This article was originally published in print on the 23rd March
The BAFTAs last Sunday were a glittering celebration of British art and culture, a place where actors, singers, and other celebrities posed on the red carpet. The irony of an evening of luxury while the suffering in Ukraine is saturating our newsfeed was not lost on some – Benedict Cumberbatch appeared wearing a blue and yellow badge, in solidarity with Ukraine.
This was not simply a hollow gesture: ‘We all need … to do more than wear a badge. We need to donate’ he told a journalist on the red carpet. Cumberbatch also personally vowed to take in refugees, as other British citizens are also doing. Many celebrities notably had nothing to say on the topic of the devasting war in Ukraine, which begs the question: is it celebrities’ duty to use their power and influence for social justice?
When Cumberbatch spoke of needing to do more than ‘wearing a badge’, he was referring to the act of virtue signalling, a phenomenon which has gained significant popularity in the age of social media. Virtue signalling is the act of publicly expressing one’s opinions about certain political ideas or events for no other purpose than to demonstrate one’s good character. Social media has amplified this habit. We can see it in the ease with which someone can change their Facebook profile picture to overlay a Ukrainian flag and therefore seemingly demonstrate their virtuosity – while not actually taking meaningful action against the war. The image of seeming to do good has become more important than actually doing good. Some of the worst perpetrators of this habit are celebrities. But really, it’s no surprise: for celebrities, image is everything. Their worth and career is based off the adoration of their fans, and so appearing to be of high moral standing is of vital importance.
Who can forget when, during the early days of the pandemic, the horrifically cringey video of Gal Gadot and other celebrities singing ‘Imagine’ was inflicted on the world? At best, this was a misguided attempt at solidarity. At worst, this belittles those in actual suffering, desperately waiting for ventilators, while they warbled in their Beverley Hills mansions. The assumption that this vapid compilation of out-of-tune singing could in anyway provide healing to a world in crisis was delusional and insulting.
The difference between virtue signalling and actually using one’s platform for good seems to mystify many celebrities, but I don’t think it’s so hard. Cumberbatch does well by simply admitting that wearing a badge is not enough. It’s a start, but considering the incredible power celebrities have, it’s not enough. Celebrities are endowed with an immense privilege: every word they say, for better for worse, can be treated as gospel. In an age of dying religion, we turn to celebrities as our false gods. We follow their make-up routines, buy what they tell us to buy, click, like, share, absorb what they feed us. Why are they not sharing places to donate, links to petitions? Their Instagram accounts have millions of followers, and it’s time to put those followers to use. The actor Riz Ahmed put it quite succinctly on the BAFTA red carpet: ‘Yes, we have to use our platform. Yes, we have to raise our voices. If you’ve got the camera, if you’ve got the voice, if you’ve got the stage; use it.’
To end a war is a global effort, and each citizen – whether famous or not – must do their part. Ordinary citizens are doing the most they can: donating to charities, driving to the border to deliver food parcels, and marching at protests. Celebrities are no different. It is time for them to use their platforms for genuine good.
Image courtesy of ‘The Wub’ on Wikimedia Commons