Originally published in The Bottom Line, March 4, 2015
This year’s 87th Academy Awards wasn’t just another glamorous night to celebrate Hollywood. Looking past the paparazzi-laden red carpet, A-list actors, and million-dollar gowns, this year’s Oscars served its audience of 36.6 million a surprising side of substance.
While most actors in the past have chosen to use their brief platform to thank the Academy, their co-stars, or simply wave to their moms, more and more acceptance speeches at this year’s Oscars turned into moments of political activism. Boyhood’s Patricia Arquette didn’t dedicate her award to her kids, but instead highlighted unequal women’s pay in the U.S. Graham Moore didn’t take his opportunity to thank the cast of The Imitation Game, but instead discussed his past suicide attempt, encouraging bullied teenagers to stay strong. John Legend and Common didn’t use their acceptance speech for Best Song in Selma to thank their producers, but rather to call out racial injustice and incarceration. Suicide, Alzheimer’s, immigration reform: these are only a handful of issues that were brought to light in the speeches of Oscar winners.
This increase in political awareness at the Oscars felt refreshingly relevant. Few if any of us will ever experience the glamour of the red carpet, the thrill of sitting next to Meryl Streep, or the larger-than-life feeling of wearing custom couture outfits. The realization of this can make the “most celebrated night in Hollywood” feel stale and extraneous for many of us. So when we change the channel expecting to see perfect plastic people indulge themselves and are instead treated to celebrities using their limelight to highlight real life issues, we are delightfully surprised. These stars took attention away from their talent and placed it onto their frustrations, making them seem more relatable than ever.
It is tempting to congratulate these stars for their 40 seconds of humility and end our conversation. We have become so accustomed to a self-absorbed industry that, even when it strays from self-glory for merely a minute, we applaud and admire. While it is admirable to call others to action, there is nothing more commendable than action itself. Angelina Jolie recently visited refugee camps in northern Iraq, bringing attention to helpless civilians in the aftermath of ISIS. Leonardo DiCaprio has campaigned tirelessly to bring climate change awareness and has even spoken at the United Nations. Natalie Portman became a vegan activist in support of animal rights and has recently supported antipoverty organizations. These are the celebrity activists who should be celebrated and praised.
Spouting words of action should not be worthy of our praise alone. Acting on those beliefs is what makes our words meaningful. It should be respected that more and more celebrities are using politically charged speeches to raise awareness, but we should consider this a baby step until the same stars begin acting on what they are preaching.
For too long, the standard for celebrity activism has been too low. We never expect our favorite movie stars to interact with real-life events, even when they have arguably the largest spheres of influence. As college students, a group that consumes large amounts of popular culture and is consistently sought after to determine the direction of media outlets, it is up to us to set that standard higher. Commending speeches like those given at this year’s Oscars is a step; supporting celebrities who have acted on their beliefs is the next. When stars begin to see fans lining up to support not just the best-looking actress but the most humanitarian or the most politically active, they will no doubt begin to act on their social beliefs as well. In an industry that is always looking for “the next best thing,” with our help, it might just be activism.