Culture

When celebrities show up to protest, the media follows — but so does the backlash

Alyssa Milano says that celebrity activism is at its best “when we are able to hand over the microphone” to the “incredible heroes” doing activism work day to day. She’s pictured above in July 2018 at a protest following President Trump’s meetings with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. A longtime activist, Milano says it’s impossible to avoid “the vitriol,” especially when talking about the Middle East.

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Andrew Harnik/AP

Alyssa Milano first became an activist more than 30 years ago. But she tells the story of her eureka moment like it was yesterday.

In the late 1980s, when she starred in the sitcom Who’s the Boss?, one of her fans was a teenager named Ryan White who was HIV positive. The two became friends.

“He asked me if I would go on TV and give him a kiss to show that you couldn’t get AIDS from casual contact,” Milano recalls. She agreed and kissed White on Phil Donahue’s national talk show.

“It was the first time I felt that my being an actor, being on TV, had a purpose that was bigger than I was,” she says.

Since then she’s championed a number of causes including reproductive rights, gun reform and the #MeToo movement. Over time, she learned the good and bad of having both a high profile and a sense of purpose.

After Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, Milano, a UNICEF National Ambassador, used her social media platform to share the NGO’s messages.

She says the backlash was swift. “I felt like every time I posted from this place of peace, I was either a terrorist sympathizer or I did not fight strong enough for the oppression of the Palestinian people,” Milano explains. She says, while social media is a powerful tool for activism, “There’s no way to not be exposed to the vitriol” you get in return.

Celebrities are amplifiers

Oscar winning actor and Thelma & Louise star Susan Sarandon describes her lifelong activism as something that’s ingrained in her being.

“It’s a personality flaw,” she laughs, “I mean, when I was little, I thought that my dolls all came alive at midnight and I rotated their dresses so one doll didn’t have all the nice dresses all the time. Anything that’s unfair always really hurt me.”

Sarandon has been voicingdropped by United Talent Agency (UTA) for a speech she gave at a rally calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

She says her words were taken out of context. Nonetheless she issued a statement on social media apologizing if she offended anyone. UTA declined NPR’s request for comment.

Sarandon says, while the “isolation from my tribe” has been “painful,” she will continue lending her voice to calls for a ceasefire.

“I’m in a business that’s about imagining,” says actor Susan Sarandon. “And if you imagine and then you empathize, how can you not identify with mothers whose children are being blown up and dismembered?” Sarandon, who said she’s also a mother and grandmother, joined CODEPINK on Capitol Hill on Feb. 15, 2024 to protest U.S. support for Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.

CODEPINK

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CODEPINK

Sarandon recently attended a protest calling for a ceasefire on Capitol Hill organized by CODEPINK. The feminist group alerted the press she was coming. NBC, Al Jazeera and other outlets showed up. CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin says Sarandon’s presence was a game changer.

“We’ve been walking these halls for three months and nobody pays attention to us, especially the Congress people. But having her with us brings out the media and we get the Congress people themselves,” she gushes.

Not all of the Congress people. Sarandon met with Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Cori Bush. But Ritchie Torres refused to see her. Sarandon told reporters she suspected that’s because he receives money from the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC. On social media, Torres said Sarandon trafficked in “anti-Semitic victim blaming.”

Despite the harsh repercussions that can result, some artists are still using their star power to call for a ceasefire. Fans ofEuphoria actor Hunter Schafer learned that she and dozens of anti-war protestors were arrested earlier this week in the lobby of NBC’s headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, timed to President Biden’s interview on Late Night with Seth Meyers.

Schafer’s arrest was covered by numerous media outlets including Associated Press, USA TodayThe Los Angeles Times, amplifying the ceasefire message.

But backlash can be swift

Will and Grace star

At the March for Israel rally in Washington, D.C., last November, Messing told the crowd of some 300,000 people, “We will pray for the success of the IDF in a war Israel did not start and did not want but a war Israel will win.”

Debra Messing spoke at the March for Israel in Washington, D.C. on November 14th, 2023.

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Messing also traveled to Israel and met with family members of hostages held by Hamas and posted videos of those visits on social media. She visited a tunnel built by Hamas.

Her trip was coordinated by Creative Community for Peace (CCFP) an organization working to “promote the arts as a bridge to peace” and “educate about rising antisemitism within the entertainment industry.” The trips to Israel are intended to help artists “bear witness to what happened in the kibbutzim to meet people and survivors of the attack,” says CCFP’s executive director Ari Engel.

