Column: Celebrity advocacy provides catalyst for national dialogue

In this Jan. 15, 2015 file photo, Angelina Jolie arrives at the 20th annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards at the Hollywood Palladium, in Los Angeles. (Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)

In this Jan. 15, 2015 file photo, Angelina Jolie arrives at the 20th annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards at the Hollywood Palladium, in Los Angeles. (Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)

As a society, we lament the politically and socially active celebrity. When Angelina Jolie publicized her decision to have a double-mastectomy in May 2013, followed by the decision to have a hysterectomy, in order to limit her chances of developing cancer, divisive national conversation exploded. However, a few years after her initial announcement and operation, she appears to have had a positive impact on women’s health. According to a report from the Huffington Post, a poll of 1,000 Austrian women found “92.6 percent…said they knew that breast reconstruction was an option after a mastectomy, up from 88.9 percent…shortly before [Jolie’s] announcement.”

In using her celebrity platform, Jolie empirically benefitted knowledge of a key women’s health issue. Beyond health issues, celebrity advocacy for social and political issues represents an area of even greater potential.

The New York Times ran a long profile on actress Ellen Page last week, discussing the actress’ rise from screen darling to social champion for LGBTQ rights. After coming out in 2014, she has begun to use her celebrity platform to speak for those without the amplification public life provides.

While at the Iowa State Fair this past summer, Page located Senator Ted Cruz, the Tea Party poster boy for anti-gay, conservative-Christian fringe politics. Cruz schmoozed Iowans with his signature Texan charm, capitalizing on his uncanny ability to draw people in through his speaking. Page asked several questions of Cruz regarding his stance on LGBTQ rights and current social issues. The New York Times reported the exchange as follows:

“Page prodded Cruz on the historical invocation of religious liberty to justify discrimination. Cruz countered that Martin Luther King Jr. had called upon Christians to help end segregation. Page pointed out that gay employees in the United States could be fired for their sexuality.”

In the age of carefully crafted anodyne celebrity positions on controversial and divisive social issues, Page provides a welcome sense of change. The profile references Page’s “radical empathy” as the key to her ability to transition from actress to social activist. Public figures often remark that celebrities who champion social or political causes have an out-of-touch, elitist attitude.

Actor Matt Damon summarized it as such, responding to complaints regarding his social activism for teaching unions and safe water, saying the public “[feel] preached to by privileged actors. I get that totally. I don't want some Hollywood actor finger-wagging at me, telling me what I should and shouldn't do.” Such is the standard reaction. Cynicism has come to choke public perception, obfuscating potentially altruistic celebrity efforts.

While criticism is a valid and necessary aspect of any public discourse, the publicity generated by celebrity advocacy, as well as the sense of community and support should be met with an open mind. Though Ellen Page cannot be the sole spokesperson for the LGBTQ community, as Caitlyn Jenner cannot be the sole voice for transgender persons, their advocacy encourages the conversations we need.

Tim Cook, in discussing his decision to come out as gay, explained his rationale: “…I needed to do something. Where I valued my privacy significantly, I felt that I was valuing it too far above what I could do with other people, and so I wanted to tell everyone my truth.” Celebrity advocacy not only encourages greater self-worth and comfort for the oppressed and silenced, but the ensuring national dialogue can create rapid change.

Without national dialogue and the celebrity embrace of the gay community, the Supreme Court decision of Obergfell v. Howell, which legalized gay marriage in all 50 states, would not have occurred. The rapid, decade long public about-face regarding gay marriage is due, in large part, to the advocacy of public figures. Discussions started through public displays of political and social activism, such as Ellen Page’s confrontation with Ted Cruz in Iowa, help to motivate young voters to take notice of the political process and the enormous stakes involved.  

Social issues that affect the youth should be afforded the utmost support of the media. Celebrity voices amplify coverage of social and political issues, attracting media coverage that would otherwise not exist. Angelina Jolie has motivated a revolution in the discussion and practice of women’s health, just as Caitlyn Jenner has inspired a public discussion and warming to the transgender community.

Though celebrities mostly use their status for self-promotion and pointless exercises in grandiosity, the few celebrities who use their notoriety and power for good warrant our respect and attention. So long as lives are saved and dialogues are had, then dismissing celebrity advocacy will only serve to hold back the nation and humanity.

Celebrities occupy a special niche in society, and their platform should continue to shine a spotlight on issues that matter, for now and in perpetuity.


Christopher Sacco is opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at christopher.sacco@uconn.edu.