I read Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide when it came out in 2009. The book, written by writer couple Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDun, details atrocities done to women and girls all over the globe. It focuses on rape, sex trafficking, maternal mortality, female genital circumcision, and access to education. It is an illuminating yet frustrating book. Kristof and WuDunn spend time in each chapter detailing the work being done in these areas to help girls and women.
This week, on Monday and Tuesday, the documentary version of their book came out. There was a big media blitz about it on the Internet, including emails to Women’s Centers, like mine, to hold screenings. It was too short notice for us to hold a screening, not to mention, too late for me to stay at work on a Monday or Tuesday night. The film aired from 9-11pm ET. But I was so disgusted with the Monday night viewing that I couldn’t force myself to watch the second half, which I’m sure will now be airing on PBS all month.
The film opens with a statement by George Clooney. Fine. Then there are clips interspersed with Kristoff’s intense interviews or investigations in each of the areas mentioned above. Also fine. Each one of the places that Kristof visits in the film, where he focuses on a specific issue to women and girls, he had a celebrity with him. It was so odd at first, almost unsettling. There is no explanation why Meg Ryan is with him going to a safe haven for girls who have been sold into sex slavery. Was this an issue she was already interested in? Was this a cause she had been working for? As they drive up to this haven, where all these young girls welcome them in uniforms, Meg Ryan says “Aw. They look so cute.” WHAT???? Cute? These girls were just sex slaves and we’re going to immediately respond to them in terms of their bodies and how they look? Who the hell edited this thing?
When you go to the half the sky website, you can click on a drop down menu of Celebrities/Advocates. There you can see what this person does on behalf of women. Gabrielle Union, who visits Vietnam with Kristof, is described as
“being an ambassador for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, as well as her support for the Young Survivor Coalition (YSC) and the Rape Treatment Center (RTC) at UCLA. Union often travels on behalf of Susan G. Komen and the YSC to share her story of losing a friend to breast cancer and works to inspire others as well when she visits the RTC to talk to young women. She also helped found a program called “A Step for Success” in 2004, which helps raise funds for the economically challenged Kelso Elementary School in Los Angeles. The program holds fundraisers to help pay for books, classroom supplies and many other daily needs that teachers have fallen burden to paying for themselves. Union traveled with Nicholas Kristof to Vietnam to visit John Wood at Room to Read.”
Nowhere in her bio does it talk about why she would be going with Kristof to Vietnam, nor her interest in John Wood’s organization. And this seems to be the case with all these famous female actors. Eva Mendes bio on the site lists nothing about her interest in fighting rape. She gives a young rape survivor a necklace, which makes the viewer very uncomfortable. This is the case with all the celebrities featured in the film.
If you click on each of the celebrities names, that page features a picture of them with one of the women or girls interviewed in the film, with a big smile on their face. The complexities of race and class in these pictures are unsettling.
I would have been perfectly fine viewing this documentary with the clips of “experts” interspersed with Kristof’s intimate interviews with women and girls who have survived horrible circumstances, but adding celebrity women to bring viewers to the television seems forced and inappropriate. WuDunn was an articulate and intelligent voice throughout the movie and she was all the celebrity I needed.