It might seem counterintuitive that entertainment and cultural icons thrive during tremendous times of hardship, but history has proven it true. 

During the Great Depression, for instance, an estimated 60 to 80 million Americans went to the cinemas weekly, and from the grim realities of the economic crash of 1929 rose a new American fascination with the culture of Hollywood stars and celebrities. Now, rounding out the second half of a crisis-ridden 2020, celebrities and influencers are once again a targeted topic, but in a vastly different way. 

The context for this dialogue is sobering; people are facing unemployment and social unrest across the country in the midst of two public crises, COVID-19 and racism. On top of the disparities ever more exposed by the pandemic (think housing, health care access and more), millions have protested (and been beaten, tear-gassed and more) following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Dreasjon ‘Sean’ Reed and others.

After layoffs in these times of uncertainty and stay-at-home orders, many individuals have gone many weeks without payment from their unemployment insurance or pandemic unemployment assistance claims. The racial wealth gap today is comparable to the numbers seen in 1968, the year civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Shockingly, since the implementation of stay-at-home orders, billionaires’ wealth has grown by 20%, or $565 billion dollars. 

In a Facebook group for those who have applied for unemployment, an Indiana resident expresses their frustrations and asks others about their experience. 

Instead of addressing the chaos, some celebrities have used the global pandemic to further their success, or at least to express their frustrations about the stay-at-home orders.

“This is like jail,” DeGeneres said in her now-deleted YouTube video. “I feel bad for a lot of people. But I think a lot of people out there need words of encouragement, and that’s what I want to do.”

Celebrities who offer encouragement might be well-meaning, but words (and not action) seem hollow in comparison to the challenges facing the everyday lives of most Americans.

As icons of influence speak up (or stay silent) online, the celebrity culture that used to offer the masses a sense of escapism now seems out-of-touch and insensitive. This has led to much discourse on social media: Do celebrities have a greater social responsibility to society in times of trouble? Who will be celebrated through the pandemic? Has what we expect of celebrities changed, perhaps forever?

Defining “Celebrity” in 2020

Before social media, celebrities were typically actors, singers, musicians and models. The advancement of technology and the advent of the digital age (and especially social media platforms), however, have inherently blurred the lines of who and what a celebrity is.

“Celebrity” can now be broadened to include a person who has a consistent audience on any social media platform, a close proximity to a traditional celebrity, a blue verified check or ‘badge’ to authenticate their account and/or a following based on their profession (musical artist, actor, model, etc).

For example, Diontae Gray is a celebrity hairstylist from Chicago, Illinois, also known as Arrogant Tae. The people he is associated with include Nicki Minaj, Teyana Taylor, the rap duo City Girls and more. His overall network and talent put him in the spotlight and increased his visibility and engagement, despite working from what has been traditionally “behind-the-scenes.”

With the introduction of the term ‘influencer’ following YouTube’s push of the word ‘creator’ in 2011, the modern notion of ‘celebrity’ is more fluid and subjective today than in previous generations. A celebrity could be an influencer, but an influencer is not always synonymous with being a celebrity. In other words, the gradient of influence has expanded from the select few to a community of more-or-less everyday individuals.

Leveraging social media platforms, sponsorships and brand partnerships, influencers can have similar financial success to traditional celebrities. For example, YouTube beauty personality James Charles has a net worth of $22 million dollars. On a smaller scale, many influencers make hundreds of thousands a year and can live comfortably on their incomes.

These new age celebrities often enjoy influence and status with a niche audience and topic matter. People like beauty YouTubers NikkieTutorials and Jackie Aina were able to build their audience on their respective platforms of choice; their success has landed them with brand deals and the opportunity to create their own business ventures. Although followers who do not subscribe to beauty trends or social media personalities would not necessarily know who the three aforementioned celebrities are, because today’s celebrity/influencer spectrum is much wider than before, it also means that the fan bases are well-differentiated, and often deeper than they are wide. 

Our lives are increasingly guided and shaped by this parasocial relationship that the celebrity has with their fanbase—a one-sided relationship where the ‘persona’ or celebrity doesn’t know the fan, but the fan feels as if they know the celebrity, or even feels as if they have a deep relationship with them. While this may have been true since the dawn of celebrity culture at large, the digital age along with its accessibility, mass content and opportunities to look into others’ lives means that this altered relationship between celebrity and follower has new implications on social responsibility for the celebrity in times of trouble. 

Celebrities’ Disposable Power

Fans and viewers are the engagement that drives celebrities’ success in the 21st century. With each follow and view, celebrities get more opportunities to grow their brand. The engagement that celebrities bring to not only their page, but the platform of their choice, is what brings in revenue for all parties involved (celebrity, brand partnership, hosting social media platform). As a result of their success, celebrities can charge between $1,000 and $10,000 per post, depending on their follower count and the platform. For example, macro-influencer Ariana Fletcher, also known as @therealkylesister, has grown her platform into a multi-million dollar venture through her hair extension business and promoting well-known brands such as SavagexFenty and Fashion Nova on her Instagram account. 

And with money comes power; celebrities in modern times have an unprecedented political power to move their follower base and thus move politics and society at large. One striking example was when K-Pop stans registered en masse for Trump’s Tulsa rally to skew the number of attendees. They also repeatedly submitted footage of K-Pop stars on Twitter when a police department asked for footage of “illegal activity” at Black Lives Matter protests, and used similar footage to fill racist hashtag pages on the site in an effort to combat racially-insensitive Tweets. This followed the K-Pop group BTS’s $1 million dollar donation to Black Lives Matter. 

