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How Celebrities Are Finding Their Political Voices

Postelection, Hollywood and tabloid personalities of all stripes have begun to embrace activism — and audiences have come to expect it

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Nobody — especially not Winona Ryder — was expecting David Harbour to give a fiery, bully-baiting stump speech at the SAG Awards. “When we are lost amidst the hypocrisy, and the casual violence of certain individuals and institutions,” he yelled toward the end, “we will, as per Chief Jim Hopper, punch some people in the face.” It was not exactly a subtle statement — but it was, give or take a Winona face, cheered on by the crowd. And Harbour’s Braveheart performance was by no means the first politically tinged moment of the season — or even the night. Following the example set by Meryl Streep’s anti-Trump speech at the Golden Globes, SAG winners didn’t hold back. Sarah Paulson, winning for outstanding performance in a TV movie or miniseries, suggested that people donate to the ACLU; Mahershala Ali, accepting the best supporting actor award for Moonlight, made a gentle but urgent call for inclusivity. When the Hidden Figures cast accepted its award for outstanding ensemble, Taraji P. Henson gave an emotional reminder that “love wins every time.” Harbour’s speech was just the crest of the wave. Activist acceptance speeches are the new normal.

The current awards-season climate is a far cry from, say, 2003, when Natalie Maines was famously blacklisted for criticizing George W. Bush and the Iraq War during a London concert. Now, perhaps because we’re much more used to celebrities having their own, non-publicist-coached opinions and emotions on social media, we don’t judge them so harshly. In fact, in this current climate, if you stay silent, you risk injuring your brand even more. “What happened to the Dixie Chicks wouldn’t happen now,” says former publicist and gossip columnist Rob Shuter about the current era. “Things now are so toxic that I think to say nothing is compliance. Staying in the middle can probably be more dangerous to your career than actually taking a side.”

Put another way: The celebrities are getting woke as hell, and they’re not gonna change that anytime soon.

At this point, the idea of the woke celebrity is little more than an internet punch line, a term that should have shuffled off to the Meme Graveyard ages ago. In order to understand how it applies to celebrity culture in 2017, we must consider what it meant to be woke in 2016, the year the word entered white mainstream culture and started dying out.

Until recently, politically aware celebrities could be divided into three distinct categories: There was the Teen Vogue–friendly, Gen Z group — i.e. Rowan Blanchard, Zendaya, and Amandla Stenberg — whose burgeoning celebrity will always be inextricably intertwined with the social-media-driven activism that is a hallmark of their generation. Then there were those who were vocal by necessity — celebrities of color, women in Hollywood, everyone whose resources are limited by the overwhelmingly white and/or male status of the world. For many of these celebs (think: Jesse Williams, Colin Kaepernick, or Issa Rae, who made Insecure partly as a way to finally get more black people on TV), even their work itself has long been political.

Then there were the white male allies — the white woke baes — like Mark Ruffalo, Justin Trudeau, and Matt McGorry. It’s worth examining McGorry as a brief case study. He is the epitome of pre-Trump celebrity activism and the original Woke Bae. In his brief history of the word, Fusion writer Charles Pulliam-Moore explains that by 2015, “a phrase that was meant to encourage critical thinking about social issues and injustices, [had] slowly morphed into something that occasionally comes across as a derogatory jab at the very idea of staying ‘woke.’ … [the] Twitter subculture, is filled with people deemed to be too woke for their own good.”

McGorry is the human example of that phenomenon. By December of that year, his regular tweets supporting Black Lives Matter, feminism, and inclusion in general earned him his very own GIF-heavy BuzzFeed listicle: “Can We Talk About How Woke Matt McGorry Was in 2015?” And McGorry really leaned into that: He wrote a heartfelt essay about becoming a feminist for Cosmo; he marched with Amber Rose at her SlutWalk. It was a lot, but, to his credit, McGorry showed up. He wasn’t just speechifying (though I’m sure if he had an awards-show platform, that speech would get way intense). His activism became just as much a part of his brand as his role on How to Get Away With Murder.

