Celebrity Activism on Racial Justice during COVID-19: The Death of George Floyd, the Rise of Naomi Osaka, and the Celebritization of Race in Pandemic Times

Mathieu Deflem
University of South Carolina

This is the manuscript of an article in International Review of Sociology, 32(1), 2022. (Published online March 16, 2022.) DOI: 10.1080/03906701.2022.2052457

Also available online from the publisher and as PDF file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2022. “Celebrity Activism on Racial Justice during COVID-19: The Death of George Floyd, the Rise of Naomi Osaka, and the Celebritization of Race in Pandemic Times.”
International Review of Sociology 32(1):63-87.



Abstract

This paper examines the development of celebrity activism on racial justice that emerged in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic. Extending from efforts to provide support in relief efforts, celebrity activism during the first year of the pandemic dramatically turned to matters of racial justice in the wake of the video-taped police killing of George Floyd. Based on a constructionist perspective of celebrity, I analyze the patterns and dynamics of this celebrity activism regarding racial justice in terms of the motives and objectives on the part of the celebrities and the reception thereof by the public and in the media. I will thereby focus on the case of Naomi Osaka’s activism as a particularly successful effort because the tennis star’s advocacy on racial justice enabled her to acquire a central position in the world of celebrity activism. I show that the racial justice activism embraced widely among celebrities during the COVID-19 pandemic developed in function of the dynamics of celebrity culture, rather than as an exponent of contemporary racial justice currents. Racial justice itself thereby became an object of celebrity culture, the widespread and enduring nature of which both scholars and advocates of racial justice advocates today need to recognize.

Keywords: Celebrity; Celebrity activism; COVID-19; Pandemic; Racial justice


Introduction

I present a sociological study of celebrity activism on matters of racial justice in the United States that emerged following the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Celebrities had been active in various advocacy efforts since well before the pandemic and continued these activities after the pandemic began in March 2020, especially to provide relief in terms of the health concerns resulting from the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Celebrity activism turned to racial justice concerns following the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, which would shape much of the ongoing activism and social protest that year. In this development of celebrity culture to engage with racial justice, it will be shown, race itself, as a key principle of stratification, became the subject of a celebritization process. When concerns over the pandemic began to subside –as it later turned out prematurely— with the increasing availability of vaccines by the summer of 2021, celebrity activism on racial justice cooled down considerably in function of an aspiration to return to a ‘normal’ social order. Yet, while much of the celebrity activism that developed during the pandemic may have come and gone, celebrity culture is an enduring component of society, and the racial justice issues addressed have hardly disappeared (while the spread of the Delta and Omicron variants of the coronavirus has extended the pandemic as well). The social aspects of racial justice can obviously also not be ignored, least of all during a pandemic which, as research has shown, affects minority populations differently in matters of health and well-being (Elbaum, 2020; Hearne, 2021), critical disparities which the public at large is generally reluctant to recognize (Carman et al., 2021). It is therefore important to study how efforts in the fight against racial injustice, especially in the wake of several high-profile incidents of minorities killed by police, are also shaped by an ever-present and steadily expanding celebrity culture.

This study is based on an examination of racial justice efforts by celebrities in the worlds of entertainment, sports, social media, and elsewhere, but it does not attempt to provide an analysis of all relevant cases. Even restricted to the United States, such a strategy is not only not feasible but, given the relative unexplored nature of celebrity activism, not useful either. Especially under exceptional conditions such as those posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the study of celebrity activism may benefit more from an interpretive approach that can generate a theory of the relevant conditions of celebrity activism, which further research can test on a universe of cases or sample thereof. In this paper, I will begin by providing an overview of the general patterns that can be observed in celebrity activism on racial justice during the pandemic, and rely on a case-study approach to reveal the conditions under which such activism has been most effectively accomplished. Special attention will go to the racial justice activism of Naomi Osaka because the tennis star’s efforts have been peculiarly successful by being widely and positively received in the media as well as among the public at large. In a relatively short period of time, Osaka’s advocacy efforts (and athletic success) have enabled the Japanese-born Black American to become celebrated as a key figure in the contemporary world of celebrity (sports) activism, with her public persona beginning to receive some scholarly attention as well (Calow, 2021; Razack & Joseph 2021).

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has already been the focus of considerable sociological attention. At the time of this writing in January 2022, a search for journal articles in the Social Sciences Full Text database using the keywords ‘pandemic’ and ‘sociology’ or ‘sociological’ yields 310 sources published since 2020. However, while these contributions deal with a wide variety of themes and societal concerns, the study of celebrity activism over the course of the pandemic has as yet not received much attention, with only two sources explicitly mentioning celebrity (Larabee, 2020; Myrick & Willoughby, 2021). Although more relevant research may presently be underway, the relative lack of published pandemic-related studies on celebrity, including its relation to racial justice and other social and political problems, is mirrored by the scant attention celebrity activism has received during other comparable moments of crisis, such as the AIDS epidemic (Noland et al., 2009) and natural disasters (Katayama, 2021), even though the relevance of activism in celebrity culture has long been recognized (Meyer & Gamson, 1995).

Apart from brief interpretations (Larabee, 2020; Leppert, 2020), the little research on celebrity activism during the COVID-19 pandemic that (to date) has been published is mostly instrumentalist in nature, pondering on the role celebrities play in communicating (mis)information about the virus (Mututwa & Matsilele, 2020; Myrick & Willoughby, 2021) or, as in the case of Osaka and other minority celebrities, their assumed role in effectively contributing to racial justice (Allen & Brown, 2021; Razack & Joseph 2021). It appears that celebrity has become so routine to contemporary social life that it is not only always present, but also constantly experienced, to the point that it is no longer seen, and cannot be seen, lest a more detached viewpoint is adopted. Yet, celebrity conduct during the COVID-19 pandemic has been both extensive and varied, as the findings in this paper will show.

I will examine the celebrity activism on racial justice that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically following the death of George Floyd, on the basis of online news media retrieved through searches in Google News. In the context of this study, the retrieved news reports function as primary sources because it is through these media that celebrity and fame are constituted. In line with a sociological understanding of celebrity in relational terms, special attention goes to the relationship between the motives and objectives of celebrity activism, on the one hand, and the public reception and impact thereof, on the other. Analysis will focus on the racial justice advocacy of Naomi Osaka because the tennis star’s relevant activities have been peculiarly successful in terms of the favorable and widespread attention they have received. The case of Osaka will serve as an illustration of effective celebrity activism by situating it in the context of the broader patterns and trends of racial justice advocacy during the COVID-19 pandemic. While this methodology cannot involve testing a theory of propositions concerning the causes and consequences of celebrity conduct, this analysis will generate insights that make sense from an interpretive point of view and that can, therefore, also serve as a basis for further research of a more comprehensive nature. Theoretically, this inquiry will lead me to argue in favor of a perspective of celebrity activism on racial justice (and other advocacy issues) that is understood in terms of the development of celebrity culture, rather than in relation to the justice-oriented currents of protest and social movements. In the development of celebrity activism, I will show, the social problems and normative concerns of racial justice are themselves subject to a process of celebritization.


