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The Afterword: The thinly-veiled charade of celebrity is breaking down


When men across the country went off to fight in the Second World War, women filled the gap they left in the labor force — as a temporary measure, of course. 

Well, as it turned out, we never looked back. Women’s roles continued to expand in the postwar era, and what was once a compensatory shift quickly evolved into a persisting societal norm. That’s not the only occurrence of its kind; in fact, wars and pandemics tend to bring with them large-scale changes that otherwise might not have breached the mainstream. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, for one, the idea of universal basic income has transitioned from fringe to buzzword status. 

There is a cultural equivalent to this situation: In times like these, veils are lifted and bare, ugly truths are revealed. When the economy is at a standstill and we are collectively forced to hole up in our homes, class inequality becomes impossible to ignore and pandering can’t do much to offset that. Among the social impacts of the virus, as one New York Times article so aptly put it, “is its swift dismantling of the cult of celebrity.” 

Yup, celebrities are on the chopping block, and no, that’s not hyperbole — #eattherich and #guillotine2020 have become rallying cries of the digital generation. I mentioned in a column earlier this year that growing anti-capitalist sentiment has led to criticism of the highly-publicized lives of the rich and famous. People were already fed up, and quarantine just might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Shockingly, a recently-deleted Instagram post from Kylie Jenner sending us her “love and prayers” in a pair of $2,000 Dior Jordan 1’s isn’t the light at the end of the tunnel we were looking for. Surprisingly, Gal Gadot telling us that “staying home is her superpower” from her walk-in closet is not easing our existential stress. Oh, and plot twist: Celebrities’ joint cover of “Imagine” by John Lennon was incredibly tone-deaf — in more ways than one: Turns out that the sheer presence of celebrities didn’t cure all our ailments and we don’t want millionaires singing to us about “no possessions” in a period of acute financial stress whose reverberations will likely alter the course of our careers and lives. Who’d have thought?

Celebrities “are stuck inside, but can’t read the room”, as The Guardian eloquently pointed out. As I would put it, the divide between the celebrity ideal and the masses has never been more obvious. The famous have long played the role of “ambassadors of the meritocracy” by serving as success stories of the American Dream and the pursuit of wealth through talent and hard work, yadda yadda. They are not the richest of Americans by a long stretch, but they have often acted as a middle ground between the elite and the masses, with a unique ability to be both unattainable and relatable. 

That idea has always been a thinly veiled charade, sure, but it is clear now that it has disintegrated altogether, giving way to the realization that, no, we’re actually not “all in this together” and, no, not all of us can afford to “stay positive” all the time. Some are unemployed, late on rent and trapped in crowded, conflict-ridden apartments while others are sitting pretty in heavily-staffed palatial mansions. All that considered, corny one-liners and awful song covers aren’t doing much to convince us we’re all facing the same beast.  

I hope I’m not overgeneralizing, but there’s something to be said about Madonna calling this pandemic “The Great Equalizer” from a bathtub filled with rose petals. I mean, come on

In fact, this all feels strangely and poetically ironic coming off “Parasite”’s (2019) legendary Best Picture win at this year’s Oscars. For those who haven’t seen it, the film tells the story of how a poor South Korean family cons their way into a rich home, shedding light on the vapid nature of the uber-wealthy without missing a beat. Its powerful message of class warfare, as one Twitter critic put it, was that “when you try to beat capitalism at its own game, you’ll always shed more blood of the working class than the elite.” 

The rich ate “Parasite”  up, lauding its astute social commentary without realizing — doy! — that they embody the same invulnerability and obliviousness that characterized the wealthy Park family. In a sense, that’s what’s happening now: Over the course of this pandemic, celebrities have tried to embed themselves in a narrative of sacrifice and resilience that is humorously misplaced. It’s like that one scene in the movie where a flood destroys the Kim family’s home while the Park family laments they can’t go camping anymore because of the rain — highly metaphorical, uncomfortably disparate and impossible to forget. 

I brought up the role of women in the workforce in WWII to introduce the idea that initially reactive changes can become instrumental to a system, a country or an ideology. Only time will tell whether the widespread disillusionment toward celebrities is a temporary coping mechanism or a permanent cultural shift. 

I don’t know what I believe, but I do think that this might be the end of “We Are the World”-esque pandering. Hey, it’s a small victory, but a good one and likely not the only positive one that will come of this mess. 

Rachel McKenzie is a junior writing about pop culture. Her column, “The Afterword,” runs every other Tuesday.





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