Dear TIME: Popularity is not Influence

May 5, 2014 11:33 am

TIME’s 100 Most Influential People is not a poll by a random pop culture website to see which TV show has the biggest following. It’s not trying to find out which film couple is the most popular, which book character is the most liked, or which plot has been the most shocking. It’s about finding who are the most influential figures are in our society today.

Charles and David Koch

Influence is perhaps most difficult to measure when it comes to cultural figures. With the likes of science, technology, economics, politics, activism, one can look to whichever life-saving medicine an individual has discovered, what successful campaign they have started, which legal changes they have enacted. It is less about whether the individual (or individuals) is liked personally and more to do with their actions, their beliefs, their ideologies, their creations. Take the Koch brothers – while one may not agree with their personal political beliefs, may not agree with the candidates or programmes to whom their money is donated, their influence on the United States political scene cannot be denied.

Yet the cultural industry is one built not solely on achievements, but on reputation too. Where does popularity stop and influence begin? Disregarding our authors, our directors, and our actors as mere cultural symbols would be ridiculous, and of course popularity can lead to influence. It’s the reason our celebrities become fashion icons, why we seek to emulate their lifestyles, why we take up their hobbies. But popularity in and of itself should not be mistaken for influence, nor should a limited popularity be seen as representative of limited influence.

Take Miley Cyrus. Nobody could mistake her for being universally well-liked. But, like    her or loathe her, her influence is undeniable. Miley starts a dialogue, whether it be  through her music, her videos, her image or her words. One only needs to look at the  furore that surrounded the music video for ‘Wrecking Ball’, and the subsequent  discussion about why society at large objected much more loudly to a woman choosing  to appear naked in her own music video in order to further the symbolism of a song  than  it does to women who appear naked as passive sexual objects in the music videos  of  others? ‘We Can’t Stop’ prompted a conversation about cultural appropriation and  racism, and their prevalence within the music industry. Whichever side of these  debates you fall on, there is no escaping the fact that Miley Cyrus is a controversial yet influential figure within our society.

Personally, I can’t stand her music, and yet I voted for her to be included in the TIME 100 because of the position she holds within society. Of course, herein lies the fallibility of the TIME poll. By allowing this to be voted on by the public, rather than a select panel like at an awards show, the TIME poll can turn into something of a popularity contest, turned into a point of pride for fans much like the TV show polls mentioned above.

When I last checked on the voting statistics for the culture candidates (at around half four this afternoon), 91.5% of votes cast on Laverne Cox said she should be included within the Top 100, while 94.7% of respondents for Lupita Nyong’o said she should be included. Neither of these actresses have been exempt from the type of rallying cries that exhort people to vote, yet is interesting that neither woman made the final 100, while both John Green and Benedict Cumberbatch made the cut, despite having lower levels of ‘yes’ votes.

I’m not here to lambaste either Cumberbatch or Green. I found Cumberbatch’s role in 12 Years a Slave to be an incredibly interesting performance which, along with Michael Fassbender, helped show the audience that the slave-owner was human; instead of some shadowy representation of evil, Cumberbatch and Fassbender showed these men as cowardly, lustful, hateful, intelligent, musically inclined, vengeful… as humans. Not faceless blocks of evil lacking a personality, or even lacking compassion; Cumberbatch’s turn in the movie helped depict the realities of slavery (or one experience of slavery) in a way that is rarely done in popular culture. In some ways his slave-owner was more shocking than than that of Fassbender, an individual clearly capable of compassion yet one who still chose to participate on a large scale in the slave trade. Green’s wildly popular novel, The Fault in Our Stars, has shown that our protagonists don’t need to be restricted to the able-bodied or be fit as a fiddle – I’m struggling to think of a YA book whose protagonists have had anything but perfect health that has achieved anything near the popularity of Green’s work – while the Youtube-based Project for Awesome has helped raise money for charity on a medium not normally used for such actions.

But, I would argue that for both these men (though maybe to a slightly lesser degree for Green), any dialogue revolving around them is to do with their popularity and the popularity of their work. I cannot think of a debate prompted by Cumberbatch in the same way it has been by Miley Cyrus, by Beyoncé, by Steve McQueen, or many of the other ‘cultural’ figures included within the Top 100.

This makes the exclusion of Laverne Cox and Lupita Nyong’o even more surprising,  and even more frustrating. As Sophia Burset in Orange is the New Black, Cox is a  fantastic actress, but her influence is not limited to whether she can make an audience  laugh or cry with her particular storyline that episode. As a trans women of colour and  an outspoken advocate of trans rights, Cox is challenging the prejudices and outdated  beliefs of our society. Hell, even just by being cast in Orange is the New Black, Cox is  proving an inspiration to aspiring trans actors and actresses, showing that an industry  which has long preferred to cast cisgender actors in transgender roles (when it even  dares to portray a transgender role) has a growing place for them. Trans people,  especially trans people of colour, are almost continually swept under the rug – one  only needs look at the common misrepresentation of the Stonewall riots – yet by refusing to answer inappropriate questions, by being vocal about her own experiences and providing another voice for a community that is too often silenced, Cox is undeniably one of the most important and influential actresses we have.

Lupita Nyong’o also represents a group of people often overlooked by our culture and by our society. Nyong’o revealed recently that she had received a letter from a young dark-skinned black girl who had been planning on bleaching her skin until the actress had appeared on her radar. For too long, dark-skinned black women have been seen as the antithesis of what our society deems beautiful, yet Nyong’o’s arrival seems to be hailing (at least a beginning to) the end of such outdated modes of thinking. Recently voted People magazine’s ‘Most Beautiful Woman’ of 2014, Nyong’o has become only the third black woman to receive the award, and the first black woman with darker skin. It may seem trivial – why am I hailing what is a essentially a magazine beauty contest as a sign of influence when I have rejected Cumberbatch’s films and Green’s books? – but to have the kinds of magazines which set our beauty standards celebrating Nyong’o is hugely important. She is showing dark-skinned black girls around the world that beauty is not restricted to neat packages of blonde and pale, that they need not restrict their dreams because of colour of their skin, and is challenging restrictive perceptions of beauty. A quick glance at some of the more vitriolic comments on People‘s website show how desperately such a change is needed.

Both Laverne Cox and Lupita Nyong’o are challenging prejudices. They are provoking and leading desperately needed conversations about a wide range of topics. They are providing faces and voices to communities too often overlooked in Western popular culture. They are inspiring and influential in ways that men of the majority, such as Benedict Cumberbatch and John Green, never could be. Yet it seems to have been assumed that because neither commands the vast fanbase enjoyed by both men, they are consequently less influential. In a straight popularity contest, both Lupita Nyong’o and Laverne Cox would most likely lose out, yet failing to include either a list of the 100 most influential people today ignores the importance of both of them.

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