Celebrity Culture: A Sociological Perspective

The study of celebrity and fame as a specialty in sociology as well as in the multi-disciplinary field of celebrity studies has been progressing steadily in recent years (Ferris, 2007; Marshall & Redmond, 2016; Rojek, 2012; Turner, 2014; van Krieken, 2019). While the sociological study of culture has been a long-standing interest, taken less seriously for a long time was popular culture, even though it, by definition, moves large segments of society. When popular culture was studied sociologically, it was initially as an effort to reduce its significance in terms of the economic and political order. Most famous in this respect is the work by Frankfurt Schoolers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno (1944), who sought to critique what they called the ‘culture industry.’ The terminology itself betrayed the reductionism of the authors’ neo-Marxist predisposition as they reduced what was popular to what was profitable, rather than seeing each analytically as potentially variably related.

The sociological study of fame and celebrity was greatly hindered, and until today continues to be haunted by, this reductionist understanding of popular culture. In his famous book on the American power elite, C. Wright Mills (1956) devoted an entire chapter to ‘The Celebrities,’ but only to reduce celebrity in terms of economy and politics, conceiving of fame as a ‘shadow of money and power’ that had been ‘created from above’ to provide distraction in a class society (pp. 83, 71). From the 1960s onwards, when a new generation of sociologists emerged that took popular culture more seriously, this critique of celebrity and other forms of popular culture continued on, but it would eventually also make way for new cultural perspectives to emerge. The increasing relevance of celebrity and other forms of popular culture, such as music, cinema, television, and the internet, benefited this development.

While scholars generally agree to define fame as the quality of being well-known and celebrity as being well-known (or celebrated) for one’s fame, competing theoretical frameworks exist to make sense and explain the development of fame and celebrity in society. Specifically, neo-Marxist perspectives intellectually conflict with a cultural-sociological understanding of celebrity. The former perspective is rooted in the contributions of the Frankfurt School and C. Wright Mills to analyze contemporary celebrity in terms of production and consumption related to the expansion of capitalism (Marshall, 1997; Rojek, 2001; Turner, 2014). Exemplifying the reductionism of this perspective, celebrities are seen as ‘essential to modern capitalism’ (Rojek, 2012, p. 26) and celebrity culture is understood as a mechanism ‘for mobilizing abstract desire’ to serve commodification (Rojek, 2001, p. 189).

While celebrity cannot be denied to play economic and political functions, a constructionist approach examines celebrity as culture without reducing it to a political economy (Deflem, 2017, pp. 17-23; Gamson, 1994). Applied in this paper, this approach is conceptually rooted in Max Weber’s (1922) famous typology of class (economy), party (politics), and status (culture) to conceive of celebrity as a form of cultural esteem or prestige. As such, rather than a commodity or a pathology, celebrity (or celebrity status) is understood as a cultural construct that is essentially social in nature. Based on a constructionist perspective (Berger & Luckmann, 1967), celebrity and fame are not conceived in terms of certain objective qualities a person might have, but as constituting, intersubjectively, a relationship between a famous person and the audience with which their fame is established. This sociological understanding points to the intrinsic role various media play in establishing celebrity and fame, which in the present era relates closely to important advances in communications technologies and the development of the internet. Additionally intrinsic to the sociological understanding of celebrity is the public through which fame and celebrity are meaningfully constituted, whether to embrace, critique, or actively ignore those to whom esteem and prestige are given.

Among the relevant sociological dimensions about celebrity as a form of cultural status, several forms of privilege are involved, which also bring out the role of celebrity advocacy (Kurzman et al., 2007). Among these privileges, celebrity status is often associated with economic privileges related to wealth accumulation. Closely related thereto, celebrities can take advantage of legal privileges to safeguard the benefits of their position. As a matter of interpersonal privilege, further, celebrities can interact with one another as well as with the public through their command over various media. And, lastly, celebrities can rely on their normative privilege as role models and take on a variety of worthy causes. Because of their elevated status, celebrities can engage in activist enterprises with great visibility and potentially high impact. Yet, the consequences of celebrity activism and other actions cannot be theoretically predetermined but need to be examined, from case to case and over various periods of time, which the analysis in this paper will explore in terms of racial justice activism during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Examining the impact of celebrity activism, studies have typically focused on the role celebrities play in influencing policies and shaping public opinion (Budabin, 2015; Duvall & Heckemeyer, 2018). Sociologically, however, celebrity activism should also be examined, irrespective of any instrumental considerations, as a dimension of popular culture that evolves over time. The analysis in this paper focuses empirically on the celebrity activism that evolved in the United States over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially following the video-taped police killing of George Floyd in May 2020, when many a celebrity began discussing issues of racial (in)justice and show concern and support in a number of ways. Celebrity activism on racial justice continued, intensified, and expanded in the following months. But in the build-up to the U.S. Presidential elections in November 2020, attention shifted towards political issues, whereafter celebrity activism steadily began to diminish and, by the time of the guilty verdict against a police officer involved in the Floyd killing in April 2021, had virtually disappeared. In this relatively short period of time, tennis star Naomi Osaka emerged as one of the most favorably discussed, and in this sense most effective, voices of racial justice activism in the world of celebrity. Examining these developments, I will pay attention the relevant actions taken by means of various media and particularly focus on their underlying motivations and stated objectives, on the one hand, and the public reception thereof, on the other. This analysis will thereby also allow for an assessment of the functional contributions Osaka and other celebrities made to the maintenance of the social order as well as in terms of its effects on the public discourse about racial justice. 


COVID-19 as Catalyst for Celebrity Activism

The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020 greatly disrupted social life, leading to various responses from a multitude of institutions and agents in society. As much as it applied to everyone else, celebrities had to find ways to remain relevant and do so by means that would continue facilitating their career positively. But celebrities can re-orient their lives in very different ways, and with very different consequences, than most ordinary citizens. This shift in celebrity conduct during the pandemic was greatly enabled by celebrities’ privileged access to communication platforms, which they generally can use with greater effect and impact than most ordinary citizens. Indeed, besides health professionals and political officeholders, celebrities were among the first, and among the most visible and vocal, to become engaged in the pandemic response.

