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It’s “The Argument.” I’m Jane Coaston. And those are celebrities, atoning for white privilege in public in the summer of 2020.
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— every unchecked moment, for every time it was easier to ignore than to call it out for what it was.
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Call out hate. Step up, and take action.
It’s a video that went around social media after George Floyd was murdered. And it was, in a word, weird. I did not like it. Personally, I wanted the elimination of qualified immunity and reforms to policing at the state and federal level. Instead, I got white celebrities being awkward.
The mixing of celebrity and politics is something that fascinates me, and it’s not new, to be clear. Celebrities are incredibly powerful people in American culture. And when they run for office, for better or for worse, lots of people vote for them. But what is the celebrification of government doing to our democracy and to our culture? And is this what we really want?
My guests today are Jessica Bennett, contributing editor to Times Opinion, where she leads our gender coverage, and Frank Bruni, contributing Opinion writer, who’s also got a subscribers-only newsletter.
Frank, Jessica, thank you both so much for being here.
Happy to be here.
Delighted to join you.
So, we’re going to talk today about the very strange world, to me, of celebrity and politics and how they feed off of each other. And then I want to talk about what we expect, or perhaps, more accurately, should expect from famous people.
I think to just clarify our terms, when I’m thinking about celebrities here, I tend to use something I call the mom test. In other words, does my mom, who pretty much only watches PBS, know who this person is? And so that eliminates basically all Instagram and TikTok influencers, but includes people like Catherine Zeta-Jones. But Jessica, where do you think our fascination with celebrities comes from? Like, this isn’t new, but what are we looking to them for?
I think celebrities are aspirational. They are living a life that we can’t have and showing us glamor in a way that we may not be able to access. I think traditionally, that’s what it has been. But as we get further and further into this world where it seems like everything is celebrity culture, you know, politicians are celebrities. Celebrities are doing politics.
There are micro celebrities. Those may not count with the mom test, but those who are famous for being famous are micro-influencers, celebrities all around us. And I think to some extent, in addition to maybe this hint of jealousy or aspiration, there’s also this sense that we like watching celebrities screw up.
And Frank, what do you think? What do you think we’re looking to celebrities for?
Well, I think Jessica said part of it perfectly, which is they are idealized versions of ourselves or of some aspect of ourselves. But I think there’s something else crucial, which is in a world where there’s increasingly little overlap, and it’s hard to find common ground, I think celebrities are characters in a public or common narrative. You know, when I listen to my students at Duke talk about Taylor Swift and what happened yesterday and what her next album will be like, it’s as if they’re all reading the same novel, and the central character in that novel is Taylor Swift. I think that’s true of a lot of celebrities and of our relationships with them.
Jessica, you brought up politics meeting celebrity culture. And I think that’s where I want to start out. I want to talk a little bit about a particular case study that I think we can learn a lot from, which is the Pennsylvania Senate race between John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz, a.k.a. Dr. Oz.
It’s an interesting race to me less because of the actual politics and more because of the celebrity dynamics at play. Dr. Oz is betting entirely on the fact that people know who Dr. Oz is. That is why Trump supported his nomination. John Fetterman is, “I am a celebrity, but I am an anti-celebrity in comparison to this New Jersey resident who’s flying into Pennsylvania and who’s on television all the time.” Frank, does this feel like a new kind of politics to you?
Well, this race, I’m so glad you brought it up. I think it’s the kind of most fun, if I may use that word — nothing’s really fun in politics anymore because the stakes are so huge — but race that I’ve seen in a while. And it gets even more complicated than your great introduction of it. John Fetterman is, in some ways, the anti-celebrity. He’s proud to be schlumpy and all of that stuff.
But whom has he recruited to mock Dr. Oz about his carpetbagging? He’s recruited celebrities. He’s put out tweets with Snooki of Jersey Shore, with Steve Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. So he’s actually trying to harness the power of celebrity as he mocks the celebrity for being nothing more than a celebrity. So I don’t know that it gets more involuted or convoluted or meta than that.
But the Oz thing, I mean, some 10 or 12 years ago, I wrote a long — I think it was a cover story for The New York Times Sunday magazine about Dr. Oz. And that was when he was making the pivot from cardiothoracic surgeon to TV star. And I remember —
To a guy who was selling you raspberry ketones.
