How The Trump Era Has Changed The Role Of Celebrities

"Celebrity is fleeting. In a few rare cases it lasts, but not without excruciating attention, magnificent guidance, luck, and an ability to adapt to changing styles and tastes." So begins New York Times-bestselling author Julie Klam's latest romp through pop culture, The Stars In Our Eyes: The Famous, The Infamous, And Why We Care Way Too Much About Them. Klam's study gives us a playful look at the absurd ways celebrity has shaped our very serious feelings about everyone from scheming Bachelorette contestants to Audrey Hepburn, dwelling hilariously on how strange our day-to-day obsession with, say, Beyoncé's Instagram feed, really is.
But Klam also explores our increasing expectation that stars act as cultural ambassadors, interpreting and refining our values well-outside the reach of the stage's spotlight. In an era grappling with cultural crises like the systematic restriction of abortion rights and resurgent white nationalism, to name just a few, we wondered how the role of the Hollywood influencer is changing under the Trump administration — itself a celebrity presidency — and if those pressures had shifted our relationship to Hollywood. Check out our Q&A below.
Where does our insatiable obsession with celebrity come from?
"The real value of celebrity culture is escapism. Watching them, reading about them, is a way to take us out of our doldrums and into another place; it doesn't cost much and it can be less than five minutes, but we are out of here. The reasons we are obsessed with them are many, and the celebrities we like are our gods: we look up to them as examples of what we want. And even when they are just like us, they are not us: they are more beautiful, more talented, more athletic, more impressive — they are the us we want to be. And for those moments when we are with them, we can take a break from being us, too. It doesn't last forever, but sometimes that's enough.
"We start to feel that our favorite stars are, like, part of our lives — they become the friends that we just don't actually know. And we get caught up with them in the way that we do with the real people around us — because we get to watch the movie of their story unfold. In reality, no one has any idea what's going on in someone else's marriage or divorce or public scandal, but we love to think of it like a story that we're involved in, too, and that we know all the players."
How has social media changed our relationship with celebrity? On the one hand, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook Live all make us feel like we're really engaging with our favorite stars. On the other, we only see exactly what they want us to.
"Today all of us have unlimited access to every famous — or infamous — person's life. In the Golden Days of Hollywood, there was no Internet with a billion gossip sites, no TV channels devoted to twenty-four-hour breaking celebrity stories, no Behind The Music, no actresses tweeting stills from their self-produced sex tapes.
"Celebrities use social media as a way of controlling that narrative, of reclaiming their brand. And it can make us feel much closer to them. I was looking at Drew Barrymore's Instagram (I adore her), and she posted this very human picture of herself with grey hairs, without tons of makeup, and everyone was applauding her. And, of course, that's part of her brand, too — to feel approachable and known by us. So it's a choreographed give-and-take. They want us to imagine that they're inviting their followers in, but it's only ever for a very 'branded' look.
"But I don't think any of us really knows how it would feel to live under the microscope like that — to have people you don't know love you or hate you or worship you or blame you. That must be extremely difficult to handle.
"Celebrity gives people the opportunity to be heard. But they have to be careful that they are clear and the public is getting the right messages from them: there is no script."
How do you think the stakes have changed for celebrities during the Trump era — considering, especially, that now the President himself is a former reality TV star? Since they've invited us so deeply into their lives via social media, do famous people owe us insight into their political stances as well?
"The definition of celebrity has changed in the Trump era. 50 years ago, celebrities had a specific talent (and kept their personal lives at a dignified remove from the spotlight), but the Kardashians have changed all that. Now, more and more, there's a hunger for that self-perpetuating fame — and once we've got it, we think those voices should have influence anywhere, even the White House. The only talent these people need is is a colossal lack of shame. It's as if Twitter followers and Instagram subscribers are the same thing as actual merit, real qualification for a job.
"But I also think celebrities now worry less about offending their fan base, because the stakes are so much higher. Our political differences are no longer just over tax rates or policy disagreements — they're tangled up with human rights debates and crises of inequality. Celebrities know people are listening. I don't think they owe us their political views, but they're also more outspoken than they ever have been before. And, of course, it can have some serious backlash."
On this week's episode of "Strong Opinions Loosely Held," we're thinking about Taylor Swift as a self-styled feminist and wondering why her brand of women's equality rubs so many the wrong way. Is it fair to judge Swift, who isn't an overtly political figure, like that?
"Taylor Swift's job is to perform music — she's not our moral compass, though I think young, powerful women like her are judged more harshly because of a wider absence of strong role models for girls. And we use politics as a way to feel closer to them — as a way of engaging, of laying claim to her world because she's invited us so deeply into her life via social media. That's one of the biggest differences between celebrity now and the fame of the past. They used to be completely curated by their publicists, and now, with the seemingly limitless access we have through Instagram and Twitter, it gets so much messier."
Want to keep thinking about the politics of celebrity? Check out this week's episode of "Strong Opinions Loosely Held" for more about Taylor Swift and her problematic persona as a feminist.

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