‘The Great Equalizer’: Covid-19, Celebrity Culture and Cluelessness

By Maren Mitchell.

In its September 2019 issue, Vogue’s cover montaged images of fifteen inspirational women, tag-lining them as ‘forces for change’. It was a beautiful concept and the content inside the magazine detailed the vital and extensive work that made them worthy of that coveted cover slot. However, there was one limitation: Nine of the fifteen women were actors or models. It is unreasonable to suggest that the majority of people who do good for our society are famous.

As I progress I think it’s important I caveat the following: I am not undermining any of the work done by celebrities. I know celebrity in most cases is the outcome of years of stringent hard work. Likewise, it is admirable if people who find themselves “famous” decide to utilize fame to do good. All I am arguing is that there are many others out there who are just as worthy of our admiration: in most cases, more so.

“Hollywood” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by shinya.

We live in a celebrity culture and have done so for many decades, following the rise of consumerism. The phenomenon was then catapulted by social media which further tightened the knot between our fascination and the lives of these VIPs. They are anomalies, living a life vastly different from our own. We elevate them above ourselves. We have spent years looking up to them. It seems to have taken a pandemic to highlight that just as we look up to them, they look down on us. And the reality of that is a bitter pill to swallow.

Firstly, we have Gal Gadot and her famous friends’ patronising ‘Imagine’ cover and her #WeAreOne Instagram selfie from her walk-in wardrobe. Arnold Schwarzenegger told us to stay at home whilst smoking a cigar from a jacuzzi in his backyard. Kate Winslet taught us how to wash our hands because she once played an epidemiologist. Pharrell Williams encouraged us to donate to support frontline workers despite having an estimated worth of $150 million. Bella Hadid posted a questionable selfie of her eating a burrito informing us of why it’s so important to stay at home. Katy Perry, Madonna and Cheryl appeared to acknowledge their important role in keeping spirits up by posting videos of their songs being sung from balconies in Italy – they all turned out to be fake. And finally, my personal favourite, Madonna describing Covid-19 as ‘the great equalizer’ from a rose-petal strewn bathtub.

Not all celebrities should be tarnished with the same brush here. Some are genuinely entertaining and successfully providing amusing content for those in insolation. But to preach and inform us as if we relied on their guidance during a pandemic is condescending. It is insulting for them to think we would stay at home merely because they told us to do so from their multi-million-pound mansions. We stay at home because it is the right thing to do to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our communities, and because it is the advice of top health experts. But we should give celebrities some slack here. We’ve given them far too much power for far too long and inevitably it has gone to their heads. During elections and referendums, we have looked for their advice. During natural disasters, we donate money via funds they have created. Charities pay celebrities to front marketing campaigns. Let the magnitude of that sink in.

Jennifer Lawrence at the 83rd Academy Awards Red Carpet  IMG_1081
“Jennifer Lawrence at the 83rd Academy Aw” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by RedCarpetReport

But if Covid-19 has taught us anything (and it is teaching us a lot), it is that we need experts who know what they’re talking about. We need scientists and nurses and doctors and teachers and police and pharmacists and carers and social workers and health professionals, to name but a few, and it is their advice that is of value. That’s not new. That is how it has always been. But somewhere along the way, their voices have been muffled by famous people speaking a little louder. Of course, celebrities should have an opinion and the possibility to voice them, just like everyone else. The opinion that actors, for example, should ‘stick to acting’ is a dangerous one. The problem lies within the weight we place on these opinions. Their opinions should be adequately valued; they need to be taken down from their hyper-inflation. We need to turn up the volume for the Voices that matter the most.

Maybe September 2019 was too early to expect the ‘non-famous’ to occupy more than six of the fifteen boxes on that cover of Vogue. But times are changing. Maybe in our post-Covid-19 world, we will begin to assign more value to those who truly deserve it.

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