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The Double-Edged Sword of Celebrity Activism

Celebrities face mounting pressure to speak out on social and political issues

By: EBR - Posted: Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Choosing to speak out on contentious issues also impacts one’s public image and can reduce a celebrity’s chances of endorsement deals and career opportunities. As U.S. basketball legend Michael Jordan once said: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
Choosing to speak out on contentious issues also impacts one’s public image and can reduce a celebrity’s chances of endorsement deals and career opportunities. As U.S. basketball legend Michael Jordan once said: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

by Indre Krivaite*

Taylor Swift continues her record-breaking Eras Tour across Europe, with over 160,000 fans set to see her live in Amsterdam this week alone. Topping the global list of best-selling artists for the second consecutive year, the pop star has captured hearts and minds around the world through her talent, authenticity, and universally relatable songs.

But Swift is more than a musical phenomenon; her influence transcends borders and generations, and presents her with the power to shape social and political norms. In September 2023, her Instagram story encouraging fans to vote in the U.S. state legislative elections helped drive a surge in traffic on Vote.org. The platform received over 35,000 registrations on the day of the post and reported a 1,226% jump in participation in the hour following it.

It’s no wonder European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas expressed a wish—ultimately unfulfilled—that Swift encourage the EU’s youth to vote in last month’s European Parliament elections. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, speculations abound over whether Swift will endorse Joe Biden in the runup to the U.S. presidential election in November, as she did back in 2020.

With millions of fans following their every move—and word—celebrities undeniably wield significant soft power. Their massive reach makes them uniquely placed to mobilize audiences, shape public opinion, and draw attention to issues that may otherwise be ignored.

Arguably, this also means they bear a responsibility for using their voice to advance social causes. But doing so comes with risks.

Take Swift, for example. For years, the musician has been a fervent advocate of gender equality, using her platform and music to address issues like misogyny, sexism, and body image. In “The Man” Swift highlights the different standards to which men and women in the entertainment industry are held, suggesting that if she were a man, her fashion choices and manners “could all be separated from [her] good ideas and power moves.” Meanwhile, the more lyrically complex “Mad Woman” addresses misogynist portrayals of women’s anger and the gaslighting they are often subject to when showing emotion.

Swift has also been a vocal ally of the LGBTQ+ community, publicly supporting the 2019 U.S. Equality Act, donating to groups like the media advocacy organization GLAAD, and promoting inclusion while denouncing homophobia, as she does in her single “You Need to Calm Down.”

Prior to 2018, however, Swift had been silent on social and political issues. As the country-turned-pop singer explains in the documentary Miss Americana, she was hesitant to speak up for fear of sparking a backlash that could upend her career. Growing up, she had watched this happen to the Dixie Chicks, a three-woman country band that Swift has cited as a musical influence.

After criticizing then president George W. Bush and the imminent U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the group received intense hate—and even death threats—from conservative listeners. The band was blacklisted by radio stations, its music sales plummeted, and its CDs were burnt or otherwise destroyed in public protests. Interestingly, the artists have since made a comeback. In 2020, they released a new album, this time as “The Chicks,” and in 2021, they collaborated with Taylor Swift on her song “Soon You’ll Get Better.”

The risk of alienating supporters who do not hold the same opinion is no doubt a major factor discouraging celebrities from engaging in politics. Choosing to speak out on contentious issues also impacts one’s public image and can reduce a celebrity’s chances of endorsement deals and career opportunities. As U.S. basketball legend Michael Jordan once said: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

Beyond this, sports or entertainment personalities may sympathize with a cause but not feel like it is their place to comment. They may consider themselves under-informed—or be wary of being perceived as such. Others may simply not see activism as part of their job.

In fact, celebrities who do advocacy work are becoming subject to growing scrutiny, with fans calling out public figures whose activism is perceived as inconsistent or performative. To cite one example, actor Leonardo DiCaprio has come under fire for using private jets and superyachts while actively advocating for environmental protection. Swift herself has been criticized for being selective in her advocacy, promoting a white and privileged form of feminism, and scaling back her efforts to advance social justice since the late 2010s. Clearly, simply speaking out isn’t enough—to be credible and effect meaningful change, celebrities have to put their money where their mouth is.

Staying silent, however, can also be a poisoned chalice. Speculation over whether Swift might be a Donald Trump supporter in light of her silence at the start of his presidency was in part what motivated the pop star to become politically vocal ahead of the 2018 U.S. midterm elections.

As the world becomes more polarized, celebrities will come under increasing pressure to speak out on one political issue or another. The debate around whether they ought to do so was most recently stirred by two French football players, Kylian Mbappe and Marcus Thuram, who warned compatriots against voting for the far-right party National Rally in the ongoing high-stakes election.

Public figures who use their platform to advance social justice or encourage political participation certainly deserve praise. It is unrealistic, however, to expect all artists to also be activists when their primary focus, rightly, is creating music and entertaining. Balancing this with the pressures of political engagement is a tight rope to walk.

*Senior Communications Coordinator, Carnegie Europe
**first published in: Carnegieendowment.org

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