Clearly, celebrities are not the best sources for public health communications—or really any communications during a pandemic that’s leaving poor folks, working-class people, and middle-class professionals who depend on freelance income at even greater risk than American capitalism’s wheel of (mis)fortune usually does. The 99 percent may be accustomed to 1-percenter obliviousness and indifference—the screen-based consumption of luxury lifestyles is popular during normal times—but the novel coronavirus has thrown any and all festering class resentments into stark relief. Cardi B—who gained Instagram fame as a raucous, down-to-earth New York City stripper and then made millions as a rapper—may be the only celebrity capable of bridging the gap.
From the funny-yikes “Imagine” video starring Gal Gadot’s disturbingly out-of-touch half-smile to Arnold Schwarzenegger smoking cigars in his jacuzzi while tending to his live-in donkeys to Idris Elba and multiple NBA players receiving coveted COVID-19 tests without exhibiting any symptoms, many of the most publicly-facing rich folks of our time are showing just how much their money protects them. Even M.I.A., who had a moment of image rehabilitation after a documentary about her activism came out last year, has descended into anti-vaxx celebrity hell.
To be fair, Kylie Jenner has donated $1 million to LA hospitals for COVID-19 relief, but she’s a billionaire—$1 million is 1/1000th of her net worth, or $1 to someone with a $1,000 net worth, $20 to someone with a $20,000 net worth, and so on. In other words, she donated her lunch money, which is fine and good but certainly not worth our breathless praise. Recently, Jenner instagrammed a selfie asking for movie recs, lounging in what appears to be her enormous, carpeted wine cellar. I could think of a few flicks.
But there are a handful of celebrities who seem able to compute the state of things, most likely because of their own experiences with the proverbial man. Britney Spears pledged to personally help three fans to whatever extent she “can” after her sister Jamie Lynn challenged her (and several other celebrities) to do so on Instagram, and later, Britney reposted a message from the artist Mimi Zhu, evoking the need for “community collaboration,” the “redistribution of wealth,” and a “strike.” It’s unclear to what extent Britney is actually promoting a wealth redistribution or a general strike, especially since she hasn’t used her own direct words to champion revolution. Still, as many have noted, the singer does have experience fighting against patriarchy, as her own father, Jamie, has exerted extreme control over her livelihood as her conservator. Maybe, just maybe, Britney gets it?
Cardi B, who I see as a sort of unofficial mayor of New York City as de Blasio fumbles, has gone to work on Instagram speaking out about the public health crisis and how it disproportionately affects the 99 percent. In a video, wearing a surgical mask with “NINETYNINEPERCENTERS” printed on it, Cardi said she wanted to explain “to celebrities, the confusion that the general public has,” and pointed out the suspiciousness of those in her cohort getting tests while symptom-free, even though regular people are being told they won’t be tested, or even allowed into the ER, until they are perceived as being on the brink of death. The rapper also called out the U.S. government’s failure to take the virus seriously when they were briefed on it months ago, using humor to point out that a general lack of seriousness about the pandemic by people in power fed into widely shared public sentiment that COVID-19 was just a passing flu.
Cardi B has taken to setting the record straight to her huge fanbase in the most direct language possible, making for the most responsible and competent use of a celebrity platform I’ve seen in these social-distancing days. Later in the video, she makes a searing observation about the incompetence of the COVID-9 triage methods in the U.S. “If you are positive for the coronavirus, they’ll tell you to quarantine in your home and come back if your fever goes a hundred and some shit degrees,” Cardi explained. “And I do not feel like that’s right, because if you’re positive for the coronavirus and you don’t have a crazy fever but you have a cold, and [health workers are] sending people home, I don’t know, where do they think they’re sending people home to?”
The rapper pointed out what China already knew: To stop the spread of the virus, you can’t send infected people back home to their families where, unless they live in large homes with guest houses or finished basements, they’re likely to infect everyone they live with.
While many commenters have tried to shame her for the way she delivers her corona crisis messaging or pointed out that Cardi is wealthy and insulated (which is true to a degree, but negates her very recent past as a jobbing stripper and resulting lucidity about the issues regular people face), many more have applauded the entertainer for her willingness to speak frankly and thus foreground the frustrations of millions of Americans without VIP access.
No matter which way the wind of celebrity sentiment blows, there will likely never be a better opportunity to unlearn our attachments to empowerment-via-the-one-percent than now. But with the news cycle only becoming more terrifying and maddening by the hour, it is nice to have one of the chosen ones criticize the state of things, aloud.
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