Last week Scarlett quit as an Oxfam ambassador amid a row over the Israeli company, which has a factory in a West Bank settlement. Johansson refused to end ties with the drinks company over her role at Oxfam due to what she described as ‘a fundamental difference of opinion in regards to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement’. In a blog explaining her decision, the actress described how she would ‘remain a supporter of an economic cooperation and social interaction between democratic Israel and Palestine. Sodastream is a company committed to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine.’
It was not long before images of Scarlett seductively sucking on a straw were splashed across the world’s media, and in particular on the world’s most sensationalist papers. Prime examples such as the Daily Mail’s article ‘“It’s nice to have cash”- did Scarlett’s poverty as a child make her chose Israel soda fortune over Oxfam?’ and the London Metro’s article ‘Scarlett Johansson’s backed money over principles’ were but a few. A BuzzFeed article even included a selection of memes created by pro-Palestinian activists. They depicted the actress in various sultry poses, SodaStream drink in hand, in front of desperate scenes of Palestinians in occupied territory. Boycott-Israel activists capitalized on the story and inadvertently Johansson became the poster-girl for the BDS campaign.
But amidst this widespread condemnation of Johansson’s actions, how much attention was actually paid to the central issue- the Boycott Israel campaign? The dominant narrative of the story in the tabloid and entertainment media was that of a vacuous starlet callously abandoning a charitable cause to retain a lucrative endorsement deal. The main focus, it seems, became Johansson’s tattered reputation rather than the politics surrounding the BDS campaign. Most reports tended to brush aside her defense of her decision, that SodaStream promotes Israeli-Palestinian coexistence and creates employment opportunities for Palestinians. Some media coverage even failed to report that the Jewish actress had even justified her decision on these grounds. Although perhaps we can expect this one-sided approach from tabloids such as the Daily Mail with its ‘sidebar of shame’, even more reputable sources such as the BBC and the Guardian were all too hasty to dismiss Johansson’s counter-argument without adequate explanation. However the actress’s defense does merit investigation and cannot be so readily dismissed. For instance The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported last year that five hundred Palestinians work at the site and the plant has an on-site mosque.
Whatever stance you take on the contentious and complicated issue of the Boycott Israel campaign, it is clear that media coverage of Johansson’s SodaStream controversy did little to generate nuanced debate on the subject. As one-sided as most of the coverage was, unquestioningly agreeing with Oxfam and the pro-Palestinian activists, it failed to promote support for the BDS campaign as supporters fervently hoped it would. Rather media coverage simply perpetuated the familiar stereotype of Scarlett as just another uninformed, money-grabbing starlet. This is unsurprising given that previous celebrity involvement in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict debate, typically amongst female celebrities, has been construed in the same way by the media. In 2011 when Katy Perry offered a sympathetic tweet in response to a fan in Israel to pray for the country when it was under a missile attack from Gaza, the main focus of the story in the media was Katy’s foolish conduct. Likewise when Kim Kardashian tweeted ‘praying for everyone in Israel’ in 2012 after Hamas militants launched a rocket on Jerusalem, Kim’s misguided judgement was the centre of attention.
This was typified in the closing line of a Huffington post article on the subject, where the journalist offered the sage advice ‘Next time think before you tweet KK’. Like Johansson’s SodaStream controversy, the vast majority of news coverage on these stories failed to use the celebrities’ involvement as a platform for discussion of the wider Israeli Palestinian conflict.
Johansson’s embroilment in the SodaStream scandal is indicative of the problem of celebrity involvement in humanitarian affairs in general. All too often the focus of these stories in the media becomes the celebrity themselves, rather than the wider situation they have become tangled up in. In the case of female celebrities especially, their involvement tends to be neatly slotted into the well-worn narrative of the self-serving, ignorant starlet.