Towards a Unified Theory of Celebrity Activism (With Bonus Advice For Scarlett Johansson)

In the course of thinking far too much about celebrity activism, I have come to the conclusion that the most successful celebrity-activism projects are those in which stars pick their causes the same way that they pick their scripts.

Think about it: George Clooney’s work with The Enough Project might as well be the humanitarian remake of Ocean’s 11, with Prendergast as Brad Pitt, Prendergast’s hair as Matt Damon, and Don Cheadle as Don Cheadle. UN Goodwill Ambassadorships are the charitable equivalent of Oscar bait, projecting gravitas and award-worthiness, so is it any wonder that Angelina Jolie, Nicole Kidman, and Naomi Watts have signed on? And Ben Affleck is primarily interested in projects that he can direct and star in, so it’s fitting that he struck out on his own to found the Eastern Congo Initiative.

There’s nothing surprising about this. Stars pick their film projects because they suit their skills and personalities, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t pick their charities the same way. Indeed, an actor’s star power will be most helpful if the cause ties comfortably into the narrative of the star’s films, red-carpet appearance, love life, and vacations. (Angelina Jolie is the undisputed master of this, having now come full circle to make a film drawing on her advocacy work, instead of the other way around.) Things go less well when a celeb chooses a cause that is out of step with her actual interests (think Madonna’s ill-fated adventures in Malawi) or is famous for something that just doesn’t translate comfortably into a humanitarian cause (it didn’t take long for the subtext of Downton-era British imperialism to become the text of Elizabeth McGovern’s disastrous trip to Sierra Leone with World Vision).

Perhaps that’s a silver lining for Scarlett Johansson, who has been sacked as an Oxfam Global Ambassador after accepting a gig as a paid spokesperson for the controversial SodaStream. Oxfam is the equivalent of a quirky British rom-com. If it were a film, it would be Love Actually, or perhaps The Girl In the Cafe (And by “would be,” I of course mean “literally was,” given that the former featured Alan Rickman working in an anti-poverty organization that might as well have been called Londfam, the latter was – honest to god – a love story set amongst attempts to convince the G8 to alleviate African poverty.) Scarlett Johansson, it goes without saying, would have no business being in either of those movies.

So – assuming that her embrace of Sodastream has not rendered her a permanent pariah, ScarJo should choose a new NGO partner whose work fits more closely with her other projects. Her sweet spot is the sophisticated indie drama, and her most career-making roles – from Girl with a Pearl Earring to Her – are muses, characters who inspire those around them, rather than the character the story is about. (I would argue that Lost in Translation fits that same theory, but with a more meta twist, as it is a movie about how Sophia Coppola’s own experiences inspired her to make Lost in Translation, with Johansson in the Coppola role – Johansson’s fictional past Coppola as muse to the present real Coppola.) If she follows the theory I set out above, then her next charitable collaboration should tap into that same narrative.

My suggestion is PEN International, which promotes freedom of expression around the world. Making the world safer for writers to tell their stories is a solidly Scarlett Johansson role, and it could lend further gravitas to her status as the thinking man’s manic pixie dream girl. She should wait for the Sodastream thing to die down (or, you know, just stop shilling for a product that takes advantage of an undemocratic and oppressive occupation), and then have her people call PEN’s people.

If Scarlett’s lucky, maybe some day Sophia Coppola will make a movie about how Scarlett’s selfless work saved a young Chinese dissident from prison, and then inspired him to write his Nobel-prize-winning novel about space robots who collect animals’ dreams and redistribute them to humans.

That movie would probably star Zoe Kazan, though.

Amanda Taub

One Comment

  1. Amanda, well, yes, but my favorite part is “Prendergast’s hair as Matt Damon.” That comment itself brought back so many grad school memories… 🙂

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