In the era of performative activism, what does responsible use of celebrity platforms look like?
“I was at the gas station in Brentwood the other day and I’m now thinking about taking up arms against Russia? What the fuck is going on?” These are the words of 61-year-old actor Sean Penn. If you pulled a Jared Leto and are unfamiliar with the current situation in Ukraine because you took a vow of silence and cellphone celibacy at a desert retreat, you might think this to be the plot of a bad action movie Penn is slated to star in. It is, in actuality, the most recent of the Milk star’s attempts to become a spokesperson for Ukraine. But as the pressure to speak out and act against the evils of the world grows in the age of oversharing and overconsumption, what responsibilities do those with a platform have, and how should they should utilize the power they wield?
Thus far, Penn’s efforts with Ukraine haven’t quite hit the mark. Recently, he threatened to boycott the Academy Awards if they did not invite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to speak—an action intended to raise awareness, but which begs the question of who would be learning about the war for the first time at the Oscars. However, Penn was not alone in his efforts: “I wanted to find a way to have Zelensky satellite in or make a tape or something, just because there are so many eyes on the Oscars,” one of the show’s hosts, Amy Schumer, said. She saw the stage as a platform to comment on, or joke about, the situation in an effort to highlight the current condition. But from a practical perspective, it seems that Zelensky’s attendance would do more for the awards show’s dwindling viewership and reputation of irrelevance and superficiality than it would do in inspiring contributions to Zelensky’s country. The Academy Awards isn’t exactly the Paris Peace Conference, and will likely do little in preventing a third world war.
In the era of performative activism, it is easy to critique celebrities trying to align themselves with causes in a way that seems motivated by clout rather than authentic goodwill—but Penn, however misguided in this case, has thus far proven himself to be among Hollywood’s more convincing activists. From Baghdad to Haiti and New Orleans, his willingness to get on the ground during times of disaster and war can be seen as inspiring, especially when viewed within the context of the social media posts and very public donations that make up the extent of many of his contemporaries’ efforts.
While Penn’s intentions seem pure, and he has done a great deal of self-education, his calls to action are not without consequence. His comments have often encouraged escalation, something which many are hopeful to avoid. With celebrity comes power, and with power comes responsibility. Oftentimes, those with such influence are not ideal candidates as spokespeople for the world’s traumas. Penn certainly holds the ability to me to tears with his acting, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into the ability to advise a country to go to take up arms and send its citizens to war, especially when there are, optimistically, alternative options in aiding another country in need.