Earlier this week, two actresses stepped down from their roles on two different animated television shows for the same reason: Jenny Slate and Kristen Bell are white, and the characters that they were voicing are not.
Slate announced on Wednesday that she would be leaving Netflix’s “Big Mouth,” where she had voiced the mixed-race character of Missy Foreman-Greenwald since 2017, saying it would be “an act of erasure of Black people” if she stayed, according to CNN.
Bell, meanwhile, had provided the voice of Molly Tillerman, who is also a mixed-race character, on “Central Park,” which debuted on Apple TV Plus in May. “I am happy to relinquish this role to someone who can give a much more accurate portrayal,” Bell wrote on Instagram, shortly after Slate’s announcement.
The decision of both actresses comes amid a nationwide conversation about race and protests against racial injustice. That conversation had already spread to Hollywood, leading HBO Max to briefly remove the 1939 film “Gone With the Wind” in order to add a disclaimer and historical context, and TV shows like “30 Rock” and “Scrubs” to remove episodes from streaming services that depict characters wearing blackface.
Slate and Bell stepping down is “an afterthought — and an opportunity,” according to The Guardian.
“Quitting a role is one thing, but how can both actors make sure that they take the responsibility they’ve pledged to take going forward?” questioned The Guardian’s assistant TV editor Hannah J. Davies.
It’s a question that many celebrities have had to face in recent weeks, as more and more have come forward in support of anti-racism and the Black Lives Matter movement. Before leaving “Central Park,” Bell took part in the “I Take Responsibility” celebrity PSA video that was filmed in partnership with the NAACP and was criticized by those who called on the stars to donate and take meaningful action rather than just speak out, according to The Hill.
So what is the role of celebrities when it comes to activism and supporting social causes? And how much are celebrities really helping?
The rise of celebrity activism
More celebrities are speaking out than ever before on social and political issues, according to Mathieu Deflem, a professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina who is currently working on a project on “Celebrity Culture During the Pandemic.”
“There is simply a lot more celebrity activism today than ever before, literally than any other time in history,” Deflem told the Deseret News via email. “It seems presently impossible to be a celebrity without being involved in activism.”
The rise of social media has fueled celebrity activism, with Twitter and other platforms making it easier than ever for stars to directly reach their fan base.
“They all do it,” Deflem said. “It’s part of the job, part of the brand.”
But are their messages resonating?
Just days after the killing of George Floyd, Madonna was criticized for sharing a video of her son dancing to “honor and pay tribute to George and His Family and all Acts of Racism and Discrimination that happen on a daily basis in America,” which was seen as insensitive, according to CNN.
And actress Emma Watson was called out for participating in the Blackout Tuesday social media movement by posting three black squares to her Instagram that were edited to match the aesthetic of her feed, according to the Deseret News. Watson later issued a statement speaking out against racism.
But even before the protests began, the coronavirus pandemic had led to some other celebrity missteps. Ellen DeGeneres was called out for “privilege” after joking that quarantining in her mansion was “like being in jail,” and Gal Gadot came under fire for sharing an “out of touch” video of of a group of celebrities singing John Lennon’s “Imagine,” the Deseret News reported.
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The headline of a New York Times article from March perhaps sums it up best: “Celebrity Culture is Burning.”
So when the “I Take Responsibility” PSA video was released earlier this month — with stars like Bell and Sarah Paulson and Stanley Tucci filmed in black and white to solemn music — the public’s patience with celebrities was already wearing thin.
“There is a certain fatigue setting in with celebrities, because they always have something to say,” said Deflem.
Who’s listening to celebrities?
Even as more celebrities speak on political issues, it seems like less people might be listening.
A 2019 survey from Hill-HarrisX found that 65% of respondents said that the political opinions of celebrities have no influence on the way they vote. What’s more, 24% said that celebrity endorsements would make them less likely to vote for a particular candidate — as opposed to the 11% who said they would be more likely to vote for someone after an endorsement.
Part of the problem is that there are so many stars who are constantly speaking out on many different issues, according to Deflem.
“There is indeed a risk that as more celebrities chime in, that the effect of what each of them is doing is smaller,” Deflem said. “Because what each does is just one in a thousand, one in many thousands of other ‘celebvocacy’ issues.”
It also makes a difference whether a celebrity or a brand is among the first to speak out or act on an issue, according to Forbes.
Using the example of Slate offering to step down first from “Big Mouth” and Bell choosing to follow suit with “Central Park,” Forbes observed, “Savvy audiences will question whether the follow the leader brands are acting because they no longer have a choice versus because they want to.”
Being seen as sincere is a struggle that celebrities face when it comes to activism, because their decisions can seem calculated.
“Celebs are not always seen as genuine, perhaps not even when they are,” said Deflem.
Is there a ‘right’ way for celebrity activists?
So can celebrities still have an impact in the public sphere?
Stars who are willing to step out of the spotlight might be the most helpful to activists, according to the Washington Post.
Celebrities who “work behind the scenes and do things that are constructive, that don’t bring them any fame or glory or money, those are the ones the activists really respect,” Emilie Raymond, author of “Stars for Freedom: Hollywood, Black Celebrities, and the Civil Rights Movement,” told the Post.
A recent article in The Guardian points to stars like Selena Gomez and Taylor Swift as examples of “celebrities who are doing anti-racism right.” Gomez has been giving control of her Instagram (which has 180 million followers) to different activists and experts with “smaller platforms and bigger expertise than herself” to share more information about racial injustice and activism.
Gomez is not the only star who has handed off her social media to activists. Gwyneth Paltrow, Julia Roberts and Kourtney Kardashian are among those who have taken part in the #ShareTheMicNow campaign, which is an attempt to “magnify Black women and the important work that they’re doing,” according to CNN.
However, as the Los Angeles Times noted, “That kind of amplification only works if it is sustained — i.e., Black women get big mics of their own.”
If amplifying other voices is the goal, then Slate and Bell choosing to leave their television roles might be a step in the right direction.
“Jenny Slate quit her role in ‘Big Mouth’ and changed her behavior to ensure that diversity is welcomed,” wrote Forbes, adding that decision is an example of “a brand putting their money where their mouth is.”