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The Theatricality of Humanitarianism: A Critique of Celebrity Advocacy

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In this article, I engage with humanitarian celebrity as a communicative structure that historically articulates various discourses of solidarity. Specifically, I approach this communicative structure as a theater of pity that, by circulating images and stories about suffering, proposes dispositions of emotion and action to the West. Whereas, I argue, the traditional critique of celebrity humanitarianism challenges celebrity as spectacle that produces inauthentic aspirational discourse, my analysis of two key “moments” of celebrity humanitarianism as theater—Hepburn's late-80s and Jolie's contemporary “moment”—demonstrates there is significant variation in celebrity claims to authenticity, each bearing distinct implications as to the dispositions of altruism it proposes to the West. Even though, compared to Hepburn's old-style “Good Samaritanism,” Jolie's generous entrepreneurialism steps up celebrity impact in relief and development donations, I contend that the contemporary, “confessional” discourse of humanitarian theatricality prioritizes the “authentic” emotions of the celebrity and our own connectivity towards her, thereby encouraging a narcissistic disposition of voyeuristic altruism rather than commitment to the humanitarian cause.

Keywords: Celebrity; Discourse; Humanitarianism; Impersonation; Performativity; Theatricality

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14791420.2011.637055

Publication date: March 1, 2012

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