Celebrity Colonialism: Origins of the Concept

by Svetlana Fenichel

Celebrities’ circle comprises a very influential part of the modern world. Their power stretches far beyond the walls of Hollywood.

Angelina Jolie with her adopted children

The definition of celebrity suggested by Robert Clark states that it “is produced through discourse, maintained through media institutions and audience reception, and affects multiple cultural and political functions” (5). Ordinary people construct their lifestyles, tastes and habits on the example of the motley Hollywood crowd.  Cultural and political structures of colonial Europe has always revered fame  as a significant commodity and always equated it with power. Nowadays, the spread of media and ever shrinking world allowed for the spread of Western celebrities’ power outside the national scope.   Twenty first century has given way to the dispersion of Western cultural imperialism, this time driven by celebrities, eager to manipulate and control developing world. As Clarke puts it, “Africa it would seem, needs saving once again – this time from celebrities” (2).

The term celebrity colonialism was coined by British journalist Brendan O’Neill in May 2006. O’Neill resorted to the journalistic hyperbole in his description of the actions of Hollywood family of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in Namibia during the process of adoption their daughter Shiloh.  Pitt and Jolie allegedly employed their fame and limitless power in persuading Namibian government to obstruct journalists from gaining information and reporting on the birth of the child. In Clark’s words, “O’Neill’s article cites the event as an outrageous act of celebrity interference and as an example <…> of how Western celebrities can use their fame in bizarre and disturbing ways to leverage public institutions in purportedly “vulnerable” nations” (2).

Madonna and her multi-racial family

The term was further picked up by Adam Elkus. In his essay for Counterpunch Elkus expanded on the issues of celebrity colonialism. He pointed that the actions of the Hollywood couple are far not the only instance of celebrity interventions in the internal affairs and individual people’s lives in the countries of the developing world. The journalist in particular underlined the deeper levels of celebrity colonialism, those that don’t have an immediate “physical form,” but share same dreadful consequences as the child adoptions performed by Jolie and Madonna.  The cluster of celebrity neo-colonizers comprises of such influential in show-biz figures as Kate Moss, Bono and U2, Bob Geldof, photographer Annie Leibovitz, Paris Hilton and others. All of them had involved in or performed activities that could be classified as reinforcing the relationship of power between the ruling West and the subordinate “Rest.”



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