Addicted to novelty since 2001

Celebrities, Stick to the Singing and Dancing

At the moment, I’m disappointed to announce, an article by Sean Penn is at the top of Blogdex. (for the uninitiated, Blogdex is one of several sites that analyzes and ranks what people are talking about online). Would this article get this much attention if it was written by, say, Ed Wilkowsky of Bent Elbow, Saskatchewan? I think not.

I’ve only skimmed this article, because Penn’s opinions about Iraq don’t interest me. Why don’t they interest me? Because he’s a frickin’ actor! If he wants some credibility, then he should go study foreign policy for a few years, or work internationally as a journalist, not prance like some melancholic baboon in the moving pictures. I should note, that, while I don’t much care for Mr. Penn’s work, this rule applies to almost all celebrities.

I’m desperately tired of spokespersons of all political flavour and background weighing in on issues. They may have a speaking platform, but generally they’ve only got platitudes and baseless suggestions. Whether its Charlton Heston (he may be firearms industry expert, but I certainly haven’t gotten that impression) or Janeane Garofalo, stick to what you do best: entertaining us. I’m opposed to innter-city sweatshops because they’re exploitative, not because (the hotness that is) Julie Stiles thinks they’re totally lame.

I can hear my dear readers protesting already: “but they give voice to an important issue!” Indeed, certain celebrities may highlight issues that are important to you. However, the sum total of all famous people everywhere weighing in on their favourite issues only raises the general din of advocacy. Nobody benefits.

Maybe when, you know, Bach was explaining to crowds about the plague-stricken, sewer-dwelling homeless, he might have gotten some traction. But once Pachelbel started arguing for musket control, and Vivaldi advocated more public hangings, and Corelli worried about horse-and-carriage pollution, the public stopped paying attention. Just play the music, boys.

I make two exceptions to this rule: benefit concerts and expert celebrities. At benefit concerts, celebrities are really just applying their core activity–the singing, the dancing, the what-have-you–to a cause they believe in. That’s admirable, and is the same as me writing marketing content for, say, Sierra Legal. If they want to hold forth on AIDS or Our Troops Overseas at these events, then fine. After all, they’re preaching to the masses.

Informed, well-read expert celebrities are few and far between. Generally, they’re famous because of their work in a given field, not because they’re actors , singers or (shudder) ‘it girls’. Michael Moore is a good example, as is Stephen Hawking. Now, I don’t want to hear Moore discuss quantum physics or Hawking discuss firearms control, but you get the idea. Also, if a mainstream celebrity has dedicated considerable time and effort to an issue, I’m likely to pay some attention. For example, Tim Robbins has been a lifelong environmentalist.

Also, I don’t mind them making appearances on humiliating game shows that illustrate their ignorance for charities.

18 Responses to “Celebrities, Stick to the Singing and Dancing”

  1. Brian

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought little of Sean Penn writing such a piece.

    It could be that he wants to get out of acting and into journalism, so this is a good start. I’ll start reading his articles when he’s on to his fifth or sixth in-depth look into topics which are not “flavour of the month, remember me, I’m an actor.”

  2. Meghan

    Hmmmm …while yours is an interesting opinion I’d rather that these celebrities, who make millions and millions of dollars, put their money where their mouth yammers and attempt to make their small part of the world a better place, rather than not. I attempt to do so, with what little resources I have, and getting the few people I have access to, to do the same seems like a pretty good idea. Celebrities simply have wider access. Being aware of a world outside our immediate self is a big step in evolution. Sitting on your ass, not speaking up for what you believe in, not trying to make life better at all – that’s old, and boring. You may not trust Sean Penn’s opinion, you may think he is an awful writer, hell, you may think I have no right to write or speak because I can’t spell or punctuate or I invest too much right brain… how are you going to do better than I? Than Sean Penn? You aren’t. Hopefully you contribute differently, and then we can cover more territory. Feisty today, aren’t I? “You cannot appease me” (Buffy, Season 5, OLAF). I enjoy being riled. I work better this way. Must get back to writing…

  3. Darren

    How am I going to do better than Sean Penn? I’m going to leaving the reporting and education to the experts. If Mr. Penn wants to make a (preferably anonymous) donation to the charity or non-profit of his choice, then all power to him. If he wants to go work–without the media attention–for the Peace Corps, then great.

