The Chaos That Is Celebrity Performative 'Activism'

By Fadzai Nzuwa

May 2022

When it comes to the distorted class of activism common amidst celebrities today, are we partly to blame?

Thumbnail illustration by Tiffany Zhong

Thumbnail illustration by Tiffany Zhong

Whilst the world has had to grudgingly become acquainted with the hazardous virological behemoth known as COVID-19, celebrities have taken this time to do what it is they do best- perform. However, these performances have not been conjured by public demand nor have they been worthy of acclaim or attention for that matter. Instead, they have worked to illuminate the magnitude of disillusionment within “Holly-weird”.

As if to say the current happenings of reality haven’t been wearisome and stark enough, that celebrities have had to devise what can only be best described as tone-deaf charades of activism. During the burgeoning stages of the global lockdown, a bevy of Hollywood A-listers believed that a virtual medley of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ would be enough to remedy us through these arduous times. Along with pitchy Beatles renditions, an influx of baseless pleads from millionaires urging their job-less followings to donate was also thought to have been “doing enough”. Not to mention the virtual idle displays of balcony clapping, which have ironically ended up being nothing short of vain and self-congratulatory. Moreover, who can forget a certain High- School-Musical alumnus’ drunken Instagram-live rant? Which will be sure to go down in posterity as yet another ill-informed exhibit of elitism.

But, palpable recoils, indignance and lengthy diatribes aside, this chaos has catapulted a dialogue surrounding the differences between perceived activism and legitimate activism. A dialogue accompanied by questions, such as, has our reverential obsession with celebrity birthed this incessant class of warped activism? Have we finally grown tired, immune and adept to passive activism? Is this symptomatic of a larger issue concerning our culture’s misunderstanding of activism? And, is performative activism effective?

Activism is not an elite endeavour and its definition can seem speculative at best. What may seem to be the policing of celebrities’ acts of altruism is instead, a calling-out of lazy acts of supposed altruism. A resistance of an empty, egotistical and sensationalised brand of philanthropy. If fundamentally the core of activism is action sought to bring about change, why should celebrities bask in praise for inaction?

We must look inwards however, and ask whether our adoration of all things TMZ, MTV, and BET has essentially birthed the delusion of grandeur common amongst today’s celebrities. Some however, would refute this by stating that given celebrities’ wherewithal, influence and mobility they ought to be the pillars of goodwill and clemency in times of strife. And while this sentiment sounds agreeable, it illuminates our society’s standing with the concept of celebrity. In the fact that we expect celebrities to acclimate to social pressure and take on humanitarian personas.

On occasion we hear rhetoric along the lines of “celebrities are people too”, more often than not from celebrities themselves and while it’s an apparent truth, our adulation of them still persists. The realities of the rich and famous will remain unequivocally distant from most, but the rich and famous are people. And like most people they covet recognition and validation. Even in the face of an eroding economy, a vulnerable healthcare infrastructure and a global death toll continuing to peek well into the hundreds of thousands; celebrities still venture to mask their irrepressible desires for recognition and validation with pompous charades of “philanthropy” and seeming relatability.

What is promising however, is that the masses have grown privy to this passive form of ‘activism’ and have instead, re-directed their adulation towards those within our society, whose activism is deserving of it.

You can find more of Fadzai’s work here.