Columns, Opinions

Steinman ’19: Lead on, Hollywood

By
Opinions Editor
Sunday, March 18, 2018

It’s taken fourteen months, but President Trump has finally figured out what’s wrong with America. In a recent 5:25 a.m. tweet following the Oscars, he declared: “Problem is, we don’t have Stars anymore — except your President (just kidding, of course)!” His long history of self-aggrandizing statements would suggest that he is not kidding, but the tweet speaks to a broader schism that has existed between Trump and pop culture for decades. What began as mockery throughout Trump’s years as a businessman has transformed since he announced his candidacy into a self-stylized resistance, not just to the man himself, but to the cultural forces of intolerance and distrust that helped lead to his election. Highly recognizable media figures like Meryl Streep and Oprah have expanded their roles in the public sphere to become not just icons but cultural crusaders. This, presumably, is what Trump means when he writes that we don’t have “stars” anymore — because those stars are aligned against him.

Yes, we have come a long way since Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age, when movie stars symbolized not politics or rancor or trending hashtags, but abstract, nonpartisan ideals like glamor and grace. But like so many presidential late-night tweets, this conceptualization is a fiction. The idea of Hollywood as the face of unpatriotic, even dangerous political sentiment is far from new, and the entertainment industry has never been sheltered from the political climate. In 1947, 40 movie industry employees were infamously subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee for their suspected Communist beliefs, and hundreds more were listed on a blacklist that prevented them from finding work over the following decades. Furthermore, movie stars and other popular entertainment industry icons draw their status almost entirely from popular opinion. (Look no further than the #TimesUp movement to see how quickly superstar status can wither in the face of public outrage). If stars today would rather talk about political and social issues than more vapid concerns, they are supported at least in part by an audience that prizes and incentivizes engagement over apathy.

As for the tone of the conversation, it is the job of entertainers to entertain. They know how to use showmanship and humor and sentiment to deliver maximum impact — methods that are not dissimilar to the ones Trump favors, though with the crucial difference of not being applied to actual policymaking or diplomacy. By combining sober political commentary with their core skill set, Hollywood’s activists are able to spread their message widely and effectively, perhaps even making their viewpoints seem more accessible, rather than less. 

A call against the politicization of the Oscars could be on the surface considered a call for unity, for a momentary, well-deserved pause in partisanship. Why the focus on inclusion, representation and social movements? Why can’t awards shows just be nights devoted to black tie attire, too-long speeches and celebration of artistic achievement? Ironically enough, the answer can be found in Trump’s tweet. We have long looked to movie stars to define who we are as a nation — and that definition is changing. As women and people of color across America push toward cultural equality, that push is reflected on- and off-screen, in movements like #MeToo, #OscarsSoWhite and #AskHerMore and in Best Actress winner Frances McDormand’s call for inclusion riders.

Nearly all Americans who reach household name status today are athletes, actors or politicians. In his opposition to the Take a Knee movement, Trump has already taken aim at the athletes who have attempted to make a political statement by insisting they should keep to their sport.  The fact that he is now doing the same with actors is notable and concerning, tying into a larger pattern of attacking high-profile critics and harkening back to his ominous proclamation at the 2016 Republican National Convention: “I alone can fix it.” Though we should not be entrusting untrained celebrities with key political decisions (yes, that includes Ivanka), we should still recognize the value of their contributions to the political sphere. We still have stars, but today many of those stars represent more than designer labels and paparazzi — they represent inclusion, empowerment and engaged citizenship. And they shine brighter for it.

Clare Steinman ’19 can be reached at clare_steinman@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.