Pity Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, who has risen to the throne of royal celebrity at a time when advocating on behalf of women’s health and safety is condemned by right-leaning publications as “risky territory.”
Take, for example, a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by former Journal editor in chief Gerard Baker, who derides Markle’s support for “causes” (his quotes). In the September issue of British Vogue, Markle, as guest editor, showcased “15 women activists, almost all associated with left-leaning causes,” Baker writes. This framing would suggest that New Zealand’s democratically elected head of state, Jacinda Ardern, is a mere activist, and that her fight against terrorism after the Christchurch mosque shooting is “left-leaning.” Baker also believes that it is left-leaning to call out serial rapists, and left-leaning to save women from death in childbirth.
Recent history suggests that even the most anodyne of philanthropic causes is not immune.
If causes like these are off limits as politically polarizing, what’s a royal celebrity to do? Or a commoner celebrity, for that matter.
Our society has become increasingly divided, and our philanthropic giving is following suit. The trend is a boon for organizations with a clear identity associated with the right or left, like the National Rifle Association or Planned Parenthood. But it complicates the charitable efforts of altruistic public figures, who can find themselves caught up in our ever-shifting culture wars. Ultimately, it also complicates the work of nonprofits themselves, who can lose half their prospective donors in the time that it takes a tweet to go viral. Recent history suggests that even the most anodyne of philanthropic causes is not immune.
“To move beyond the partisan criticism of giving, philanthropic institutions cannot avoid political questions,” Sebastian Schwark, a managing director at Edelman’s Berlin office, said in a speech at the Carnegie Philanthropy Symposium in Bern this past May. “Philanthropy by definition wants to change society, and thus is political.”
Yet the problem of politicized philanthropy is more complex then simply red versus blue, played out in an arena animated by ever-larger concentrations of capital. It also intersects with the rise of influencer culture on social media. Modern celebrities now do more than attend red carpet events. They also share intimate portraits of their lives with the broader public. With that intimacy comes the expectation of authenticity, and that is where some celebrities giving time, money, and the lucrative spotlight of digital attention to their favored causes have fallen short.
The reactions to two public figures who have used the White House to bring attention to their chosen causes illustrates this shifting dynamic. Kim Kardashian West, with her 151 million Instagram followers, visited President Trump in the Oval Office last year to request that he commute the sentence of a first-time, nonviolent drug offender, 63-year-old Alice Marie Johnson. While traditional media organizations, including the New York Post and CNN, criticized Kardashian West’s in-person petition, and the photo-op it produced, the public response was generally more forgiving. “I’ll never be a Trump supporter but I will admit this is one good thing he’s done,” a Kardashian West follower tweeted in response to the news that the president had granted Johnson clemency. Over time, the episode has raised the profile of criminal justice reform, without appearing to have had a negative effect on Kardashian West’s brand.
Meanwhile, First Lady Melania Trump has struggled to find a receptive audience for her signature initiative, “Be Best,” which is focused on children’s well-being, social media use, and opioid abuse. She has called the criticism not “surprising,” and indeed it should not be. Because how is it possible to promote children’s well-being if, as the New Yorker‘s Katy Waldman put it, the administration led by one’s husband has also asked Congress to reduce funding for children’s healthcare? And how is it possible to combat cyberbullying when married to the biggest, baddest cyberbully of them all?
What Kardashian West understands and the First Lady does not is that celebrity philanthropy, in our current moment, comes with the expectation of leading by example.
What Kardashian West understands and the First Lady does not is that celebrity philanthropy, in our current moment, comes with the expectation of leading by example. Whether by happenstance or design, stars like Angelina Jolie, who is both parent to adopted children and special envoy for the United Nations in its work with refugees, have perfected the formula. Former First Lady Michelle Obama, who in 2018 was named Gallup’s most admired woman, has been able to successfully promote causes ranging from college access to healthy eating because of her impeccable personal brand.
Here is where Markle has, in some ways, misstepped—and also where the pitfalls of celebrity-driven philanthropy become more apparent. In addition to advocating for women, Markle has expressed concern about our impending climate crisis, and used her public profile to call attention to more sustainable choices, like wearing vintage fashion. But it is hard to square those small but meaningful gestures with a lifestyle that sometimes includes travel via private jet. No wonder so few stars are speaking out on climate change: it is far too easy to be branded a hypocrite. The phenomenon of reticence on climate change extends beyond celebrities to wealthy philanthropists more broadly, and perhaps with good reason; according to a 2015 study, “the average [carbon] footprint of the richest 1% of people globally could be 175 times that of the poorest 10%.”
Philanthropy and celebrity have a natural interdependence, with each burnishing the public image of the other. Across supermarket checkout aisles and fashion blogs, that interdependence translates into smiling photos of society’s most vulnerable as they bask in the celebrity-glow of Hollywood styling and professional hair and makeup. The delight on the faces of our sick, our poor, and our children in those images may be real. But so is the power dynamic bringing funding and attention to their cause.
All of which is to say: Where safe and neutral philanthropy appears to exist, it is an illusion. A cause can further change or further the status quo, but it cannot do both. Celebrities, like it or not, have to choose a side.