Celebrities and their politics
Do we judge celebrities by their politics? Their take on issues important to my generation — gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights, human rights, public health — is just as good a criterion as any. I judge them by how easily they avoid difficult discussions on their social media, or by how they willingly engage in them, like the lovely and surprising Ethel Booba. I judge them by how they react to Woody Allen or to Chris Brown. Respecting the private lives of celebrities is one thing; on the other hand, we give celebrities a platform, so we might as well support those who educate themselves and willingly use their platforms for the better.
The world judged Ellen DeGeneres for her politics last week. A celebrity who has always exemplified warmth and inclusivity, Ellen was a media darling who braved the consequences of laying bare her sexuality and was posed to inspire people for generations to come. I watched as people alternately praised and castigated her for sharing a laugh with George W. Bush at a baseball game and calling it kindness. It’s rhetoric we’ve all heard before — that we can all agree to disagree; that we should love one another regardless of our differences.
These are excuses that we make for ourselves when we encounter people who don’t share our political beliefs. I’m thinking of the college activist who chooses to be quiet during family reunions when their pro-Duterte uncle toasts the President’s latest incomprehensible speech or when a subordinate chooses to be quiet as a boss makes an offensive gay joke. Silence is the lubricant that allows our daily interactions to go smoothly — or, in the cases of those in a position of inferiority, it allows them to retain their place in employment, in family or in social groups. Many of us have daydreamed about retorting against someone for possessing archaic nonprogressive opinions, but not all of us are in a position to do so, knowing that honesty might come with a price.
Things are different and stakes are higher when we talk about celebrities choosing to befriend or support those guilty of, say, war crimes that affected millions of people. Ellen DeGeneres isn’t a subordinate. Power and wealth of her own right would have shielded her from the consequences of being polite to the former president and still acknowledging his crimes. But of course, we say, maybe she didn’t want to be rude; maybe she wanted to be kind. However, most of the time this kindness is just the avoidance of difficult conversations. It’s the choice to be uncritical. To be friends with the perpetrator of a gross injustice isn’t breaking barriers—it’s taking the easy way out. To extend the hand of friendship to someone who committed grave misdeeds or benefited from them, isn’t kindness; it’s choosing to be kind to one party, and ignoring the voices of their victims. It sends a clear, though maybe not deliberate, message that a celebrity’s support for disadvantaged groups is less important than their comfort.
Ellen DeGeneres and her hypocritical politics are a world away, but the question of how to deal with those of differing opinions confronts us daily as we try to navigate a Philippines where the gap between rich and poor, powerful and powerless, is widening daily, in all areas of life — health care, access to basic services, income, political accountability, and now even transport. It’s a question of whether we’ll continue to support those in power who perpetuate or increase this gap, and continue to support those celebrities who fawn over them. I am looking at celebrities who greet foul, ridiculous senators “happy birthday” on Instagram. I am looking at those who make the fist sign in their photos or those who link arms with members of the most heinous political families. I am looking at those who would rather trade the discomfort of their principles to remain in their oblivious social circles where only money, privilege and gossip matter, while Filipinos starve, suffer or die. Maybe, once in a while, we can risk being straightforward or honest or rude. It’s more important to be good than to be nice.
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