Reviewing the evolution of celebrity conduct since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, it is to be noted that the media (and the public at large) early on during the pandemic commonly referred to the spread of the coronavirus in otherwise unspecified terms. Epidemiologically, however, the coronavirus as such was not new, but a novel strain that was first discovered in Wuhan, China in 2019. Since then formally referred to as SARS CoV 2, the virus has in media reports and public debates gradually during the pandemic more often been referred to as COVID-19 or simply covid. All references in this paper to the coronavirus concern this specific form and the associated COVID-19 pandemic caused by that virus. Following a constructionist understanding, I replicate the terminology that is used in the media and by celebrities and members of the public themselves. Sociologically, the pandemic is a complex cultural phenomenon that includes the responses to, and meanings associated with, the spread of an infectious disease, rather than the spread of the disease itself.

The first celebrity actions resulting from the pandemic involved public announcements of celebrities having been infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. After the first case of an infection by the newly discovered strain of the virus had been recorded in the United States on January 20, 2020, actors Tom Hanks and wife Rita Wilson (who at the time were vacationing in Australia) were among the first American celebrities to publicly announce, by Twitter post on March 11, that they had tested positive for the virus (Neuman, 2020). By the first week of April, entertainment site Vulture posted a (since updated) comprehensive list, ‘All the Celebrities Who Have Tested Positive for the Coronavirus’ (Vulture, 2021), while the New York Post at that time already went a step further by publishing an article on ‘Celebrities Who Have Died from the Coronavirus’ (Bailey-Millado et al., 2020).

Absent entertainment opportunities in the physical world because of the lock-down orders that were in place soon following the outbreak of the pandemic, celebrities also continued to showcase their talents and provide entertainment. These efforts of continued engagement, such as live concerts distributed on the internet and other online forms of celebrity interaction, were judged instrumental to the survival of celebrities in view of their reliance on fan support for financial reasons, but were at times also used to promote pandemic relief. Directly contributing to the funding of relief efforts, by example, celebrities used virtual platforms to hold ‘at-home’ concerts (Ferreira, 2020). Among them were the televised ‘iHeart Living Room Concert for America’ organized by Elton John on March 29, 2020 (Schneider, 2020) and the ‘Rise Up! New York Telethon’ television special hosted by Tina Fey on May 11 (Weisholz, 2020). Additionally providing relief, some celebrities also contributed finances and resources to hospitals, food banks, and frontline workers (Billboard, 2020).

With the dark gloom that the COVID-19 pandemic had cast, many a celebrity took on the task of becoming self-proclaimed beacons of light for the public. Yet, although their intentions may have been sound, celebrities did not always judge well how their actions would be received. Most infamous was when popular Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot directed a video of her and other celebrities singing along to the John Lennon song ‘Imagine.’ The video was widely mocked as performative and plain ridiculous for the simple fact that members of the general public understood all too well how little celebrities have in common with them while dealing with a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic (Schwedel, 2020). A similar fate befell Madonna after she had posted a video message from her bathtub, filled with milk and sprinkled with rose petals, calling the virus the ‘great equalizer’ (Owoseje, 2020).

Celebrity activities in response to the spread and threat of the COVID-19 coronavirus can be expected to have played a role in shaping the public’s perception of the pandemic, albeit not necessarily in a manner that is intended or readily predictable (Artieri, Greco, & La Rocca, 2021; Gerwin, 2020; Mututwa & Matsilele, 2020). Yet, apart from intruding on the efficacy of health information among the public, celebrities during the pandemic also turned to other concerns. Clearly involved more than the health-related issues posed by the spread of the Wuhan variant of the coronavirus, the pandemic has also been influential for driving other social disturbances, which, not coincidentally, have taken place over the course of its development. Among these disturbances have especially been certain high-profile evens related to racial (in)justice and police violence, which propelled much social unrest as well as the direction of celebrity activism over the summer and fall of 2020. 


Celebrity Activism on Racial Justice: Pandemic Pathways and Turning Points

In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic implied a stand-still of the usual activities of social life, as people were locked inside and had to resort, at least if they had the means to do so, to virtual means of existence from within the home. The walls of houses today are more porous than ever before as the technologies of the internet, at least for those who have access, allow for social communications across even the most isolated and distant places. Along with the relative pause that was placed on social activities, the pandemic thus provided favorable conditions to the development of celebrity activism. Yet, even though issues of race relations and racial justice have obviously been of long-standing concern in the United States, a special motivation was needed for celebrity activism during the pandemic to move towards matters of racial justice. That moment came on May 25, 2020 in the form of a citizen video. In what follows, I will describe the general trends in the celebrity activism on racial justice that ensued, which I will thereafter analyze and discuss with special reference to the case of Naomi Osaka.

The Turn Towards Racial Justice: George Floyd

Despite continued health concerns posed by the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the shift towards racial activism, among celebrities and others, followed quickly and resolutely in the wake of the video-taped police killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. Some three months into the pandemic, the citizen-recorded video of Floyd dying while being arrested by four Minneapolis police officers sparked a radical change in celebrity conduct, as much as, if not more than, it galvanized protest among the public. Almost immediately following the shocking incident, celebrities ended their participation in medical relief efforts and, instead, started voicing their concerns over police violence and its association with racial (in)justice. Prominent celebrities, ranging from Ice Cube to Madonna and Ariana Grande (and, as I will show in the next section, Naomi Osaka in her first activist effort), expressed their anger over Floyd’s death and condemned the killing as a race-based police murder (Crawford, 2020). Besides voicing their anger, celebrities at times also relied on their financial privilege to offer donations in support of Floyd’s family (VanHoose, 2020).

When during the summer of 2020 an increasing number of protests over the killing of George Floyd took place and, on more than one occasion, erupted into riots, celebrities came out in support of the demonstrations. Major stars such as Jennifer Lopez, Jamie Foxx, and Ariana Grande (as well as Naomi Osaka) joined protest rallies, while others chose to express their support on social media (Williams, 2020). Similar to what had happened earlier on during the pandemic to provide resources for coronavirus relief, celebrities also donated money to help bail out protestors who had participated in Floyd riots (Campbell, 2020). Others were active by supporting the legal teams that were seeking to have charges brought against the police officers involved in Floyd’s death (Cordero, 2020). With celebrity activism now decisively focused on the Floyd case and the assumed racial injustice involved, the COVID-19 pandemic moved to the background of celebrities’ attention.

