Such efforts, however well-intentioned, betray a stark disconnect from the realities that average Americans are now facing. In the last five weeks alone, more than 26 million people have applied for unemployment benefits. They are among those waiting for $1200 stimulus checks that can help them make rent or feed their families for the month. By contrast, Kutcher, Hollywood’s most active Silicon Valley investor, and Kunis have a combined net worth of more than $250 million.
Of course, many of these stars are giving their own money in addition to soliciting donations for worthy causes. But their approaches to charity, in part, reveal a dysfunction that unites celebrity culture and American individualism writ large. Even as the federal government is failing to provide mass testing, adequate PPE for healthcare workers, and sufficient economic assistance for the public, the nation’s wealthiest citizens are offloading responsibility for public health and economic survival onto the shoulders of the people most affected by the crisis.
Unlike other mega-rich people who are invisible to the general public, celebrities who appeal to fans for donations are drawing on a foundation of trust. Whether on Instagram or Twitter, entertainers create their posts with an implicit understanding that their opinions, interests, and political views carry weight. The parasocial nature of fan-artist bonds, in which followers invest one-sided emotional energy into the relationship, ennobles celebrities’ words. Under otherwise normal conditions, it wouldn’t seem strange for entertainers to be unaware of how their fans actually live.
But as the pandemic continues to deepen existing inequalities, this obliviousness takes on a more pernicious valence. Kutcher and Kunis’s quarantine-fueled affinity for alcohol, for example, doesn’t reflect the circumstances that most Americans are grappling with. Millennials are facing the second massive economic downturn of their working lives. Even healthcare workers are being laid off. For many vulnerable workers, this recession will leave profound psychological scars that will last for years. The nation’s rising rate of alcohol consumption isn’t a cute quirk; it follows economic distress and carries dangerous consequences.
“Quarantine Wine” is just one of many other celebrity products that frame fans’ charitable contributions in the terms of a capitalist exchange. According to this model, customers part with their money, but walk away with both a product and the satisfaction of having done something good. In recent weeks, even as unemployment numbers climb, there’s been no shortage of these entreaties. Often, stars try to leverage some memorable aspect of their image or persona: The rapper T.I.’s apparel label, for example, released a 4/20-themed collection that will contribute an undisclosed portion of its proceeds to Covid-relief efforts.