Opinion: Should star power stick to the box office rather than the Oval Office?

Celebrities still command a lot of attention, but their intervention can be a doubled-edged sword...

Opinion: Should star power stick to the box office rather than the Oval Office?

Picture by Jordan Strauss AP/Press Association Images

Anyone waking up to news from the Golden Globe awards likely encountered two main stories - La La Land's record awards haul, and Meryl Streep's acceptance speech.

Streep - who was receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Award career achievement award - didn't name any names when she described a performance that 'stunned' her, but it was clear she was referring to Donald Trump.

She said: "It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it. I still can't get it out of my head because it wasn't in a movie. It was real life.

"And this instinct to humiliate, when it's modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody's life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose."

A quick glance at social media will show huge support for Streep's comments, from the public and her fellow stars alike.

Donald Trump however, as is his way, fired back quickly, describing Streep as a 'Hillary flunky' and 'one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood'.

This is unlikely to be the last criticism of Trump we hear from an awards' podium this year or indeed beyond. When stars are given a platform in front of tens of millions of people, it's no surprise a few will take the opportunity to comment on the issues of the moment.

The Clinton endorsements

Given the overwhelming support Hillary Clinton enjoyed in the entertainment industry - seriously, just compare the massive list of Clinton celebrity endorsements with Trump's slender list of supporters - there's no shortage of Donald Trump critics in Hollywood.

But last year's election has highlighted in no uncertain terms the limits of celebrity endorsements. Hillary Clinton had Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Jennifer Lopez and others performing at rallies, while Trump is still struggling to get any household names to perform during his inauguration celebrations. Stars were making videos, tweeting and even knocking on doors for Clinton. She still lost.

Image via @HillaryClinton on Twitter

On one hand, you could suggest such high-profile supporters perhaps gained Clinton a few extra votes (she won the popular vote, after all), but it's equally easy to suggest such support from the rich & famous helped feed into the 'establishment' image that Clinton tried - and failed - to shake off during her campaign. It may have been a case of preaching to the converted, too.

When there was such a clear voter rejection of so-called 'liberal elites', celebrities - typically liberal, and certainly elite - can easily become swept up in the backlash. Trump knows this, and, like his frequent attacks on the media, uses it to his advantage (or potentially disadvantage; you mess with a beloved actress like Meryl Streep at your peril). Conservative commentators also often play this up. 

For many Americans, California and New York, home to so many rich and famous faces, may as well be another country altogether, removed from the experiences of those living in the Rust Belt and other struggling areas in a deeply unequal country. It's important to note the incredible irony of a billionaire reality TV star who lives in his own Manhattan skyscraper successfully riding the wave of anti-elite anger, but that also reflects the sheer disconnect between voters and politicians.

Celebrities may win you some votes, but they may lose you some too. As economist Larry Hatheway told CNBC back in September: "Hillary Clinton, the Democrats and Obama and so forth have been associated with what were called the cultural elite of the United States and therefore endorsements that come from that set, for them, probably actually reinforce perceptions among those that feel disenfranchised, that it is a little bit of 'us versus them."

Home Sweet Home

Glen Hansard leads a public concert on the roof of Apollo House. Image: RollingNews.ie

Of course, there are undoubted benefits to celebrity activity and endorsements too. Look no further than the ongoing Home Sweet Home and Apollo House saga here in Ireland. Dismiss it as a stunt if you'd like, but there is no question that the presence of well-known artists such as Glen Hansard, Hozier and Jim Sheridan has ensured the campaign receives more attention than it otherwise would have.

With the significant assistance of the other volunteers and campaigners, the HSH celebrities have helped create a national conversation about homelessness, made a difference to people's lives, and may yet make a political difference too.

Celebrity endorsements are a double-edged sword. Our fascination and obsession with fame ensures what stars say will continue to carry weight, and they have every right to say what they want to say. It undoubtedly pleasantly disrupts the inherent shallowness of award ceremonies, and high-profile platforms should be used to raise 'important' matters wherever possible. 

At best, a celebrity intervention can make a genuine difference, but at worst, it can further alienate and divide.

The Oscars are a couple of weeks away, more than a month after inauguration day. If the Globes are anything to go by, that could be a very interesting ceremony indeed.