OPINION: Why we need celebrities to speak out during this crisis

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On a particularly trying news day, celebrities such as Kim Chiu, Anne Curtis-Smith, Enchong Dee, Nadine Lustre, Angelica Panganiban, Maja Salvador, and Liza Soberano cracked, just like the rest of us. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — If there was ever a country that collectively had a PhD in parasocial relationships, it’s the Philippines.

Parasocial relationships, by definition, are a one-way street. One party has invested their time, energy, emotions, and attention into a specific person who is likely unaware that they exist. It’s most commonly the one we’ve long had with celebrities even before the Internet became what it is. We followed actors on every novela and guest spot in the noontime or evening circuit, and we felt like we knew them. Gary Valenciano knew the very right words to sing when we were struggling. Regine Velasquez took us along for the drama. Rico Yan, Dingdong Dantes, and Bobby Andrews were some of the boys we hoped we were snuggling with when we cuddled close to our pillows at night.

Coming into the age of social media, these parasocial relationships have escalated beyond measure. We’re seeing Jennylyn Mercado without any makeup, Judy Ann Santos cooking in her kitchen, Gloria Diaz on the battle ropes. We know what parts of their homes look like, what their pets’ and children’s names are, who does their hair, and what they do on a day off. They’re just like us as they go about everyday tasks, but they’re also our dearest friends with the inside scoop, taking us behind the scenes of big performances, scenes, or interviews. Their relationships, in some cases, even become our relationships.

When Nadine Lustre and James Reid decided to call it quits as a real-life couple, fans were absolutely shattered. Many tweeted that they were crying all night, with some crying out, “how could you do this to us” and “please be in love again.” As the scale of intimacy grows in what we’re allowed to observe of their personal lives, the confusion between our sheer admiration and whether it is an actual two-way relationship continues to blur.

The public trust

It’s no secret that the balancing act between celebrity and maintaining mass appeal is to present just enough personality without necessarily sharing any real public opinion. In the Taylor Swift documentary “Miss Americana,” she discusses her struggle with taking a political stand as a public figure, saying, “A nice girl smiles and waves and says, ‘thank you.’ A nice girl doesn’t make people feel uncomfortable with her views.” It’s the mantra of every agent and manager that’s ever made a killing.

The only time a celebrity is encouraged to get political is on the campaign trail, and it’s not so much speaking out as standing beside a candidate. The audiences these celebrities carefully grew and nurtured are used to the advantage of politicians who often underestimate them. They understand, to a minimal extent, the sphere of influence celebrities have and the power they hold to influence entire constituencies. All they know is that the talents these celebrities share in music, film, television, sports, digital content creation, and the like, are the balm that soothes ordinary citizens just trying to make it through the day. But the masses’ trust in celebrities is so great that we have gone so far as to repeatedly put the fate of our nation in their hands: Erap Estrada, Tito Sotto, Vilma Santos, Herbert Bautista, Richard and Lucy Gomez, Bong Revilla and Isko Moreno, to name a few. We’ve let them get away with everything, or at the very least, not exactly plunder with the exception of having to return a few million pesos.

In spite of the fact that it is the influence of celebrity that may steer millions of people towards a particular candidate, it generally takes an act of God to see a local celebrity express a political opinion. So much of what catapults celebrity is the aspiration that attaches itself to the escalation of one’s success, and it’s easier to be aspirational if you’re a neutral, blank slate and unproblematic. It gives the public freedom to take stock of your good looks, then decide who you are and what they love about you.

They can imagine that you have the same beliefs, the same desires. However humble their own beginnings might be, they are able to imagine that their path is similar to yours as well, that wealth and prosperity can lie at the end of the rainbow for everyone. That you are who everyone wants you to be is the basis of this public trust, and all they want to hear from you is which soap to buy, which fast food joint is best, how to find the love you have, and what piece of you they can most affordably own.

The break of silence

But amid the community quarantine, something shifted. The majority of us are in our homes, watching as a deadly virus takes hold of so many we know. We’re up against an enemy that knows no economic background, no community standing, no age or gender. Everyone who has the means to do so has donated to or participated in an effort to feed communities and protect frontliners, while a slew of life-threatening bumblings from our government at local and national levels greets us every single day. And on a particularly trying news day on April 1 — one that included the San Roque riot, the NBI harassing Vico Sotto, and the President issuing a shoot-to-kill order instead of a report on the spending of emergency funds — the celebrities, just like the rest of us, cracked.

It was one strong stance after another. Angelica Panganiban apologized for endorsing the President in 2016, saying that she’s “awake” now and she’s sorry it took her so long. Enchong Dee warned that if the government does not give aid soon, that people will turn to violence because of their hunger, and that it won’t be the people’s fault for doing so. Liza Soberano called for “empathy, not threats.” Kim Chiu expressed exasperation. Anne Curtis-Smith asked the government to help the San Roque protesters instead, not threaten them. Maja Salvador memed herself with a picture from her “Wildflower” TV series, cast clad in evening wear and toting machine guns, saying “Let’s go friends hanapin nation and 275B! [sic]” — a sentiment echoed by Nadine Lustre on her Instagram stories, “Yung P275 Billion hanapin niyo, wag ako. Kaloka!” Many more came out, each with a different tack on the idea that the government exists to serve its people, not the other way around. The word “dissent” lingered in the air. The same night, coincidentally, #OustDuterte was one of the top hashtags trending on Twitter.

Validation and dissent

These simultaneous acts of boldness gave air to a rising anger that’s been carefully simmering the last three weeks. Because the expense of each person’s reach was so wide, as the likes and retweets grew, many realized that they weren’t alone. In spite of the President’s supporters working double time to try and put it out, a match had been lit when the most careful and calculated of the lot were suddenly letting it all rip. Those who were afraid to acknowledge own their discontent and rage realized it was not only valid, but seen and shared.

Messages were being sent, and they were loud and clear: the fear of ruffling some feathers ceases to matter when the cost is too high; human lives should be valued over politics; and where a lack of accountability exists, people whose influence were partially responsible for this administration’s power would start with themselves. Silence is now complicity, and the time has come to speak.

These times are uncertain and no one knows what to expect, but the surprise twist no one was expecting was how celebrity might actually be key to a revolution. Perhaps after all this time, we might actually be able to say that change is finally coming.