In the best of times (and rest assured, we are not living in the best of times), the John Lennon song “Imagine” is sonic pablum: the cover of choice for mediocre YouTube artists everywhere, the soundtrack to a cheesy soda commercial, the karaoke song that deadens the mood, the clichéd go-to in moments that call for solidarity.
So in some ways, it was unsurprising that Gal Gadot, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Mark Ruffalo, an unmasked Sia, and an assortment of other allegedly famous white women decided to sing the song in a supercut Gadot posted on her Instagram.
But boy, was it hard to sit through. (I still haven’t made it to the end.) Twitter reactions to the video were pretty unanimous. “No politician can unify people in the way that ‘Imagine’ video seems to have united every single person against it,” the comedian Josh Gondelman observed.
What is the role of the entertainer in a snowballing public health crisis?
The swift ridicule of Gadot and her famous friends’ attempt at uplifting the masses speaks to the very tricky position that celebrities have found themselves in during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. What is the role of the entertainer in a snowballing public health crisis? It seems hard to determine. On the one hand, we’ve got the surgeon general of the United States calling on Kylie Jenner to mobilize her army of Instagram followers to take this virus seriously, and Daniel Dae Kim using the announcement of his positive coronavirus test as an opportunity to speak out against anti-Asian racism. But on the other hand, we’ve got former Disney Channel sweetheart Vanessa Hudgens (also a decent Mimi in Rent: Live, fwiw) telling us how it’s a virus and "I respect it" although people may die, which is “terrible...but like, inevitable?” (She subsequently apologized.) And then there’s Evangeline Lilly turning her foolhardy decision not to practice social distancing into some kind of clarion call for “freedom.”
Initially, there was something kind of thrilling about watching celebrities turn to Instagram in their sweats and makeup-less faces, homebound like the rest of us less fortunate (but still privileged) masses. But now it seems that enchantment has begun to curdle. These people are much more visible than the quiet super-rich who hightailed their way to their second homes with boxes of luxury hand sanitizer. Watching celebrities self-isolate in mansions while they moan about their fevers and admonish commoners to cancel their spring breaks has begun to feel oblivious and enraging. Meanwhile, a growing number of public figures, from NBA stars to social influencers, have revealed that they’ve tested positive for the coronavirus — while thousands of people across the US still have no idea if they’ve been infected because they can’t get tested. At what point do their diagnoses stop being a vivid reminder of how widespread and unsparing this virus is, and instead become a glaring symbol of the chasm between the haves and have-nots?
At first, celebrity statements about the coronavirus seemed helpful — charming, even. Tom Hanks’ measured disclosure on March 11 that he and Rita Wilson had tested positive was reassuring and sane. It was also a wakeup call, at least anecdotally, for some boomers who hadn’t been taking the need to self-isolate seriously. (Props also to Hanks and Wilson’s son, Chet, whose follow-up Instagram video was unexpectedly soothing.)
At what point do celeb diagnoses stop being a vivid reminder of how widespread and unsparing this virus is, and instead become a glaring symbol of the chasm between the haves and have-nots?
Cardi B, who has always been attuned to the news of the moment, spoke candidly of her own fears about the coronavirus on March 10, a week before major cities started implementing restaurant and bar shutdowns. (She also spawned a viral song in the process.) Steph Curry urged his hordes of fans to practice social distancing and Instagrammed about his appropriately lowkey quarantined birthday. This week, there was a cute video of the legendary comic Mel Brooks — who is 93 (93!) — and his son Max demonstrating why social distancing is so important. (“Go home!” Mel Brooks yells at his son through his window.) Arnold Schwarzenegger also joined the social distancing PSA train with help from some equine friends. And let us not forget Idris Elba stolidly reminding us that, yes, black people can indeed get that ‘rona.
Though these celeb actions only happened within the last week, it already feels like a lifetime ago. In record time, the celebrity discourse has become frayed — fevered, if you will.
Now that it’s increasingly clear that self-isolation is going to be a marathon rather than a two-week sprint, and that many of us will be spending most days in our homes for the foreseeable future, the celebrities are truly showing themselves. They are bored. Their concerts have been canceled. Productions halted. Taking to social media, their broadcasts of their thoughts and feelings are increasingly dark and maudlin, exposing the ways their privilege works. As the New York Times reporter Astead Herndon put it on Twitter, “coronavirus is like a blacklight for celebrity clownship.”
Of course there are many public figures who have been doing the right thing. The entertainment industry has been hit hard, and folks working on production crews and in low-paying assistant jobs are looking at months of no work, money, or insurance. Showrunners Shonda Rhimes and Greg Berlanti have donated money to the Hollywood Assistants Fund. And though Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds did get married on a plantation, they have also donated $1 million to food banks in the US and Canada. John Legend and Chris Martin have livestreamed performances from their homes. These actions are good! It’s good to give money and to provide some sort of escape from this hellscape.
The illusion that celebrities are just like us is especially intoxicating now that so many of us are grounded in our homes, stymied by a virus that doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, famous or obscure. And just like us, celebrities are flawed and often oblivious to the impact — and implications — of their own actions. The difference is that a lot more people are paying attention to what they say and do. At their best, celebrities can actually use their massive platforms to champion the messaging from public health officials, amplify charities doing good work, and spur personal action. But at their worst, they highlight the deeply entrenched inequalities in our country. The kind of trite, feel-good sing-along videos that might have seemed like harmless silliness a month ago suddenly feel like adding insult to injury. And right now, we’re all just trying to get better. ●