Merced Life

Watching American Royalty

Over the past century or so, our nation’s celebrities have become the American answer to British royalty. We lesser mortals fawn over them, rolling out red carpets for them to stride and pose upon. We hunger for candid pictures of them, engage in gossip about the seamiest details of their private lives, name our children after them. Many of them are remarkably talented, though also astonishingly overpaid. Many have no talents at all, but somehow, through outrageousness or mere association with other celebrities, worm their way into the public consciousness. Few of them do much real work for the public good, but I am not one of those people who ascribe to the conviction that celebrities should just go about their business of entertaining us and leave politics to other, better-informed individuals.

So I was thinking about our obsession with celebrities as I watched the Golden Globes earlier this month. I thought about how, even though the female actors wore black gowns, those gowns probably cost about $10,000 each, though it’s also likely that none of the actresses wearing them had to pay for them. I wondered why so many of the women at the ceremony felt compelled to bedeck themselves in elaborate jewels and wear stiletto heels to an event where they hoped to make a collective comment about the political power of women. (The lovely Frances McDormand was one notable exception.) I noticed the Moet Chandon at the tables during the televised event, which might have been a conscious effort at product placement or just an unconscious statement about privilege. And of course, I couldn’t help but observe that the actors who presented awards, and the actors who received them, seem to have an inflated notion of their importance in the world.

Still, given all its fatuousness and self-congratulatory nature, I do not really think Hollywood, and the celebrities who inhabit the film industry, are as out of touch as they at first glance seem to be. It is true that many come from wealthy backgrounds, and many are the adult children of successful actors who undoubtedly had a hand in getting them into films and onto the A List. But many are also from less glamorous places in the nation, and many know what it’s like to work for an hourly wage and to worry about making the month-to-month rent. And while they certainly cannot be as knowledgeable about government and world events as, say, Dianne Feinstein or Jeff Flake, they do have a national platform, and I don’t mind when they use it for something more than advertising a designer or giving a shout out to an agent. So, while I don’t expect much profundity from our Hollywood elites, I applaud them when they do have something worth saying and when they say it well.

And this, of course, leads me to Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globes. I have had my doubts about Oprah from time to time (her public evisceration of author James Frey in 2006 stands out to me as unnecessarily cruel) but I cannot deny that she is a celebrity who tries to, and has done, a lot of good in the world, especially for young women and marginalized people in the U.S. and Africa. She might not be as globally effective as Bill and Melinda Gates, but she ranks up there pretty high. She is always eloquent and always delivers her speeches with passion. I believe that she is genuinely compassionate, and that her empathy for others comes from her own struggles during an impoverished childhood. She is, without doubt, a remarkable individual, much to be admired and emulated, and she has exerted her powerful influence in ways that have made life better for probably millions of people.

But I hope she does not decide to run for President of the United States in 2020.

Of course, I like her much better than our current president, and if I had an opportunity today to select one over the other, I would definitely pull the lever for Oprah. But Oprah is not the Democratic Party’s only choice, and on the whole I wish we would stop electing celebrities to office. It works out once in a while—Arnold Schwarzenegger turned out to be a pretty good governor, and I’m saying that even though I’m a Democrat—but this last time it turned out to be a huge, gigantic, sad disaster. Oprah Winfrey, and other celebrities, actors, and musicians whom I greatly admire, have a place in our nation. Some of them are talented enough to represent our nation’s soul. But we should not elect them to represent our nation’s government.

Why can’t we go back to the old days, when we elected generals and career politicians to run our country? I want someone in charge who is eloquent and hopeful, like Oprah, but who is also smart enough to strategize a war or who knows how to run a government, which is not at all similar to running a charity or media empire or real estate business. I’d like to see a political contest between two people of any color, creed, or gender who actually have considerable experience in legislating or leading in a crisis, or maybe even both. We have about forty four-star generals and admirals currently in our armed forces, 535 men and women in Congress, and fifty governors running our states. Surely, from their ranks there must be at least two who are capable of running this country. Let’s look to them for 2020.

Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.