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Illustration of Leonardo DiCaprio
Illustration by Greg Stevenson /i2i Art
Culture & Society

Cause Celeb

Do Hollywood stars change the public's perception of issues?

Poverty, war, environmental collapse: who will be the conscience of humankind in a world gone mad?

Philosophers, activists, political leaders?

How about Leonardo DiCaprio?

That’s the question that Josée Johnston, a professor of sociology at U of T Mississauga, is raising with her research into celebrities as public intellectuals. She is looking at how celebrities are throwing their names and influence behind pet causes like never before, and the ramifications of this.

“People are looking for a vision on moral issues increasingly through celebrities,” says Johnston. She says there’s extensive research into celebrity culture, and research into “public intellectuals” (media-savvy academics who speak on social and political issues), but not much research into how those two categories of people overlap. “It seemed there was an obvious gap between those two bodies of research,” says Johnston.

“All celebrities have an issue, a cause, now,” says Kristine Chandler, a sociology student at U of T Mississauga, who assisted Johnston with initial research into DiCaprio’s public stance against conflict diamonds. DiCaprio also starred in Blood Diamond, which dramatized the problem of African conflicts fuelled by profits from diamond sales. It’s a serious problem with a long history, but the lens of Hollywood tends to change the view: “Are they distorting critical public issues, or are they actually shedding needed public attention on a grave and serious situation?” Johnston asks. The answer to that question is still far off, as Johnston’s research is in a very early stage. There’s lots of potential material; with big-name celebrities such as DiCaprio, Angelina Jolie and Oprah Winfrey stumping for issues ranging from climate change to AIDS prevention to poverty reduction, every cause has its celeb.

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