Fading into Bolivian, or; Why we indulge celebrities but shouldn’t

30 July, 2014

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By Adeline Heng

"I guess I'm gonna fade into Bolivian." – Mike Tyson, after his loss to Lennox Lewis

James Franco, the American actor best known for his role as the villain in Sam Raimi's Spiderman trilogy is now, if Wikipedia is to be believed, also an author and poet. His latest literary masterpiece is "Bungalow 89," a seemingly autobiographical story wherein the protagonist is too much of a gentleman to sleep with a "damaged" girl, preferring instead to read her J.D. Salinger. The story contains such trenchant insights as "he knew that she would like Salinger because most young women do." Franco is a Columbia Master’s student who claims to appreciate classics by Homer and reads Proust in between takes. Perhaps one of them could tell us whether this makes it better or worse that he has produced some of the worst fiction I've read in years.

Franco's continued literary success - his work has been published in prestigious magazines and journals and he is the author of several novels – exists because, despite his lack of literary talent, he is consistently indulged by the supposed gatekeepers of good taste. And while Franco may be the latest celebrity this has happened to, he is hardly alone. Popular culture enjoins those with celebrity status to express themselves on everything from food to politics to religion, which, when done for long enough, inevitably leads them to believe that they always have something worthwhile to contribute. This includes branching out into fields they may not be very good at, to put it mildly. Justin Bieber felt confident enough about Korean politics to proclaim "I'm not sure about the parties. But whatever they have in Korea, that's bad". And this is Britney Spears on Japan – "I've never really wanted to go to Japan. Simply because I don't like eating fish, and I know that's very popular out there in Africa."

Sometimes, as above, the consequences of our indulgence are merely stupid. But what if they were allowed to become dangerous? Should we also let celebrities dictate public policy? Jackie Chan seemed to think so when he stated publicly in 2009 that "with too much freedom, [people] become like Hong Kong and Taiwan – such huge messes… I'm beginning to think that we Chinese people need to be controlled." He went on to add that "Hong Kong has become a city of protests… people scold China's leaders, or anything else they like, and protest against everything", and argued for a policy of self-censorship. Chan's prominence as a movie star has led him to believe that he has the right and the experience to comment on policy issues in China and the S.A.R. He is apparently not alone, for even respectable publications like the South China Morning Post felt his words pulled enough weight to run articles quoting him on the issue.

Is this attributing celebrities far more clout than they really have? Barack Obama didn't seem to think so when he agreed to be insulted on comic Zach Galifianakis show Between Two Ferns as a means of promoting ObamaCare. Indeed, Obama seems to understand better than many celebrities themselves that they are watched by millions of people interested in what they have to say. Perhaps that is what TIME Magazine had in mind when they named Kerry Washington, an American actress who spoke at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, one of the 100 "Most Influential People in the World." Our obsession with celebrities, however childish or unnecessary, and however much we dislike to admit it, is a fact.

So when Jim Carrey publicly proclaims that vaccines cause autism, he both looks the fool and sends the message that it is acceptable to speak foolishly on issues about which one knows nothing. More importantly, what he says may very well influence public opinion. He, like other celebrities, has a responsibility that all too many of them fail to appreciate or take seriously.

If we continue to indulge today's movies icons, pop stars, and celebrity chefs, we will see more and more of them willing to act this way. If all this did was encourage Franco to produce more of his atrocious writing, we might be right to turn a blind eye. But when celebrities are being asked to help elect the next president or determine the independence of a state (as Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling recently tried to do with Scotland) tolerance ceases to be a virtue. The problem isn't just a Western one either. Celebrities all over the world have been led to believe they are something they are not. Societies globally need to be less indulgent of celebrities who use their influence without a second thought. Maybe then it will be more apparent to them that, like anyone of influence, their words and deeds have consequences that must be carefully considered. After all, as any Spiderman fan knows, "with great power, comes great responsibility".