Can celebrities make a difference in the U.S. abortion debate? That was the central question this week for our panellists on CBC Podcast’s Pop Chat.
Last week, Politico reported that a draft ruling is circulating among the Justices of the United States Supreme Court that overturns Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that guaranteed federal constitutional abortion rights in the US.
The story was followed by waves of protests across the US, as people took to Washington to express anger at the apparently imminent rollback of reproductive rights. The story has caused shockwaves in every arena, from politics to pop culture.
Public figures from musician Phoebe Bridgers to the UK’s Channel 4 news presenter Cathy Newman to New York attorney general Letitia James shared their abortion stories. Dozens of celebrities like Amy Schumer and Tracee Ellis Ross are speaking out. Meanwhile, pop star Olivia Rodrigo paused a concert to address it and Saturday Night Live devoted much of its most recent episode to the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade.
“I know the tendency is to roll our eyes when celebrities get politically active, to think they’re being insufferable or narcissistic, or that they’re just posturing for attention,” said Pop Chat panellist Kevin Fallon.
“But I think, first of all, there is something genuinely moving about these people who we put on pedestals or idolize meeting us where we are …To watch the flood of social media posts, personal stories, and statements come out that echo our heartbreak, anger, or frustration and make us feel seen. It is kind of hopeful.”
Do I think actors tweeting about politics will necessarily change any lawmaker’s mind? Of course not. But they do have the power to activate and amplify.- Kevin Fallon– Kevin Fallon
Pop Chat‘s Amil Niazi is less sure about the gestures.
“While I think it’s incredibly moving, brave and important when celebrities speak out and share their abortion stories, I wonder how much impact they have on the actual issue,” Niazi said.
“What’s particularly interesting here is that the majority of Americans also support keeping Roe v. Wade intact, so the celebs and the citizens are all on the same side on this issue. Yet both have about as much power to shape SCOTUS’s decision, which is to say, very little.”
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But even if it doesn’t change policy, the celebrity attention on the Roe v. Wade story might raise its profile, Fallon said.
“Do I think actors tweeting about politics will necessarily change any lawmaker’s mind? Of course not. But they do have the power to activate and amplify.”
Take the pop stars who sell out arenas, he says.
“When someone like Olivia Rodrigo, with her massive, young fan base, stops her show to talk about Roe v. Wade, there is meaning in that. Her fans might be moved to invest in this in ways they wouldn’t have before, or maybe even start to think about the issue differently.”
At their most powerful, pop culture figures might even be able to marshal attention toward organizations that are deeply embroiled in the issues, but just need more support to keep doing their work. Niazi gives the example of Jane Fonda, Mark Ruffalo and Kathryn Hahn working organizations like Abortion within Reach and others like Amy Schumer and Chelsea Handler coordinating with abortion networks and providers.
These kinds of gestures mean even more when a celebrity has some kind of personal stake in the story.
“It’s hard to take celebs seriously, well-meaning as they are, when there are pointless gestures like Gal Gadot’s ‘Imagine’ video that still haunt us,” Fallon said.
“But they are in positions where, especially if they’re personally driven by a cause—Andy Cohen and New York surrogacy, Kim Kardashian and prison reform, Amy Schumer and gun violence—there is a power to make a difference.”
But no celebrity action, no matter how coordinated, can distract from the fact that opposing Roe v. Wade would require meaningful civic action.
As Niazi put it, “ultimately this is an issue where celebrity influence won’t likely make as much of an impact as the coordination of many, many Americans, coming together to pressure judges, legislators and politicians to keep this draft decision from becoming permanent.”