Does it really come as a surprise to anyone that Will Ferrell is a liberal? The comedian rallied voters for President Obama during the 2012 election. He’s a co-founder of Funny Or Die, the viral video site that’s increasingly published political humor, like a Dear Abby response to the State of Arizona with regard to a law that would let businesses refuse to serve LGBT customers, or zingers to call the singer and gun regulation opponent Ted Nugent, and which signed up to help the Obama administration promote health care reform. And as an actor Ferrell has a decided taste for parts that tweak accepted ideas about what makes a man a man.
But apparently, Ferrell’s politics still came as a surprise to some of his fans. On Monday, he published a photo of himself on his Facebook page, holding a sign with the “#GetCovered” hashtag the White House has been using to encourage people to sign up for health insurance coverage. The post has racked up more than 20,000 likes of this writing, but it’s also prompted reactions from readers who seem to have missed the text and subtext of Ferrell’s career that range from surprised to outraged.
“Phony liberal sell-out,” grumbled one reader. “The truth about ObamaCare is Higher Taxes and Costs; Government rationing of health care; & interfering with the Doctor/Patient relationship. The quality of heath care and our Freedom and Liberty have been compromised. Shame on you Will Ferrell !!”
The incident is a reminder just how wide the range of celebrity advocacy efforts are, and the very different ways in which those efforts can rebound to famous people’s benefit, or cost. It’s absolutely admirable for George Clooney to be deeply involved in genocide prevention work, or for Matt Damon to devote as much time as he does to efforts to secure clean water supplies for some of the world’s poorest people, a push that involved a memorable appearance on Entourage. And though the engagements can be fleeting, I have no objection to actors using their campaigns for Academy Awards to draw attention to the issues that their films touch on, as Bradley Cooper did last year while promoting Silver Linings Playbook.
But as much as all of these causes involve time, and in some cases, physical risk–Clooney contracted malaria in Sudan in 2011–the causes they’ve chosen don’t require them to expend much in the way of their brands or capital. The idea that genocide is bad is uncontroversial, even if Washington policymakers struggle to determine the correct course of action in some of the places Clooney visits. It would be the height of churlishness to suggest that people don’t deserve clean water. And, even if it’s difficult to push through better funding for mental health care, no one’s going to attack a movie star for suggesting that ill people deserve treatment.
If picking a cause is an important part of the celebrity portfolio, picking a candidate or a policy can be a higher-risk endeavor. While fans may be able to align nearly any humanitarian or charitable endeavor with their hazy idea of a star’s politics and character, hitting the campaign trail, or advocating for a policy eliminates that ambiguity fairly rapidly. This may not be the first time Ferrell’s aligned himself with the Obama administration–the same day he posted the picture, the White House released a video of Ferrell and the First Lady conducting a focus group about healthy living. But his politics were clearly new to some of his followers.
The cost to Ferrell probably won’t be particularly painful. Previous hints of liberalism didn’t actually stop Anchorman 2 from cleaning up at the box office, and his expressed liberalism is hardly some sort of radical departure from perceived Hollywood orthodoxy. But Ferrell’s willingness to step forward and make himself clear is a reminder of just how different the various forms of celebrity advocacy can be. By asking his followers to take action on a policy that’s kicked up a considerable fuss here at home, Ferrell’s accepting that he might rile up some of his previously contented fans. That’s a different kind of courage than it takes to venture far from home, at risk to your person if not to your brand. But just because politics has a more dented halo than humanitarian work doesn’t mean it doesn’t require bravery.