Thus, BTS not only made a financially influential donation, but kickstarted a much wider impact in social movements and politics through the mobilization of their fan base. If one Korean pop group can hold so much power in international politics, the question remains: should the celebrity have a vested interest and proportionate responsibility to assist both socially and financially in the time of global unrest? And are they responsible for the influence of their fan base?

Where do celebrities fit in during national unrest?

The unemployment rate as of August 6, 2020. Note: The current demographics of the United States are as follows: White: 76.3%, Black/African American: 13.4%, Native American: 1.3%, Asian: 5.9%, Hispanic/Latino: 18.5% and Multiracial: 2.8%.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on the life of the average person, and even more so on underrepresented and underserved populations. For example, it has left people unemployed at rates similar to the Great Recession, making getting by even more difficult than usual. Even as new jobs funnel into the system, people are still at risk of becoming unemployed as the number of coronavirus cases has skyrocketed and states are considering stricter measures.

Most people on the frontlines—fast-food and retail workers, health care workers, etc.—are the reasons celebrities, and the overall public, have the ability to comfortably remain in their homes. Many of the essential workers are people of color, who are also disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

The rate of essential workers by race as of August 6, 2020.
The rate of COVID-19 cases by race as of August 6, 2020. Note: The current demographics of the United States are as follows: White: 76.3%, Black/African American: 13.4%, Native American: 1.3%, Asian: 5.9%, Hispanic/Latino: 18.5% and Multiracial: 2.8%.

The movements happening across the nation are changing the way society views the overall culture and subcultures that exist in the United States, and the expectations that the public holds on figures of influence also seems to be heightened. On issues of racial violence, socioeconomic fallout and political decisions accompanying COVID-19, celebrities have a unique role to play to positively and proactively sway large segments of the public without ever having to go through Congress. 

“You can’t just be an actor who just acts, unless you want to just act and then don’t say anything,” American film director Brett Leonard said in a talk with Midstory. “If you want to say things [as a] celebrity, you have to take a great ton of responsibility for it.”

The sentiment holds true for other celebrities as well; in the middle of a pandemic, the Kutchers sold $50 bottles of “Quarantine Wine” and P. Diddy and Swizz Beatz considered charging fans to watch their Verzuz music battles. The suggestion of ‘Verzuz’ battles becoming pay-per-view raised eyebrows, with no mentions of where the proceeds would go. In total, the four individuals have a combined net worth of $1.17 billion dollars. 

One could say that the Kutchers intentions of donating the proceeds to various charities and providing a gateway for people to connect with each other are commendable. But these fundraisers also seem to deflect from the real financial power at Hollywood stars’ disposal, which certainly goes beyond the means of a few event-based fundraisers. 

While some celebrities have contributed financially through donations to relief funds or social movements, some of it could be seen as performative, and the number of celebrities who have contributed is smaller than those who have not. For example, Louis Vuitton and Off-White designer Virgil Abloh was recently heavily criticized for his matched donation of $50 to the bail funds for protestors. Abloh later clarified that he donated approximately $20,000 to various causes. Moreover, Abloh’s contradicting statements furthered the distrust in his clarifying responses. He condemned the looters during recent protests for vandalizing stores, specifically a luxury brand.

Many of these responses are only released following a peer speaking out against the silence of their counterparts, making the celebrities’ subsequent statement releases on the current state of the nation seem even more performative.

While average people may not have the resources or influences of celebrities, many individuals are doing their part; finding nowhere else to turn to for help, civilians have now turned towards each other in a time of need. Essential workers have been the backbone of the country since the start of the pandemic, donation-based crowdsourcing organizations have been flooded with campaigns to recover property damaged during protests, thousands have contributed to bail funds for protestors and non-protestors have shared resources and calling attention to injustices through social media. With the surplus of GoFundMe campaigns, people have donated millions of dollars to various funds and organizations in support of marginalized communities during the pandemic, for protestors amidst the new-age Civil Rights Movement and generally, each other.

When the individuals who aid in the success of the celebrity are pleading for assistance, it seems questionable for celebrities to ignore the pressing issues that are affecting lives daily. When the incentives included in the CARES Act expired, many essential workers returned to making minimum wage. And celebrities? Well, the future of celebrity culture is one more muddled and connected to the general public than ever before, and millions of eyes are watching to see whether people of influence and wealth put their money where their mouth is. 

Where do we go from here?

The power that celebrities have can reshape the structure of society; they have the power to employ a platform that they have worked for, but which also has been supported and made possible by their fan base. As 52% of Americans are considered middle-class, the average person might not have that much in common  socially and financially with celebrities. Nonetheless, the two do share a commonality: being a citizen of the United States, with both the rights and responsibilities that come along with it.

While celebrities were around way before the 21st century began, technology and social media have made their role more powerful and influential than ever before. They are no longer simply icons to adore from afar or untouchable, perfect images; they are real people who have platforms to constantly express their views and their lives—and massive followings who listen and often act accordingly. Their power has been evident for a while now, but 2020 seems to be a test of their sense of duty to wield that power productively and responsibly. If one fandom can leave a Trump rally with hundreds of empty seats (for better or for worse), what could more pointed action from the celebrities themselves do? 

Both the pandemic and recent social injustices have revealed weaknesses and divisions, but are also propelling us forward to think about what a more equitable society looks like. All citizens, and in particular the people with status and platform, hold sway in changing the collective future of the nation. And there’s no better time for celebrities to use their platform for the betterment of society (and in many ways themselves) than now.


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