Yeah, well, he hadn’t gone full in on the ketones and all the miracle cures that got him hauled before a Senate panel at that point, but it was so clear that for him, the only thing that mattered, the only currency that mattered was attention. And in a tiny way, that was illustrated by the fact that he actually let me scrub in and watch him do open heart surgery. And one of my most vivid journalistic memories is blood splattering on my notebook from the poor person whose chest cavity was open in front of me.
But Dr. Oz has continually taken whatever currency he has and tried to turn it into more attention, more attention, more attention. And I think he’s like a perfect Faustian parable for our times.
Jessica, one thing that interests me is that in America, being Dr. Oz is a way better job than being a senator from the state of Pennsylvania. It just is. So why do you think Dr. Oz is doing this? What does this do for him?
Why does a celebrity want to become a politician? I mean, arguably, you have more power as a celebrity to reach the masses than you do as a politician. And also, being a politician is pretty unglamorous and a lot of work. So if you’re used to doing, you know, schmoozy spots on television and hawking products, you’ve got to be prepared to actually put some work in.
Jane, I think I know why Dr. Oz wants to be a senator.
And don’t laugh at me. Because he wants to be president. And I’m not kidding. You say being a politician, being a senator is not as good as being a celebrity — absolutely. Being president is, people believe, better than anything else. That’s why Donald Trump traded privacy and so much else for nothing more than getting back to the Oval Office, even though —
Which, again, I don’t understand implicitly. I think being president sounds awful.
Right, which is the scene and sight of constant heartache.
Yeah, no, I mean, what did he experience in the presidency, but constant assault, et cetera? Now, deservedly, but that is what he experienced. But there’s an old saying or adage or whatever that every senator looks in the mirror and sees a president. I think every Senate candidate looks in the mirror and sees a president.
And as nutty as it sounds, I guarantee you, Dr. Oz thinks, if I ever want the biggest prize in this world of all, this is the stepping stone. It’s also, if you are an affirmation junkie, and you’ve already gotten Emmys, and you’ve already ruled the ratings, you’re looking for a whole new arena and kind of validation. Politics is, he hopes, going to give him that.
So it’s all ego.
I mean, does Dr. Oz actually want to help?
Jessica and Jane, you’ve spent as much time, I’m sure, around politicians as I have. It is all ego.
I think that there’s this aspect in which we project celebrity onto certain politicians, whether they are intentionally trying to cultivate or not. I’m thinking of the Notorious R.B.G., the late justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, merch from the girlboss days of 2010 — so long ago — the meme-ification of Bernie Sanders. These are examples of Democrats, but you could make a case that since the 2016 election, there’s been an effort for Republicans to become celebrities of sorts.
And Jessica, it seems like a very human impulse to bring fan dynamics into politics, but I think it’s really bad for us. What do you think?
Well, the Notorious R.B.G. is a really good example because it’s sort of exalting these people, elevating them to a point of icon that no human can actually live up to. Politicians make mistakes. Celebrities aren’t perfect. And so it’s actually — it’s sort of a strangely modern phenomenon that we inherently want to create celebrities out of these politicians.
I even am thinking back to Hillary Clinton and the BlackBerry dais. Remember when she was Secretary of State, and there was that famous image of her on her BlackBerry that became a meme. And suddenly everyone loved Hillary. And it’s like, we didn’t love her when she actually ran. We sort of had created this meme. And the meme was somehow more palatable than the actual person.
I wish more politicians were just U.S. code dorks whose names we didn’t know. But I would say that the Notorious R.B.G. meme made Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg less likely to retire, which was good for making the Supreme Court something people thought about, but bad for actual jurisprudence. So, bad.
Like you, Jane, I’m distressed that we’ve conflated celebrity and politics because I think it gives politicians the wrong goals, the wrong motives, when, yes, I would prefer a dork who is looking at policy questions and thinking, in very scientific ways, what is going to serve the greatest number of people in the greatest way. And that’s not what we have. What we have is Rick Perry on “Dancing with the Stars,” Sean Spicer on “Dancing with the Stars.”
Tucker Carlson on “Dancing with the Stars.”
Oh, well, luckily, he’s not a politician yet, but one wonders. And I tell you what’s going to be interesting. This isn’t going to happen, but this goes back to the discussion a moment ago about Hillary and how everybody loved the BlackBerry meme, but then she actually asked for our support, and things were more complicated.
