The Pedestal Problem

Why do we expect our celebrities to be Nelson Mandela-level thought leaders?

We celebrate megastars with a collective fandom that verges on idol worship. You could post a photo of Beyoncé, for example, showing up at an awards show (or eating a cupcake or taxidermy-ing a frog) with simply the word "Flawless" and instantly get favorites and likes. "Yaaas queen!" your followers might respond. "She's SO brilliant!"

There's this magical unity in that sense of community. In an Internet that is filled with trolls and sites that have subsections dedicated to hate, it's a wonderful feeling to gather 'round and celebrate the beloved stuff. It's almost the exact opposite of the Outrage Machine. We occasionally trade in the angry catharsis for a massive feel-good slumber party, where we all virtually braid each other's hair and strangers tell us they think we're really, really pretty.

And yet, as positive as that feeling can be, there is something going on with the stars we hoist up to the mantle.

Consider Amy Schumer, our most recent "queen" and "imaginary best friend," near-simultaneously put on the pedestal and violently shoved off of it. As soon as the crowd started cheering loud enough, there was criticism that she was racist and not feminist enough (and, apparently, not respectful-of-Lucasfilm enough). There's already a cycle of celebrating her then dragging her, as if she's in some sort of sick eternal washer-dryer of public opinion.

There is a nuanced discussion to be had about the recent Schumer backlash. And, to be clear, this is not a covert defense of Taylor Swift -- that Nicki Minaj tweet on Tuesday was some white feminist bull s**t. Still, something strange is going on when we automatically expect all of our (mostly female) idols to be not just awesome at whatever they are famous for, but to also be progressive icons and thought leaders. When did we start treating our stars as ideas? (Note that, duh, obviously, everything is terrible and of course male stars are not held up to the same standards.) 

This is certainly a mode of modern fandom. With the limited access, pre-tabloid culture, it was impossible to enact or even discuss these expectations with as much intensity and regularity. But social media has risen up as a sort of panopticon, watching (and generating think pieces about) every element of celebrities' existence.

It's at least strange that we now ask pop stars (or comedians or actresses or whatever) to fill a set of roles that it used to take a politician, religious leader, author, activist, expert, scientist, Nobel-prize winner and vegan chef to satisfy. This is a phenomenon that is clear not just in the realm of (often-valid) social justice shaming. It extends to everything we expect stars to represent. 

Jennifer Lawrence was accused of body-shaming because she talked about food too much. Mindy Kaling has been repeatedly accused of race blindness, despite being a prominent woman of color. Even the arguably flawless Beyoncé is criticized outside the realm of what we should expect from her as an artist. Her public endorsement of feminism is not enough, she has become a centerpiece for discussing sex positivity and intersectionality, a figurehead for the dialogue around the modern state of womanhood.

Across all levels of celebrity, it's very much OK for people to ask public figures to NOT say and do awful things. It's a different thing when a certain stratosphere of fame comes with the requirement of actively being amazing at articulating social justice issues. When we ask stars to weigh in on feminism or the confederate flag, we force them to take a stance. If they say they'd rather talk about their work, they are seen as weak or even bigoted. We demand them to be absolute champions and threaten to eviscerate them the moment they fail to be Nelson Mandela-level heroes.

Stars shouldn't be beyond reproach, but we expect way too much of them and maybe need to consider outsourcing our role models beyond the red carpet. Art is not an automatic extension of activism. If someone is good at singing or dancing or dressing up and pretending to be another human being for 90 minutes, that's really great. It doesn't mean they're going to be able to save us from the white supremacist patriarchy.

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Follow Lauren Duca on Twitter: @laurenduca.