The Blog

Angelina Jolie: Big Issue Seller

Last week London hosted the End Sexual Violence in Conflict Global Summit. Amongst the representatives from more than 100 countries, many of them very senior political figures, one star shone brighter than the rest: Angelina Jolie, Hollywood actress and UN special envoy, who acted as chairwoman. The words she used in her address to the conference were moving and powerful:

"We are here for the nine-year-old girl in Uganda, kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery.

"We are here for the man in Bosnia, years after rape, still stigmatised, unable to earn enough money to buy bread for his family.

"We are here for all the forgotten, hidden, survivors who have been made to feel ashamed or been abandoned.

"And for the children of rape - we want the whole world to hear their stories and understand that this injustice cannot be tolerated, and that sorrow and compassion are not enough."

Angelina Jolie's presence at the conference meant the event was widely reported. But the coverage was not just about her presence, or what she was wearing, or about the fact that her husband Brad Pitt was also in attendance. Her words - moving, defiant and inspiring - were widely reported too.

This is not the typical fly-in-at-the-last-minute celebrity endorsement. Angelina Jolie founded the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative with UK Foreign Secretary William Hague in 2012. She has invested time and effort in this area and will continue to do so: next up are a set of guidance notes on how to strengthen prosecutions in rape cases from conflict regions.

But this sort of thing, a celebrity taking on an important global issue, seems to be happening less and less. Many of today's bright young things, manufactured by 'scripted reality' TV producers, asked to be nothing more than beautiful and care-free, spending their time promoting an utterly unattainable lifestyle via Instagram, would not consider opining on global issues a suitable activity to pursue alongside selling perfume, clothing or a trashy book.

There is a school of thought that we get the celebrities we deserve. In this view, Facebook users want anything but updates from their friends about the deteriorating situation in Iraq, and would run a mile from a debate about sexual discrimination on Twitter. Instead they would prefer a Buzzfeed quiz on what tube line they are. And if that's what they want from their friends, the argument goes, they increasingly want the same from their idols.

In this narrative the internet in general, and social media in particular, is the home of banality. It is for showing what you ate over snapchat, or for showing off about where you went on holiday. Talking about serious issues, such as rape, does nothing for your popularity. It makes people feel uncomfortable and sad. Sad doesn't get likes. Or so the thinking goes.

Yet perhaps the fact that Angelina Jolie is more popular than ever tells us something. Her popularity at least in part derives from what she stands for and how she acts as a human being - after all, her career is not the glitziest in Hollywood (plenty of Razzies nominations and no Oscar). But she has done what many newer stars won't do, showing full and unabashed commitment to a plethora of difficult and uncomfortable humanitarian causes. Her achievements meant that on Saturday it was revealed that she was given an honorary dame-hood in the Queen's birthday honours, and rightly so.

Her increasing popularity suggests that the audience is not as vacuous and short-termist as is sometimes alleged. The reality of course is that many of us enjoy celebrity culture as a guilty pleasure alongside the weightier issues of the world. We enjoy Mail Online alongside the Economist; Buzzfeed as well as the BBC. We like Twitter to feed us trivia and breaking news. We follow Kimye and Obama at the same time. And we admire Angelina Jolie as a celebrity with real substance, who is making a real difference to the world - and as a campaigner we will remember long after today's scripted reality superstars have faded from view.