Monday, October 8, 2012

"Your Women Are Oppressed, but Ours are Awesome." How Nicholas Kristof and 'Half the Sky' use women against each other

Actress America Ferrera in “Half The Sky.” Via

I just saw the most problematic image on Facebook. It was a photo of four blonde, female pilots in combat gear with the caption, Hey Taliban, look up in the sky! Your women can’t drive, but ours CAN!

Despite the issues I have with militarism, or this country’s campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’m all for cheering for female pilots (yea, bad-a&& flying ladies!). What I can’t just can’t stand by and let slide is this “your women are oppressed, but ours are awesome” rhetoric, a rhetoric which only illuminates how – both actually and metaphorically — racism, xenophobia, and imperialism so often play out on women’s bodies around the world.

To me, this photo represents how blithely and blindly women from the Global North allow ourselves to be used as (actual and metaphorical) weapons of war against women from the Global South. In fact, that offensive caption isn’t significantly different from comments I’ve been hearing this week like, “These are countries where women have very little value.”

Sadly, the place where I’ve been hearing such phrases isn’t on some conservative TV program or website (where I think that all-woman pilot photo originated), but rather, on the PBS film Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women, a well-publicized neo-liberal “odyssey through Asia and Africa” hosted by everyone’s favorite white savior New York Times reporter, Nikolas Kristof.

New York Times reporter Nikolas Kristof in “Half The Sky.”

Inspired by a book co-written by Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, and supported by talking head cameos from the likes of Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem, George Clooney, and officials from the United Nations, CARE, and other non profit and development organizations, the film, unfortunately, reeks of KONY 2012 style missteps.  In fact, in ‘white man’s burden’ style, Kristof even says at one point, “When you have won the lottery of life that there is some obligation some responsibility we have to discharge.”

Perhaps reflecting this sense of noblesse oblige, the film is based on an amazingly problematic premise: the camera crew follows Kristof as he travels to various countries in the Global South to examine issues of violence against women – from rape in Sierra Leone, to sex trafficking in Cambodia, from maternal mortality and female genital cutting in Somaliland, to inter-generational prostitution in India. Because, hey, all the histories and cultures and situations of these countries are alike, right? (um, no) Oh, and he doesn’t go alone! Kristof travels with famous American actresses like Eva Mendez, Meg Ryan, Diane Lane, Gabrielle Union and America Ferrera on this bizarre whirlwind global tour of gender violence.

There are plenty of critiques I could make of Kristof’s reporting (in this film and beyond, see this great round-up of critiques for more). Critiques about voyeurism and exotification – the way that global gender violence gets made pornographic, akin to what has been in other contexts called “poverty porn.”

For example, would Kristof, a middle aged male reporter, so blithely ask a 14 year old U.S. rape survivor to describe her experiences in front of cameras, her family, and other onlookers? Would he sit smilingly in a European woman’s house asking her to describe the state of her genitals to him? 

Yet, somehow, the fact that the rape survivor is from Sierra Leone, the woman being asked about her genital cutting is from Somaliland, seems to make this behavior acceptable in Kristof’s book. And more importantly, the goal of such exhibition is unclear. What is the viewer supposed to receive, other than titillation, and a sense of “oh, we’re so lucky, those women’s lives are so bad”?

To read the rest of this essay, please visit Racialicious!

1 comment:

  1. Sayantani, I recently discovered your work in doing research for my graduate program. I have found it very inspiring and exciting, and just ordered your book Stories of Illness and Healing to use as a source in my Fieldwork. I would love to read the rest of this essay, but unfortunately, the link to racialicious is no longer working. Is there another way to read the rest? Thanks, and all the best to you!