More Random Thoughts about Celebrity Activism

Apr 18, 2008

A while ago there was some discussion on this blog about the definition of “celebrity” activism for the purposes of empirically studying the entertainment industry’s role in advocacy campaigns. A question was raised about what constitutes celebrity status, what constitutes activism, how much the two co-constitute one another in these cases.

Jeff Skoll weighed in on this last week in his comments at the Global Philanthropy Forum 2008 Annual Conference in San Jose. Skoll, who founded the Skoll Foundation to create independent films on social topics, believes the definition of “celebrity” can include former political leaders, if they get involved in the entertainment industry. From the conference blog:

“Calling former Vice President Al Gore ‘the George Clooney of Climate Change,’ Jeff reminded us that what was once a nerdy power-point delivered by Gore to scientific audiences when I worked with him in government, was now transforming public attitudes, alerting all to the climate crisis.”

I’m not sure I agree that Clooney and Gore are really the same type of actor wielding the same type of power just because they’ve both appeared in influential films. They come from different institutional locations, Clooney uses his prior celebrity status to do activism, Gore’s celebrity status was constituted in part by his activism. (That is, was he a celebrity before the film?) Even their films are different – Clooney does blockbusters, Gore did a documentary. Does this suggest a continuum of celebrity activists with variation that may also affect the influence they have?

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.