Expanding Racial Justice Activism: Black Lives Matter

Over the remainder of the summer of 2020, celebrities continued their racial justice activism and broadened their protests, no longer just dealing with George Floyd, but more broadly addressing racial justice in the name of Black Lives Matter. While Black Lives Matter was initially formed as an organization following the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, it had since become a broader movement and widely adopted slogan under which banner racial justice was pursued. Much of this celebrity activism in the name of Black Lives Matter initially came from minority celebrities (including Naomi Osaka). The racial justice advocacy that had already taken place before the Floyd killing, especially coming from Black celebrity athletes, was now reassessed and argued to have been justified all along (Ruck, 2021). Recalling the activism against police violence that football player Colin Kaepernick had initiated, by example, basketball star Lebron James stated, ‘Do you understand now?’ (Burke, 2020).

With celebrity activism shifting towards racial justice in the months following May 2020, some of the same methods were adopted as during the early stages of the pandemic. Reminiscent of the ‘Imagine’ video, for instance, a video campaign called ‘I Take Responsibility’ was launched with white Hollywood stars voicing their support for Black Lives Matter (Alexandra, 2020). Other celebrities took to the streets to join in on the protest rallies that were taking place all over the United States in the name of Black Lives Matter. When protests turned violent and were met with a response from law enforcement, celebrities at times got caught up in the melee as well and were arrested (Gonzales, 2020).

Protests related to racial injustice in the United States continued on for several months well into the fall of 2020 and, at times, intensified as a result of certain incidents. Most notably, the police killing of Breonna Taylor on March 13, 2020 launched additional racial justice protest. Celebrities took part in the ‘Say Her Name’ campaign that had been launched to raise awareness about the case. Basketball star Steph Curry redesigned his sneakers with an image of Taylor (Miller, 2020) and walkouts were held by sports teams (Sacks, 2020), while Kanye West paid the legal fees for Breonna Taylor’s family pursuing justice (Hosken, 2020). Other celebrities wore outfits at the Emmy’s that displayed the Black woman’s name (Vargas, 2020).

Media-reported incidents of police shootings and violence against Black people in the United States in the second half of 2020 at times continued to galvanize protests. One such catalyst for protest and activism was the video-taped shooting by police of Jacob Blake on August 23, 2020. The shooting seriously injured the then 29-year old Black man and further accelerated racial justice activism among celebrities. Oprah Winfrey demanded change, celebrities attended public demonstrations, and celebrity athletes (including Osaka) suspended their sports activities (Wharton, 2020; Yasharoff, 2020a). After a grand jury failed to bring murder charges against police responsible for Breonna Taylor’s death, celebrities and members of the public again showed their frustration and disagreement (Napoli, 2020). The case also brought into play an added dimension of gender inequality. Especially women celebrities voiced their concern, such as by wearing black t-shirts with texts demanding justice (Rekstis, 2020) and expressing their thoughts on social media (Musumeci, 2020).

The Move Towards Politics and the Return to COVID-19

In the fall of 2020, celebrity activism began to turn towards the Presidential elections in November that year. With President Donald Trump having been twice impeached, the scene was set for the largely left-leaning American celebrity elite to join the race by donating money to political candidates and publicly stating their support (Henney, 2020). While the vast majority of celebrities unsurprisingly supported the Democratic ticket, a few, usually minor, celebrities did come out in favor of the re-election of President Trump. Racial justice activism now generally became much less pronounced, although it was at times brought into the political debate. With the nomination of Kamala Harris as Vice President, several celebrities expressed their support for her as a Black woman of South-Asian descent (Tracy, 2020).

Because the pandemic was still ongoing in the months leading up to the elections in November as, at that time, no vaccines had yet been approved, voter turnout was seen as problematic and became another focal point of activism. Following charges of voter suppression by the Trump administration, celebrities actively undertook efforts to increase voter participation among their fans, including mail-in and online voting, thereby hoping to aid the Democratic candidates (Gowdy, 2020). Once the election results were announced, many celebrities (including Osaka) voiced their joy over the Biden-Harris victory (Long, 2020). But otherwise, celebrity activism decreased sharply, especially following Biden’s inauguration in January 2021, even when relevant issues had far from disappeared. When the news media reported of increasing incidents of anti-Asian violence in the spring of 2021, the celebrity activism that had motivated concerns over racial justice in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement was strikingly not reinvigorated. The #StopAsianHate campaign was not widely adopted among celebrities, notwithstanding some exceptions (such as Osaka) (Carras, 2021).

In the spring of 2021, celebrities again briefly turned towards the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically to promote vaccination (CBS News, 2021), but otherwise celebrity activism had by that time almost vanished. Following the guilty verdict on murder charges against Derek Chauvin, one of the Minneapolis police officers involved in the killing of George Floyd, on April 20, 2021, several celebrities did take the time to express their satisfaction with the verdict, but they were by that time otherwise mostly involved with preparing a return to (what was then hoped to be) the ‘new normal’ by resuming their usual activities. When on May 25, 2021, the one-year anniversary of the killing of George Floyd was widely commemorated by means of public demonstrations, most celebrities remained silent, and they have by and large also remained quiet about racial justice since then (Yasharoff, 2021). Among the few exceptions, Tom Hanks in June 2021 published an op-ed in the New York Times urging schools to teach students about the Tulsa race massacre and address racism in America’s past (Hanks, 2021). By that time, Naomi Osaka was already placed at the center of racial justice activism (Ross, 2021). 


The Dynamics of Celebrity Activism

To make sense of the observed trends in celebrity activism on racial justice, the conditions of the direction and movement thereof can be analyzed in terms of the differences and similarities that exist among multiple cases varying in degree of reception and impact. Rather than trying to systematically compare a large universe of cases, a case-study approach can be used to analyze the favorable reception of the activism of one especially effective celebrity and situate it in terms of its conditions within the broader trends that can be discerned among celebrities in general. I therefore focus on the racial justice activism of Naomi Osaka, because the tennis star has over the course of the pandemic rapidly acquired a widely respected position as a successful athlete activist and prominent racial justice advocate. In view of its undeniable success in the sense of receiving widespread and positive attention, especially in the media but among the public at large as well, the activism of the Japanese-American athlete can serve to highlight the strengths and limitations of the activism other celebrities have engaged in. Based on this analysis of Osaka’s activism in the context of the broader patterns that emerged over the course of the pandemic, a theory of celebrity activism can be developed that is meaningful and informed and that, moreover, can also be tested in further research.

