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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Celebrities should take a stand and we should push them to do so

There are plenty of valid criticisms of celebrity activists, writes Shelina Janmohamed, but they can and do bring about change

Laura Dern, Nicole Kidman, Zoe Kravitz, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley at the 75th annual Golden Globe Awards ceremony earlier this week.  Mike Nelson / EPA
Laura Dern, Nicole Kidman, Zoe Kravitz, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley at the 75th annual Golden Globe Awards ceremony earlier this week. Mike Nelson / EPA

If you want to do an eye roll about the outpouring of celebrity activism at the Golden Globes earlier this week, you won’t be the only one.

There’s always a lot of cynicism and sneering when stars decide that they are saviours for our social woes. Who isn’t familiar with the feeling that a celebrity's publicist decided they need some good PR and what better way than to connect to a charity or a cause to improve their image? When you see some of their photo opportunities, your eyes might roll so far back that they fall out of your head.

The Golden Globes is the first big ceremony after the #MeToo campaign, which was championed by several Hollywood female stars. Many women at the ceremony wore black in support of #MeToo and #TimesUp. Some brought actual "real-life" activists who work for women’s causes as their plus-one guests, many of whom were women of colour.

The criticisms of celebrity activism are often very valid. Women's harassment is universal and very real, but when privileged white beautiful women stood up and protested sexual harassment, they got coverage in a way that the stories of those women around the world who protest every day abuse never did. So aren't we right to feel cynical?

We absolutely should expect celebrities to take a stand and we should push them to do so. We complain if celebrities are too fluffy or airheaded and without meaning, and yet we sneer if they are political. We can't have it both ways. Why do we expect our artists and creators to be anodyne? Our greatest actors, sportspeople, artists and celebrities of all types have one thing in common when we remember them: they changed the world in some way, they did something differently, and it made the world better.

When it comes to the question should celebrities be doing activism, my answer is absolutely, yes! If you're not going to use your platform, then what's the point of having it? And if your art doesn't have a point of view - if you don't have a point of view as a public figure - then what's the point of you?

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Celebrities have a public platform and they must use their power and influence. But in turn as fans we have a responsibility to hold them to account and ensure that it's more than just PR fluff and image. We shouldn't expect less from celebrities, but more.

Take the case of Muhammad Ali, who used his platform to change views both about racism as well as the Vietnam War. We should expect celebrities to use power and influence in similar ways - it may not be on the same scale, but anyone who has got platform should show leadership. We shouldn't be cynical, we should be exacting.

You can argue that these beautiful celebs just brought activists onto their platforms for some reflected glory. You might be right, and we need to puncture that ego. But hopefully those activists and their causes have now made it onto the agenda, by using the platform of those celebrities.

Feel cynical, or don’t feel cynical, that’s up to you. But if you see a celebrity giving a platform to a cause, make sure they live up to it. Ask them what more they are going to do. Encourage them. Point out when their actions are compromising the cause they are championing. Hold them to their claim. Make sure they deliver.

Celebrities are not necessarily good at making policy or law – but why should they be? Change needs multiple skills. Bringing something to our attention, changing the conversation, keeping it fresh in our minds, having the platform to put the subject onto the table, raising money: these are things celebrities can do. But we need to know where their limits are, and ensure the right experts participate at the right time.

Yes, there will be plenty of valid criticisms of celebrity activists, but the bottom line is that they have a platform. Not only can they make change, they must.

And if you’re a celebrity reading this then make sure you use your platform to get people to open their eyes, not to roll their eyes out of their heads.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World