There are few topics more divisive than politics. No matter how good someone's intentions may be, voicing a political opinion, especially in this era of social media where commenters can hide behind their anonymity, can result in massive backlash.
That backlash is often magnified when it is a celebrity who decides to wade into the political arena. Reactions can vary from the celebrity being mocked, to getting called entitled, self-centered or tone deaf, to being told to keep quiet or “stay in your lane." Sometimes they will even be labeled as anti-American or receive death threats.
And if they do an about face and apologize for, rescind, or reverse their original comments, they can receive criticism for that as well, as these are often viewed very cynically as an attempt to protect the person's career and/or specific project that he might currently be promoting.
Here are a few of the many celebrities who have become embroiled in controversy for wading into the world of international politics.
The conflict between China and Taiwan has raged for decades. Taiwan has been governed independently of China since 1949, but the Chinese government insists that the island is part of China's territory and is determined to “unify” Taiwan with mainland China - by force, if necessary.
In 2019, the US and Taiwan signed a consular agreement that formalized relations between the two, although the US has yet to formally recognize Taiwan as an independent country, in part because of its complex, sometimes fragile, relationship with China.
In May 2022, John Cena promoted his latest feature film (F9, the latest entry in the Fast & Furious franchise) on Taiwanese broadcaster TVBS. During the interview the WWE star-turned-actor said (in Mandarin) that “Taiwan is the first country that can watch” the film.
But a few days later Cena posted a video (again, in Mandarin) on Weibo, the Chinese social network, in which he apologized for calling Taiwan a country:
Now I have to say one thing which is very, very, very important: I love and respect China and Chinese people. I’m very sorry for my mistakes. Sorry. Sorry. I’m really sorry. You have to understand that I love and respect China and Chinese people.
Because Hollywood blockbuster films often due big business in China, some saw Cena's abrupt about face as a cynical attempt to try and protect F9's box office prospects in that country. Others suggested it was an actual apology to the Chinese governor. US Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) called Cena's backtracking “pathetic” while others labeled him a “coward.”
On February 24, 2022, in the hours after Russia invaded Ukraine, actor and activist AnnaLynne McCord went on Twitter to post a video of her reciting a poem to Russian leader Vladimir Putin that oddly seemed to blame his actions on his upbringing and suggested that he would act differently if she were his mother.
There have been more than 32 million views of the video of McCord reciting her message, which said, in part:
If I was your mother, you would have been so loved. Held in the arms of joyous light. Never would this story’s plight the world unfurled before our eyes. A pure demise of nations sitting peaceful under a night sky. If I was your mother, the world would have been warm. So much laughter and joy and nothing would harm.
I can’t imagine the stain, the soul-stealing pain that the little boy you must have seen and believed, and the formulation of thought quickly taught you that you live in a cruel, unjust world.
Is this why you now decide no one will get the best of you? Is this why you do not hide nor away shy from taking back the world? Was it because so early in life all that strife wracked your little body with fear?
…Oh, dear Mr. President Putin, if only I’d been your mother, perhaps the torture of unwrit youth would not within your heart imbue ascription to such fealty against that world that seemed so cruel …
Although some praised the poem as powerful, more criticized it as being tone deaf and/or as an example of celebrities speaking out about topics they are ill informed about.
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Action star Jack Chan has repeatedly drawn the ire of his native Hong Kong for his outspoken support of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). While Hong Kong remains a Special Administrative Region of mainland China, many of its people have called for greater independence and democracy - which puts them at odds with Chan's own leanings.
In 2009, Chan was asked about his stance on Chinese media censorship. He replied, "I’m not sure if it’s good to have freedom or not.... If you’re too free, you’re like the way Hong Kong is now. It’s very chaotic."
Chan added, “I’m gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled. If we’re not being controlled, we’ll just do what we want.”
Among pro-democracy Hong Kongers, these comments were incendiary. Twitter account Hong Kong World City told VICE News,
[Jackie Chan's] support among fans in Hong Kong is bone dry because of the controversial beliefs he holds - that people here and in Taiwan belong to mainland China and therefore, do not deserve freedom. His words are unfathomable and unforgivable.
Chan also supported China's national security law, which threatens Hong Kong activists with greater restrictions and potentially lifetime imprisonment. This made the famed martial artist even more unpopular with his native islanders.
In 2020, the vice-chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, Lo Kin-hei, criticized Chan for "rid[ing] on his political status with mainland China." And he was unsparing in his view of the international superstar:
[Chan] may have been well-liked and respected as an actor in the 1980s and 1990s but things have changed. There is a lot of hatred for him in Hong Kong now and he is no longer in any position to accurately represent our city and its people.
For his part, Jackie Chan appears unruffled by his Hong Kong critics. In fact, he's doubled down on his support for the Chinese Communist Party and expressed interest in becoming a CCP member. But he's been criticized by CCP supporters, as well. "He might love the country and be hardworking, but he has character problems," one user wrote on the Chinese social media site Weibo. “It's better if he doesn't join the party.”