    Just because he’s won accolades for x, doesn’t mean he’s capable of speaking accurately or insightfully about y. Especially why x is acting and y is international politics. This is at the heart of what I’m concerned with: though our society treats them as such, celebrities are not experts in anything but their own art (and, often times, not even that).

    In short, Sean Penn should volunteer at the local just like anybody else, and leave the reportage to the experts.

  4. Jeff

    Glad to see you spared Tim Robbins. If anyone deserves respect, it’s him.

    Penn’s article is in fact, an account of his latest trip to Iraq. I think people, even celebrities, are entitled to recall and reflect on their own experiences.

    Sean Penn has put more effort into his concerns than many others with similar resources at their disposal. It’s something he has chosen to care about. Good for him. A lot of other people care, too.

    Many bloggers write pieces on topics they are not ‘experts’ on. Myself, I frequently make reference to space exploration in my posts. I do not have an aeronautics degree, and have very little direct experience with the industry. I have followed it for a very long time and know more than some others. I don’t expect everyone to become excited by my rambling and linking, certainly not the 2 people that actually read my page. That doesn’t mean I can’t indulge in my interest, share my observations, hopes, and concerns, using the platform available to me.

    Penn happens to have a bigger soapbox than you or I ever will. And he uses it.

    I for one am happy there are still a few prominent Americans with the guts to speak out against the problems of the Bush administration and US foreign policy. Certainly the media fails in this area.

    Maybe celebrities won’t make a difference, but that doesn’t rob them of their right to try.

  5. Todd

    Celebrity spokespersons often seem to me to be kind of disingenuous about their conviction to the issue they speak for. When they suddenly ‘come out’ as a supporter of this or that it smacks of a press-grab and makes me question their motives.

    Then there are those that vet their commitment in time and/or resources, like Robbins, and I think Penn falls into this category as well (at least he’s travelled to Iraq, taken out ad space to speak his mind). Compare this with Princess Diana’s work for the landmines treaty, which just sort of appeared out of nowhere. But, had she not gotten behind the cause, many think the treaty could not have been signed by those who did sign. So the question there becomes not one of legitimacy, but whether it’s right to wield the power of recognition to sway people’s attitudes.

    I take the words of celebrities on non-celebrity issues as simple op-ed pieces, as legitimate and potentially uninformed as any letter to the editor or non-journalistic writing.

  6. Darren

    To borrow a line from Stan Lee, “with great power comes great responsibility.” You didn’t refute my core point, which is: celebrities are treated as experts in our culture. That story only runs because Sean Penn writes it. He shouldn’t be writing it–someone with greater expertise and experience should. If he wants to help out, he should do something within his purvue–throw a benefit concert or donate some cash.

    I’m sure, Jeff, that you’re happy that Mr. Penn and others are speaking out against the Bush administration. I’m sure, however, that you’re not happy about the dozens of famous people who have publically supported the war in Iraq. Why don’t we leave the postulating and pontificating to the experts and the elected officials?

    It’s interesting that you cite your own blog, as that’s a valid comparison. Anyone who knows much about space exploration is going to be able to judge whether you’re worth reading. That is, readers will be able to validate your writing based on their own experience.

    With celebrities, we generally don’t apply the same filter. That is, if a celebrity says something, then it must be important and right. Obviously, that’s not the case.

  7. tracyv

    I think you guys are all missing the point…The world listens to actors, hence he is using his pull to bring light to something that wouldn’t get as much attention otherwise.

    Like if Sean Penn started reading this blog or my blog it would increase the traffic to your site if anyone noticed a post by a famous person.

    Get what I am saying?

    You have this blog, he writes a letter!



  8. Todd

    Tracyv makes a good point. In the seventies there was this series of Sanka commercials that was very successful. The ads featured Robert Young, who played Marcus Welby MD on tv. People knew he was an actor, not a doctor, but they were willing to listen to his ‘advice’ on calming caffeine-jangled nerves with Sanka decaf. It makes no sense, but them’s people for you.

    And I think that’s the heart of what Darren’s getting at – people shouldn’t let themselves be persuaded on the basis of celebrity. But should celebrities only speak on issues through their core competency? If Penn made a compelling movie about the Iraq invasion to express his views, and he was then interviewed about the movie and expressed the core values behind it, would he be speaking within his competency or outside of it?