By mid-2016, McGorry’s showy, earnest expressions of political activism demonstrated the final evolution of the idea of woke: He became a punch line on par with Macklemore. In fact, his “real man” crying selfie was perhaps the best visual gag of 2016. By the end of the year, the whole thing had become a “kind of contest” in which white players compete to “name racism when it appears” or “name fellow white folk who are lagging behind,” as Maya Binyam wrote in The Awl. Jezebel’s Kara Brown turned the joke into a good-natured but incisive monthly bracket that tried to determine which (most often white) dude was The Wokest Bae of the month. The term went from a black-activist watchword to a white-liberal badge to a joke.

Which is all to say: Celebrity political engagement had diminishing returns in 2016. There were several celebrities whose activism and outspokenness were appreciated and lauded (i.e. Jesse Williams’s fire BET Awards speech, the platonic ideal of acceptance speeches). But others who tried it — like Emily Ratajkowski, who campaigned for Bernie Sanders and wrote an essay in Glamour about the difficulties of being a hot woman who likes to speak her mind or Emma Watson, who took a year-long break from acting to pursue “feminism” and started more actively promoting HeForShe, an organization for male feminists (I think?) — were criticized for self-promotion or liberal back-patting. If the backlash wasn’t for self-indulgence, it was for holding the wrong political view or a misguided interpretation of the right one. (See: Lena Dunham.) In each case, some audiences — or Twitter users, anyway — found it a little too difficult to differentiate activism from opportunism.

But now, during a presidency that confuses and unnerves us every day, the stakes have changed. Speaking out seems not just more normal, but necessary. Things feel uncertain and acutely terrifying right now, as though broad swaths of the country are under attack by this administration. And as the news continues to outrage, more privileged celebrities are feeling a political urgency that has historically been felt by people of color, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities. This means awards shows are significantly more interesting, magazine covers are more political and less pandering, and celebrities have more fire tweets.

Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes was a moment that demonstrated what it looks like when celebrities find that new sense of urgency. “The Meryl movement has sort of provided cover for a lot of celebrities to follow along,” says Shuter. “She’s the most respected actress in Hollywood. I think people want to have a piece of that pie.”

Shuter points to the shift on the red carpet, which is notoriously fluffy: “I was on the red carpet the other day and the publicist wouldn’t let us ask political questions. Before [the election] we weren’t allowed to ask questions about the Kardashians, now it’s Trump. But it’s not like we had to ask — this is all [celebrities] wanted to talk about.”

Some of the shift has to do with a changing of the guard. The old, white, People-magazine celebrity cadre is gone; now there are a multiplicity of voices and faces slowly being given (or more likely taking) space to talk about different things. That’s helped diversify who constitutes “mainstream celebrity” and, by extension, the conversation that mainstream celebrity wants to have. Icons like Ava DuVernay and Kerry Washington and Lupita Nyong’o and Viola Davis have constantly used their platforms to initiate and further big, important, and, for some, uncomfortable conversations. Both Nyong’o and Davis were giving powerful, surprising, and effective speeches at awards shows long before David Harbour approved of punching bullies in the face. They have raised the bar for everyone.

But some celebrities’ newfound willingness to engage in these conversations also has to do with the current response to people who stay silent. No one has been criticized more than Taylor Swift, who opted not to participate in dialogue surrounding the 2016 election and then offered a safe, generic tweet about the Women’s March. She was roasted for it, because this is not what people want from their celebrities in the new, earnest age. “Taylor Swift’s tweet seemed weak because there was seemingly no excuse to not be at a march if you supported it,” New York Times writer Amanda Hess said via email. (This is true: Chloë Grace Moretz, Chrissy Teigen, and Uzo Aduba marched in D.C., and Rihanna, Helen Mirren, and Whoopi Goldberg were in New York.) “And also because she has promoted such a studiously non-political feminism for such a long time that her endorsement reeked of more defanged girl power.”

