“Privilege” is a loud and loaded term.
We use the word to discern the haves from the have-nots, as a rallying cry to make people acknowledge the discrepancies that our society and selves have engendered. Privilege is the buzzword that, today, underscores our lived experiences of coping with the global pandemic, and nowhere has the use of the term soured more than when it is directed against celebrities in quarantine.
It all began with the viral, doubly tone-deaf rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” sung by 25 celebrities, seemingly in support of those undergoing quaratine. Each of them crooned against sprawling gardens and mansion walls while pledging that we’re all in this together.
“Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can,” goes the song. Outside, masses are losing their incomes, health and lives. It isn’t impossible to imagine at this point because it is real.
Job losses in America alone have hit 22 million in number, while over 47,000 individuals have died from the coronavirus in the country at the time of writing. Such dire times never called for songs about solidarity through lack, sung by those who lack nothing, sequestered in multi-million dollar lodgings.
The problem only gets deeper when one realises that the post came from 25 adult human beings, with full access to news and donation channels, who believed that this gesture would uplift ailing humanity. Though the action could have been motivated by goodwill, the result was the salt in the wound for many struggling.
And it was not just one incident. The rich and famous did not learn the lesson of putting their money where their mouths were after the backlash that the “Imagine” singalong generated.
Recently, Ellen DeGeneres caught flak for joking on camera about how self-isolation is like a jail term, while she sat safely in a living room decorated with pieces that cost more than some annual salaries. Beyond her doorstep, prisons nationwide are struggling as they turn into incubators for COVID-19. It is expected that inmate deaths from the virus could add 100,000 to the national fatality toll.
An Instagram Live by Justin Bieber, Hailey Baldwin and Kendall Jenner saw the duo discuss their lives of luxury during the lockdown. My face collapsed in disbelief as I watched the recap.
“Obviously you know we’ve worked hard for where we’re at so it’s like we can’t feel bad, you know, [for] the things we have,” says the singer, just when you think it couldn’t get any worse. “But I think, just us taking that time to acknowledge that there are people who are really crippling is important.”
“So blessed, I think about it all the time,” goes a sagely Jenner who speaks like its the first time the poverty of others has crossed her mind.
The woeful thing we are wising up to is that the circus of ignorance on display right now takes two hands to clap. We are also culpable for the pedestals these idols sit on.
Celebrity culture is perpetuated by a society conditioned to want it. These people were a form of escapism from our mundane realities. Popular culture and all its scandals were precious fodder for lives scripted by nine-to-five office work and its other monotonous accessories.
The glitz, the glam and the eyeballs we offered up gave us entertainment and distraction in turn, and that was acceptable when distraction was all we needed. Those days of reliance on the cultural machine are passing as celebrity bulbs dim. We’re switching on the lights and saying “enough” to this symbiotic creation.
This is not to say that stars are entirely irrelevant right now, or that we should storm Hollywood like the Bastille (metaphorically, okay? Please stay home). It is a moment for us to direct our attention and media consumption to those who are part of the exception. And thankfully, there are many.
Rihanna, for example, donated US$5 million from her charity fund to Direct Relief, a non-profit organisation founded to offer aid during healthcare crises. She also fought to donate critical care devices to hospitals in her native Barbados. Lady Gaga collaborated with the World Health Organisation to stage a benefit concert, and coupled with Global Citizen to raise millions that allowed healthcare workers to have access to protective gear. Even Kylie Jenner, sister of blessed Kendall, directed US$1 million to fund protective equipment for Los Angeles’ healthcare professionals.
The coronavirus is, in a very cruel way, a period of enlightenment. It is where economies are being destabilised, and systems we’ve blindly subscribed to are collapsing. The “struggles” of celebrities in quarantine are just shedding light on what we have enabled for too long.
I want to imagine that this scrutiny of celebrity culture’s shortcomings is a lasting move towards us being conscious of who we exalt. Because when the going gets tough, it takes more than songs to sustain the 99th percentile. You may say I’m a dreamer, but it’s a step for a world that bleeds to live as one.