I’m constantly amused by the notion that if Michelle Obama would just run, the Democrats would be guaranteed of the White House in 2024. Michelle Obama becomes a completely different character in the public narrative, gets analyzed in a completely different way, and in fact, potentially sacrifices all the goodwill toward her if she suddenly has to take polarizing positions. We love Michelle Obama so much because when they go low, she goes high. If she gets in the arena in a different kind of way, she can’t go high all the time.
I think you’re right. Celebrities are able to sometimes say things that politicians cannot, and other times, not say those things. Like, Dolly Parton is a really good example of this. She has managed to have people beloved on both sides of the equation and never really firmly take a stand, and yet, she’s very political at the same time. And, you know, were Dolly Parton to be an actual politician, she would have to vote on things and take actual stance.
Thinking about politicians as celebrities I’m really struck by your point, Frank, about how every senator-elect sees themselves as a future president. And the president is the biggest celebrity in the country, or in the world, in many cases. But in response to Trump’s election or in response to recent elections, in general, there’s always this very online chorus who essentially is like, Oprah should run for president, or the Rock should run for president.
And Frank, I think that this goes to your point you made about Michelle Obama, that if the Rock were to actually run for president, he would be examined in a very different way. So it seems to me that the answer to Trump or the answer to celebrity politics is not just get your own celebrity. But Frank, is this something Democrats should consider, or is it just like, is this inevitable?
It is inevitable, and they should consider it to a point, but only to a point. So it happens, and it will continue to happen, this call to recruit celebrities to run for office, for a very simple reason, which is that the threshold most people have to get over to win office is name recognition. And some of them never really get there. And if you begin a race with people already knowing your name and having some positive associations with you, you are so far ahead of the game. And it often solves the fundraising problem also in one fell stroke.
But it’s something — I said to a point, it’s something the parties have to be careful are for reasons we’re actually seeing in real-time, right? So we talked about Dr. Oz earlier. He’s trailing John Fetterman in the polls. His celebrity clearly helped him win the Republican primary. And it clearly attracted Donald Trump, who truly equates fame with worth. But Dr. Oz was not the right candidate on paper in a million ways. And we’re seeing a hopeful sign that voters are responding to those details and not just to his name.
In Ohio, Tim Ryan is doing better against J.D. Vance in that Senate race because J.D. Vance, a celebrity, which attracted Trump, did not turn out to be as important as other aspects of how he was as a candidate. And another great example right now in the Georgia Senate race, Herschel Walker, that’s a seat that in this climate should be won by the Republican nominee. And Herschel Walker, who is very, very famous, may well lose because more important than his celebrity, is the fact that he’s a miserable, miserable candidate with a terrible record.
Jessica, what do you think?
I guess I’m encouraged by the idea that it only goes so far because there are times when I find myself thinking, oh God like, do we need Michelle Obama to run? Do we need Oprah to run? Is this what we need right now in order to win? And it would be nice if people with real experience came to the job and people voted for them.
I think the big question that we’re talking around there is the idea of political power and cultural power and how those things have been getting closer and closer in recent years while making everyone mad. And one of my longtime arguments is that conservatives have political power, but they want cultural power. And liberals have cultural power, but want political power.
But as the Republican platform keeps leaning more into cultural issues, which notably cannot be solved by politics, Jessica, at a time where it’s more important than ever for politicians to at least perform populism, especially if you’re someone like President Zelensky in Ukraine, who he’s attempting to use fame in order to garner support for a war, is there a good way for celebrities to get into politics?
Well, I think at the end of the day, so much of this is about narrative. We, as humans, only have the ability to hold so many narratives in our mind at once. And so there tends to be a dominant one. You brought up President Zelenskyy, which is so fascinating because he and his wife recently appeared in Vogue. And it was this beautiful, glamorous series shot by Annie Leibovitz.
And it sparked immediate conversation, immediate controversy — not surprisingly — because the question was, is Zelensky, who, of course, has a media background, ran a media company, just very blatantly trying to gin up more American support for the war in Ukraine? And is that distasteful to do in the pages of Vogue?
Is the idea of posing with a war torn background in designer clothes, whether or not they are designed by Ukrainian fashion designers, something to aspire to? And is it helpful for his cause? And does he ultimately know something that we don’t, which is that, yeah, you have to use the media to get support. Frank, what did you think of that shoot?
