This recent election cycle saw the return of a recurring figure in the American imagination: the hypocritical Hollywood progressive.
There have always been celebrities who right-wing critics have called out for both radicalism and not living up to their views. Given gendered double standards, the targets are often women, as was the case with Jane Fonda or Barbra Streisand. But Fonda actually went against media narratives to call out the Vietnam war; Streisand called for boycotts over gay rights before it was the norm.
It’s a sign of the deep conservatism of the celebrity establishment that the accusation is now often being delivered by the left, most recently regarding Katy Perry, Kim Kardashian, and Gwyneth Paltrow.
This month, Perry made more news for her politics than she has for her music in almost a decade. An Instagram post announcing her vote for billionaire Rick Caruso in the LA mayoral election sparked so much anger that she had to turn off the comments. Kardashian and Paltrow made news for endorsing him as well.
The LA mayoral race, a battle between history-making Black member of Congress Karen Bass (whose victory was announced Wednesday) and onetime Republican mall magnate Caruso turned into a national spectacle as a supposed referendum on an intra-left battle over class, race, and coded ideas about “safety” and policing.
In truth, Bass is an establishment Democrat who has had skirmishes with the left over her “more police” policies. But she is less reactionary than Caruso, whose shameless “tough on crime” rhetoric and history of donations to anti-abortion candidates make him, quite simply, a conservative.
It’s not surprising that white women would back Caruso. As a group, they continue to vote Republican. And while prominent men like Snoop Dogg and Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos also endorsed Caruso, celebrities like Perry received a disproportionate amount of attention because of what they represent as seemingly liberal women.
The hubbub over Perry, Kardashian, and Paltrow using their platforms to endorse Caruso exposed a trend of the increasingly incohesive neoliberal multicultural politics: claims to inclusivity and diversity juxtaposed with allegedly unethical labor practices, support for “free speech,” and advocacy of policies that protect the country’s most privileged.
The furor over these celebrities’ voting decisions captures not just their own reactionary turn, but also some of the changes that have occurred in the way pop culture processes celebrity politics.
Perry, Kardashian, and Paltrow have all been proponents of a certain kind of women’s empowerment. Kardashian has used her pioneering reality TV show to spearhead successful business ventures and reinvent herself as a criminal justice reformer. Perry’s songs hinted at her LGBTQ allydom, and her 2013 single “Roar” was literally Hillary Clinton’s campaign anthem. She wore a “Resist” armband after Donald Trump’s election.
But these supposedly egalitarian values have always nestled uneasily with reality.
After facing multiple backlashes over cultural appropriation, Perry rebranded as a purveyor of “conscious” pop in songs like “Chained to the Rhythm.” She sang about being trapped in “white picket fences” and putting rose-colored glasses on, critiquing societal norms and highlighting the ways people get lost in their own insular worlds.
She punctuated her Instagram post with the hashtag “#doyoubutjustuseyourvoteok,” the kind of old-school political civics lesson Madonna deployed in the ‘90s “Rock the Vote” campaign, as if voting is possible for everyone in an era of massive voter disenfranchisement.
Further, she affirmed right-wing talking points about so-called out-of-control crime playing out in Los Angeles’s landscape. “I am voting for a myriad of reasons (see the news) but in particular because Los Angeles is a hot mess atm,” she wrote in the Instagram post showing that she voted for Caruso.
Like Perry, Kardashian has created an entire empire out of a slippery kind of feminism founded upon the idea of selling her image on her terms and building her own business.
At the same time, social media commenters, fashion designers, and even fellow celebrities have accused Kardashian of appropriating Black and brown style. She’s also faced consistent allegations from former employees that her and her family don’t pay interns and underpay social media workers, and even a labor lawsuit for failing to give household workers breaks. (Kardashian did not respond to allegations from former employees about working conditions at KKW Beauty or the Kardashian family’s apps. Her spokesperson responded to the lawsuit with a statement: “These workers were hired and paid through a third-party vendor … Kim is not party to the agreement made between the vendor and their workers, therefore she is not responsible for how the vendor manages their business.”)
She’s never addressed any of these labor issues thoughtfully on social media. But on a conservative podcast last December, she talked about facing criticism. “I've never really been into cancel culture," she said. “I really do believe ... in … freedom of speech.” Kardashian also defended her ex-husband Kanye West by referencing free speech: "I thought, 'Why should [Kanye] take [his MAGA hat] off if that's what he believes in?” Kardashian said. “Why can't he wear that on TV? Half of the country voted for [Trump] so clearly other people like him also.” As if everyone has equal access to corporate media platforms.
At the same time, Kardashian has been folding a new element into her political persona: a purported investment in criminal justice reform and fighting the criminalization of people of color. It’s personal, she’s claimed, because she’s raising “mixed kids.”
