by Richard King
There's disagreement about who first described politics as "show business for ugly people": some commentators attribute the zinger to Jay Leno, others to political consultant Paul Begala. But there is broad agreement that whoever it was identified a genuine phenomenon. Politics in the era of mass communication has indeed become more "mediated" – as focused on personalities as it is on ideology and policy, and a prey to the dark arts of image-making and spin. The successful modern politician knows that in order to be successful s/he must defer to the media consultant and submit to the stylistic makeover. Above all, s/he knows to stick to the script.
Now, however, we have a different phenomenon – not new, exactly, but newly prominent: the political celebrity. Actors and other media personalities are increasingly engaged in awareness-raising, social media campaigns and activism, and the news media's appetite for their interventions is huge. When celebrities speak out, their words are reported, analysed, criticised, celebrated. If politics is show business for ugly people, show business is looking more and more like politics for beautiful people.
In the event, last Sunday's Oscars ceremony was a more muted affair, politically speaking, than previous recent industry gatherings, perhaps because the organisers of Time's Up and its analogues are aware that the law of diminishing returns may soon kick in, if it hasn't already. But the broader trend is conspicuous. From the celebrity envoy or "goodwill ambassador" to the "controversial" acceptance speech to the red-carpet anti-fashion statement, the idea that Hollywood and the media more broadly have a responsibility to deal with issues of social justice is now utterly mainstream.
The intersection of showbiz and activism is by no means a new phenomenon. Jane Fonda's opposition to the Vietnam War, Harry Belafonte's involvement in the civil rights movement, and Charlton Heston's advocacy on behalf of the National Rifle Association are just a few examples of celebrities lending their imprimaturs to issues that are important to them. Nor is this an unwelcome phenomenon, necessarily. It isn't incumbent on anyone to shut up about the state of the world just because they have money in the bank and a state-of-the-art home-security system, though an intelligent analysis will account for the skewed perspective such privileges tend to engender. Yes it can be irritating to hear ditsy A-listers wax political about topics they'd never heard of until the day before yesterday. But these aren't crimes against humanity. And, really, Clint Eastwood's heart to heart with an empty chair was no more embarrassing, at the end of the day, than American Sniper.