I’ve read enough fawning profiles of Angelina Jolie to know that she seems smaller in person. But when I saw her onstage Monday for the TIFF premiere of First They Killed My Father, which Jolie directed, I realized that’s probably true of all celebrities. They’d have to be giants to meet our expectations.
For me, that’s particularly true of Jolie. In high school, my best friend and I were, to put it mildly, obsessed. We scoured video stores for her most obscure movies (we might be the only people on Earth who’ve seen Cyborg 2), collected posters and magazines, read her book, and even made T-shirts in her honour. But 15 years later, she looked like just another person.
As a teenager, I loved Jolie because she represented everything I wanted to be. Sure, her public image was slick marketing, but to my young mind, it never felt contrived. She was rebellious but poised; she had tattoos and blood vials, but she also cared deeply about the world. I, too, wanted to be a strange, sexy do-gooder.
Celebrities attach themselves to causes all the time — especially now that social progressivism is “woke” — but she was the first celebrity I loved for having done so. (At the time, the other celebrity crusader was Bono, so no.) She cared about the UN, Cambodia, and genocide. And so, therefore, did I. While Jolie never called herself a feminist (that was apparently a bridge too far), her glossy politics helped lead me down that path, toward less mainstream ideas.
More recently, celebrities have helped drive the rise of a certain brand of broadly palatable, saleable feminism. When I was interviewing young women and girls for my book, I always asked them what had sparked their interest in feminism. Inevitably, the answer was Beyoncé or Emma Watson or both. Indeed, when I asked a professor of gender studies how she accounted for the recent doubling of enrolment in her program, she told me, “It’s Beyoncé” — and she wasn’t entirely joking.
As Zeynep Tufekci writes in a 2013 American Behavioral Scientist study on the power of attention, the public spotlight can make or break a movement. The trick is figuring out what — and who — will smother a cause, and what will ignite it. Social movements, Tufekci argues, have long been overly reliant on mainstream media for buzz-building; without coverage, a movement might die before it’s even really born. She believes one way to hurdle over that disparity is to effectively use social media, which can both obviate the need for traditional coverage and also generate enough buzz to force coverage.
But what better way to achieve those aims than to attach a star to your social cause? The right celebrity pairing can amplify a whole movement. But it can also change it, and not always for the better. “In constructing their legitimacy to speak for a movement,” writes David S. Meyer in his widely taught paper “The Challenge of Cultural Elites,” “celebrities frequently alter the claims of that movement to more consensual kinds of politics” — that is, to make its claims more agreeable to the broader public. Such alterations, he adds, can redefine movements to the point that they stop asking crucial questions. In attracting the most people possible, the movement becomes diluted.
We see this with Beyoncé, Watson, and Jolie. We see it in Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift — pretty much any celebrity who wants to stay relevant in the Trump era. “Public displays of support for the ‘afflicted’ of the world,” write the authors of the 2011 book Transnational Celebrity Activism in Global Politics, “can be a way for activist celebrities to raise their profile above the commercial world.” Of course, we already know this: we non-celebrities have been doing the elevating for decades, before Jolie was even born.
The problem with this, as Meyer suggests, is that it can whittle down nuanced political arguments to blanket, inoffensive statements. Inequality is bad. War is bad. Hate is bad. Many celebrities, at least publicly, never move past the brand of simplistic activism that makes them so attractive to the teenage demographic. I liked Jolie and cared about the same issues she did because the only thing she demanded of me was to like her and care about the same issues she did.
That goes for today’s stars, too. We are asked to pay attention (which we’re already doing), but learning more and doing more seem entirely optional. Increasingly, thanks perhaps to social media, there’s a backlash when the target audience for a given message knows more than the celebrity espousing it does. As our world has become increasingly polarized, our tolerance for privileged activism has dwindled. We’re less ready to forgo the issue and simply gush over the celebrity.
Jolie, for instance, was caught up in a scandal over comments she made about casting for First They Killed My Father. In a recent Vanity Fair interview, she says her film crew asked Cambodian children to steal money and then come up with a lie if caught. Jolie described it as a improv game used during the casting call; the article suggested Jolie’s crew had needlessly and cruelly dangled money in front of children from “orphanages, circuses, and slum schools” only to snatch it away. The internet agreed with Vanity Fair, calling the casting method monstrous and sickening.
And so, at the premiere this week, I half-expected to see an oblivious monster — someone who would prove the old axiom about meeting your heroes. And I expected the movie to be awful. But it wasn’t. Based on a memoir of the same name, First They Killed My Father is told from the perspective of a little girl named Loung. We experience the horrors of the Khmer Rouge as she does: through a five-year-old’s initial haze of incomprehension and disorientation, through to a seven-year-old’s determination to survive in a landscape of routine terror. The film is haunting and deliberate, but it often lingers too long, sacrificing empathy for events, making Loung more a conduit than a character. Still, it’s worth watching. You will learn things worth learning.
During a question-and-answer session after the screening, Jolie poked fun at herself for first learning about Cambodia while filming Tomb Raider — her own pop-culture gateway into more serious issues, and more serious action. She was gracious and glamourous, evincing what felt like real warmth and friendship with the real-life Loung, whom Jolie has known for almost two decades. Could it have been for show? She’s a professional, after all. But I noticed she stood with her arms crossed, fidgeting before the intense gaze of the audience. Or maybe she was just cold. For all that she represented in my adolescence, Jolie’s TIFF appearance confirmed her neither as an angel nor a fraud.
If anything, it just made her real. Perhaps if I’d known that one day I’d meet Jolie in the flesh, I would’ve told my teenage self: it’s not nearly as important as you think it is. For all their flaws, celebrity causes can be gateways to action and awareness, so long as we acknowledge that they are not the end game. So long as we understand that while celebrity action may be the most high-profile, it’s not the most important: ours is.
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