Celebrity Politics and the Cultivation of Affect in the Public Sphere

Ariella Horwitz

Advisor: Alison Landsberg, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Denise Albanese, Roger Lancaster

Enterprise Hall, #318
March 02, 2016, 01:00 PM to 10:00 AM


Celebrity political participation has become so commonplace in contemporary American life that it has come to be expected— it is hardly surprising when Lena Dunham joins Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail, George Clooney visits Sudan, or Jennifer Lawrence writes an essay on the gender pay gap. Celebrity politics are also pervasive, resulting from the constant media coverage of celebrities. Yet, because news of celebrity politics appears alongside gossip stories and because celebrities can (and do) say stupid things, it makes it easier to discount celebrities as illegitimate and overlook them as potentially influential political agents. This ignores the powerful position of celebrities, who through existing media attention and branding are able to inform the political views of average citizen-subjects.


Delineating the form celebrity politics take in contemporary America and asking how they function, I examine the role of celebrity politics in the mass-mediated public sphere, identifying three models of celebrity politics that I argue are most commonplace: liberal democratic, neoliberal, and hybrid (an attempt to pursue liberal democratic aims through a neoliberal framework). I map out how each model works through an analysis of distinct moments of twenty-first century celebrity politics—including participation in the anti-war, Save Darfur, and LGBTQ rights movements. As I show, each model relies on the positionality of the celebrity in different ways, all of which center around the celebrity’s cultural capital and the affective relationship cultivated between ordinary and celebrity citizens. Ultimately I argue that affect plays a key role in both the average citizen-subject’s relationship to celebrities and in the approach of celebrities to politics. While celebrities might initially contribute to the development of a political public sphere, for them to be true, progressive agents of social change, there must be a point where emotion is converted to reason, lest the former undermine the latter. Therefore, I conclude that the next move for celebrities—if they are actually invested in politics—is to work to re-channel emotion, the necessary initial fuel for political motivation, into concrete, practical ideas and action.