Celebrities Need to Read the Room Right Now
During a global pandemic, it turns out that celebrities are just like us: stuck at home but certain everyone wants to hear from them
As celebrities hole up in enormous mansions across the country, it’s become clear, as days turn into weeks, that they are desperate for someone, anyone, to listen to them. Broadcasting from their finished basements, wood-paneled kitchens, and enormous jacuzzi tubs, the coronavirus pandemic has established a new genre of tone-deaf celebrity content — one that is supposed to be uplifting, but instead reveals how deeply class privilege affects people who thrive on social nearness. We’re all aching for entertainment, for something to distract us from this global crisis, but a bunch of celebrities singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” ain’t it.
“Hey, guys! Day six in self-quarantine,” said Gal Gadot in a recent Instagram video. Gazing into her iPhone’s front-facing camera, her skin implausibly clear, grinning like a used car salesman, Gadot continues, “You know, this virus has affected the entire world. Everyone. Doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, we’re all in this together.” After rambling a little more, she begins to sing, this time sporting a more earnest smile: “Imagine there’s no heaven…”
Cut to Kristen Wiig, standing alone in a verdant setting: “It’s easy if you try…” All your favorite celebrities are here, and it feels bad. It does not give you the sense that we’re all in this together. There’s Zoë Kravitz lounging in front of a fireplace, reluctantly whispering, “and no religion too;” the model Kaia Gerber, the actress Ashley Benson, and the model-slash-actress Cara Delevingne having way too good of a time dancing around together; a dude from Hamilton (but not the dude from Hamilton) in a sunny field, among beautiful flowers; plus, Jimmy Fallon, who I’m legitimately surprised did not conceive of this video himself, Will Ferrell, Sarah Silverman, Mark Ruffalo, James Marsden, Amy Adams, Natalie Portman, Sia, Norah Jones, Maya Rudolph, and more.
The video, surely made with good intentions, was not well-received. A New York Times music critic wrote it was “proof that even if no one meets up in person, horribleness can spread,” while a Slate writer said it is “one of the worst things to have ever happened.” Many Twitter users echoed the sentiment, and implored those featured in Gadot’s star-studded video to consider shutting up and giving their money to the people who really need it.
The rapid spread of coronavirus has brought about a strange era of quarantine content, and celebrities, untethered to a script or a set list, are eagerly taking part. Isolated in their lavish mansions, the rich and famous are using the internet to fill the void created by the coronavirus indefinitely postponing their film shoots, world tours, red carpets, sports games, and television appearances. The celebs still want to entertain you, to influence you, to be a voice of reason, or perhaps a beacon of hope. And while they are successfully creating a near-infinite stream of entertainment, they are largely failing at providing any sense of solace. Alas, it is sad that the celebs can’t be quarantined with a small cadre of directors, screenwriters, and producers.
Celebs, with their millions of followers, feel compelled to spread awareness, which is just another way to feel like you’re doing something in a time where there’s really nothing you can do. Creating public service announcements, however, can run the risk of inspiring the same sort of ire as Gadot’s video. “I still see photographs and videos of people sitting at outside cafés all over the world and having a good time and hanging out in crowds,” Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose quarantine content has gone viral several times, told his Instagram followers while puffing on a cigar and soaking in a jacuzzi tub. “That is not wise because that’s how you can get the virus!” The image of a celebrity in the lap of luxury, scolding us plebes for not exercising enough caution, gives you the feeling that these people really are trying to incite a class war. Schwarzenegger’s video is a reminder that even though coronavirus affects everyone, the way you survive this virus is by having money.
“Alright sitting there millions in your bank, while most of the world are losing jobs left right and centre in the midst of a global lockdown,” one Instagram user commented. “Shame on you big fella shame on you!”
Tom Hanks was able to execute this sort of ad hoc PSA with much greater success. He is inherently a sympathetic character not only because he is America’s dad, but because he actually has coronavirus. Unlike Schwarzenegger in his palace, Hanks is not protected or safe. Updating the public periodically on his condition, he reminds you, “We are all in this together,” and you actually believe him. When he implores you to “flatten the curve,” you might even listen.
Then there are the celebrities who stir up controversy because they are overly flippant, like Vanessa Hudgens saying, “It’s a virus, I get it. Like, I respect it. But at the same time, like, even if everybody gets it, like, yeah, people are gonna die, which is terrible but, like, inevitable?” Others are straight-up stupid about the pandemic, like the actress Evangeline Lilly, who incited an immediate backlash when she said she was going about her business as usual because “some people value their lives over freedom, some people value freedom over their lives. We all make our choices.” She also noted, “Where we are right now feels a lot too close to Marshall Law [sic] for my comfort already, all in the name of a respiratory flu,” and opined that “there’s ‘something’ every election year.”
Lily was quickly upstaged by Madonna, who managed to be both flippant and stupid. “What’s terrible about [coronavirus] is that it’s made us equal,” the pop icon said in a now-deleted Instagram video, where she is naked, soaking in a bathtub straight out of a romance novel. “What’s wonderful about it is that it’s made us all equal in many ways.” (Is it really, Madge?) Her comments were immediately met with indignation, with social media users pointing out that although the virus may affect a diverse group of people, economic class very much plays into survival.
At the same time, the outrage over the woman from Lost not being smart about the coronavirus, or the lady from High School Musical not being empathetic enough, or Madonna not being either of those things, is somewhat unearned. We have this bizarre expectation that celebrities should be intelligent, and celebrities continue to disappoint us.
Celebrities have often missed the mark when reacting to major disasters. After 9/11, Mark Ruffalo hopped on the truther wagon, remarking, “Buildings don’t fall like that,” while Woody Harrelson, Rosie O’Donnell, Willie Nelson, and Charlie Sheen signed a petition circulated by an organization called Actors and Artists for 9/11 Truth. Of course, a broken clock is right twice a day, so celebrities have also spoken truth after major tragedies, like when Kanye West said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” on live TV after Hurricane Katrina.
The coronavirus lockdown really has the celebs in an unprecedented sort of pickle. These people became superstars because they love attention and are effective at getting it. In the era of the attention economy, the impulse among people with large followings is to spread awareness, which is not what we need right now. The only thing to do that isn’t totally tone-deaf is being generous: Kylie Jenner gave $1 million to supply health care workers with protective gear, Kelly Ripa donated the same amount to relief efforts, and celeb couple Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively donated $1 million to two food banks, which is a good start.
But as the ancient proverb goes, for every Tom Hanks, there are 10 Madonnas. The stars will continue being arrogant and asinine, and they will almost certainly continue to tell on themselves. If the celebrities weren’t so clueless, they would figure out how to make themselves coronavirus heroes. They would use their platforms to promote a workers’ relief fund, pressure private industry to produce face masks and ventilators, and a full-throated endorsement of universal health care. But right now, all they can inspire is cringe.