Celebrity and its discontents

A few weeks ago we were all talking about Angelina Jolie’s prophylactic double mastectomy; more recently we’ve turned our attention to Nigella Lawson’s relationship with Charles Saatchi, after he was photographed with his hands around her neck. Feminists have been active in these discussions, sharing opinions on Facebook and Twitter, airing them in newspaper columns and participating in debates on radio and TV. Some of them have used the opportunity to make good points about women’s health or domestic violence. But even when I agree with what’s being said, I still have mixed feelings about this kind of conversation—the public debate which is prompted by, and revolves around, the personal problems of a female celebrity.

For a start, it feels intrusive, especially when the woman whose experience is at issue hasn’t chosen to make an issue of it herself. In this respect, there’s a difference between Angelina Jolie and Nigella Lawson. Jolie made the choice to go public about her surgery, and she evidently wanted it to prompt debate (though it might be argued that she didn’t have a completely free choice: if she hadn’t released the information herself, it’s a fair bet the media would eventually have got hold of it anyway). Lawson, on the other hand, did not choose to be involved in the incident which was caught on camera, and the fact that she made no public comment on it suggests she’d have preferred it if the story had not become a media sensation.

There’s a dilemma here for feminists. For us it’s axiomatic that ‘the personal is political’, and we’ve always resisted the once-commonplace view (apparently still shared by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg) that domestic violence should be treated as a private matter. At the same time, feminists who work with women affected by domestic violence have been committed to supporting them in making their own decisions. In the case of Nigella Lawson I’m not sure we’re living up to that commitment. Though the media coverage has been generally sympathetic, the fact remains that her life is being picked over by all kinds of people who do not know her and have no idea what she feels. In her place, I think I would regard that as a second public humiliation.

When I’ve made this point, though, I’ve quite often been met with a response along the lines of ‘lie down with dogs, get up with fleas’. If you’ve made yourself famous by courting media attention, you can’t really complain when the attention is unwelcome. For people who make this argument—essentially, that celebrities are fair game—the relationship is one of mutual exploitation; both parties have chosen to play the game, and both must abide by its rules.

But there’s a third party in this relationship: the public whose appetite for celebrity news and gossip keeps the hacks and the paparazzi in business. That’s the other thing that has bothered me about the discussions of the past few weeks. Are feminists critical of the values of celebrity culture, or do we share the popular fascination with it? How far does our own practice reproduce the treatment of celebrities as, on one hand, ‘fair game’, and on the other, exemplary figures whose actions and words deserve a special kind of attention?

I’m sure all the feminists I know would maintain that what happens to Angelina Jolie or Nigella Lawson is neither more nor less important than what happens to any other woman. They would deny that they are interested in celebrities simply because they are famous: the point is rather that because they are famous, stories about them have a high media profile, and that gives feminists a golden opportunity to raise awareness about issues that also affect millions of ‘ordinary’ women. Along those lines, it has been reported that the publicity given to the Lawson/Saatchi incident prompted a massive increase in calls to organizations offering support for women experiencing domestic violence.

But the power of celebrity is a double-edged sword. It’s not just events in the lives of the famous that can set an agenda for political discussion, but also their opinions on the issues of the moment. Last week, for instance, the tennis player Serena Williams was reported to have criticized the severity of the sentence given to the football players involved in the Steubenville rape case: the victim, she said, had been drinking, and so was equally to blame for what had happened. Was this a golden opportunity for feminists to raise public awareness by confronting the rape-myths Williams was recycling? Or would it have been better to not to have dignified her comments with a response? Do we have to go along with the presumption that if someone is famous for anything, then it matters what they think about everything?

If we rejected that presumption, though, we’d logically have to do so not only when celebrities express opinions we disagree with, but also when they endorse our beliefs and support our political causes. Angelina Jolie was in the news last week too, talking about the plight of refugees from the conflict in Syria. Jolie, a UN ambassador, is widely respected for the seriousness with which she takes her philanthropic commitments, and the sentiments she expresses are generally ‘progressive’. Yet it’s still the case that her views get global attention not because of what she knows or what she’s personally experienced, but because she’s an A-list Hollywood star.

That is not to suggest Jolie has nothing of value to say: her example illustrates that women who are famous as actors, singers, supermodels or athletes may also be knowledgeable about political issues and genuinely committed to certain causes. Many feminist campaigns and women’s charities are supported by celebrities, and I know their involvement can make a difference. But without wanting to criticize the women concerned, my feelings about this remain mixed.

In advertising, where celebrity endorsement is a long-established strategy, the basic idea is that people’s consumer preferences can be influenced by the preferences of individuals they admire: they will want buy the products recommended by their favourite stars. This principle has increasingly been extended to charitable and political causes too. Which is fine if what you’re doing is basically fundraising: to the Syrian refugee who desperately needs a tent, it is a matter of indifference whether the people who donate money are principled humanitarians or just fans of Angelina Jolie. But if your aim is to build a political movement, people’s motives and convictions matter more.

For feminists there’s another problem with the use of celebrities as figureheads or spokespeople. One of the goals of feminism as a radical political movement is to give a voice to ordinary women, and to insist on the importance of their experiences. Celebrities command attention precisely because they’re not seen as ordinary. True, an incident like the one involving Nigella Lawson makes clear that they are not exempt from all the problems faced by other women; but we might still feel uneasy about the idea that it will be easier for people to relate to an issue, or that they’ll care about it more, if it’s personified by someone they think of as ‘special’.

It could be argued that the same celebrity ‘dazzle factor’ which has had a positive effect in Nigella Lawson’s case, promoting increased interest in and empathy with women’s experiences of domestic violence, also played a much more negative part in the celebrity abuse scandals which have recently come to light in Britain. The perceived ‘specialness’ of someone like Jimmy Savile was one reason why some of his victims felt unable to complain, why people who did have their suspicions either suppressed them or were not taken seriously, and why the police and other authorities preferred not to probe too deeply. Yet it could also be argued that without the media’s interest in celebrity, these cases would never have been pursued, the perpetrators would never have been exposed, and the victims would not have received any kind of recognition or compensation.

I am back to where I started—pondering my own mixed feelings about celebrity culture and the way we as feminists engage with it. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t engage at all. If we want feminism to have any impact, we can’t just refuse to get involved in the conversations everyone else is having. Commenting on celebrity news stories may be a good way to get our voices heard on important feminist issues. But isn’t the cultural obsession with celebrities an issue for feminists too?