Ironically, this article starts with a celebrity news hook. In February, rapper and poet Noname explained her refusal to feature on the soundtrack of the film ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’, about activist and Black Panther Party leader, Fred Hampton. Pointing out that the film missed out on Hampton’s anti-imperialist politics, as well as the Hollywood hypocrisy of dramatizing stories while Black Panthers are still imprisoned, is an example of a radical commitment rare for celebrities. It’s no surprise though – Noname has previously spoken out against celebrity culture and her own complicity in these structures.
Celebrity culture is one of these issues that is criticised ever so often for setting unrealistic aspirations, exacerbating mental health issues, and portraying an out-of-touch lifestyle, before being put back on its pedestal. While people have argued that the pandemic and the increase of seemingly democratising social media platforms is diminishing celebrity culture, the reliance on social media for activism can arguably have the opposite effect. In spaces set around a narrative of representation, as is the case in queer social media activism, it may not be the term ‘celebrity’ that is at stake, but rather the meaning of ‘queerness’ itself.
Celebrity culture and racial capitalism
The celebrity status has been around for a while, reflected in the ways we conventionally tell history through shaping the individual into a larger-than-life persona. (And no, herstory based on the same glorifying narrative, doesn’t change the premise). The origin stories of celebrity culture are linked back to Ancient Greece, to the rise of 18th-century Western individualism, or to the emergence of print media and the idea of the nation. For some time now, a celebrity has been someone with wider influence – who is relatable and unrelatable at the same time. Relatable through a quirky, or humanly flawed personality, and unrelatable through great riches and clout.
But of course, wealth doesn’t come from nowhere. The accumulation of wealth relies on global poverty and on structures of inequality, like an inheritance. Those who ‘make it’ against the odds, become ambassadors for the sketchy promise of meritocracy. The role of celebrities is to make things seem better. To spread hope, awareness, or unity – which took on new dimensions during the beginning of the pandemic. Messages of ‘hope despite the hardship’ convey a sense that we are ‘in this together’, equal in a way. Celebrities provide answers that don’t require a closer look at the origins of current structures of inequality.
Underlying these answers, racial capitalism is well and alive. Cedric Robinson coined the term racial capitalism to show that capitalism was never an equaliser, but originated through racism. Not as either cause or effect, but through the processes of racialisation within European nationalisms, perpetuating a system of imperialist exploitation and enslavement which continues in various forms today. Not coincidentally, Robinson wrote about the ‘Myth of Leadership’, arguing against the liberal order that universalised Western experience of an individualistic approach to political organising.
Celebrity culture rewards this approach to leadership, be it in high-paying industries, or in smaller social media spaces. Unlike the category of ‘class’, ‘celebrity’ is often relegated to a cultural realm separate from the political order, even though the status relies on the accumulation of social capital. A form of capital that contributes to reproducing the social divisions of racial capitalism.
‘Queer – as in buy my brand’
Being part of the celebrity class creates distance, and queer celebrities are hardly an exception. Speaking out comes with a different set of risks, including right-wing abuse or losing social capital. Yet, ‘using a platform for awareness’, often amounts to repeating issues that others have been saying for ages, while it develops the celebrity’s personal brand. Using the platform drives social capital as something that pays them. And pays the platform itself. And pays the rainbow coloured brand ads that are connected to the platform.
Similarly, when ‘regular’ people are afforded a celebrity status of some kind, brand endorsements and bigger stages often follow. ‘Democratising’ celebrity status by making it more accessible to some, arguably not only recreates individualising hierarchies but also fosters a binary between representation and structural change. Playing one against the other means that representation is rewarded with material gains that distance the individual from radical, structural changes, such as wealth redistribution or property abolition. Representation is often necessary for people to access basic means to survive and thrive, but it doesn’t have to be about assimilating into harmful systems.
Racial capitalism exists through global systems of imperial and racist exploitations. Systems that fuel homophobia, transphobia, ableism, sexism, etc. and that delineate the framework for ‘acceptable resistance’. Celebrity status is part of that, showing the rest that it can’t be that bad, look what they have achieved! The more activism buys into celebrity culture, the harder it becomes to imagine ourselves in other ways of being. It narrows down the type of activism that is rewarded, which is linked to money, fame, looks, and in a more liberal vein, the use of the platform, or the occasional grand gesture donation.
Of course, there are layers to ‘how famous’ a person is and how much influence they hold. This isn’t about individual judgement, but rather a call to refocus attention to those practices that aren’t built around social capital, to check our collective priorities, and to have a closer look at the foundations of celebrity culture. To watch the platform, then to step back onto the ground.