We’re not even far into 2017, and it’s becoming clear that it’s going to be the year that everyone remembers as “the year I became an activist.” In retrospect, this can be seen as both a good and bad thing. Now that everyone seems to have something to fight for, everyone is getting active, and with more people speaking, the message gets louder. Granted, there is, and always have been hundreds of issues worth standing up and speaking out for, so the fact that 2017’s overwhelming political situation (and various attached issues) might be some people’s first “cause” can seem a little delayed. But, there’s a first time for everything.
So now we’ve all had somewhat of a wakeup call. We’ve attended some protests, called our representatives, raised money, probably deleted (or at least unfollowed) a couple people on Facebook, and we’ve made sure that our core group of people is on the same page as us. This is a given, because at this point, you expect your friends to agree with you, to be fighting the same fight as you, to be preaching the same truths as you. If they’re silent alongside you the whole time while you speak out, you might feel like the fight is a bit unbalanced, or even unsupported. But if all of a sudden they speak against you? That’s a different story.
Open dialogue is good and can be highly productive if both parties are interested in the debate. But often, this is not the case. People end up talking in circles, getting angry, and driving a wedge between them and whoever else is involved. So why would you consider ending a friendship over ideals, but at the same time cheer on your fave celeb who spews anti-feminist, racist, or just ignorant statements without thinking? “Well they’re a great actor, so I’m really just a fan of their work, not their personality.”
What? We can’t be making exceptions.
We know the names: Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham, Shailene Woodley. We’ve heard them say ignorant things, both subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly, and yet, they are still getting jobs, still famous with millions of fans, and still saying ignorant things. At what point will we start holding our favorite entertainers to the expectations we would hold our own friends to? Yes, you can respect someone’s talent without respecting their ideals, but when we find ourselves in this debate specifically pertaining to those with celebrity status, the question changes from, “Can we look past a not-so-perfect personality and respect artistic talent?” to, “Who do we really want to give a platform to?”
With the rise of social media, being a celebrity today comes with way more responsibility than it used to. Brands are beginning to hand-pick models, actors, musicians, and athletes to represent their clothing, products, or just overall vibe, and for not just their looks, but for what they represent as an individual. Trans supermodel-on-the-rise Hari Nef was chosen in 2015 to represent a gender-neutral pop-up shop in Selfridges called “Agender,” and was also cast in a campaign for H&M-owned brand, & Other Stories, that featured a full cast and creative team of trans individuals. She also continued her acting career (the 24-year-old is a theater graduate from Columbia University) when she was cast in the second season of Amazon Prime’s Transparent, a show revolving around a family who’s father comes out as a transgender woman. Recently she’s made headlines as the first transgender model featured on the cover of Elle Magazine, the first trans woman featured in a L’Oreal campaign, and has been featured as a favorite in shoots and runway shows for brands like Gucci, Eckhaus Latta, Hugo Boss, and Vejas. Nef’s popularity is not only due to her spunky-sultry, soft, but androgynous looks, but also the way she has used her rising fame in the fashion world as an outlet to speak out about trans rights and representation, overall issues of diversity in the modeling and fashion industry, and simply the way that our society views “minority success stories” as something to be gawked at in awe. A triumph for activism! Now we can sit back and relax.
No, we can’t relax. It’s never the time to get lazy about representation. And for those in the spotlight, knowing that your words will reach exponentially further than the voices of others who are fighting for change, means you hold a responsibility to keep yourself informed. Nef is a prime example of someone who is using their air time or online space to bring important issues to the forefront of their industry, forcing brands and professionals to confront the problems and take a stance.
Nef’s candid opinions of society and her trailblazing role in the fashion industry make Amy Schumer’s claim that her racist jokes are okay because she plays a “dumb white girl character” on stage seem ridiculous and lazy. The biggest issue with celebrities like Schumer are that women around the world see her comedy and say, “Wow, she’s so likable and funny, I relate with all of her jokes, we would be best friends.” From there, Schumer gathers an alliance of women who relate to her and support her, and will keep supporting her, until they really, really can’t excuse her bullshit anymore. People are really ready to support and lift up someone who seems like them and is also successful, and in many cases, forgive them for being a half-there activist or just a lousy human. Not to say that people can’t make mistakes and grow from them, but a meager apology, in many well-liked celebrities’ cases, is all it takes for loyal fans to excuse someone who uses their time commercializing on stereotypical rhetoric and shutting down the voices of others.
These issues are complicated and activism surely isn’t easy, but it’s vital for us to support people that speak for us, and for everyone else who doesn’t have a voice. If we chose to only raise up voices of change with our money, likes, time, and conversation, we can begin to redefine the type of people who gain success in our world. This is how society is shaped, and we all have to play a role. We have to hold our icons to a higher standard, and hold ourselves higher. So make 2017 more than just your activist awakening, make it the year that you ditched your #problematicfave in exchange for someone who stands for what you do.
Text and image by Carina Allen