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Celebrities And A Bigger Cause: How Does Their Advocacy Affect Society?

Jessica Oliveira |
September 29, 2014 | 4:08 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Everyday people look up to celebrities in many ways. From which products to purchase, to the hottest restaurants to eat at, or even where to find the latest looks. Celebrities have become the face for many of our everyday decisions and have opened our eyes to many products, trends, and topics that might have passed by unknowingly.

“What makes a celebrity a celebrity is their ability to command attention, and direct attention onto a problem,” said Henry Jenkins, a communication professor at the University of Southern California.

Jenkins believes that celebrity philanthropy can be quite effective if the cause is well-aligned with who the celebrity is and what they stand for.

“They are a vehicle or a resource that is part of a larger conversation,” Jenkins said.

Celebrity philanthropy can cause various impacts on the celebrity’s self image, the foundation or cause in which they support, and even upon us in society. While we might not be aware of a celebrity’s impact of opening our eyes to controversial topics that have always existed, it is a regular occurrence.

Last week, a handful of A-list celebrities caught our attention as they disclosed their personal stories and feelings towards some of the current topics facing our country. Environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio spoke at the Climate Change Summit expressing his feelings towards clean air and a livable climate.

Emma Watson speaks at the Climate Change Summit about the 'HeForShe' campaign. (Twitter/@VanityFair)
Emma Watson speaks at the Climate Change Summit about the 'HeForShe' campaign. (Twitter/@VanityFair)

Emma Watson, U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador, took the stage to deliver an impassioned speech about the “HeForShe” campaign, addressing the gender inequalities that still exist today. Watson shared personal accounts she has faced as a woman and the impact of gender stereotypes.

READ MORE: Best And Worst Reactions To Emma Watson's UN Speech

On Sunday, Sept. 9, a handful of celebrities attended the Rape Treatment Center's 40th Anniversary brunch in Beverly Hills. Amongst the community, victims, and supporters of the foundation, celebrities including Jane Fonda, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, and many other recognizable names attended as advocates for the Rape Foundation.

According to the Associated Press, Fonda hosted the annual brunch and shared a personal account of her mother’s experience being sexually abused as a child. Fonda’s emotional story captured the audience as many in the crowd felt a strong connection with the actress.

Alison Trope, a Communication professor at the University of Southern California, who focuses on popular culture, media and entertainment, believes that when a celebrity speaks, they are automatically given a different stage presence from the audience.

“When you look back at the history of stars, there has always been a desire to see behind the scenes and hear these personal tales and stories from celebrities. So when a celebrity opens up in that way, and tells something personal about their past, or their mother, it makes us feel that much closer to them. It further embeds us in this relationship with a celebrity,” Trope elaborated.

Due to this personal connection the public feels with celebrities, they hold a strong force on topics that might not have originally interested us, but when a celebrity focuses on that topic, our interest is instantly sparked. Many times, these controversial topics or causes have been around for years, but only become a strong interest until a celebrity engages and connects us to it.  

Harry Styles joined in (@harrystyles)
Harry Styles joined in (@harrystyles)
Trope has researched heavily into celebrity philanthropists. In one of her classes last week, she held a discussion about Watson’s “HeForShe” speech to see how her students reacted to the feminism topic being delivered by a female celebrity.

“When she spoke, one of the things that’s interesting is she didn’t say anything new, but all of a sudden, because it’s coming from her mouth and because she has this stage, and because she went viral, the generation of my students is all of a sudden listening, because she’s their peer,” Trope said.

USC Professor Jenkins felt the same way about how Watson reintroduced the topic of feminism and encouraged the generation “who read and watched Harry Potter” to also become a voice to this cause. When celebrities introduce topics of conversation to our generation, it is then up to us to choose how to respond and to make our own voices heard.

READ MORE: Operation Smile: Celebrities Smiling For A Cause

“When she speaks with such authority to the United Nations and when she calls her generation to rethink its relationship with feminism, that does carry an enormous rate,” Jenkins said.

Celebrities are the face to thousands of charities, philanthropies, and controversial causes, promoting both their own image, the charities support, as well as affecting the view of society. While the charity can receive outstanding benefits from a celebrity’s affiliation, it also has a significant impact on the celebrity’s self-image.

Paulette Kam, Managing Director of BWR Public Relations, believes that as long as there is a positive connection between a celebrity and the charity in which they are supporting, there can be great impact on the celebrity.

“It’s important that they have something valuable and meaningful to say, and have an opinion that comes from a place of knowledge,” Kam said.

While celebrities are able to bring attention and light to a cause, there are many times in which repercussions exist due to a celebrity’s affiliation and their private life, especially when the organization and the celebrity’s off-screen persona do not harmonize well together.

“If they are just jumping on a popular bandwagon, it can have a negative effect,” Kam said.

Stefani Canin-Mullen, the events and special projects director of the Dream Foundation, agrees that celebrities create a huge impact on charity events in our society today.

“A lot of people will come to an event based upon who’s going to be there, so I think that celebrities absolutely help sell tickets,” Canin-Mullen said.

Kam emphasized that “organizations should be very cautious in advance about whom they choose to represent their charities.”

This is a precaution that has been taken into consideration with the Dream Foundation. Canin-Mullen, who has been with the Dream Foundation for 16 years, expressed that while celebrities certainly bring focus and awareness to the foundation, there are instances where the attention can be looked down upon depending on the social status and image of the celebrity.

“We’ve been in a couple situations and instances, I cannot tell you who it was, but we’ve had to say no to certain celebrities who are currently endorsing us, because it definitely can negatively impact your mission,” Canin-Mullen said. “If you’re promoting that celebrity and say that they’re a really trashy celebrity or they are somebody who doesn’t have a good reputation, yet they are affiliated with you, we really feel that it can hurt the organizations image,” Canin-Mullen said.

Canin-Mullin doesn’t think that a charity should be penalized due to the support of a celebrity that might not be looked at positively by the public, but unfortunately they can certainly “negatively impact the mission.”

While it’s important for charities and causes to be selective when looking for a celebrity face to help bring awareness to their need, it’s also important to choose a celebrity that is going to embody the cause and do more than just donate money. Some celebrities who might have bad reputations may also use philanthropy to reintroduce themselves and strengthen their images.

Trope, who has extensive research experience with Hollywood philanthropy and was published in “Commodity Activism," commented about Angelina Jolie as a multinational celebrity missionary who was one looked at very differently.

Angelina Jolie is a perfect example of somebody who changed her image completely over time, and wasn’t taken seriously perhaps in this initial transition between this kind of bad girl image, and changing over to this pure image of ‘mother to the world’ and ‘mother to refugees.’ And she managed to transition. But, I don’t think that can happen with every celebrity,” Trope said. 

Miley Cyrus is a good example of someone with an on-the-edge celebrity image, but her involvement in philanthropy hasn’t made society rethink their feelings toward her. During the MTV Video Music Awards, she surprised the audience by bringing attention to the homeless youth organization, My Friend’s Place. While the organization received new attention and funding, Cyrus’ infamous image still prevails over her charity participation. 

As the celebrity population is able to captivate our attention easily, it’s important that we make our own decisions and judgments rather than mirroring the same side as the celebrity, especially in controversial topics. However, with the large role that celebrities play have on the public, there certainly is a correlation and presence of society shadowing a cause for the sole purpose of following the celebrity.

“People want to dress like a celebrity, follow a celebrities taste, the cause affiliation becomes a piece of this larger puzzle,” Trope said.

Reach Staff Reporter Jessica Oliveira here. Follow her on here.



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