Rose McGowan is not one to shy away from social justice and political issues. Or from controversy. For example: the actor was one of the first to speak up about sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood, specifically in regard to the Harvey Weinstein case. She has criticized the LGBTQ+ community for not doing more to support women's rights. And she accused Democrats of being a “deep cult” (McGowan herself was raised in a cult).
On January 3, 2020, Qasem Soleimani, a military leader who was considered the second most powerful man in Iran, was killed in a US drone strike at Baghdad's International Airport. Nine others were killed in the attack.
In its statement about the attack, the Pentagon claimed that Soleimani and his Quds Force was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and at the time of his death had been actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in the region.
McGowan found herself embroiled in controversy when, in the hours after the air strike, she tweeted this:
Dear #Iran, The USA has disrespected your country, your flag, your people. 52% of us humbly apologize. We want peace with your nation. We are being held hostage by a terrorist regime. We do not know how to escape. Please do not kill us. #Soleimani
Backlash to the tweet was swift, with some suggesting that the actor should move to Iran. In an interview with the A.P., she denied that she was anti-American. "I don't support Iran over America. I want America to be better."
McGowan explained her thought process after she learned of the air strike:
I woke up, I stupidly looked at Twitter. I was going to the bathroom, and I was like, “what?” So, I just thought I would do something a little strange or unusual... bloodshed should be avoided if you can. And I kind of just thought, what if I take a really bizarre way around this. A very strange thought, I understand.
- Photo: Colors / Orion Pictures530 VOTES
Sean Penn Was Criticized By Former Co-Star Maria Conchita Alonso For His Support Of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
Sean Penn has won two Academy Awards in his career, earning Best Actor nods for his work in the films Mystic River (2003) and Milk (2008). But the actor is also well known for his political activism, which has on occasion made him the target of criticism. He admitted as much in a 2007 interview with Esquire magazine:
There's baggage attached to coming out publicly on stuff, but there's baggage — in my view, more damaging baggage — to goin' and (appearing)... on Jay Leno's show, philosophizing about Uncle Buck or whatever you're hawkin'.… The exemption they make for actors — because you occupy the position they only dreamed about as a child, you can't be an American, too. You don't get both, because that's just too much.
Penn was a vocal critic of President George W. Bush, even taking out a $56,000 ad - written in the form of an open letter to the president - in the Washington Post to condemn the Iran War and call for Bush to be impeached. This “open letter” drew praise from Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, who read portions of it aloud in an August 2007 televised speech. Penn met with Chavez in Venezuela shortly thereafter, with the actor saying he made the trip “as a journalist."
That trip marked the beginning of a friendship between Penn and Chavez. In March 2010, the actor accused the media in the US of trying to smear the Venezuelan leader's name:
Every day, this elected leader is called a dictator here, and we just accept it, and accept it. And this is mainstream media. There should be a bar by which one goes to prison for these kinds of lies.
These comments angered Maria Conchita Alonso. The Venezuelan-born actor, who had co-starred with Penn in the 1988 film Colors, wrote an open letter to Penn on the website Newsbusters condemning the actor's support of Chavez, pointing out that the latter's regime had been marked by violence, disputed election results and a lack of free speech in the country. She wrote:
Even though I have great respect for your artistic talent, I was appalled by a recent television interview where you vigorously showed support for the regime of Hugo Chavez. Therefore, I’ve decided to set the record straight for you regarding the Chavez regime, supporting my case based not only on my political ideologies, but on proven facts you choose to ignore. Otherwise, I believe your position would be different. […] I would encourage you to investigate in depth the “inside story” and realize for yourself the dark side behind the person you choose to idolize.
Mark Ruffalo might play a superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but that didn't help the actor in May 2021 when he decided to voice his opinion about the latest events in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine.
On May 24, 2021, the actor tweeted an apology about his previous comments, writing:
I have reflected & wanted to apologize for posts during the recent Israel/Hamas fighting that suggested Israel is committing “genocide." It’s not accurate, it’s inflammatory, disrespectful & is being used to justify antisemitism here & abroad. Now is the time to avoid hyperbole.
The actor didn't say what previous comment(s) he was referring to, although earlier in the month he had publicly compared Israel to apartheid-era South Africa when talking about its relations with Palestine. On May 11, he had tweeted:
1500 Palestinians face expulsion in #Jerusalem. 200 protesters have been injured. 9 children have been killed. Sanctions on South Africa helped free its Black people - it’s time for sanctions on Israel to free Palestinians. Join the call. #SheikhJarrah
That social media post drew and mixed reaction. But Ruffalo's apology resulted in him trending on Twitter and numerous memes circulating on the social media platform. Many on social media doubted that the actor's apology was sincere, and others believed he had been pressured by Disney (which owns the Marvel superhero series) to backtrack on his original comments.
Twitter user @enjorlas' response embodied this cynicism, writing, “Mark ruffalo further proves celebrities will ALWAYS choose their paycheck over human dignity, no matter how 'woke' or 'outspoken' they are.”