Ricky Gervais vs celebrity: An examination of Hollywood’s woke elite

At the 2020 Golden Globes, the world witnessed Ricky Gervais lambasting the Hollywood elite for, in summary, their performative wokeness.

The Crimson identifies performative wokeness as “valuing the image of performing social awareness” rather than the active engagement of wokeness. In particular, the Crimson notes that we have co-opted wokeness for self-enjoyment and capitalist gain.

“Well, you say you’re woke, but the companies you work for [run sweatshops] in China—unbelievable. Apple, Amazon, Disney. If ISIS started a streaming service, you’d call your agent, wouldn’t you?”

Gervais’ criticism is self-explanatory: celebrities are hypocritical.

They feel entitled to be politically vocal yet benefit from oppressive cultural systems and are complicit in its oppression. They speak about climate change yet fly private jets. They speak about women’s rights but befriend wealthy sexual predators. They speak about race-based inclusivity but work for companies that operate the labour exploitation of minorities.

But here’s the thing: we’re all hypocrites. You care about climate change but are transphobic. You’re concerned with body image but shame women for having abortions. The difference between us and celebrities is that they have an elitism that isn’t accessible nor achievable for the everyday person –  making their hypocrisy more prominent and questionable.

The problem with wokeness (and of one self-identifying or being identified as woke) is that it comes with a set of expectations. It’s the expectation that an individual subscribes to every kind of liberal ideology – that they’re informed about every social, cultural and political issue. It’s the expectation that an individual is able to express their opinions and beliefs about these issues in a way that’s considered morally ‘good.’

But morality is a social construct – it’s subjective based on lived experiences including family upbringing, education, religion and culture. An individual’s morality is defined by others and we often disagree – one person’s moral is another’s immoral.

Everyone has grey areas. Nobody has the resources (mentally, emotionally, time or energy) to be woke about every single issue. Nobody has the range to contribute nuanced discussion about every single issue. Sometimes, our cognizance of issues is only skin-deep.

“So, if you do win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech. You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing about the real world.”

Wokeness is, on a micro and macro level, often based on our own lived experiences. This can be limiting. For example, a white, privileged woman’s idea of wokeness is the gender pay gap and growing armpit hair. An oppressed woman of colour’s idea of wokeness is on intersectional racism and the fetishisation of bodies of colour.

The white woman’s cause is not invalid nor unimportant, but it is restricted by her lived experiences and may be less relevant to the woman of colour.

When celebrities perform wokeness, it’s through the lens of their own inherently privileged experiences. Wokeness is performed either for the audience (who value the perception of wokeness) or for our personal needs (to feel virtuous and socially conscious).

Unlike the everyday person, celebrity wokeness is a branding exercise that earns them social justice points on the Internet.

Although many complain about the uprising of ‘PC culture’, the world has always been interested in social issues. But in the era of the Internet, we have platforms that allow for interconnectedness through time and space. Such interconnectedness enables us to be cognizant of other’s lived experiences and for social justice to transcend our own bubbles.

Ultimately, wokeness has cultural value. It’s important for public figures to be perceived as socially conscious because it reinforces their power and influence.

It’s not to say that celebrity wokeness lacks sincerity and compassion. The problem occurs when their virtue signalling becomes too convenient – celebrities seem to capitalise on issues that are most accessible and culturally relevant, such as Oscars So White (2016), Times Up (2018) and climate change, particularly with concern to the Australian bushfires. Such political vocality is ephemeral and often superficial – one speech at an award ceremony doesn’t equate to on-the-ground social activism.

“Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg”

Are celebrities deserving of these platforms to speak about such issues? As mentioned previously, wokeness is restricted by our lived experiences – and for celebrities, this is often a lack of higher education. Gervais criticises that they shouldn’t be morally grandstanding when they have very little understanding of the nuances of these issues.

This plays into classism – that uneducated people aren’t allowed to have opinions nor share them in the public forum. Gervais’ point is implied: uneducated rich people are more entitled to being socially vocal than uneducated poor people.

Wealth, power and fame offers celebrities the platform to have people listen to their opinions, beliefs and values, even if they are ignorant and lack self-awareness. But uneducated poor people are ridiculed and dismissed – despite being the community that is directly affected.

It’s not to say that celebrities aren’t genuinely compassionate. They’re part of the small percentage of people who have enough influence to be able to spread valuable information to diverse audiences. But we can’t use the excuse of the ‘importance of raising awareness’ if there is no tangible result, no active contribution to globally beneficial outcomes.

“So, if you win, come up, accept your little award, thank your agent and your God, and f**k off.”

The world has latched onto this but it’s hard to pinpoint why. Wokeness fatigue? The novelty and masochism of one celebrity dismantling the system of fame, wealth and privilege? The exhaustion with the aspirational nature of celebrity culture?

It seems like response has been equally divided – 50% have enjoyed the shaming of Hollywood elitism, whilst the other 50% have criticised Gervais’ own hypocrisy as a millionaire with a Netflix deal.

Either way, we’ll probably forget about this in a week or so.

Image by Jarrod Pettit