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Keeping Up & Speaking Up

Arts & Culture | April 24, 2017

A few weeks ago, news feeds and front pages nationwide filled with images of supermodel Kendall Jenner smiling coyly as she hands a can of Pepsi to an attractive, unarmed policeman. The image is a still from Pepsi’s quickly-pulled ad depicting a protest for an ambiguous cause, in which throngs of beautiful, racially diverse young people take to the streets of an unspecified location brandishing posters with messages like “join the conversation” and other intentionally vague calls to action.

In the two-and-a-half-minute “short film,” Jenner leaves a photoshoot behind to march through the crowd defiantly and “join the conversation.” She moves to the front of the protest to give a carbonated peace offering to a smiling police officer, then fist-pumping as the group erupts into cheers behind her, and grinning with the naiveté of someone wholly unaware of the united front of opposition she is positioning herself to face.

Backlash against the ad was ubiquitous, with everyone from Stephen Colbert to Bernice King (daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr.) speaking out against it. Criticism covered essentially every aspect of the misguided ad, most notably its inability to support a specific cause. Tufts sophomore Rosy Fitzgerald pointed to the implicit paradox of a multimillion-dollar company attempting to spark interest in social justice, stating, “Even if this commercial hadn’t so grossly trivialized protest and social justice, Kendall Jenner and Pepsi as they exist now are incapable of running any ad campaign promoting legitimate activism.”

In an article published the day after the controversy broke, the New York Times wrote that Jenner’s “fame as a reality television star and social media eminence,” (evidenced by her more than 77 million Instagram followers) contributed to her rise to the top of the modeling world. There is no mention of her failure to harness those same followers for meaningful social action, though they do acknowledge her history of controversy with a nod to a polarizing cornrow-wearing stint in 2015.

Jenner’s failed attempt at social commentary (or rather, complacency in the appropriation of activism and protest for capitalistic gains) stands in direct contrast to many of her contemporaries. Recent years have seen a notable trend of celebrities—young celebrities of color in particular—using their fame and public influence to advance social justice movements and elevate the voices of those who lack the same access and leverage.

Among some of the loudest and most consistent voices among this group are those of 18-year-old Amandla Stenberg (of Hunger Games and Amma Asante’s upcoming film, Where Hands Touch, about a biracial woman living in Nazi Germany) and 15-year-old Rowan Blanchard, star of Disney’s Boy Meets World reboot, Girl Meets World. Despite (or perhaps due to) their ages and more limited spheres of influence, these two young people have used their positions and platforms to speak about the issues they care about.

In 2015, then 16-year-old Stenberg published a video for a class project entitled “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows,” a four-minute video in which they called out the likes of Jenner and other celebrities for their appropriation of the historically Black hairstyle.

In an interview with W magazine from July 2016, Stenberg stated, “I never really talked about issues and prejudice publicly until the video came out and it went viral…I just didn’t realize I had all of this power from the platform I had. I didn’t realize that I could really utilize it to speak out about things until the video. And so then I began using it more.” Following the video’s viral circulation, Stenberg embraced their new role as a celebrity activist, utilizing Instagram and a variety of other platforms as the stage for their commentary.

Their Instagram (@amandlastenberg) is a mix of political and artistic expression with distinct undertones of teenage angst, the result of which is a carefully constructed and praiseworthy social media presence.  Similarly, Blanchard’s page (@rowanblanchard) features pictures of her alongside other prominent female activists like Angela Davis and Mia Farrow buried between selfies, pictures of friends, and calls to action for various causes.

The homage Blanchard pays to these trailblazers begs the question of how their legacy and experiences differ from her own. Despite numerous humanitarian and activist efforts and widespread recognition for her role as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Farrow’s most notorious role is not as an activist or even as the star of high profile films such as The Great Gatsby or Rosemary’s Baby, but as Woody Allen’s ex. Biography.com writes of Farrow: “A well-regarded, but underrated actress, Farrow has received more attention for her personal life than her talents.” The piece omits entirely any mention of her activist involvement. Perhaps Farrow’s image and role in society may have been different if she had access to the same platforms her younger contemporaries now do.

Following her speech this past January at the Los Angeles Women’s March, Blanchard told Teen Vogue that she viewed activism on social media as “one of the first steps you can take” on the path to active resistance. At 14, she told Interview Magazine that her first experience being catcalled (over two years prior, when she was 12) sparked her interest in activism. Blanchard began posting feminist content regularly on Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram in an attempt to reach her primarily young, female fan-base because she “just couldn’t bear” the idea of her fans experiencing the same things she had.

Sophomore Ben Britt addressed the importance of celebrity activism on social media, citing Stenberg and Blanchard’s actions as ways to “be heard and to disrupt the normality of cultural appropriation and misogyny.” Social media feeds and the media in general often provide steady streams of the same voices elevated above others, and celebrities have the power to address this unequal distribution of visibility.

Stenberg and Blanchard both acknowledge the importance of turning posts on social media into tangible activism. In an interview with Dazed magazine from this spring, Stenberg said, “I feel like social media is a little oversaturated with some of those conversations… now is a really critical moment to move from conversations to action.” While these actors work to engage in meaningful action, making that action permanent through the use of social media, others continue to build their images on far less meaningful terms.

Since last week’s incident, Jenner has gained over one million new Instagram followers—an increase that can likely be attributed to the attention allotted to the model in the wake of the event. With more than 12 times the followers of Stenberg and Blanchard combined, her page features no mention of the ad, and a tweet released last week prior to the unveiling of the commercial (featuring a picture of former brand ambassador, supermodel Cindy Crawford, drinking from a can of Pepsi captioned “Goals”) has since been deleted. Despite her efforts to erase any evidence of the ad’s existence, the controversy remains salient across social media platforms with everything from articles to memes continuing to be published at a nearly constant rate.