Politico reported earlier this month that Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, picked up the phone and cold-called Senator Collins and Senator Moore Capito to encourage them to support paid family leave. She introduced herself as “Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex” with apparently no irony or humor, as if the senators should give a hoot. My grandmother would call this both chutzpah and misheggenah. And I agree, Ghost of Grandma: it’s nuts.
The senators displayed good humor about it, but my guess is they were annoyed. Senator Moore Capito thought it was Joe Manchin calling from a blocked number, and Senator Collins was at the gym when the call came in. Putting aside for the moment that U.S. lawmakers aren’t really down with input from the British monarchy on policy — we went over this already, after all — Senator Collins aptly pointed out that she was more interested in what the people of Maine had to say about the issue, rather than a princess from California. And this got me thinking: Why did Markle think she had any influence at all?
Apparently, Markle was encouraged to make the cold calls by Senator Gillibrand, who for some reason also thought this would work. (Personally, I’ll never forgive Senator Gillibrand for leading the charge to tar and feather Senator Franken with no due process whatsoever, depriving us of a real champion of liberal values, so I’m struggling to keep my snark in check). But Senator Gillibrand’s encouragement still doesn’t explain why Markle believed she could influence two GOP senators, whose constituencies live clear across the country.
After all, there is no reason to believe that Markle has any sway over the electorate of Maine or West Virginia. In fact, there is no evidence that Markle has any sway over anybody in the United States at all. Therefore, by logical extension, there is no reason that Senators Collins and Moore Capito would care what Markle believes, because the senators are in the business of (ideally) being responsive to their electorate, and winning elections. And while Markle may be correct that paid family leave is a necessary part of domestic policy (many of us think so too) there is no evidence that she’s a policy expert on the subject, unless you believe being a multi-millionaire who lives in a mansion in Montecito while raising two young children makes you an expert in something — other than being very rich.
So again: Where did Markle get the idea that this would work? I’m personally baffled, but my working theory is that celebrities have been taught that prurient interest in them equals influence. And no one wants to be the one to tell them that yeah, no it doesn’t.
We are interested in Markle, of course, because we are interested in the British monarchy (although this interest is waning). We are interested in how the Royal Family treated her (badly, it seems), and some of us are interested in what Markle and Prince Harry will do next. (I, for one, worry that Prince Harry will get extremely bored in Montecito. There are only so many walks on the beach and bike rides one can take). But this interest does not translate to believing that Markle’s beliefs should be our beliefs. Again, her life is wildly, laughably far removed from the issue of paid family leave, and yet she seems to have an unshakeable belief that we care what she thinks about the issue.
This further translates into an unshakeable belief in her own power, based solely on our interest in her. She’s not the first celebrity to think this, and she won’t be the last. But boy, do I wish someone would sit them down and explain it: We. Don’t. Care.
Angelina Jolie is a more nuanced example of this strange celebrity-drunk-on-power phenomenon. For the better part of the last two decades, Jolie has fashioned herself as a humanitarian interested in shedding light on the plight of refugees around the world. And this is a good thing, obviously, especially given the anti-refugee sentiment we’ve seen in the United States and around the world. It’s why the U.N. uses celebrities in the first place, to call attention to the plights of populations that mainstream media seems to have forgotten. (For instance, while we’ve all been busy wringing our hands about the Rittenhouse trial, the conflict in Ethiopia has displaced thousands of people, the Ethiopian government has detained U.N. employees and is about to kick out international news organizations).
So yes, sending Jolie to take photos in a refugee camp is admittedly an effective, if limited, use of celebrity. But our celebrity-obsessed culture loses the plot when we praise Jolie for how much she’s done for refugees, because the truth is refugees have done a lot more for her. Jolie has used this work to refashion her image from a blood-drinking wild child into a beatific, international maternal figure resulting in glowing magazine cover stories.
There’s nothing wrong with Jolie enjoying improved PR for her efforts, but there’s a lot wrong if we don’t at least recognize that it is the very refugees she claims to help who made this possible. So who is the powerful one in this dynamic? Jolie, for turning our attention to displaced persons, or the displaced persons who changed her life?
When I think of celebrity power in this way, I become wistful for what could have been or maybe could still be: Celebrities lending their spotlight to concrete solutions for the displaced and victimized. For instance, solar cookers have saved women and girls living in refugee camps from rape and other violence, since at least 2009. They cost about fifteen bucks, and you have to wonder why no celebrity (as far as I know, I would love to be wrong about this) has used their spotlight to let the rest of us know how we can support this project. I’ll tell you why: a solar cooker is simply too mundane (often the most effective things are mundane) to land you on the cover of Vogue.
The celebrity-power delusion isn’t just the province of women, however. Who can forget Mark Ruffalo’s constant stream of tweets about the the dangers of capitalism (Mark Ruffalo is worth approximately 13 million, natch) and support of Bernie Sanders, or Scott Baio’s constant stumping for Trump. Both these men, it seems, truly believed that they could influence the electorate one way or the other. But have you ever met anyone who voted based on what a celebrity said?
No, you have not, and I am willing to die on this hill. You know people who vote one way or the other because they are worried about their livelihood, their children’s education, aging, and medical bills, to name but a few issues that we normies freak out about on the daily. You know, concerns that the richest celebrities simply do not have. And yet celebrities continue in their delusion that we are influence-able, and we somehow continue to humor them. Perhaps we should stop doing that, so that the real changemakers can rise to the surface, people like Fatima Jibrell, who among many other things, founded an organization to bring sun cooking to Somalia. If she told me something about policy, I would probably listen.
Ironically, it’s Markle’s late mother-in-law, Princess Diana, who knew exactly how to use her spotlight to help people, and was not delusional about it. It seems quaint now, but when Princess Diana took a photograph shaking hands with an AIDs patient in 1987, it was revolutionary. Until that point, the fear-mongering about HIV and AIDS had reached such a fever pitch that people were afraid to touch HIV+ people. (No, my Millennial readers, I am not making this up). With this one photograph, Princess Di changed the conversation, pivoting it back at least in the direction of normalcy and humanity. Then she did the same for landmines.
Princess Di knew where her power lay — in being photographed. She held no delusions about whether people wanted to hear from her on policy. (Although to be fair, the monarchy is supposed to stay out of politics altogether, which is why Markle’s foray into American politics is not going over well). But perhaps more importantly, Princess Di never seemed to burnish her own image on the backs of AIDs patients or victims of landmines.
Maybe I’m misremembering Princess Di. But I miss what she represents to me now, a celebrity with no delusions about her power, but a willingness to use what power she had. Perhaps someday we’ll have someone like her again, but until then, let’s try to not feed celebrities’ delusions any further. After all, we the voters are the ones with the power, not them, no matter how many times they land on glossy magazine covers.
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