Holding Up Half the Sky

Global Narratives of Girls at Risk and Celebrity Philanthropy

in Girlhood Studies

Abstract

In this article I explore the Half the Sky (HTS) phenomenon, including the documentary shown on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) network in 2014. I explore how the girls in whose name the HTS movement exists are represented in relation to Nicholas Kristoff and six celebrity advocates. This analysis foregrounds Global North philanthropy’s discursive use of Global South girls to advance a neoliberal approach that ignores structural forces that account for Global South poverty. The upbeat use of the concept of opportunities interpellates the audience into participating in individualized approaches to rescuing girls. Ultimately girls are spoken for while celebrities gain more exposure and therefore increase their brand recognition.

Girls figure prominently as a symbol in global discourses of philanthropy. The use of girls from the Global South lends authority and legitimacy to Western savior neoliberal impulses, in which the logic of philanthropy shifts responsibility for social issues from governments to individuals and corporations through the marketplace, therefore help and intervention are “encouraged through privatization and liberalization” (Shome 2014: 119). Foregrounding charitable activities becomes an essential component of celebrity branding and corporate public relations that seek representation of their actions as cosmopolitan morality and global citizenry. Focusing on the Half the Sky (HTS) phenomenon that culminated in a documentary by Maro Chermayeff (2012) shown on the PBS network in 2014, in this article I examine the agency and representation of six celebrity advocates in relation to the girls in whose name the HTS movement exists. I investigate this deployment of Global North philanthropy in which Global South girls become the discursive vehicle uniting US authors, the philanthropic arms of global corporations, and celebrity journalists and actresses performing the role of “transnational caretakers” (Shome 2014: 114). Girls in the HTS documentary simultaneously embody Anita Harris’s (2004) girls-at-risk and her can-do girls who deliver the world from its crisis of poverty using their newly acquired educational skills and economic empowerment. Additionally, the inclusion of US celebrities positions them as savior mothers/advocates of Global South girls. The confluence of girls at risk, philanthropy, entertainment, and celebrity culture come together throughout discourses circulated through mainstream media.

In Diana and Beyond (2014), Raka Shome explores the ways in which white Western women, especially celebrities, are positioned as global mothers in popular culture, “saving, rescuing, or adopting international children from underprivileged parts of the world, and rearticulating them through familial frameworks that recenter white Western (and especially North Atlantic) heterosexual kinship logics” (389). Shome focuses on Diana Spencer while Julie Wilson (2012) analyzes Angelina Jolie, shedding light on two highly visible white Western celebrities whose images have been globally articulated to the rescue of underprivileged children from the Global South. Against the backdrop of the market as the place in which to transact problem solving, Wilson notes the gendered aspects of this convergence citizenship, caring, digital culture, and audience labor. Both scholars draw on Jo Littler (2008) who finds that in the process of elevating themselves from the mundane to the sanctified, celebrities benefit the most from their engagement with global philanthropy. Dan Brockington (2014) summarizes this relationship.

Celebrity advocacy for international development is … not marked by any significant beneficial change to awareness of the needs of distant strangers, or development issues … these are ultimately vehicles for building celebrities’ brands more than they are vehicles for improving public understanding of development.

(154)
Celebrity global philanthropy itself is part of the elision between entertainment and politics enabled by widespread circulation of mediated images, what Thomas Meyer (2002) calls “politainment” (3). Ergin Bulut et al. (2014) propose the enhanced concept of philitainment by which they mean that social action and citizenship cannot be considered outside the parameters of global capitalism but also that there can be a technical fix for global inequality issues, one that can be solved through an app, digital game, or other forms of techno-consumerism. Scholars of political communication also explore celebrity studies. Mark Wheeler (2012) draws an upbeat conclusion that celebrity engagement increases democratic participation, but Martin Scott (2014) finds that celebrities are ineffective in mediating distant suffering to Western audiences. Moreover, John Street (2011) notes that when celebrities articulate themselves to political causes they are simultaneously being used to attract advertising. This latter suggestion links Littler (2008) to Dallas Smythe (1994) who notes that the real commodity in television is the audience being delivered to advertisers. Likewise, celebrity philanthropists deliver audiences to advertisers via whatever platform it is on which they appear. All scholars explore the dangers of conflating politics and entertainment. HTS provides an opportunity to assess full blown philitainment and the implications for global citizenship standing for the celebrity advocates and Global South girls.