In other circumstances, I would have kind of asked all these questions and felt like I don’t know how I feel about this. This sort of oxymoron of Vogue and war is just a little bit too much for me. When your people are being slaughtered by such a larger nation with so many more resources and with so little scruples, I think you do whatever you can to reach the widest audience possible. I’m sure Zelensky and his wife saw the Vogue audience as one that they maybe hadn’t really penetrated yet.
So I kind of respect the way he has realized that he is a public character. You mentioned narrative. He has brilliantly become the character that best serves that narrative in a way, I think, that has drawn more attention to his side, has created some public and political pressure. I salute him for it.
After the break, how we, the fans, are making all of this so much worse.
I want to take a step back and put an argument to both of you. I think the dynamic that’s underlying everything we’re talking about is about fandom because what are voters, if you think about it, but fans with congressional districts? So I want to talk about us. How do we fit into this dynamic?
I am incredibly pessimistic by how fans relate to celebrities, especially now. The parasocial relationship becomes parasitic, and it overtakes the host. You project what you want onto a celebrity. And then you’re mad when they don’t project back what you want.
And I actually want to talk about a good example of this that’s not related to politics. I know that you were both following the Amber Heard, Johnny Depp trial pretty closely this summer. And the specifics of that case were ugly in every way. But I want to focus specifically on how fan culture affected so much of how we perceive that trial. So Jessica, can you explain briefly what those dynamics were for people who may not have been paying attention?
Yeah, oh, my gosh, so much to unpack. So in the Depp versus Heard trial, what we saw were, it seemed like, almost every subculture of the internet coming together in these really toxic ways to support Johnny Depp, and making that known very explicitly online through hashtags, through constant content, through videos on TikTok, and then more traditional celebrities jumping in to support those fans.
And the large scale narrative that emerged, if you were judging by the internet, was that we should feel sorry for him. And it really — you know, the level of misogyny, I think, that came through in some of that fan culture was really hard to ignore. But it was such an interesting case of, like you said, parasocial relationships, this idea that we place values on celebrities that may not actually represent them, and they become something outside of themselves. They start to represent something that has nothing to do with the person who’s actually there.
Our institutions, our processes, they proceed at a given, often glacial, pace for a reason, so that there is opportunity for a reason to hold sway over passion. And this was a trial that played out in the most instantaneous arena of all, which is Twitter, right? Twitter encourages you to blast what’s on your mind or in your heart at a given moment. It’s not about a deliberative process. And so if we let things like Twitter corrupt things like the legal system or a trial, I mean, that’s extremely dangerous.
I was thinking, though, as Jessica was talking this — we often make the mistake of thinking everything we’re seeing is new in terms of this sort of parasocial thing. It’s not new, this notion that we project certain things onto a celebrity. We expect them to behave a certain way. We feel entitled to be disappointed. But what social media has given us is a way of actually publicly registering that disappointment in real-time. It’s given us this illusion that everyone can see what we think and that maybe even the celebrity himself or herself or themself will see what we think.
So I think social media gives you the illusion, sometimes the reality, that an opinion that decades ago, you would have just held to yourself or around a dinner table with your family or friends, is now something that you can have acknowledged that you can register in a public way. And I think that makes people quicker to judge and quicker to jump into the fray.
It’s so interesting what you said, Frank, about the legal system moving slowly and fandom moving quickly. I think that is true of journalism, too. We’ve seen this sort of precedent where journalists aren’t supposedly doing their jobs. They’re not reporting on the Free Britney movement. And so the fans take it into their own hands to galvanize and start a movement and put pressure on.
They did this in the case of Britney Spears. They did this in the case of Gabby Petito when they didn’t believe law enforcement was moving quickly enough. And they did it in the case of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. Legal commentators, quote unquote, “legal commentators” going on YouTube to explain in complete and utter misinformation the different contours of the trial because they didn’t feel like the journalists were doing it well.
I think that that gets me to a question, though, for you, Jessica, where you’ve written a lot about the celebrity apology. And one thing that I think that differs for my parents from how they perceived celebrities in the 1960s and 1970s is that we not only want the celebrity to be good — we want LeBron James to be really good at basketball, but we also want him to be a really good person by our own definition. So Jessica, how did that happen? What happened?
I mean, I think that fans feel that they have a lot of power. And in many ways, they do. And so suddenly they feel that they get to say how their celebrities behave. I also think the idea of equality or social justice or what’s right has become much more popular in the music or in the art. And often that then puts the celebrity at somewhat of a higher bar to, then, do what they are preaching.