Actions, Motives, and Objectives

Celebrity actions during the COVID-19 pandemic have been diverse in form, but especially relied on virtual means and other media interventions given the otherwise restrictive conditions imposed because of the spread of the coronavirus. Celebrities could thereby take advantage of the special access they have to traditional media, such as television and major news outlets, while also relying on popular social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. These media were at first primarily relied upon to express feelings of concern and offer emotional support, for the victims of the pandemic and, subsequently, to those affected by racial injustice and other forms of inequality. Celebrity conduct during the pandemic also included more practical activities that sought to provide distraction and relief, by continuing to provide entertainment online (such as through virtual concerts or by releasing movies and music) and by organizing events to offer aid in the fight against the virus. Practical celebrity activities further included financial support and participation in protests.

The symbolic value of celebrity actions and their consequences regardless of motivation cannot be ignored. But for celebrity conduct, especially activism, to be received as sincere, it needs to be communicated on the basis of a self-understanding that is seen as authentic. Relying on the work of Erving Goffman (1959), authenticity is hereby understood intersubjectively, as a social process through which the celebrity self is perceived as sincere because it is effectively communicated as such. In this sense, celebrities need to function as experts in impression management who enjoy special access to the media to establish their fame through which influence can be exerted. Yet, communicating their activism effectively towards the public, celebrities also face a special challenge in having to present themselves as concerned and caring for others while overcoming the fact that they are people of privilege.

Inasmuch as they are professional experts of performance, celebrities can state the motives and objectives of their actions in clear and convincing terms by relying on an appropriate presentation of self. The objectives of celebrity conduct are presented in concrete ways (such as providing support and relief, raising awareness, and fighting racial inequality) more readily than the underlying motives. The overall strategy is for celebrities to rely on their acquired celebrity status to simultaneously engage in a de-celebrification of their persona and communicate the notion that celebrities are people too. During the pandemic, there was arguably no better way for celebrities to do so than by communicating that they were infected by the coronavirus. While contracting the virus is anything but an intended action, deliberately making this fact known to the public most assuredly is, revealing of motives that mix showing concerns over self and others. In the case of racial justice activism, celebrity motivations could likewise be communicated on the basis of one’s own status as a potential or real victim (in the case of minority celebrities) or a sympathizer and ally (in the case of white celebrities).

The efficient impression management celebrities and others engage in to communicate their motives and objectives involves a measure of calculation that is inherently in contradiction with the very notion of authenticity (Whitmer, 2021). For that reason, impression management includes efforts to conceal any calculated artifice and, instead, create the appearance of a true and sincere self. Yet, there are also objective characteristics of the self and the pregiven structures of the social that pose limits to subjective presentation and manipulation. In the case of racial justice advocacy in the United States, these limits correspond closely to the problem of the color line. The interplay of objective and subjective dimensions of celebrity activism motivation is well-illustrated in the case of the activism of tennis star Naomi Osaka, which can serve as a suitable point of reference for other instances of contemporary celebrity activism.

Naomi Osaka’s participation in racial justice activism began late May 2020 when she, like so many other celebrities, took to social media to express her concerns over the police killing of George Floyd (Carayol, 2020). In an op-ed published in the July 1 edition of Esquire magazine, she subsequently clarified her motives as a Black Japanese-American woman whose objective was to raise awareness about racial injustice and defend the idea of defunding the police (Osaka, 2020a). The most visible stance in Osaka’s racial justice activism came in September 2020 when, at the US Open tournament, she wore facemasks (mandated by restrictions against the coronavirus) that carried the names of several Black victims of widely condemned killings, such as Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, and Tamir Rice (Black Voice News, 2020). Osaka’s racial justice activism received a lot of positive attention, although it too, like that of many other celebrities, had largely disappeared by the summer of 2021.

What is revealing about the case of Osaka in connection with the motives of racial justice activism is that the tennis star can rely on certain conditions of her self, especially the fact that she is a biracial and binational young woman of great athletic accomplishment. She has accordingly been able to be explicit in revealing the motives of her advocacy as based on her racial minority status, claiming to have experienced her own fair share of racism, both in the US and in Japan (Osaka, 2020a). Not coincidentally, Osaka has since her activism became more deliberate (and was well received) also more clearly express her racial identity visibly by means of her clothing and hair style (Midkiff, 2020). The objectives of Osaka’s activism are relatively modest but concrete and justified in terms of her stated motives. Her main goal is to raise awareness about certain problematic realities about police violence, which she has articulated in racial terms of ‘oppression’ (Osaka, 2020a) and ‘systemic racism’ (Osaka, 2020b).

Looking at the general trends of celebrity activism during COVID-19 in the light of Osaka’s case, it is clear that, with respect to motives and objectives, race matters. While some celebrities can, like Osaka, rely on their minority status, others need to carefully justify their actions as a concerned sympathizer or respectful ally. Given the nature of racial conditions in the United States, there is accordingly a relatively high participation of Black and other racial minorities in celebrity racial justice advocacy, with a special role played therein by athletes from minority-majority sports (Ruck, 2021). The objectives of minority celebrities’ activism will accordingly be explicitly stated as concrete efforts to bring about racial justice in the light of pervasive (systemic) racism. The racial justice activism of Lebron James in the ‘I Can’t Breathe’ movement and Colin Kaepernick’s stance on defunding the police are well-known examples in this respect (Marston, 2021; Yasharoff, 2020b). Indicating the racially defined objectives of their activism, Black celebrities such as Jamie Foxx, Snoop Dogg, and Viola Davis, similarly relied on social media in the wake of the George Floyd killing to call out, in no uncertain terms, racism in the United States, arguing that police killings were ‘modern day lynchings’ that killed Blacks ‘for being Black,’ treating them worse than any ‘white mass murderers’ (Newman, 2020).

In their efforts to address racial justice, white celebrities, by contrast, face a special challenge to not be seen as guilty of ‘white silence’ while communicating their support for racial justice causes. Engaging in racial justice advocacy, non-minority celebrities need to admit to their privilege to ‘take responsibility’ and be willing to engage in ‘uncomfortable conversations’. White celebrities will typically avoid an explicit use of racially defined aims, except by using generalized slogans (inequality, injustice, Black Lives Matter), and rely on more specific terms only when it concerns their own racial category. For instance, when the Black Lives Matter movement was met with counter-actions under the banner of an ‘All Lives Matter’ opposition, they were quickly rebuffed by mostly white celebrities (Reslen, 2020).