While many people on social media thanked Messing for sharing stories about the hostages and their families, she was also called out for only talking about one side of the conflict and not addressing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza or the tens of thousands of Palestinians who’ve been killed by Israeli forces.

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On a recent trip to Israel, Will and Grace star Debra Messing toured sites of Hamas’ attack and met with survivors and family members of hostages.

Courtesy of Creative Community for Peace

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Courtesy of Creative Community for Peace

On a recent trip to Israel, Will and Grace star Debra Messing toured sites of Hamas’ attack and met with survivors and family members of hostages.

Courtesy of Creative Community for Peace

“Something about standing with a colonial force that is expelling people from their homes and killing thousands of civilians doesn’t exactly say ‘activist,'” reads one comment on Messing’s Instagram.

Engel says more than 2,000 artists and industry leaders signed CCFP’s open letter in support of Israel, including Gal Gadot, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jerry Seinfeld, Mayim Bialik, Chris Pine and Michael Douglas.

The letter calls for the “entertainment community to speak out forcefully against Hamas, to support Israel, to refrain from sharing misinformation about the war, and do whatever is in their power to urge the terrorist organization to return the innocent hostages to their families.”

Engel says celebrities who’ve spoken up in support of Israel have faced “condemnation.” He points to a protest outside a Syracuse theater where Seinfeld performed. Equally troubling, he says, was the “silence” from individuals and organizations after the Hamas attacks. He points to the Writers Guild of America waiting more than two weeks to comment on the atrocity.

“I think a lot of Jews in the entertainment community felt abandoned, not just by their silence, but by their condemnation,” says Engel.

‘Taking a stand’ vs. ‘Nag, Nag, Nag’

At the storied March on Washington in 1963, the late activist and entertainer Harry Belafonte told the crowd that he believed artists “revealed” society to itself. Sometimes that means revealing things that are hard to hear.

Jane Fonda has done that often throughout her life. In 1973, speaking to KQED about the Vietnam War she asked, “What business have we to try and exterminate a people?” Fonda was insistent, “My father fought against people in the second World War who were trying to exterminate a people. I don’t think today we should repudiate everything that our fathers fought against.”

“What business have we to exterminate a people,” Jane Fonda told KQED in 1973 in an interview about the Vietnam War.

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Fonda was widely criticized for things she said about U.S. troops in Vietnam. But her antiwar stance resonated with millions of people.

“We often see celebrities getting a lot of backlash for their activism when they speak out about foreign policy,” says Sarah King, an assistant professor of History at the University of South Carolina-Aiken who has studied celebrity activism during the Vietnam War.

The backlash appears to be especially degrading toward women, says King. She notes that Fonda’s activism was described more harshly than her fellow actor Donald Sutherland’s.

“He is discussed as taking a stand, whereas Jane Fonda is described in much more negative terms,” King notes. “Nag, Nag, Nag” read the headline of a 1971 Life magazine article.

Should artists speak out?

“We live in a time … where celebrity voices matter more than most,” says Rania Batrice who spearheaded the Artists4Ceasfire letter addressed to President Biden and signed by more than 300 people including Jon Stewart, Jordan Peele, Bella Hadid, Dua Lipa, Jennifer Lopez

Calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, the letter cites the tens of thousands of dead and injured, “numbers that any person of conscience knows are catastrophic,” it says. “We believe all life is sacred, no matter faith or ethnicity and we condemn the killing of Palestinian and Israeli civilians.”

Batrice says many of the artists were discouraged from signing the letter by their agents or publicists, and those who did faced pushback from friends and others in the entertainment industry.

Still, Batrice believes if they have a platform, they should use it to help those who need it.

“I sort of have this expectation that people will step up and utilize their privilege,” Batrice says, “I also am incredibly grateful for those artists who stepped up despite having all of these voices in their ears telling them not to do it.”

In this screengrab from video, Actress Melissa Barrera (green sunglasses) attends a pro-Palestine march hosted by Let Gaza Live on January 21, 2024 in Park City, Utah. The protest took place during the Sundance Film Festival.

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Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Actor Melissa Barrera has vowed to continue her activism. She was fired from the cast of the next Scream movie when she posted pro-Palestinian messages on social media. But instead of retreating, she doubled-down. She issued a statement that said she condemned “Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia” and that she would, quote, “continue to speak out for those that need it most.” She joined a protest calling for a ceasefire at the Sundance Film Festival and expressed no regrets.

“Honestly I feel like I finally am becoming who I’m supposed to be in life and the last few months have been awakening of that,” she told the Associated Press.

Artists, a publicist told me, are “supposed to show emotion … That’s the whole point of art.” He preferred not to be identified.