In the midst of award season, any celebrity event is fraught with political speculation. Just last week there was widespread “will she/won’t she talk” over how political Lady Gaga — noted LGBTQ activist and generally outspoken weirdo — would get during her Super Bowl performance. Would she pull a Beyoncé “Formation” moment? She did and said nothing, but countless blog posts were written trying to justify her total apolitical-ness by calling it subtle political apolitical-ness, or something. Katy Perry, who will be performing at the Grammys this Sunday, has changed her Twitter bio to include “Activist” and “Conscious” in addition to her career title, “Artist.” (No mention of “I Kissed a Girl” or other songs that would probably get her a mass of angry tweets now.) Even Kim Kardashian West is tweeting out terrorism-death statistics in response to Trump’s executive order on immigration. And she’s just one of many famous people — Billy Eichner, Kerry Washington, John Legend — going HAM with her political discontent on Twitter. And just Wednesday, the United Talent Agency made one of the biggest moves yet: The group canceled its annual Academy Awards party, instead pledging to donate $250,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union and the International Rescue Committee and hold a rally “to express the creative community’s growing concern with anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States,” reports Variety.

A veteran movie publicist thinks the movement will continue. “I think that a lot of these celebs feel like they have this platform at awards shows where a lot of us are listening to what they have to say, and with what’s going on in the world, they want to grab the opportunity. I think a lot of networks and studios don’t really want to make it seem like they are too political, it’s a dangerous thing, but knowing Netflix I bet they were happy [about Harbour’s speech]. And Meryl Streep locked in her Oscar nomination with that speech. I think we’re going to see this from many other actors for sure.”

Nominees understand that, sure, they don’t need to dedicate their Oscars speeches to torching Donald Trump — and that there are more significant ways of getting that message across. “I try to accomplish whatever I want to speak to in the work,” Moonlight director Barry Jenkins told The Ringer. “I think it’s better to address them in the work, because the platform that we’re speaking from at these shows — there are other people who aren’t watching, who need to be reached as well. I was at the SAG Awards, and Mahershala [Ali’s] speech brought me to tears. He had something he had to speak on. I think it works both ways. If I’m so fortunate, what will I say? I have no idea. I’ll just speak from the moment. But what I also try to do is not be beholden to getting to the podium to speak about the things I want to speak about. I want to put it in the work.” And there are those, like Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, whose excellent film The Salesman is nominated for Best Foreign Film, who are directly affected by the immigration order, who feel they have no choice but to boycott right now.

But for celebrities who have the privilege and freedom to choose comfortable silence instead, speaking up is both morally gratifying and — yes, cynically — professionally advantageous. “Lots of female celebrities were celebrated for being [at the Women’s March],” says Hess. “But there was also this sense that the march provided a cool backdrop for taking Instagram shots in pink outfits with famous friends, all of whom had laminated VIP backstage passes.” It’s not just celebrities traipsing into that narrative: See the Vogue headline: “Zoë Kravitz Has the ‘Woke’ Cool-Girl Look Down Pat.”

“There is, I think, one dynamic that has helped smooth the way for the woke celebrity in 2017,” Hess says. “Because so many people are speaking out so urgently about politics in this moment, when celebrities speak up, it doesn’t necessarily look like a PR move. It just looks human.”

That might say more about the audience than it does about famous people, but it encapsulates a recent shift: What was once “political” is now only natural — expected, even. People want celebrities to embrace their platforms; the public will not tolerate members of a powerful, important industry ignoring the reality of the political situation. And yes, audiences want to see a system that helped enable Donald Trump’s ascension become aware of its power and maybe even start using that power to do something braver — like getting on stage at the Grammys and setting some stuff on (theoretical) fire.

“They aren’t [making these speeches] to help their careers,” says Shuter. “[Based on] the celebrities I know, and what’s going on in Hollywood, they mean this, they are terrified, they are horrified. I think for the first time that I’ve seen in 20 years, celebrities are thinking about the bigger picture, not themselves — which they don’t do very often.”