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Theatricality of Celebrity Activism Through the Image of Mother Teresa

September 1946. The grounds of Calcutta look and reek of Inferno. Millions of the city’s inhabitants suffer from atrocious conditions, shortage of food and water supplies along with the lack of proper medical care. Hundreds of thousands of people are standing at the door of death, languishing from various afflictions and diseases, virulent yet curable. Meanwhile, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, also known as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, actively appears on the media with didactic exhortations about the significance of humanitarian help, deceiving people into donating money for the amelioration of the harsh Calcuttan conditions, while in fact, pursuing utterly different objectives.

As we find out later, she passionately coveted those fierce images of severe anguish and would do everything but relieve the pain of the ones in agony. ‘The sick must suffer like Christ on the cross’ [CITE], she claimed while consciously authorizing nuns with absolutely no medical background to conduct meticulous surgeries, spreading the dogmatic ideas of the Roman Catholic Church and devoting less than 8 percent of the donated money to actually helping those in need [citation].

Taking these facts into consideration, I cannot refrain from wondering how she eventually turned into the prominent embodiment of peace, compassion and humanitarianism?

The power of media is the answer. The sudden emergence of the televisional discourse and the proliferation of its participants has fundamentally reinvented the notion of publicity. The mass media has turned our tremendous community into a tiny place where a certain idea or a concept generates an immediate discourse with lightning fast circulation that inevitably magnetizes a public’s attention, prioritizes some information over the other and distorts the public’s judgement of certain events.

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At the same time, as every other society, the media society engenders new leaders that are admired by the public. The very concept of following a certain individual has been hardwired in people’s minds since time immemorial. Human nature forces people to gather in groups or communities, where in order to avoid the dissension, one figuratively becomes the leader (often it is the community that designates this role to him for being the smartest, the most reliable and charismatic), while others obediently follow him. In a non-media-driven world, a national leader obtains a remarkable amount of power and control. The leader guides his followers and coneys the trust that the people put in him towards a certain goal that is beneficial for society from his point of view. Conversely, most celebrities are often born out of the resonance that they create and their popularity is not built upon their trustworthiness or general appeal to the public, yet somehow they do not fail to seize certain influence over the swayed ones.

In this essay, I touch upon the theatricality of celebrity activism through the image of Mother Teresa’s hegemonic status. I analyze the power of certain popularized media figures and the ways they exercise it over the masses’ consciousness while pursuing their own, sometimes concealed, goals. I engage with Chouliaraki’s research about luminaries’ utilization of the ‘theatre of pity’ to create an aspirational discourse around themselves and self-appropriate an altruistic image that the world would admire.{CITE} And I contend that by painting such an altruistic, superheroic self-image, a celebrity deceives people into falling for the illusion that she, like a superhero, is capable of singlehandedly fighting the frightening machine of the world’s injustice. I argue that the process of heroification later results in idolization of the celebrity that not only aggrandizes her power, yet also perpetuates her unquestionability and untouchability that she can effortlessly exploit for entrepreneurship. To support my argument, I scrutinize Agnes Bojaxhiu’s humanitarianism through the perspectives of celebrity activism, celebrity idolization and religious imagery. [really have to fix gender neutral pronouns]

At first glance, the ideology that contemporary celebrities follow appears to be quite evident. Certainly, at some point in their lives, the beloved by public experience an excess of tangible resources and a kindhearted aspiration to help the destitute ones. After investing in an altruistic robe, they travel to distant undeveloped places and help improve foreign living conditions. However, if the process is this simple and straightforward, why does the media come into play?

In reality, the true implications of humanitarian help and celebrity advocacy lie in the manifold of consequences that follow such actions. There is no need to doubt the existence of humanitarian aspirations in some celebrities; yet, by publicly contributing to the world’s welfare, media personas voluntarily take part in an additional sophisticated spectacle, the target audience of which happens to be the regular media consumer.

Addressing the drives of humanitarian actions, Amal Hassan Fadlalla asserts that: “individual actors are increasingly using their fame and reputation to shed light on the realities of war, poverty, and political turmoil, principally in non-Western countries”(Hassan 8). Indeed, by applying this statement to Mother Teresa, we can clearly see that, as a celebrity, she illuminated the issue of poverty in Calcutta as well as strived to raise the mass’ awareness about the harsh middle-Asian realities. Presumably, her sole raison d’être was spreading compassion and solidarity; nevertheless, even provided that it was true, the very nature of her charitable doings invisibly perpetuated the separation between the social classes. In criticism of Band Aid, Tanja R. Müller analyzes the repercussions of the promulgation of celebrity activism and concludes that: “the most prominent ‘celebrity campaigner’ public personas are instrumental in dividing the world into the ‘humanity that suffers’ and the ‘humanity that saves’”(Müller 479). This brings us to the Foucauldian notion of power. Seeing power as an omnipresent essence, distributed among all the participants of the spectacle, leads to the realization that by individualizing themselves from the general public and taking the mediator position, celebrities firmly harness individual power and influence. At a certain point, Mother Teresa advances from an average nun to an invincible supervisor of central-Asian humanitarianism. She truly becomes the self-appointed master of the status-quo and obtains control over the authorization of the medical personnel that goes to Calcutta, regulation of the media propaganda and administration of the donated money{CITE TERESA}.

