights or political cause. Perhaps the type of popularity in which individuals have the ability to reach an audience of millions instills responsibility or desire to reach people in a way that not many others can. Anyone in their place who cares about an issue would regret not bringing awareness before they no longer have the ears of a wide audience if given the fleeting chance.
I believe that anyone with the ability to communicate to millions of people and touch so many lives has the responsibility to raise awareness to important issues. However, the most uncouth outbursts at an inappropriate time (think Michael Moore at the Oscars blasting President Bush) make the celebrity seem like a jerk for using their status to spread their message and take attention away from *the issue* and place it on *the celebrity.* Don’t forget that celebrities all along the political spectrum use their status for awareness, including Charlton Heston with his From My Cold, Dead Hands call as chairman of the National Rifle Association.
Should celebrities just shut up and entertain us, or does great responsibility follow great popularity? Is it right for some celebrities but not others, or is it the timing or situation that makes the message acceptable to hear? Or do you believe only the celebrities who agree with you should have the opportunity to speak out for issues that they find important?
Updated April 12, 2011 and originally published May 13, 2008.