Dana Pierangeli: Celebrities should be role models

Sunday, March 17, 2019 - 5:17pm

Harry Potter may have cast the spell to vanquish the Voldemort, but we all know Hermione Granger held the real power in that series. Since the first Harry Potter book, Hermione has been inspiring girls and boys, kids and adults alike to be strong and fight for what they believe in. And the actress who portrays her does the same. Since her time in the Harry Potter franchise, Emma Watson has been a strong activist for many different campaigns: Time’s Up, the United Nations Women and most famously HeForShe, a campaign initiated by the United Nations to increase solidarity between genders.

Many other Harry Potter stars also fight for their favorite causes as well. Bonnie Wright, who played Ginny Weasley, volunteers for environmental organization Greenpeace. Katie Leung, who played Cho Chang, speaks about intersectionality and feminism on her Instagram. Evanna Lynch, Luna Lovegood, is a self-proclaimed vegan activist and has her own vegan podcast.

These actresses were once part of one of the most successful movie franchises of their time. Harry Potter continues to change lives, even though the series concluded in 2007. Now, these women are continuing to change lives through activism. They are using the platform these wildly successful movies gave them to make a difference.

Celebrities hold so much unchecked power in our society. No one votes on who gets to be famous, and yet they often influence our views more than any politician. That power comes with a responsibility — one that many use for the good of society, but many abuse or even ignore. As we are beginning to see, with the #MeToo movement especially, many celebrities abuse power and people, giving others an excuse to do the same. When we see these damaging behaviors and beliefs embodied by those we look up to, it sends the message that it’s OK. That’s a big part of how issues surrounding rape culture are able to persist for so long: those in power perpetuate it, making it seem acceptable to the general public.

But sometimes we do see celebrities fighting for justice, and it’s not just Harry Potter stars. Jameela Jamil, who plays Tahani Al-Jamil in NBC’s "The Good Place," has become an outspoken voice on pretty much everything, especially body positivity. She has called airbrushing the “damn devil” and shamed a fat-shaming culture. Lin Manuel Miranda of the musical "Hamilton" is famously supportive of Puerto Rico following the hurricane disaster. He even urged, in an interview with CBS "This Morning," for the forgiveness of Puerto Rico’s debt following natural disaster cleanups and economic instability in order to rebuild the island.

But the most prevalent approach taken by celebrities is apathy and an unwillingness to speak out. Few celebrities speak on any issues for fear of polarizing their audience, but then they end up sitting idly by when they could be making a huge difference. They have the power to inspire others to speak out or educate them on an important issue. I’m not saying every celebrity should all of the sudden become the spokesperson for a political campaign — that would probably end in disaster. But a little social awareness wouldn’t be out of line.

One of the things this age of social media is great for is activism, which is what celebrities are using as a vessel for their information. We’ve definitely seen that a little tweet can have a big impact. Just look at the Alyssa Milano tweet, inspired by Tarana Burke, that reignited a movement. It doesn’t take much to occasionally speak up about an issue that bothers you. Even just a simple “Don’t forget to vote!” Instagram post can go a long way.

Celebrities are role models for the rest of society. If people see someone they look up to speaking out, it can be influential. If someone is in such a position that their views have the power to impact a large portion of society, then they should take that as a responsibility. They have the power to inspire, and should use that power to help those in need. And finally, as major societal influencers, celebrities should take a more active role in promoting equality.

But if we want celebrities to become better role models, we also have to be willing to follow their lead. And if they do not improve, then it is up to us to take action. Change isn’t all on one person celebrity or not. We need to work together to take care of the society we live in. I’m proud of my childhood heroes for leading the charge against evil, whether at Hogwarts or in society. If more people were as brave as them, we could vanquish Voldemort and any other obstacles for good.

Dana Pierangeli can be reached at dmpier@umich.edu.