What Makes An Icon?

Illustration by Jasmine Thompson

Art by Jasmine Thompson   [*my editor made me add this- @jasmineshanice123 for the uncensored cut.]

In a world where celebrity dominates mainstream media, Jazz questions what makes certain people iconic, and why we put them on pedestals.

A few months ago, I saw two strangers looking at a newspaper and I heard one exclaim, ‘All the greats have gone’. They were gazing over a cover of a newspaper with the headline ‘Purple Reign Is Over’, mourning the death of music icon Prince.. It got me thinking whether or not that was true. And if so, who are our ‘greats’ of today? The role of the icon appears to have shifted: why is this, and why in 2016 are all our icons passing?

I don’t necessarily think more stars are dying, but instead nowadays- more people are famous.

Given the inflation of social media, the platforms people have as celebrities are huge, and never has there been a time where they have so much reach. The constant documentation and following of someone’s life enables him or her to remain in this glorified celebrity bubble, long after the original catalyst for their fame has long died out. But this has spawned a wave of ‘minor’ celebrities; people who experienced short-lived fame through talent shows like ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ to  cling on to celebrity status longer than ever before. I don’t necessarily think more stars are dying, but instead nowadays- more people are famous.

The recent deaths of Bowie and Ali caused immense global grief. The knock on effect of this was the abundance of hot takes on social media about what they meant politically and to society. They are considered amongst the most influential icons of all time; but did not achieve this status without their share of  controversy. However, they did this without an army of followers on Instagram and without thousands of Twitter retweets, in a world where social media was much less domineering. I think in this day and age, social media platforms would be both help and hindrance to people like Muhammad Ali; with people hanging onto every word, every status and tweet, they are rarely forgotten and this would inevitably add hurdles to his quest for social change.

Photo source: upload.wikipedia.org

Photo source: upload.wikipedia.org

In so many instances where a celebrity is using their status to push a global call for action, these campaigns merely heighten our adoration of celebrities rather than challenge us to acknowledge or initiate any real change.

What once determined an iconic status seemed to be the ability to push an ideology or set of beliefs to influence a wide audience in the face of adversity and criticism, and represent something more than celebrity. But in the age we live, it’s become instantly consequential for anybody to challenge social norms, and ‘celebrity’ has become more of a reflection of our societies as opposed to a catalyst for change. In youth culture in particular, the main focus of idolisation now appears to be more materialistic. The ‘squeaky clean’ image and the idea of the ‘perfect life’ is more glorified, and as long as what’s on the outside looks neat and pretty people are satisfied. If you removed social media platforms and took away Kim Kardashian’s 79m followers, would she still be famous?

To be famous and an activist now often attracts swarms of bad press, and people that are being active in regards to societal and cultural problems often aren’t receiving the recognition. In a recent campaign against slut-shaming, Amber Rose lead a ‘slut walk’ in response to the notion that women should ‘stop dressing like sluts’ to avoid being victimised. Azealia Banks is known for controversy. Responding to Kendrick Lamar’s tweet about Michael Brown in 2015 she tweeted, ‘How dare you open ur face to a white publication and tell them that we don’t respect ourselves’, and openly criticised Beyonce for being a bad role model to black women for staying with Jay Z. I think activism isn’t always advocated using the most political or appeasing methods- and there are definitely methods that I disagree with, but here political and racial issues are being addressed head on. But when gone about it in contentious ways; their credibility as an icon is taken away.

Photo source: staticflickr.com

Photo source: staticflickr.com

Today, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for people to have a voice in a world that just wants to censor and put people in boxes. When Beyoncé released Lemonade, critics overlooked a poignant celebration of black sisterhood that challenged the way we see the black female body. Instead certain commentators dubbed it an unnecessary draw of the race card,  and Beyoncé ‘inflammatory’ and agitating’. And despite Michelle Obama being a laboring activist and campaigner, the main focus still reigns back to the appearance of her arms and fashion choices. Her hashtag mission, to #bringbackourgirls, in 2014 gained worldwide recognition and support. But in so many instances where a celebrity is using their status to push a global call for action, these campaigns merely heighten our adoration of celebrities rather than challenge us to acknowledge or initiate any real change.

We want role models, but in most cases the people who are putting themselves forward as such as being overshadowed and undermined. People and organisations that are putting in the work and positive messages to their audience need to be recognised, and be the ones dominating these platforms again. To be in the limelight and keep a passive disposition, one that sells, that is favourable to the consumer, it is considered more acceptable. Because that’s what the majority want; someone who entertains the mainstream ideal. Uncomplicated. Aesthetically pleasing. Unproblematic.

Who have you found to be the most influential people? What does an icon mean to you? We’d really like to know, so get in touch with us on Twitter at RifeMag or on Facebook at Rife Magazine.

Rediscover the icons of your childhood and favourite books with Roald Dahl on Film, currently showcasing at the Watershed.

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