Undeniably, it was the media’s highlighting that has given an impulse for Teresa’s sudden promotion from a nun to a messiah. Nevertheless, this premise does not indicate whether her actions were theatrical and her original goal was preferment or whether the resultant image of hers was a pure coincidence that she was attributed with on account of her benevolence and compassion. Although Mother Teresa’s true objectives still remain unknown, I would like to turn to Lilie Chouliaraki’s critique of celebrity advocacy to demonstrate that Mother Teresa seems to have artfully orchestrated a theatrical performance for the Western audience and deliberately self-appropriated a heroic image of a messiah.

Chouliaraki’s article starts off with an introduction to the phenomena of the theatre of pity. According to her, over the past few decades, Western citizenry has been steadily promoting the ideas of the moral universalism, where one views politics as pity and ought to support discomforted others. Nonetheless, westerners are tightly limited by their capabilities and after being exposed to a TV footage of the conditions of the ones suffering, they split into those who watch from afar and those who immediately make an impact. Modern western realities, however, do not favor those who strive to act on the spot: the unreachable locations, the lack of time and the absence of expertise make it virtually impossible for an ordinary westerner to physically contribute to the amelioration of the severe conditions. As a result, the western consumer is chained to the place of a distant observer, exposed to the imagery of the progressive humanitarian actions. The consumer is powerless, without any other way of satisfying his moral impulses rather than donating to charities (2). This analysis accurately reflects the European setting of the late 20th century. While in Calcutta, Agnes Bojaxhiu was completely aware of the practical powerlessness of a regular media consumer, and without much hesitation she skillfully exploited it for personal benefit. She took part in multiple media campaigns, habitually appearing on the foreground of atrocious surroundings, and asked for monetary donations.{CITE} Predictably, it did not take long until certain campaigns stimulated a viral discourse around active humanitarianism and people entrusted her with the administration of their benefactions. In this light, not only she acquired full control of the donations, but also she started appealing to the public. Consequently, public benefactors started seeing themselves making an impact through her hands: she metamorphosed into a symbolic agent that would let the ones who desired to help transmit their aid through herself. People started associating themselves with the figure of her.

The point of self-deindividuation marked the eclipse of Agnes Bojaxhiu’s persona and gave birth to altruistic Mother Teresa. Now Chouliaraki’s argument that: “the contemporary, ‘confessional’ discourse of humanitarian theatricality prioritizes the ‘authentic’ emotions of the celebrity and our own connectivity towards her, thereby encouraging a narcissistic disposition of voyeuristic altruism rather than commitment to the humanitarian cause”(15) fully unravels. Noticing how Mother Teresa used repulsive backgrounds, contrasts between social classes and the power of spectacle to foster public’s emotional attachment, brings us to the realization that at the early stages of her activism she was deliberately affiliating her figure with the qualities beneficiaries, and later followers, strived to possess themselves. She was trading money for perhaps the scarcest resource of the present time: media attention.

Once recognized by the world, Mother Teresa started actively appearing on the screens with various didactic exhortations. From the logical standpoint, her personal crusade against abortion and contraception should have certainly generated colossal waves of indignation; nonetheless, there was no public resentment following her teachings. Yet again, the reason of her unquestionability lies in the artificial imagery. By once metaphorically asserting that she is ‘a little pencil in God’s hands’{CITE}, Mother Teresa fed a religious personification to the hungry public, thereby perpetuating her flawless figure in the minds of the media consumers. Assuredly, that was quite a risky gesture, however, the subsequent public approval granted her carte blanche to pursue personal objectives while sentimentally swearing that it is God’s will that she is voicing. Notably, last time after someone claimed to voice God’s will, people gathered in the worship of his persona and developed a religion that was essentially a cult of his personality. Teresa’s case did not break the pattern: soon people started admiring and worshipping her. Her claims became unquestionable while her inviolability — indisputable. An ordinary nun grew into a worshiped role model that people from all the social classes looked up to. At this point, it would be a reasonable assertion to state that Mother Teresa evolved into an idol.

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Theatricality of Celebrity Activism Through the Image of Mother Teresa. (2021, Mar 25). Retrieved from

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