What does it mean when celebrities say good or stupid things about sex work/workers? And why should we care?
In early May, Susan Sarandon tweeted this to the world: "Sex work is a job just like any other, but its criminalization exposes sex workers to discrimination, abuse & exploitation. Talking about it is the first step to reducing the stigma, but decriminalization is the only way to implement safeguards to protect those in this industry."
Oh, Janet! What would Doctor Scott say?
The response was overwhelming: sex workers' rights organizations immediately began congratulating Sarandon and asking for assistance in helping to promote legislation, raise funds, and bring visibility to issues that further impact the community. Organizations such as Bay Area Workers Support, Red Light Reader, and Lysistrata publicly responded, to which Sarandon posted this follow-up: "Been hearing so much from the sex worker community today. Thank you all for reaching out. @LysistrataMCCF started a thread below on how to help various orgs that provide direct assistance to sex workers in need. Please check it out and add more."
The replies were largely positive, and those voicing doubt were in the overwhelming minority. It bodes well that Sarandon furthered her statement of support with action items for her followers, which is one step further than the usual statements made by celebrities to increase cache usually offer, and for that the internet was a flutter of yays and nays. Susan Sarandon, it seems, has been re-elevated to the sex-positive status that she has taken up with (however haltingly) throughout her career; from her role as the innocent-girlfriend-turned-insatiable-slut in Rocky Horror Picture Show to more recent reports that her sexuality is up for grabs by any gender, Sarandon has made a career of being on the fringes of edge. From her homoerotic lead in Thelma and Louise to the owning of ping pong bars, she is at the very least an eccentric and interesting figurehead.
Still, she is not without controversy.
She spoke out against trafficking and sexual slavery in 2010, stating that trafficking is coming to the US, and equating said practices with the entire industry. In 2011, she traveled to Phnom Pehn to speak at Cambodian Anti-Trafficking Day: "I was struck by how real Sarandon is, how she has listened and hugged and affirmed the girls’ dignity at every stop. At the same time, she is aware of the power that her celebrity carries, and she tries to use it intelligently.
“The only reason to bring a celebrity to visit a project like this is to help validate these people’s stories,” she says. “Now that I have been here and seen in person what they are doing, I will be much better equipped to tell their stories when I go back home.”
Sarandon made appearances on behalf of the cause – even as recently as last year, though her talks have lessened since the stories of Somaly Mam turned out to be largely falsified. At this event in 2018, she made the following statement: “In this time when you can be disheartened and distraught, look instead at how many women are finding their voices and how many men are standing beside them."
The tweets she sent about sex work could indicate that she is turning over a new leaf. Regardless, she is a celebrity who appears to deeply understand her power as a public figure, and to take seriously her role as a political ambassador and role model.
Which begs the question– should we care?
What does it mean when celebrities take a stand for or against a controversial issue?
Hollywood has a history of being political: Marlon Brando refusing to show up to collect his Oscar because of the treatment of Native peoples, the trials of the Hollywood Ten, the actresses who wore black at the Golden Globes.
Many studies have been made about celebrity worship, especially in the United States:
"...People in North America canonize “secular saints” because they have made a significant impact in the entertainment industry, are recently deceased or have advocated for social justice issues. While these individuals still have personality flaws, as do any human beings, we often choose to overlook them in service of our vision of these celebrities. In this way, these figures become merely the faces behind inspirational quotes, representative of a state of virtue. We neglect to see their faults in favor of idolizing their accomplishments. Such a viewpoint is unrealistic and inaccurate and can become an unhealthy habit."
It's a commonly-held experience that steeping oneself in a movie, television show, or other dramatic narrative is a wholly immersive enterprise. Scholars of narrative even argue that such experiences are necessary for creating empathy, which is a natural mainstay of prompting people to become socially engaged; if a reader or viewer can imagine themselves in the lives of, or at the very least become emotionally invested in, others, then they are prompted to action. Along that line of logic, narratives (or the actors who enact them) go hand-in-hand with political action/platforms simply became they create the empathy needed for civic engagement.
A real question of power
Whether or not we care about celebrities, their lives, and what they do or don't believe in, may not be the right question here. The question could rather be one of power: if understanding your positionality as a celebrity figurehead can be used as a way to create visibility and even lead to real, tangible change, then – well – why not?
Kayne West re-shocked the world in January by reaffirming his support of President Trump. Jenny McCarthy has made it her life's work to speak out against vaccinating one's children. In the same way that Sarandon has utilized her public platform to create both visibility and cache, West and McCarthy and countless celebrities (and don't forget influencers and influencer culture) have taken up the mantle of being ambassadors for causes, politicians, and/or movements that they may or may not have any connection to or background with at all.
There are many – including those in Hollywood themselves – who think celebrities should be given less than zero platforms for political thought and/or expression. According to an Independent article about Mark Wahlberg during the pre-2016 presidential election, the actor is a big believer in actors staying mum about their viewpoints. "Unlike the majority of Hollywood, the Ted actor kept quiet about his political leanings over the tempestuous election period. When asked why he did not get involved or actively endorse anyone throughout the 18-month campaign, Wahlberg said he didn't feel in a position to do so because of his own privilege."
“A lot of celebrities, did, do and shouldn’t [give their political opinions],” he told Task and Purpose magazine, which is aimed at US veterans.
“You know, it just goes to show that people aren’t listening to that anyway. They might buy your CD or watch your movie but you don’t put food on their table. You don’t pay their bills. A lot of Hollywood is living in a bubble. They’re pretty out of touch with the common person, the everyday guy out there providing for their family.”
Who else is there to raise this mantle?
Movie stars hold a terrific amount of wealth and power, especially in fame-obsessed America, where anyone can run for office as long as they have the funding to do so. As dubious as it may sound to take stock in the voices of non-expert celebrities, even our most liberal politicians are currently spectacularly failing sex workers and those in the sex industry. We have absolutely zero Democratic candidates on the ballot who are in favor of repealing FOSTA/SESTA, or even having nuanced conversations about the ways that consensual sex work differs from sexual slavery and child trafficking.
Taking into context the fact that celebrities and politicians have historically held close ties, it may not be the worst idea in the world to embrace a little celebrity worship in order to get some radical change.