Reception and Impact

For celebrity activism to be effective, its motives and objectives need to be oriented, via the media, towards the public. Considering the social dimensions of celebrity activism in terms of its reception and impact, the COVID-19 pandemic presented conditions that were functionally favorable to activism, in part because of its negative effects in terms of health and well-being. The elaboration of celebrity activism in favor of relief efforts to halt or mitigate the spread of the coronavirus could directly benefit from the conditions of the pandemic itself. But as other problems more readily come to the foreground during a period of societal upheaval, the pandemic also created circumstances that offered fertile ground for both public protest and celebrity activism. Soon after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, indeed, a number of prior existing advocacy causes were now more broadly embraced. Most critically, while police killings involving Black victims had informed public discourse on race and criminal justice for quite some time, the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 brought about far more reactions because the video-taped tragedy took place during the pandemic. In the sociological terms introduced by Robert Merton (1968) and applied by Lewis Coser (1966) to violence, the pandemic can thus be said to have contributed functionally to advance the cause of racial injustice in U.S. society, especially in connection with police violence, by making the issue visible and bringing it to the center of public debate. The activism-facilitating effects of the pandemic can further be observed from the fact that celebrity activism during the first months of the pandemic became widely practiced among a large number of celebrities on an ever-widening range of issues.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, even more than before, celebrities shifted their attention, rather easily, from one issue to the next, especially from health-related issues to racial justice and police violence, gender inequalities, and politics. Celebrity activism as such reveals an internal dynamic that creates more celebrity activism, on issues that may have little in common. Naomi Osaka had no activist involvement at all until her tweets and pronouncements on police violence and racial justice following the killing of George Floyd, after which she not only took on other causes but did so with little effort yet great response. Following her successful path of racial justice advocacy, the tennis player announced on Twitter that she would withdraw from the French Open because of anxiety. The one Tweet almost overnight made Osaka the new face of mental health awareness (BBC, 2021), a position she has since embraced in the form of her third activism-related op-ed (Osaka, 2021). With respect to efforts against anti-Asian violence, however, not even Osaka could make up for the absence of a movement equivalent to Black Lives Matter on behalf of a racial group (to which Osaka also belongs) that is not as readily perceived to be associated with inequalities in U.S. society.

Even when various themes of celebrity activism during COVID-19 intrinsically clashed, they could nonetheless co-exist. Most clearly, although celebrities at the beginning of the pandemic had been vocal supporters of coronavirus relief and government regulations to protect the public, they later ignored public-health concerns by participating in street protests, events that were anything but socially distanced. Additionally less than obvious were the loud voices of support among celebrities for Joe Biden’s candidacy for the U.S. Presidency, considering that celebrity support for Hillary Clinton during her bid for the same office four years earlier had failed to produce the first woman President of the United States. But in the post-Floyd era, race may have mattered more than gender during Clinton’s run as Joe Biden could now rely on Kamala Harris as running mate. Offering political support to Harris as a Black woman, and with much blame placed on Donald Trump for his handling of the pandemic and his response to racial unrests, celebrities may have been able to influence the presidential elections in the direction they desired.

As the COVID-19 pandemic created conditions favorable for celebrity activism, it also became possible for new and young celebrities to join the ranks of more established athletes, such as Lebron James and Billie Jean King, and other celebrities well-known for their activism. The case of Naomi Osaka is exemplary in this respect because the tennis star has been exceptionally well received as an important and influential activist despite the fact that her advocacy is relatively new. The success of Osaka’s activism does not relate to the role it may have played in the fight against racial injustice as that it is reflected in the manner in which her activism has been widely and positively embraced as well as the positive impact it has had on the tennis star’s career. Besides winning prestigious awards because of her athletic achievements as well as her activism (Fendrich, 2020; Maine, 2020), Osaka also became the highest-paid woman athlete in history two years in a row, in 2020 and 2021, almost entirely because of lucrative endorsements and brand sponsorship (Knight, 2021). Aided by Osaka’s willingness to exploit her own identity as a racial minority, the corporate support the tennis star has received is a significant indicator of the success of her activism because such commercial opportunities rely on the profit-generating capacities of a widely accepted positive image.

In the reception of their racial justice activism, celebrities like Osaka also benefited from an altered atmosphere of collective sentiments that had emerged in the post-Colin Kaepernick era. While Kaepernick initially faced some criticisms over his decision to take a knee while the national anthem was being played before a football game, research has shown that the news media’s coverage was largely favorable to Kaepernick (Boykoff & Carrington, 2020). Some continued controversy notwithstanding, Kaepernick’s ideas have since also been more favorably received among the public and among other celebrities, many of whom have spoken out in support of the former football player (Willen, 2020). In the media, Kaepernick is now commonly presented as a celebrity icon whose initial act of defiant protest (by taking a knee) is now widely practiced by others (in the form of kneeling). Kaepernick himself can enjoy the financial rewards of brand endorsements besides functioning as an important role model for other athletes and celebrities and, possibly even, a consequential actor in bringing about social change (Marston, 2021). With respect to racial justice advocacy, other up-and-coming celebrities, including minority athletes such as Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff (Carayol, 2020) as well as pop singers and reality-TV stars (Adejobi, 2020), have been able to benefit from this new climate. The relative popularity of Kaepernick and other contemporary Black athletes that have followed in the footsteps of the likes of Lebron James has thereby helped to undo the relative lack of Black athlete activism during the 1990s and 2000s when minority athletes, in men’s sports in particular, were following the lead of Michael Jordan and other Black athletes who sought to pursue financially rewarding economic opportunities and largely stayed away from politics and advocacy (Agyemang, 2012). But in today’s era, Black sports activism is again as, if not even more, prominent as it was during the civil rights era (Edwards, 1970).

Not all celebrities have been well received in their activism, but not because of any concerns over the issues that they addressed. Absent any serious conservative celebrity activism, most all celebrities are in their advocacy oriented at the same kinds of justice issues in near-identical terms. Yet, variations in reception are dependent on how the self is effectively mediated towards the public as the result of a successful impression management. Following Goffman (1959), this process can be said to be as much dependent on certain characteristics, such as race and gender, and deliberate efforts of self-presentation (especially by efficiently using social media) as on the receptivity of one’s role by the audience and the manner in which advocacy can be mediated. Influencing public opinion on celebrity activism today, both the professional news media and the ever-growing landscape of social media are important to consider in this respect.

