Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist, documentary producer and the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is an executive producer, most recently, on “My Name is Pauli Murray,” a film that premiered at Sundance. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
Many people were shocked this week when the singer Nicki Minaj shared on social media that she had declined an invitation to the prestigious Met Gala, and indicated that she would not meet the ball’s requirement that all guests be vaccinated against Covid-19.
“If I get vaccinated it won’t (be) for the Met,” she tweeted. “It’ll be once I feel I’ve done enough research. I’m working on that now.” That explanation was puzzling: Scientists the world over have done an enormous amount of research confirming the benefits – both for the individual and for all of society – to getting the vaccine. Minaj has had plenty of time to review it. But it remains her right to decide for herself.
But then Minaj went on to post tweets that included virus and vaccine misinformation and echoed Covid myths, including one saying that her cousin in Trinidad refused the vaccine because a friend had become impotent after getting it. “His testicles became swollen,” she tweeted. “His friend was weeks away from getting married, now the girl called off the wedding.” (Minaj later tweeted that she never claimed this was a reason she has not been vaccinated.)
Let’s pause here to say that, as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have thoroughly noted, there is no link between the Covid-19 vaccines and infertility. Asked about the testicle tweet on CNN on Tuesday, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said: “There’s no evidence that it happens, nor is there any mechanistic reason to imagine that it would happen. So the answer to your question is no.”
Let’s also pause to note that Covid is not going away. Fauci says it will take “many, many more” vaccine mandates to end the pandemic because not enough people are doing so willingly. On Wednesday, as The Washington Post noted, a new Pew Research poll showed that about “two-thirds of the unvaccinated (68 percent) say they know someone who has been hospitalized or has died of covid-19. But just 37 percent of them say the virus is a major threat to the health of the U.S. population.”
Minaj is famous and so her tweets, unhelpful as they were, rated a spin through the news cycle. Clearly, touting misinformation – from anyone – is not helpful to persuading vaccine-resistant Americans.
But do her opinions, or any celebrity’s opinions, make a meaningful difference in the Covid landscape? (Note that numerous celebs, from Billie Eilish to John Legend to Christie Brinkley and many more, have publicly advocated for Covid vaccination to a nonetheless persistently hesitant population.) And what responsibility do celebrities – and in particular, celebrities with huge followings and, therefore, huge influence – have to consider when they speak about Covid?
That they have us discussing this at all may be part of the answer.
While many of us think Minaj acted irresponsibly, she seems to disagree. She parried all critics –and there were many- – through a couple days of social media blowback, even though there is a huge amount of data to show that Covid vaccines are safe and save lives and are crucial to any hope of ending the pandemic. As many pointed out, she ought to know this by now. But even so, right or wrong, Americans not under mandate by their place of employment are still free to do what they want – including Nicki Minaj. Anyone in America, meanwhile, is still free to say what they want. Including Nicki Minaj.
It’s natural to expect celebrities to use their power for common good. Many of them grasp and embrace this responsibility, and they call on their fellow celebrities to understand it better, too. This week, Howard Stern mocked fellow radio host Joe Rogan for not only taking ivermectin – an anti-parasitic drug used for both humans and horses, which the CDC has strongly advised against – but also for publicly discussing it. “We have no time for idiots in this country anymore,” Stern said.
Rogan had already been under fire for using his platform to dismiss the vaccine and rant against vaccine passports: He reaches an estimated 11 million people per episode. But it’s not like Rogan didn’t understand what he was doing. At one point, he told his listeners not to take him seriously. “I’m not a doctor, I’m a f**king moron,” he said in April. “I’m not a respected source of information, even for me” (though some suggested this caveat was too late).
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Let’s keep in mind that celebrities are just people, too. While their job, at the end of the day, is to entertain, they’re also people with a vast range of thoughts and opinions. And the range of their responses to Covid – even when they are skeptical, ill-informed, wrongheaded, even intentionally provocative – are representative of how many Americans feel in general, which is to say, confused.
They are subject to misinformation like many of us are; they should know better but they don’t always – and if they have a social media account or a radio show, particularly one that is helping them pay the bills, they may spout off.
The good news is that neither Nicki Minaj, nor Joe Rogan, nor Howard Stern will be the cause for the pandemic to endure, or end. At a certain point, celebrities are just another voice coming at us on an issue that, in painfully recent memory, would have once been a no-brainer – in an earlier time when society generally agreed that eradicating a disease was a good thing.
Now, if someone chooses to take medical advice from a pop star, or a radio host, or some other dubious source, that’s their call.
It may be that many die-hard vaccine holdouts will, unfortunately, need to experience the consequences of their decision in their own lives – a family member getting sick, or getting sick themselves, for instance – in order to be swayed (though the Pew poll mentioned above certainly challenges such assumptions).
There is, however, a benefit in celebrities inserting themselves into these matters of public concern. And that is this: Such statements give us the chance to debunk them loud and long. Sure, we could always encourage a celebrity like Minaj or Rogan to direct their fans to science, but we certainly can’t force them to, nor can we force them to change their own minds about something.
What we can do, however, is call out the absurdity when the absurdity needs calling out.