As you may have heard, if you follow political news at all, there is a distinct possibility that Ashley Judd will run for the United States Senate in Kentucky, as a Democrat. A famous Republican political strategist, Karl Rove, has already produced an ad making a case against her.
That is not in itself remarkable. This is just a taste of what's in store for a national political candidate, particularly one who enters the race already a celebrity. (In addition to being a well-known professional actor, Ms. Judd has been active in politics and has a master's degree in public administration.)
However, we highlight once again the perennial prejudice voiced against members of the acting profession who engage in politics, either as activists or candidates. Appearing on a Fox network talk show, Karl Rove said this about Ashley Judd:
She’s going to get to know that she is not going to be able to wait until, you know, the screen writers from California and the producers could make her look good, and prepare the ads and give her lots of lines to memorize so that she can handle these things.
It never fails, and it is not limited to one political party. Political rivals mocked Ronald Reagan for seeking office after being a B-movie actor, and a CNN commentator mocked Al Franken, a lowly comedian, when Franken ran for the Senate. These are just two examples among many. Reagan, of course, served two terms as President of the United States; he had also been Governor of California and, irony of ironies, a union leader. Franken turned out to be a hard-working and intensely studious senator who shies from the limelight.
During the years Arnold Schwarzenegger served as Governor of California, the leading watchdog website, ArnoldWatch, frequently stooped to potshots about Schwarzenegger's acting background with sneering comments that denigrated the profession itself. I complained about this several times and was staunchly ignored, which is the only reason I didn't donate.
So today it's Ashley Judd, mocked as a mere entertainer, someone who can't address political issues without being scripted by writers and handlers. (Isn't that Karl Rove's profession: political handling? Isn't that the service he provided to George W. Bush and other politicians?)
One can argue, quite reasonably, that this is just strategic trash talk about a potential political opponent. It is that, certainly. But what makes it strategic is that it plays on very common stereotypes about actors, a rogue profession, a profession that is not really "work," a profession that involves role-playing and changing identity.
Prejudices against actors and theatre have deep roots in our culture. Plato excluded actors from his ideal republic because they pretend to be other people and stimulate passions. The Buddha as represented in the Lotus Sutra didn't like actors, either, for similar reasons. Actors are considered shifty, narcissistic, and libidinous. It is not really a surprise that political opponents would go after the profession, going so far as to suggest that performers are not fit for serious public service.
People enter government from lots of different professions. This includes arts and entertainment. And really, why not? Here's what I wrote in a 2010 post about actors and politics:
To succeed, actors cannot only be artists; they have to be successful as businesspeople. They themselves are the business. Unless they are born into Hollywood royalty (like your Nicholas Cages and George Clooneys), the actors have to know the trade backwards and forwards, and to be audacious and break the rules at just the right time, and be very lucky on top of it, just to get an opportunity.
A person like that will very likely succeed in elected office if that's what they set themselves to do. Personally, I just hope they are interested in serving the interests of people rather than -- well, you know, the interests that Reagan served. A figure like Reagan who was actually on the side of people would be a dangerous figure indeed.
[Image: A certain president before he took his seat in the Oval Office.]