In the news media, today’s activist athletes can count themselves among the celebrities whose activism is most readily accepted and embraced. In the case of Naomi Osaka, the Japanese-American tennis player has become a veritable media favorite, both in quantitative terms as she is constantly mentioned and discussed, in matters ranging from her racial justice advocacy to her personal style and habits, as well as in qualitatively positive terms of support and admiration (Gomez, 2020; Yasharoff, 2020b). Although Osaka has engaged in only a few concrete actions on racial justice, primarily in the form of social media posts and public statements of concern, the news media have placed her, in the span of a short year, at the very center of celebrity sports activism. She is now routinely celebrated for her activism alongside of other famous athletes whose long-standing advocacy is much more extensive (Maine, 2020; Yasharoff 2020b, 2021) and revered for her ground-breaking work, even arguing that ‘her one-woman protest ignited a larger movement’ (Ross, 2021). Another beneficiary of the media embrace of racial justice activism in the post-Kaepernick era, incidentally, is Colin Kaepernick himself, whose position on police violence as being racist is today more readily presented (and received) as acceptable. Kaepernick has accordingly been treated with all due reverence, even when he advocated violence in response to police force against rioters in terms of ‘revolting’ and ‘the right to fight back’ (Richards, 2020). This positive treatment corresponds to media portrayals of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 as ‘mostly peaceful’ even when they had turned violent and destructive (Eustachewich, 2020).

The reception of some celebrities’ activism, on race and other issues, in the media and among the public at large has not fared as well. The public can especially be seen to turn against celebrities when they are perceived to lack sensitivity or are unaware of their privileged position. The most (in)famous example in connection with racial justice was the ‘I Take Responsibility’ campaign, which was condemned as mere performative activism by an all-white cast of rich Hollywood stars (Alexandra, 2020). Similarly, when (Jewish-born) pop singer Madison Beer posted an image of herself at a Black Lives Matter rally holding up signs of a black fist and the slogan ‘No Freedom Til We’re Equal,’ she was accused of having staged the photo op (Enriquez, 2020). When celebrities and social media users went ‘dark’ by posting a black square on their platforms for a day on June 2, 2020, the Blackout Tuesday event was likewise critiqued for being merely a trendy response (Adejobi, 2020). Because of the alleged passive nature of such activism, some (especially white) celebrities found themselves facing rather strong negative reactions, especially when they were also accused of transgressions related to racist conduct in the past (Stickings, 2020).

The racial identity of celebrities is not the only factor that accounts for differences in the reception of their activism. Expertise in the judicious use of news and social media matters too. Besides Osaka’s highly impactful tweets and her much praised op-eds in mainstream news outlets, Kylie Jenner’s command over social media provides a striking example. Seeking to promote voter registration for the U.S. presidential elections, the reality-TV star in September 2020 posted a short Instagram message that was accompanied by two pictures of herself wearing a so-called tiny bikini, leading to a reported 1500% increase in traffic on an online voter registration platform (Ritschel, 2020). By contrast, Tom Hanks’ New York Times op-ed advocating the teaching of racism in U.S. history was not universally well received. Despite his standing as an accomplished actor and America’s dad, Hanks was met with charges of taking advantage of his position of white privilege and failing to be anti-racist (Araújo, 2020; Deggans, 2020). Showing the relevance of the techniques involved in effective impression management (Goffman, 1959) and their shifting role in today’s ever-evolving media landscape, time will tell which type of celebrity will survive after the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided and who will ultimately be remembered as the most trusted person in America today.

In sum, this discussion has revealed some of the favorable and comparatively unfavorable conditions of celebrity activism on racial justice since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, from which a general theory on celebrity activism can be developed. Conceiving of celebrity as a cultural status, the privileges of fame indeed include the ability to function as role model and take on various advocacy causes, as this analysis has amply shown. But not all celebrity activism meets with the same level of success in terms of its reception. Adopting a perspective of celebrity activism in relational terms as involving activities that are mediated between a celebrity and an audience, a model emerges that differentiates objective, subjective, and inter-subjective dimensions. Specifically, based on the findings in this paper, the success of celebrity activism depends on: 1) certain objective characteristics related to celebrities’ degree of fame and aspects of their identity; 2) which can be relied upon to subjectively present the motives of activism as genuine and its objectives as reasonable, by adequately using techniques of efficient media use in a beneficial social climate; 3) to inter-subjectively achieve favorable reception in the news media and, through them or via social media, among the public at large. This theory generally suggests the value of a constructionist approach, rooted in the work Berger and Luckman (1967), Goffman (1959), and others, but it also acknowledges, perhaps more than is usually the case in this tradition, that cultural constructions need an objective basis as well. Specifically, celebrity activism cannot be perceived favorably unless it can also rely on individual expertise (on the part on the celebrity) and a favorable social climate (in the surrounding social order) that provides limits and opportunities for the kind of self that can be presented and, accordingly, received by others. Even celebrities live in the real world. 


Conclusion

The enduring relevance of problems surrounding racial justice, sociologically as well as socially, today needs no special justification. Celebrity culture, likewise, is a sign of our times. Whatever else celebrities do, they are through their activism contributing to ongoing discussions about important social problems such as racial justice. It might therefore seem obvious to anyone interested in developing ways to advance racial justice that having celebrities on one’s side would be beneficial. However, as this paper has shown, the direction and outcome of celebrity activism are not always as intended. In the development of celebrity activism on racial justice, the causes surrounding race and racial justice themselves become the subject of a celebritization, that is, as matters to be ‘celebrated,’ not in the sense of being enjoyed or favorably received, but as being subject to presentation and reception in the terms of celebrity culture (Driessens, 2012). In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, celebrities embraced the cause of Black Lives Matter with such vigor and intensity that, at least for some period of time, Black had become the new black. However, not only has this activism proven to be much less durable than the social issues it addressed, celebrities aligning themselves with racial justice advocacy ironically represent a category of privileged people who have benefited, no matter their variable personal stories, from practices and institutions that are often critiqued for having contributed to racial injustice. Analyzing the intersection of race and celebrity in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic thus reveals the complex ways in which narratives and practices on racial justice are engaged with among celebrities, the media, and the public.

