Why artists should make political statements at awards ceremonies

Juliette Bretan 26 September 2017

“A lot of Hollywood is living in a bubble. They’re pretty out of touch with the common person.” Following actors’ open support for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, Hollywood star Mark Wahlberg attacked celebrities, who should “keep their political opinion to themselves”. A year earlier, Martin Freeman, who had campaigned for the Labour Party in the 2015 election, declared actors could be “too pompous” and “overestimate their importance”, and that his life “would be over” if he posted his political views on social media. This came after his fellow Sherlock co-star, Benedict Cumberbatch, finished a Hamlet performance by delivering a crushing speech on David Cameron’s government.

For decades, artists have used awards ceremonies, aired on live television and widely commented on social media, to criticize governments and stand up to politicians’ actions. Yet this has not been without its controversies. Should artists, whose works are in many cases inherently political, be able to make political statements at awards ceremonies? Is it their role to shape other people’s political views, or should they stick to more orthodox thank-you speeches? 

Martin Freeman’s point is obvious: being famous does not mean one is well-informed or has anything interesting to say – as Barbara Ellen writes in The Observer, being good at something or having performed a political role does not automatically give actors gravitas: many of their ideas can be uninteresting or even wrong. The notion, however, that, as an "elite” they cannot have a say in public affairs is as wrong as it is dangerous: not only do they have the fundamental right to voice their opinions, but the platform and social influence to make a difference.

It could even be seen as a responsibility of people enjoying such living standards to speak up against injustices, as has been done in the past few years. Actresses such as Violeta Davis, Patricia Arquette or Emma Watson have held speeches which have been crucial to raise public awareness on gender violence, wage inequality and discrimination towards women of colour, issues traditionally regarded as taboos. Transparent creator Jill Soloway accepted her Emmy award with the words "we have a trans civil rights problem."

Artists’ politicization of awards ceremonies is nothing more than a further example of the media’s traditional role as scrutinizers of the government, something which becomes increasingly relevant in countries in which they are viewed by their presidents as an “enemy of the people”. After all, as George Clooney told Trump earlier this year, artists attacking the powerful is harmless: it is “when the powerful use their position to bully others” and no one stands up to them that “we all lose”.