Yet like many elites, she appears to see the crisis of mass incarceration and her philanthropic work as somehow separate from the “scary crime” in her own city. In her Caruso endorsement video, Kardashian rehashed the right-wing crime wave talking points Perry did, proclaiming: “I think that he can help with crime in our city, which is such a big issue and super scary.”
Kardashian and Perry’s endorsements are notable in part because they appear out of step with the ways millennials are often presented in the media — as an increasingly politicized generation, especially over labor issues.
Paltrow is a little different, as a Gen X Hollywood kid who has long seemed above selling relatability. She’s always been Oscar-winning Hollywood royalty who at best represented a free-to-be-you-and-me ethos that scans as liberal, like the therapy speak of her infamous “conscious uncoupling” divorce statement; her lifestyle brand Goop’s gift guide routinely includes five- and six-figure luxury items.
She’s transitioned out of acting — a career that required masses of people to buy into her image. Even so, Goop has often sold a second wave–flavored celebration of women communing with their bodies. For instance, Goop featured a fake “luxury disposable diaper” to call attention to the so-called diaper tax, or the way diapers are taxed as luxury goods. (This made her a favorite right-wing symbol of tax hypocrisy after Goop made a list of "delinquent taxpayers.")
People have accused Goop of relying on selling orientalism to white women. And like Kardashian, Paltrow’s labor politics boil down to: Privileged people have it harder. Even then, her Caruso statement — “'We need Rick desperately to get our streets cleaned up and functioning” — legitimized right-wing narratives about rising crime and deterioration. (There is also a Goop store at a resort owned by Caruso.)
Despite some recent, public shifts in its purported values, Hollywood has never been truly liberal.
Celebrity has always been contradictory and gendered, entailing the need to be #goals but attainably so, political but not too much. And despite some recent, public shifts in its purported values, Hollywood has never been even liberal, let alone progressive.
For every Fonda or Streisand there was an NRA-backing Charlton Heston or a Ronald Reagan, who became a Republican after his presidency of the Screen Actors Guild, which FBI files have shown enabled him to “expose” communists within the ranks. (Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos’s vote for Caruso probably surprised few people. Under his rule, Netflix has faced a lawsuit for gender and racial pay discrimination and has reportedly created an anti-trans work environment, not to mention the constant backlash over anti-trans content.)
But maintaining a liberal-friendly image while upholding corporate and pro–Wall Street values amid unprecedented levels of inequality and increasing financialization is becoming more difficult. As more entertainment figures reach higher levels of wealth, and even billionaire status, these contradictions become more evident.
In this context, the virtue of relatability is particularly gendered, because women like Kardashian sell aspiration. Yet, like a fantasy of diversity liberalism that is divorced from the realities of class inequality, that promise seems to have an increasingly shrinking audience.
Nothing speaks to the uneasy politics of their images more than the fact that Paltrow and Kardashian endorsed cryptocurrency as an investment opportunity for women, alongside the world’s newly minted richest female actor Reese Witherspoon,
Critics of the trend, like Jackson Palmer of the Griftopia podcast, described crypto as “built primarily to amplify the wealth of its proponents through a combination of tax avoidance, diminished regulatory oversight, and artificially enforced scarcity.”
This year, the crypto bubble predictably burst; many people lost their savings and investments. The phenomenon’s celebrity shills were silent. None of them spoke out about the lack of regulation in the financial sector or corporate accountability.
Two decades ago, writer and activist Naomi Klein galvanized people to consider the gruesomely exploitative behind-the-scenes labor politics of fashion brands selling lifestyles. As people became brands via the mechanism of celebrity, the corporate and personal intertwined in a new way. As Klein noted, politics itself became branded through neoliberal multiculturalism in candidates like Barack Obama and later Hillary Clinton. And the same thing happened as celebrities became social media influencers.
Klein advocated “jamming” brands against themselves to expose them to the mainstream public. And that’s what celebrity critique has turned into — a kind of consumer awareness project. The opportunity to reach so many people unmediated means celebrities can exploit people’s interest and financial investment without responding to criticism.
That’s why, even before the Elon Musk takeover, celebrities were leaving Twitter. This older, richer celebrity class relies upon insulation from even the appearance of social media accountability. For them, any critique is tantamount to cancellation.
Earlier this month, billionaire Rihanna came under fire for featuring Johnny Depp in her Savage X Fenty show, with critics arguing that his appearance helped rehabilitate his image after gruesome allegations of abuse. Social media users then quickly raised past allegations that products from her Fenty Beauty brand included materials from mines that used child labor. She hasn’t responded to either allegation. Will she even have to? ●