Monday, May 26, 2014

Angelina Jolie: Not Just Another Hashtag Activist

In the most tone-deaf example of what is sadly becoming more of a fad than actual activism, the social media campaign to raise awareness of the schoolgirl hostages of Nigeria’s terrorist group Boko Haram made its way to the red carpet last weekend at the Cannes Film Festival, where some of the cast of the upcoming action flick The Expendables 3 posed for photos with signs bearing the now-familiar plea, “Bring Back Our Girls.”

“Hashtag activists” Harrison Ford, Kelsey Grammar, Wesley Snipes, Sylvester Stallone, Ronda Rousey and Mel Gibson lined up and presented the signs (strangely minus the hashtag) to the masses of photographers that descend on the glittering French Riviera hot spot this time of year. In a separate incident, actress Salma Hayek brandished a similar sign on the Cannes red carpet.

(“Bring Back Our Girls” wasn’t the only such red carpet activism there. The cast of the Turkish film Winter's Sleep held up signs reading “#Soma,” referring to the Turkish city where over 300 people were killed in a ghastly coal mining accident a week ago.)

Apparently the Expendables actors didn’t confer beforehand about just what sort of facial expressions might be suitable for such a serious, weighty issue, because all were smiling to one degree or another. At least Ford looked a little sheepish and Grammar stiffly uncomfortable, as if they alone were aware of the vast disparity between their message and the glamorous setting. Perhaps Snipes was just happy to be out of prison after his tax evasion sentence, and maybe Gibson, looking like a tuxedoed Biblical prophet, was just happy to be in the spotlight for a reason other than personal meltdowns. Stallone and Rousey wore the most inappropriate grins imaginable, as if they were holding up signs with punchlines on them.

The efficacy of hashtag activism, discussed by Acculturated’s own Gracy Olmstead last week, is hotly debated. Some argue that it raises awareness and puts political pressure on the target, while others believe it accomplishes nothing except to make the sign-bearers feel momentarily good about themselves before returning to their sheltered lives. Indeed, the only impact it may have on the Boko Haram savages is to raise their profile and give them the notoriety they enjoy.

But whatever the answer, hashtag activism may have jumped the shark at Cannes. The reaction on Twitter to the Expendables photo was largely negative – and rightly so. “This is actually embarrassing at this point,” read one of the milder tweets. Two of the harsher ones were: “These girls deserve respect and help, not idiots holding cardboard. What an insult to them and us” and “F**k them. What are they doing about it while they're sipping champagne in viewing parties on French Riviera?”

In all fairness, the actors mean well, and it’s unclear whether it was even their idea or how much notice the actors had to prepare – perhaps a publicist thrust the signs into their hands just seconds before the pic was snapped, and awkwardness ensued. And what harm can it do, you may well ask? After all, who can raise awareness better than Hollywood celebrities?

The harm comes not from actors getting involved in the issues, but from ill-considered displays like the one involving the Expendables cast in Cannes, which may do more damage than good in the sense that they reek of “conspicuous compassion” and apparent insincerity, which just invite public contempt rather than inspire fans to take action.

By contrast, a serious celebrity activist like Angelina Jolie isn’t content to flash a hashtag from the red carpet or put in a brief appearance in a celeb-packed PSA. She does more than simply raise awareness. Check out the videos, for example, of United Nations ambassador Jolie visiting and talking with young Syrian refugees in Lebanon and in Turkey, as well as refugee children in Ecuador. There is no question of her active commitment.

Yes, she’s an extreme example, but the point is that her actions speak louder than any number of hashtagged phrases. If actors want to be taken seriously on a given political issue, they need to dispense with or avoid easy publicity stunts and, like Ms. Jolie, get out of their tuxedoes and luxurious comfort zone and do the legwork.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 5/21/14)