As you mentioned, I did this piece about the celebrity apology recently and how ubiquitous it has become. When I was doing this piece, I was talking to some social scientists who said that there’s actually a phrase for what is occurring now. It’s a concept called normative delusion. And it’s basically the idea that an apology becomes so normalized and so expected that we become almost cynical about it. And thus, the apology is even more meaningless than it was in the first place. So you can apologize away everything, but does it have any impact? I don’t know.
Frank, what do you think? What do you think about the changing dynamics? Because Jessica was talking about how we want accountability from celebrities. But what would that do? It seems as if a celebrity saying that I have the same politics as you do doesn’t really do anything for me beyond simple affirmation. Is that all we want?
No, it does nothing for you but uncomplicates your life. For some reason, and I don’t know if this is a sign of greater ethics or greater immaturity, but for some reason, we want the people we cheer for in one way to allow us to cheer for them in every way. We don’t want them to complicate the way we feel about them. And as I’m saying it and thinking about it, I actually think, in weird ways, it’s not necessarily a progression. It might be a regression because that’s not the way life works. People are complicated. They’re jumbles of things you like and things you don’t.
This is the threat of aligning yourself with a cause if you’re a celebrity because once you set yourself up to be aligned with a cause, whether it’s a political cause, whether you’re calling yourself a feminist, whether you’re in support of Black Lives Matter or social justice activists, it gets tricky. People expect more from you. They will dissect your every move. They will look at your past, your history, your Twitter feed. And I think, ultimately, what we dislike as humans is hypocrisy.
So if you are saying you’re purporting to be a good person through whatever cause you align yourself with, and then you are not following through on that, we will turn on you, whereas if you are Donald Trump and your brand is to be an asshole who doesn’t care, or you are Tom Cruise and your brand is sort of like that crazy Scientology guy, but also really good actor, then people will let it pass. They’ll forgive. They won’t ask the same questions.
I wanted to be specific that we were talking about capital F, “Famous” celebrities today. And that’s been intentional. But I do think it’s very much worth acknowledging that part of what’s changing really fast is that with social media, regular people can become famous extremely quickly, and in my view, without much reason.
I think that is bad, especially because when you are a social media influencer, you are what you are selling. You are selling all of your actions. So I’d like, Jessica, if you could talk to me about everyone being a celebrity and the kind of the widening of celebrity. Does that dilute the overall power of the rich and famous? Or does it just mean that there are more rich and famous people?
I mean, in early social media years, we would have said this is a really good thing. It’s democratizing who can achieve fame. But I think that where we’ve landed and where I often find myself going nuts is that I can’t tell what is real and what is not. Like, is that sponcon, or is that your real life? What are we to believe? And it genuinely is really hard to parse what is actually truthful and what has a spin on it.
So I agree with you that influencer culture and the clout chasing culture that we’re existing in has gotten somewhat out of control. And the truth is getting lost somewhere there in the middle.
I like that you use the word truth, Jessica. Truth, at the end of the day, requires consensus. And the celebrity environment we’re talking about is so fractured, so chaotic, we have our influences coming from so many different directions.
We’re all curating individually in such active ways that we didn’t have before, whom we’re being exposed to and being influenced by that I think it’s destroying consensus in American life and global life. And I think truth is dying on the field where consensus has gone away. I think it’s a huge problem. And you’re going to say, what’s the solution? And that is above my pay grade or my I.Q. or everything.
Yeah, I’m always so struck by how people desire celebrity. And I just keep thinking, no this sounds awful, but I also don’t want to be president, so I’m really outside of the American mainstream on so many issues.
I don’t either.
No, it just sounds —
Count me out. Frank, do you?
No, I have never, no. Nor Secretary of State, nothing.
No. Frank, Jessica, thank you so much for being here.
Thank you for having us.
Yeah, thanks, Jane. [MUSIC]
Jessica Bennett is a contributing editor to Times Opinion. She’s author of the book, “Feminist Fight Club.” Frank Bruni writes a subscriber-only newsletter for Times Opinion. “The Argument” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Phoebe Lett and Vishakha Darbha; edited by Alison Bruzek and Anabel Bacon; with original music by Isaac Jones and Pat McCusker; mixing by Pat McCusker and Carole Sabouraud; fact-checking by Kate Sinclair, Michelle Harris and Mary Marge Locker; audience strategy by Shannon Busta with editorial support from Kristina Samulewski.