On the wonderful Pakistani Atheists and Agnostics Facebook page the other day, a friend posted a link to an obnoxious sneery article on Racialicious about the Half the Sky PBS series. She was infuriated by it. She was right.
…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 saviorNew York Times reporter, Nikolas Kristof.
Well that’s a shitty start. “Neo-liberal”? No. Neo-liberal is libertarian free market gospeller; the film wasn’t about that. ”White savior”? That’s just offensive.
…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.”
Yes, he does say that, but in context it’s clear that he’s not doing a “white man’s burden” number. He’s saying what’s true: some people have the good luck of not being born into horrendous circumstances – like for instance being a prostitute because that’s your subcaste and you’re not allowed to do anything else – while other people don’t, and it is only ethical for the former to use their good luck to try to improve that of the latter. Would it be better to ignore people who have not won the lottery of life? Are selfishness and indifference better?
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 intergenerational prostitution in India. Because, hey, all the histories and cultures and situations of these countries are alike, right? (Um, no.)
No. So what? They all do have something in common, certainly.
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 and that 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”?
Identification, for one thing. Empathy. Interest. Engagement. Solidarity. A desire to do something useful. Awareness of what kind of thing needs to be done.
Why would the opposites of all these be better?
The issue of agency is also paramount. In the graduate seminar I teach on Narrative, Health, and Social Justice in the Master’s Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, I often ask my students to evaluate a text’s ethical stance by asking themselves–“whose story is it?” For example, are people of color acting or being acted upon? Although the film does highlight fantastic on-the-ground activists such as maternal-health activist Edna Adan of Somaliland, the point of entry–the people with whom we, the (presumably) Western watchers, are supposed to identify–are Kristof and his actress sidekick-du-jour.
Bullshit. Edna Adan was far from peripheral. At other times, yes, the outsiders did serve as a kind of bridge, because they’re the naive newcomers who have to be told everything and shown everything. But is that a bad thing? Not that I can see. They come across as incompetent, and we feel incompetent with them, and we also learn along with them. We’re the novice outsiders and the people we’re visiting are knowledgeable and informed. I thought the show did a pretty good job of that.
Although a few passing comments are made about rape, coerced sex work, and other gender-based violence existing everywhere in the world–including in the U.S., hello?!–the point that is consistently reiterated in the film is that gender oppression is “worse” in “these countries”–that it is a part of “their culture.” In fact, at one point, on the issue of female genital cutting, Kristof tells actress Diane Lane, “That may be [their] culture, but it’s also a pretty lousy aspect of culture.”
There’s nothing that smacks more of “us and them” talk than these sorts of statements about “their culture.” Postcultural critic Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak, in fact, coined the term “white men saving brown women from brown men” to describe the imperialist use of women’s oppression as justification for political aggression.
Ah well if postcultural critic Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak says it it must be true. She translated Derrida, so she knows.
It goes on in that vein. I won’t cite any more, because life is short. But I think it’s a horrible piece. The author, Sayantani DasGupta, teaches in the “Narrative Medicine” program at Columbia. The what? Yes.