When celebrities rule the Earth
It might seem trashy and trivial, but sometimes it is important to trash celebrity culture.
You might have noticed that in recent months spiked writers – and none more so than me – have expended considerable effort writing about celebrity culture. If we are not lambasting Jamie Oliver’s healthy eating crusade, we are criticising the involvement in Africa of everybody from Bob Geldof to Brangelina and Madonna. No sooner have we finished questioning public reactions to Steve Irwin’s death or Richard Hammond’s accident, than we launch into the muck-throwing circus surrounding the McCartneys’ divorce.
So why would spiked writers be so interested in the flotsam and jetsam of the celebrity world? Actually, some of us are not that interested – at least not in the antics of the individuals concerned. But we are concerned about the broader impact of celebrity culture in helping to reshape public life.
The main criticism people direct at the media obsession with celebrities is that it clogs up the news with trivia. But it matters more than that today. As serious public and political life has withered, so celebrity culture has expanded to fill the gap, often with the encouragement of political leaders desperate for some celebrity cover. What happens in the phoney world of celebrity is often symbolic of developments in the real world that affect us all – and rarely for the better.
Take the fuss over Madonna. Since I criticised her high-profile attempt to adopt a Malawian toddler, irate pundits from around the world have asked how anybody could want to make that boy live in poverty in Africa (see Why is Madonna treating Africa like a little orphan that needs adopting?). In fact the argument is not really about Madonna and her new trophy baby. What she is doing embodies the new ‘caring colonialism’ underpinning Western attitudes towards Africa. It is based on the assumption that we know what is best for them, and the West must save Africans from themselves (see the father’s latest claim that nobody told him they were taking his son away for good).
This popular attitude effectively reduces the whole of Africa to a helpless orphan that must be carried on our backs, just as Madonna carried her chosen ‘son’ for the cameras in a native sling. And it rides roughshod over any notion of African self-determination – consider Madonna’s attempt to rewrite Malawi’s law against foreign adoptions, or the way that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt effectively took control of Namibia’s immigration laws to protect them from the press earlier this year (see Brad, Angelina and the rise of celebrity colonialism, by Brendan O’Neill). The implications become clearer still when Hollywood figures like George Clooney start fronting campaigns for more international military intervention in Darfur (see The Hollywood Actor’s Burden, by Brendan O’Neill).
Shallow celebrities and their PR machines did not invent these patronising attitudes of course. They take their lead from today’s political campaigns on African poverty, led by high-powered statesmen such as UK chancellor Gordon Brown. But such grey-suited initiatives excite little interest. It tends to be only when an earnest celebrity such as Geldof or a glamorous one such as Madonna becomes involved that the issue of Western attitudes towards Africa and the developing world come under the media spotlight. The celebrity red carpet smoothes the way for further interference, often pushing the boundaries of what can be done further and faster than anything in formal politics.
It is a similar story on other issues where politicians who lack genuine public authority or appeal of their own seek to hide behind TV personalities. In this, at least, Jamie Oliver truly is a role model. His campaign on school meals has made far more impact than the government’s endless droning on about healthy eating. In so doing, however, it has intensified the unhealthy and unjustified preoccupation with what we eat and the scaremongering about children’s health. Whatever his intentions, Oliver has been acting as a mouthpiece for New Labour’s parent-bashing message – but unlike politicians, the self-righteous celebrity is considered beyond serious criticism. Thus when Tory front-bencher Boris Johnson made some mild criticisms of the TV cook’s campaign, he was not only forced to withdraw the remarks but the Conservative conference immediately passed an emergency motion hailing Oliver as a ‘national hero’. When any celebrity is placed on a political pedestal like that, those who put him there need to be brought back to Earth (see Jamie Oliver: what a ‘tosser’, by Rob Lyons).
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Other developments in celebrity culture today help to throw the spotlight on wider problems in society. The bizarre global reaction to the death of Crocodile hunter Steve Irwin, for example, and the way that the world seemed to gather at the hospital bed of BBC Top Gear’s Richard Hammond, both highlighted the way that celebrity death or tragedy now seems to be one of the few things around which people feel able to ‘come together’, if only on the internet. spiked writers have been upbraided for challenging these reactions. But (unlike certain others) we were not criticising the individuals at the centre of the dramas. Our arguments concern the way that such spasms of mawkish celebrity worship expose the lack of anything more meaningful or durable around which people can focus collective emotions and feel any sense of community today (see Crikey! He was only a TV presenter, by Rob Lyons and ‘Speedophile’ panic, by Steve Bremner).
Similarly, we have no wish to get involved in the divorce scandals now surrounding Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills. But the way that the gory details of their relationship have been splashed across the media has assumed a wider importance. This celebrity divorce case is now on the frontline of the battle to redraw the line between what should be private and public in society. It is rewriting the law on what can be made public, and accelerating the slide into exhibitionism and surveillance in our tell-it-all culture. The importance of this goes way beyond salacious gossip for those of us who want to defend the idea of both a proper public sphere where we can debate serious questions, and a private sphere where people can live and think as they see fit (see I want a divorce from the McCartneys, by Mick Hume).
Overall, it is possible to see how the circus of celebrity culture is becoming an arena in which real issues are being played out before the public gaze. In a society without genuine heroes and leaders it can respect, many are drawn to celebrities and personalities who command affection, and can now use it to influence everything from African aid policy to the contents of a child’s lunch box. The appeal of their campaigns is often based on the perception that they are not like politicians. Indeed they are not. For a start, nobody elected them to speak for us. And they are not accountable for the impact they make.
On spiked, we try hard not to be too po-faced or sanctimonious about celebrity. If people want to have fun following their favourite personalities, fair enough. But it is another matter when our trashy celebrity culture starts to colonise the public sphere and shape debate on political and social issues. So criticising the creeping advance of the celebrity empire seems likely to be a continuing theme on spiked – at least until the Next Big Thing comes along.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.