Thought Catalog

Do Celebrities Have A Public Responsibility?

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It’s considered pretentious these days to declare that one knows little to nothing about celebrities or celebrity culture. But the reality is there are people who don’t know or care about that space too much, and I happen to be one of them. Sure, I hear about things like the Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke VMA debacle. And I am certainly someone who considers myself informed with regard to most areas of news. But since college, I have found that I am quite uninterested in popular culture’s obsession with celebrities’ personal lives.

I like entertainment and I seek it out to admire and to critique it – music, movies, etc. are part of my academic interests as well, and I do not underestimate the power of celebrity culture on the culture as a whole. But for the most part, I really don’t care to know entertainers’ personal lives. I find the worship and obsession with celebrities quite disturbing. But I also find it fascinating. I tend to judge celebrities’ first and foremost on their work relative to my taste. Of course there is a whole host of new celebrities whose work mostly consists of supposedly performing as themselves (i.e. Reality TV stars). Nonetheless, our culture doesn’t judge celebrities solely on their work because of the scrutiny we have on their lives. Their lives and their work tend to fuse together in our modern media communications. And because of this, I think we often engage in discussions as to what celebrities owe their audience and the public as a whole. What is the public responsibility of a celebrity?

Consider the most recent brouhaha at the VMAs where Miley Cyrus’s performance took center stage of the awards ceremony. For me, while the whole incident typifies problematic perceptions of the intersectionality of Black, female identity; I interpreted the incident firstly as a tasteless, talentless, performance that was done for no reason other than shock-value. And secondly as the actions of a spoiled child star’s attempt to embody adulthood. But most of the nation was shocked. I saw the performance once or twice belatedly, read a few articles on the subject, and moved on. I wasn’t really shocked at the incident because stunts at the VMAs seem to be part and parcel of the show which is one of many reasons I no longer care for it. But also, celebrities often do things for attention, I don’t see why much of anything is a surprise anymore.

I was shocked at the reaction that gave Cyrus so much of the attention that she obviously craves. She got what she wanted I suppose – the nation talking. Still, many of my friends, some of who are older siblings to young girls like myself, or who have young children, did question her as a role model. And it begs the question of whether Cyrus has a responsibility as a role model to younger girls to portray herself in a way that is at the very least, not demonstrating to young girls that to be grown up solely has to do with overt sexual expression. Because like it or not, that is the essence of the communicative message that is being sent. Should Cyrus be more cognizant of that or is she free from any accountability to how the audience receives it?

Personally, I grew up with a wide range of music which included everything from gangster rap like NWA to pop culture hits like Sisqo’s Thong Song. Controversial artists like Eminem and sometimes overtly sexual pop artists like Britney were some of my favorite artists at one point. I also became obsessed with Caribbean reggae and raggaeton in my teen years which is probably the most sexist and objectifying music a girl can listen to. And to this day, I enjoy it knowing full-well that it is problematic but nonetheless ignoring that and choosing to enjoy it all the same. (And trust me, a lot of that music makes this summer’s “controversial” hit, Blurred Lines, seem really tame.)

Christian home or not, my parents were aware of what we listened to. They didn’t make a fuss because they didn’t expect us to do more than just listen to it. And for the most part, we didn’t. And that’s kind of the attitude I was raised with – enjoy that music/movie/television show all you want, but remember who gave birth to you (and had the right to woop your ass were you to step out of line of the values you were raised with). Despite enjoying some of the “worst” possible celebrity examples, my parents did their job – they raised me. They didn’t expect me to be raised by the media I was listening to, and they made that perfectly clear. And while I can’t deny the influence of some celebrity culture on my attitude towards certain things, I find it very hard to hold celebrities accountable to the public. For me, Miley Cyrus or Rihanna or Chris Brown aren’t artists for the purpose of raising your children or younger siblings; they entertain (or at least proclaim to do so). Raising children or being an example to your younger siblings is first and foremost, your responsibility.

I do understand the other side of the argument that for celebrities to have so many young people emulating them should require that they be more careful about how they portray themselves. But for me that is an imprudent, idealistic position to take. Hollywood and celebrity culture seems to feed off reckless, destructive, and attention-seeking behavior. Moreover, I think we often forget that celebrities are first and foremost, human beings. And even if we don’t like what they do, as long as they have the right to do it, they’ll keep doing it. The only way to really hurt a celebrity is the most certain way to achieve almost anything in this country – with the almighty dollar. If you don’t like how celebrities portray themselves, refuse to purchase anything of theirs. That is how you hold celebrities accountable.

In a perfect world, I think entertainers, artists, and all creators would be known only for their work. Then perhaps there wouldn’t be such a need for shenanigans to distract us from whatever their skill is. In a perfect world, celebrities wouldn’t have as much public influence as they do. But alas, here we are in this abyss of imperfection which we call, “the world.” Celebrities have as much power as we give them and we give them a lot without asking for much in return. The usual societal gatekeepers –shame and guilt- seem to not have as much power over them as it does the rest of us.

The truth is if the majority of the public wanted something better from our celebrity culture, we would have it. So if we’re going to claim that celebrities owe a certain responsibility to the public, it would do you and I some good to first take a long, hard look in the mirror; to ensure that we are not part of the problem. And to be certain that we’re doing our jobs too as parents, older siblings, and role models to young girls and boys, some of whom we unequivocally have a responsibility to. TC mark

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