Celebrity Activism: Helpful or Harmful?

by Laura Moldoveanu

Who has the power to change the world? Oftentimes, fans put pressure on celebrities to speak out against or in support of global issues. But this does not take into account whether celebrities have an obligation to get involved or what exactly is expected of them. Does fame equal power? On one hand, simply spreading awareness to their large audiences can be helpful. However, celebrity activism can also come across as tone-deaf at best and actively harmful at worst.

Celebrities are public-facing; people idolize them. This comes with certain expectations from their fans which manifest as parasocial relationships. A parasocial relationship is characterized by close relationships between celebrities and their fans, with the fans closely following the celebrity’s media persona. The fans then develop a “sense of intimacy, perceived friendship, and identification with the celebrity” (Chung and Cho, 2017). It sounds innocent enough, but viewing a celebrity as your “comfort person” can lead to mass disappointment when the celebrity does something that does not align with their fanbase. For example, the rise of “cancel culture.” Through social media, “public figures adopt a sense of authenticity that often allows them to act as surrogates for real-life friends and mentors” and the fans feel very real betrayal when their carefully constructed perception of the celebrity is shattered (Schacter-Brodie, 2021).

Cancel culture often dredges up old controversies, with current events like activism, the risk of “cancellation” is heightened. If celebrities speak out, then their statement is picked apart. They can be seen as butting in where they don’t belong or getting involved in something they don’t understand. If they stay silent, then they “don’t care” and fans are disappointed. It seems to be a lose-lose situation. However, this does not mean that there are no good examples of celebrity activism that had a positive impact.

In 2021, singer and businesswoman Rhianna spoke out against Asian hate to her over 150 million Instagram followers. She attended protests and partnered with Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey’s #StartSmall initiative through her Clara Lionel Foundation to donate $3 million to Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) organizations (Nakamura, 2021). Other examples from different social issues include singer Alicia Keys, who frequently speaks out about political concerns and police brutality, and actor Elliot Page, who advocates for LGBTQ+ rights (Compendio, 2023). These are just a few examples of celebrities who use their platforms to educate and advocate.

But speaking out is not always taken positively. Accusations of performative activism, promoting misinformation, and taking attention away from actual activists are common critiques against celebrity activism. For example, in 2017 when the #MeToo movement, which was coined by Tarana Burke, a Black woman, in 2006, gained mass popularity only after the hashtag was used by actress Alyssa Milano, a White woman (Ohlheiser, 2017). This led to criticism that the movement was commandeered to amplify the voices of privileged, wealthier, cisgender, white women and left other identities behind. It’s a complicated situation. While the #MeToo movement still spread awareness about sexual assault and allowed people to share their stories, it drifted away from one of its original intentions of supporting marginalized groups in favour of supporting celebrities.

Apart from this, celebrity activism can certainly do more harm than good in some cases. For example, actress Jenny McCarthy who, in the process of speaking up for medical autonomy, is spreading the disproven notion that vaccines cause autism (Specter, 2013). Or in March 2020, when Gal Gadot and multiple other celebrities banded together to put out a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” to support people during the COVID-19 lockdown, which was labelled as tone-deaf, performative, and generally useless (Caramanica, 2020). Lastly, in September 2023 when Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher (who is a long-time fighter against human trafficking) provided a character witness for convicted rapist Danny Masterson describing him as “an outstanding role model and friend” (Associated Press, 2023).

For many fans, staying silent is not acceptable either. This leads to public pressure to speak up. Take Selena Gomez who, in response to backlash about not speaking up regarding the Israel-Palestine war, wrote via an Instagram story: “I wish I could change the world. But a post won’t.” (Gomez, 2023). Her statement is an interesting take, considering her 430 million Instagram followers. It brings up the meaningful question of whether celebrities have to involve themselves in social issues. Getting involved just to save themselves from backlash isn’t exactly a worthy reason.

But why do people target celebrities instead of those who create or have the most power to affect such issues, like lawmakers? In a way, celebrities are accessible. It’s easy to leave a comment on an Instagram post or make a TikTok “calling out” their actions. It also goes back to the idea of parasocial relationships. Fans feel like their idols have the responsibility to support the same issues they do. There are more worthwhile people to target for support. The question becomes how to find them and how to contact them. Aside from key figures, many government representatives are faceless and even nameless. It’s difficult to involve lawmakers when you don’t know where to look for them. Look up the representative for your constituency online. For example, the federal governments of the United States and Canada have lists of representatives along with their contact info. So people shouldn’t waste their time and energy harassing celebrities on social media (unless they are calling out actively harmful information).

That’s not to say celebrities should be doing nothing. They have huge platforms that can be put to use to spread awareness. Education and involving people who are actually involved in the issue avoids some of the controversies outlined above and allows celebrities to get involved in a meaningful way. However, celebrities are not the be-all and end-all of powerful figures. What about putting pressure on lawmakers instead? Use your voice, or your keyboard, to make a difference in your own right.



Works Cited

Caramanica, Jon. “This ‘imagine’ Cover Is No Heaven.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Mar. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/03/20/arts/music/coronavirus-gal-gadot-imagine.html.

Chung, Siyoung, and Hichang Cho. “Fostering Parasocial Relationships with Celebrities on Social Media: Implications for Celebrity Endorsement.” Psychology & Marketing, vol. 34, no. 4, 2017, pp. 481–95, https://doi.org/10.1002/mar.21001.

Compendio, Chris. “50 Celebrity Activists with a History of Protesting Injustice.” Good Good Good, Good Good Good, 25 Mar. 2023, www.goodgoodgood.co/articles/celebrity-activists.

Gomez, Selena. @selenagomez. Instagram, October 30.

“Kutcher, Kunis Apologize after Penning Character Letters for Former Co-Star Convicted of Rape | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 9 Sept. 2023, www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/ashton-kutcher-mila-kunis-danny-masterson-letters-rap e-trial-apology-1.6962093.

Nakamura, Kate. “10 Inspiring Moments of Celebrity Activism in 2021.” Global Citizen, Global Citizen, 8 Dec. 2021, www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/celebrity-activism-2021/.

Ohlheiser, Abby. “The Woman behind ‘Me Too’ Knew the Power of the Phrase When She Created IT – 10 Years Ago.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 19 Oct. 2017,

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2017/10/19/the-woman-behi nd-me-too-knew-the-power-of-the-phrase-when-she-created-it-10-years-ago/.

Schacter-Brodie, Zoe. “Celebrities Are Not Your Friends: The Danger of Parasocial Relationships.” University Wire, Uloop, Inc, 2021. http://myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.proquest.com%2 Fwire-feeds%2Fcelebrities-are-not-your-friends-danger%2Fdocview%2F2522426307%2F se-2%3Faccountid%3D14771

Specter, Michael. “Jenny McCarthy’s Dangerous Views.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 16 July 2013, www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/jenny-mccarthys-dangerous-views.

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