When Leonardo DiCaprio finally reached the Oscars stage to be hailed as the giant he knows himself to be, he accepted the award with practiced grace and a plea for us to take better care of the earth. He won, waxed poetic about the future of the human race and got off the stage. It felt hollow.
As I wrote last week, there is a growing expectation for celebrities to speak out on social issues, that our most famous use their platforms for progress. To some extent this desire for our celebrities to speak up for the most pressing causes has always existed, but recently the public has reinvested a degree of trust in our celebrities to serve as representatives. Recent efforts by the likes of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Kendrick Lamar and others have re-popularized the image of the celebrity as activist, as ambassador capable both of understanding injustice and presenting it more perfectly than the less-famous can.
Cultural critics often point to a handful of landmarks as the moment the public collectively gave up on the infallibility of celebrities. It’s reductive to delve into the need to separate the art from the artist, but it’s relevant that there’s been a resurgence in believing celebrities have the potential to make serious change.
The abundance of websites dedicated specifically to pop culture and the rise of reality TV have created a culture of viewing celebrity that is both more evolved and less realistic than that of just 10 years ago. Critics are finally recognizing being famous for the skill that it really is. Now more than ever fame is recognized as a talent itself, one that must be maintained and upheld by a variety of unreliable factors, rather than as a meritocratic system. Conversely, we expect more of our contemporary celebrities, choosing to believe they can engender change in a way the non-famous fail to.
A certain type of celebrity, often termed a socialite, existed primarily as the object of the pre-Twitter zeitgeist’s ridicule. Say what you want about Paris Hilton, but dear Lord did she get mistreated by the press. Any celebrity, particularly a woman, deemed “talentless,” and by that I mean ungifted in the fields of acting, music or sports, faces unfiltered cruelty and mockery. Yet the ubiquity of Kim Kardashian over the past near decade has initiated a minor sea change in the way we consider fame.
Kim Kardashian is quite possibly the most skilled person in the United States at being famous. She has turned it into an art and a farce, ruining every argument that she has discernable talent. Kim, with the help of E!, has allowed audiences to consume an immense portion of her life, opening up opportunities for profit never before conceived. Her app, which exists for the sole purpose of following her, commodifies her daily routine.
She understands the intricate mechanics of fame. Reality TV promises unfiltered moments that leave the audience wanting more, for more walls of privacy to be taken down. Kim is constantly reinventing ways to show off more of her life and thus commodify every hour. Her choices, particularly her decision to wed the most-discussed musician of a generation, are programmed toward ubiquity. It’s easy to be skeptical about Kardashian’s unending success, but it’s easier to be impressed. She’s cracked the algorithm of staying famous.
Even as it becomes increasingly obvious that celebrity is something attained by rigid calculation rather than artistic genius, we simultaneously demand our stars stand as moral authorities. Celebrity has always presented its fair share of parables, namely how to share a private life with the public while still leaving fans wanting more. Now more than ever we know how tumultuous the fame machine is, yet we still want it to produce social leaders. It’s hard to find those voices the internet so desperately, and rightfully, wants when maintaining fame is a calculated act rather than a creative one.