    Celebrities definitely get more than their due when it comes to trust, and for no really good reason. But I don’t think it wholly discounts the value of their participation. If it were less crass and self-serving I think I’d be more willing to give them a chance.

  9. Darren

    Yes, Todd, you sum things up nicely. If Penn made a compelling movie about the Iraq invasion, hopefully (like a responsible artist) he’d have done a lot of research–spoken to soldiers on both sides, learned the history of the region, tried to understand the politics. In short, he would make it a competency. Plus, he’d be discussing Iraq in the context of making his movie there. He wouldn’t just emerge from his palatial LA estate to hold forth on his perspective.

    For example, I’m more than willing to listen to Steven Spielberg discuss the holocaust. He made an exceptional, accurate film about it and started the Shoah Foundation. This seems to be sound evidence of his understanding of that historical event. Do I care about Spielberg’s position on, say, gun control? Not in the least.

  10. fawn

    Going on that line of logic, I believe your education is fine arts, yes? Why should anyone take your Yaletown techie column or other hi-tech comments seriously? A film or theatre review, sure.
    (If I’m missing information and you also have a techie-type education, my apologies in advance.)

  11. Darren

    A good example, but I’ve worked in software for the past seven (egads, is it that many?) years, so I think I’ve got adequate techie cred.

    More importantly, I’m not trading on my name. Who the heck knows who Darren Barefoot it? People come to my writing neutrally. When I get published, it’s on the merit of the content and quality of my writing. That’s not the case for celebrities.

    The exception to the merit-based-publishing rule is this weblog, obviously. But people still come to this site neutrally.

  12. Jay Currie

    Having read the Penn piece, and assuming it came from his own pen, he is not at all a bad writer. My own sense is the more first person accounts from Iraq we get the better the picture we have of what is going on there.

    Better still, Penn was there before Iraq was liberated and he makes some interesting points as to the contrasts he observed. There are very few people who have that insight.

    (Though I agree with the general point that celebrities thinking their fame gives them expertise. Thus I am not terribly interested in Madonna’s endorsement of General Clark. Or Michael Moore’s either.)

  13. Raluca

    Perhaps, Darren, you should care about Steven Spielberg’s thoughts on gun control — they may be just as dangerous as Charleton Heston’s, although both actors would probably claim to be “responsible artists”. Responsible to whom (or what) is the question. Spielberg’s view on the holocaust is no less biased than if he hadn’t “done his research,” and his contribution to the commercialization of the holocaust is not small. The problem with both Spielberg and Heston is that they are so convinced of their point of view that they hammer us into the ground with it instead of facilitating discussion around it.

    As for Penn, his piece holds for me the distinction of treading very carefully around the issues it presents. This leaves his writing a little empty, on the one hand; on the other, it creates space for the readers’ thoughts and feelings. Even if people read his piece because his name is attached to it, they are little likely to be coerced by it into one way of thinking. I would say Mr. Penn has used his name recognition well, and I don’t refer just to the double meaning.

    And, Darren, you _are_ trading on your name. You run a website called “”. A reputation built through solid, insightful writing is still a reputation on which you can capitalize through name-recognition. And everyone who comes back to your blog or your columns comes back with the expectation posed by the “Darren” at the bottom of each post or column, whatever the topic you choose to address.

  14. Darren

    Of course, whether it’s Spielberg or Heston, an artist is going to have an artistic bias. By ‘responsible artist’, I meant that they had done their research and could speak knowledgably about the subject.

    Let me separate ‘Schindler’s List’ from Spielberg’s knowledge and activity related to the holocaust. Regardless of the film’s message, I’m confident that Spielberg is well-read on the holocaust. Hence, he could speak on that subject with credibility. As a listener, it’s my job to critically examine his viewpoint and decide if I agree. Which is exactly what I fear people don’t do when celebrities–public figures which they ‘trust’ in other contexts–speak out.

    As you point out, I do, in a way, trade on my name. However, as you also point out, people return to my writing because they liked previous writing and thought me a credible source of information, humour, whatever. They don’t come or return to my writing because they liked my acting, hair style or Prada shoes. See the difference?

  15. jack

    I wonder why i’m not interested in anything darrenbarefoot has to say ?
    Probably because he is self conglatury and egotistical.
    So what makes you an expert on anything Darren !

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