Should Well-Meaning Celebs Like Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore Think Twice Before Diving Into Complex Social Issues?
Last week, a comedy video in which Canadian rapper/singer/actor Drake punches a cute-looking robot went viral. Debuting on the humor website Funny or Die, which frequently produces similar skits starring various famous people, the clip made the rounds from Tumblr feeds to rap websites, which generally posted it either without comment or characterized it as a video specifically made by Funny or Die.
It was easy to see why bloggers would make the latter distinction, though it wasn’t accurate. Titled “Real Men are Distrustful of Robots,” it came off like any other spoofy video the site would create... except for the end, which faded out into Jessica Biel standing in room full of framed photos of “Real Men,” like Burt Reynolds, Bruce Willis, and Harrison Ford. “David is a real man,” she asked. “Are you?” After which a text placard appeared: “I AM A REAL MAN... I PREFER A REAL MAN... TAKE A STAND AGAINST CHILD SEX SLAVERY... demiandashton.org.”
Part of DNA, a new foundation started by Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher to raise awareness of and “help abolish” the global sex slave trade, the Drake clip was but one in a series of humorous yet confusing videos starring celebrities like Justin Timberlake, Jamie Foxx, and Ben Stiller doing/extolling the things that “Real Men” do or don’t do. They equate manhood with activities like using a remote, taking pain, having a sense of direction, and, uh, punching robots. All of which are used to frame the idea that “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls.”
The concept was noble, but the videos were wildly confusing. Not to say using humor to raise awareness for a cause is bad –– "whatever works" is a personal motto for organizing activism –– but DNA’s brand of levity did not draw attention to the specifics of sex slavery, nor did the jokes correlate to anything at all, other than some mildly funny, mostly stereotypical concepts of masculinity. As Videogum blogger Gabe De La Haye wrote in a post entitled Ashton Kutcher’s Anti-Sex Slavery PSAs are Insane:
Look, you can’t criticize them too much because at the end of the day they are trying in their very weird (you’ll see) way to make the world a better place. But you can criticize them a little bit. For example, here’s a criticism: I’m pretty sure that anyone who is interested in buying a CHILD SEX SLAVE isn’t going to be particularly swayed by AN IRONICALLY CLEVER ADVERTISEMENT FEATURING JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE THAT PLAYS ON MODERN CONCEPTS OF MASCULINITY.
At their foundation launch party, CNN interviewed Moore and Kutcher, and asked about the "blowback" they’ve received from the videos. "If you want to reach those that have no concept that it even exists," said Moore, "you have to reach them in the ways in which... it’s going to be met with interest. Sometimes that requires a level of humor." Kutcher continued, "The campaign’s designed for a young male demographic."
Clearly, Kutcher is the unofficial spokesperson for the country’s "bro" contingent, and it stands to reason he’d tap into Punk’d-style humor to generate interest in a cause that, to generalize, might not necessarily be up on that matter. That’s his audience. But for a man who famously garnered over 1 million twitter followers in a few weeks long before Twitter was as commonly used as it is now, it’s misguided that he would narrow and confuse the message with skits and locker room humor in lieu of just using his straightforward voice. People clearly listen to him and to Moore, whether they’re being wacky or not. In this era of diminished attention spans, spelling out the issue would likely prove more effective than simply throwing out a video and hoping it goes viral. Or, more effectively, donating time and money to an already-established organization. On Sunday, Nicholas Kristof dedicated his New York Times column to sex trafficking in the U.S., and pointed out one such place: Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS) started by Rachel Lloyd, who was sexually exploited as a teen and has just released Girls Like Us, a memoir of that experience.
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.)
These men certainly aren’t the only celebs doing it right –– predecessors like the amazing Jane Fonda carved the path for modern-day activist Hollywood 50 years ago. But they do serve as good examples of a way for famous people to be effective at really combating the issues they purport to care about. At the very least, they don’t come off as glib.