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Should Well-Meaning Celebs Like Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore Think Twice Before Diving Into Complex Social Issues?

Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore's recent campaign against sex slavery is well-intentioned, but convoluted. Should half-serious celebrities just keep away from causes altogether?

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Meanwhile, conflating male stereotypes with the solution of an issue is deeply problematic; by dictating what makes a “real man” and by tweeting that "Real Men Protect Girls," the campaign is utilizing broad anti-feminist sentiment to promote an inherently feminist cause. It’s akin to PETA’s gratuitous use of scantily-clad, objectified women to promote veganism, an attempt to stomp out one social woe while promoting another. And it’s a perfect example of why celebrities, while effective megaphones, may not necessarily be the best activists.

But it’s frustrating, because when CNN interviewed Kutcher and Moore a few days ago, they clearly care about the issue of sex trafficking. Upon listening to a young victim tell her story, Kutcher was incisive and angry and managed to mete out DNA’s mission statement a little better than their ad campaign. "Where the ambiguity comes in is with the guy who’s buying this girl. Because for that [pimp] to sell this girl and continue to sell this girl, he had to be making money. And so some guy went and bought that girl. And maybe she was there and looked a little young, but he didn’t bother to ask, he didn’t bother to help. Any one of those guys could have stopped it." It’s a total oversimplification, but at least he wasn't trying to be funny this time.

So, it raises the question, how should celebrities participate as advocates and as activists? As Jessica Mack wrote, "I want to give them credit for drawing attention to this horrible issue… but what if the attention they draw is ill-informed and misaligned? Isn’t that more harm than good?" In Hollywood, there appears to be a constant equal between legitimate, out-in-the-trenches activism and those who simply show up to charity dinners and basketball tournaments. Not everyone can be Sean Penn –– rowing boats to save survivors from roofs after Hurricane Katrina, digging victims from homes after the earthquake in Haiti –– or Mark Ruffalo, possibly the highest-profile person in America actively campaigning against fracking. So if Madonna’s Malawian foundation turns out to be illegitimate because of greedy directors, does that negate all her campaigning for Africa, AIDS awareness, gay rights, and voting she’s done since the late 1980s? What about Oprah’s ill-fated girl’s school in South Africa? And even if their efforts are misguided, how much is there to be said for getting heretofore obscure causes into the minds of the American populace?

“Don’t put off the artists we can get on board,” Keep A Child Alive director Leigh Blake told Philanthropy Today back in 1996, when a clutch of celebrities seemingly rushed to make Africa their cause celebre. On the other hand, “Appearing to be socially conscious is the only way to go,” publicist Richard Laermer told the Christian Science Monitor last year. “You won’t see them touching anything that might actually hurt their careers, and you can bet that Brad Pitt and the rest all have to pay attention to their movie career. If that slumps, you won’t see them tromping off to foreign lands quite so quickly.”

He’s got a point, but it’s interesting to note that Brad Pitt’s organization might be considered a model for how celebrities can responsibly move forward with their commitments to social activism. Not On Our Watch was started by Pitt, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Don Cheadle, Jerry Weintraub, and David Pressman, initially in response to the atrocities in Darfur, though it has expanded its reach to Burma and Zimbabwe in recent years. While a member of the board will occasionally appear on a news program to promote a specific cause, despite the massive fame of its attendants the work is usually done behind the scenes, diplomatically in Washington or practically in the countries the organization is trying to help. Their work is understated but powerful, and it’s also clear they didn’t jump on so serious an issue out of the blue. (I recently re-watched the Matt Damon and Ben Affleck-penned Good Will Hunting, and if you remember the scene where Damon’s character turns down a job with the NSA, you’ll know this kind of thing has been on his mind, at least, for a while.)