The activism on racial justice by Naomi Osaka and other celebrities over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic took place against the background of an already existing general drift among celebrities to embrace more and more activist causes (Deflem, 2019), with an ever-widening circle of celebrities learning from another (Huliaras & Tzifakis, 2015), which in matters of race additionally benefitted from certain high-profile actions, such as those initiated by Colin Kaepernick (Marston, 2021). The pandemic itself as well as the social and political issues that came to the foreground during the period have intensified these developments. Celebrities from all kinds of areas of pop culture, whether it be music, TV, sports, or any other domain of entertainment, actively responded to the pandemic. They engaged with a wide variety of causes, including concerns more and less closely related to the coronavirus and their identity, background, and lived experiences. The pandemic also accelerated a process whereby today’s news media are more likely than before to treat celebrities who engage in advocacy favorably, without (m)any of the risks they once faced from being outspoken (Duvall & Heckemeyer, 2018). Even though today’s media spend more time reporting on the celebrity activist rather than their causes (McCurdy, 2013), they are also more likely to embrace the terms in which those causes are phrased and present them as valid.

A scholarly analysis of celebrity activism from the viewpoint of celebrity culture has certain advantages over a normatively framed racial justice perspective that focuses on the motives of such activism. As I have shown, the study of motives involved in celebrity activism is important, but separately analyzed must be the reception and consequences of such activism. Otherwise, one runs the risk of adopting an insider perspective and confusing hope with realization, assuming positive consequences because and when noble ideals are involved. In that sense, for instance, Emma Calow (2021) has argued on the basis of Black feminist thought that the activism of Naomi Osaka would demonstrate the ‘discursive power’ of protest against racial injustice (Calow, 2021, p. 13). Similarly, others have from the viewpoint of a discourse of anti-racism argued that by reacting against and exposing anti-blackness, racial capitalism, and misogynoir in sports, the activism by Osaka and other Black women athletes would effectively involve ‘resistance against a system built upon legacies of white supremacy, sexism, patriarchy as well as homophobia’ (Allen & Brown, 2021). Such resistance in the form of activism by minority celebrities would effectively transform entertainment into political mobilization (Allen & Miles, 2020).

Yet, other observers have been more cautious to suggest that the economic privilege of celebrities such as Osaka and other star athletes always functions as a necessary basis for activism and its chances for success (Montez de Oca, 2021). It can then be reasonably argued that rather than contributing to racial (and social) justice, celebrity activism actually exemplifies an important dimension of stratification in contemporary society. The routinization of activism among celebrities from different spheres of entertainment in matters of all kinds of justice adds credence to this notion (Deflem, 2019). The case of Naomi Osaka is again exemplary in this respect as the star athlete has successfully added mental health to her activist repertoire and has been able to maintain her public image, along with the rewards that come with it, despite a decline in success on the court. After sitting out the French Open and Wimbledon in 2021, she later that year also crashed out in the third round at both the Tokyo Olympics and the US Open, leading her to take a four-month hiatus from tennis (Gillen, 2022). Throughout, however, Osaka strengthened her position as an activist and influencer, while also remaining the highest-paid woman athlete in the world (Kollare, 2021).

It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine if celebrity activism is driven by a genuine care for social justice. What is clear, however, is that an authenticity of the self (on the part of the celebrity) has to be perceived (on the part of the public) for advocacy to be positively received. While celebrity activism cannot readily be expected to lead to achieve greater justice, participating in advocacy can serve celebrities themselves as long as their actions are seen as sincere. As such, even when most areas of entertainment were shut down, the pandemic allowed celebrities to benefit in terms of their fame and the public standing and financial rewards that come with it, thereby in turn strengthening their celebrity status. In the case of contemporary racial justice activism, the analysis in this paper has shown, this condition also, and even particularly, applies to minority celebrities such as Naomi Osaka, Colin Kaepernick, and other Black athletes and celebrities. Indeed, unlike the traditional counternarratives of dissent that Black American celebrities could once mostly provide only in the Black press (Jackson, 2014), today’s minority athletes are allowed to spread their messages widely, especially via the internet, inside the broader social order they seek to critique and change. Of course, the racial fault lines that have historically haunted the United States are still relevant today, but they appear differently and can no longer be described categorically in terms of white dominance and Black oppression. Whereas minority celebrities once had to stay in line to survive (Cashmore, 2006, pp. 121-124), today they can be activists both because they are celebrities and because of their status as racial minorities.

The expanded activist role of celebrities during COVID-19 reveals the role of celebrity culture as a ubiquitous force in contemporary social life, in which sense celebrity itself can be described as a pandemic (Marshall, 2020). Whether or not celebrity activism will become endemic in nature remains to be seen and depends not only on celebrities’ inclination to engage in activism but also on the public’s willingness to engage with it or, at least, to tolerate it for the time such advocacy is practiced and not abandon celebrities when they return to their usual entertainment activities. In any case, by responding to the various public concerns that transpired during the pandemic, celebrity culture sustained its influence regardless of the issue involved and the more or less favorable reception thereof among the public. Under these conditions, it is telling that media commentaries published from when the pandemic began in the spring of 2020 (Wise, 2020) until the spring of 2021 (Albom, 2021) argued for the irrelevance of celebrities and proclaimed the death of celebrity itself. Not only were these reports greatly exaggerated, they ironically contributed to keep celebrity culture alive by discussing it in the very media through which celebrity is constituted. As celebrities have been able throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to strengthen their privileged position by having been active and activist on race and other important social matters, celebrity culture is well on track to continue to thrive in the post-pandemic new normal.


Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Logan Hickey for her great research assistance and invaluable help in the writing of his paper. An earlier version was presented virtually at the 55th Annual Meeting of the Japanese Association for American Studies, Keio University, Tokyo, June 5, 2021. I am grateful to Yuki Maruyama for helpful comments at the meeting. I also thank the editor and anonymous reviewers of the present journal for their useful feedback.


Disclosure Statement

The author reports there are no competing interests to declare.


Funding

Research for this paper was supported by a COVID-19 Research Initiative Grant (#135300-20-54087) and a Racial Justice and Equity Fund Award (#135300-22-59455) provided by the Office of the Vice President for Research at the University of South Carolina.


Biographical Note

Mathieu Deflem is Professor of Sociology at the University of South Carolina. His research and teaching interests include law, social control, popular culture, and social theory. He has published widely in sociology and related fields, and is the author of four books, including Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame (Palgrave, 2017), and co-author, with Anna S. Rogers, of Doing Gender in Heavy Metal (Anthem Press, 2022). He has edited over a dozen anthologies, including The Handbook of Social Control (Wiley-Blackwell, 2019), Music and Law (Emerald, 2013), and Popular Culture, Crime, and Social Control (Emerald, 2010). He is presently working on a book about celebrity culture in (post-)pandemic times, and is conducting research to develop a transnational-comparative perspective on popular culture, with an emphasis on the United States and Japan.


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