The convergence of Global South girls, celebrity philanthropy, and globally circulating media is evident in a number of cultural locations. In contemporary fiction, as Holly Bass (2016) points out, Zadie Smith (2016) braids celebrity philanthropy with the salvation of African girls throughout her novel, Swing Time, thus delivering an indictment of misguided philanthropy. The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for girls in South Africa pays for the education of girls through a school infused with neoliberal goals. And Malala Yousafzai, from Afghanistan who rose to global prominence after being shot in the face because of her support for girls’ education, traveled to Nigeria in 2014, months before winning the Nobel Peace Prize, to add to the global outcry about the missing girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. Saving and educating African girls has become a cause du jour on the global philanthropic stage.

HTS Presence

HTS draws on the old Chinese folktale1 about a hummingbird confronting an elephant, that represents the collective power of the little people versus larger forces. Mao Zedong gendered the slogan for political purposes, urging Chinese society to treat women as equal workers as well as encouraging women to join the labor force. The expression, “women hold up half the sky” brings gender into the folktale and foregrounds women’s public sphere labor. Unsurprisingly, scholars, politicians, and media figures use this metaphor to bring attention to their work on gender inequality.

Predictably, HTS also generates philanthropic impulses. The website for Half the Sky Foundation and the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (2008) by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn are the two most prominent examples of taking HTS into philitainment via Global South girls. First, Jenny and Richard Bowen, a US couple, created the Half the Sky foundation in 1998 upon adopting a Chinese baby in 1997 and noticing that orphans lacked human love. They report bringing Maya home as “emotionally shut down. Vacant … but after just one year of nonstop loving attention … a butterfly emerged from the cocoon.”2 Half the Sky foundation, now called OneSky, claims to help “China to reimagine its approach to child welfare” (n.p.) placing Chinese girl orphans into loving homes rather than just feeding and sheltering them. The website maintains a gender-neutral language although it acknowledges that 95 percent of all healthy abandoned orphans are girls. Chinese girls function as recipients of Western charity, compassion, and wealth. Featured stories reiterate the message of improving the health and happiness of children as they are, one hopes, eventually placed with a loving family that implicitly resides in the Global North. Half the Sky Foundation lists a powerful group of transnational sponsors3 and precedes the Kristof and WuDunn movement.4

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (2008) by Kristof and WuDunn is the second and most prominent major US philanthropic intervention on the HTS bandwagon. The upbeat note of “oppression into opportunity” results in best seller status turned into a multi-media movement. Perhaps its breezy journalistic style with its banner at the bottom of the front cover that loudly and proudly proclaims, “Winners of the Pulitzer Prize” helped to promote the book’s great resonance. Perhaps the use of the word opportunity in the title of a book that is full of horrific examples of poverty, child sexual slavery, rape, prostitution, female genital mutilation (FMG), and generalized victimhood gives readers hope that they can contribute to productive outcomes. Published when the ground was fertile for a movement based on neoliberal dogma and widely distributed by Alfred A. Knopf, a major popular publisher with the resources to include many full color photographs and garner reviews in the popular press, the book became a best seller and generated a movement and a two-part PBS documentary. Choosing the word opportunity as part of the title makes use of a keyword of neoliberal discourse, linking readership and audiences to potential individualized intervention.

Angelina Jolie and George Clooney endorse the book, linking it from the outset to Hollywood royalty, especially its progressive arm with its exposure to, and experience of, global philanthropy. In fact, George Clooney is the first talking head in the documentary, in which Angelina Jolie does not appear. An anonymous review in the journal Ethics & International Affairs (2009) suggests that the authors hope to do for the twenty-first century what feminists did for suffrage in the nineteenth century and for environmentalism in the twentieth. Although the environmental movement has yet to yield the effects desired by its activists, the book is touted as potentially generating a feminist social movement. Indeed, the authors claim on their non-profit Half the Sky website, “The central moral challenge of our time is reaching a tipping point. Just as slavery was the defining struggle of the 19th century and totalitarianism of the 20th, the fight to end the oppression of women and girls worldwide defines our current century” (n.p.). In a neoliberal individualist approach to the situation, we, as readers/audiences, are challenged to take up activism: “change is possible, and you can be part of the solution” (n.p.).5

Feminist reviews of the book mention what seems like the inevitable Chicken Little tale of the sky falling to fill in for the challenges facing women (Narayan 2010). Juxtaposing the affirmation of girls as economic resources against their sacrifices and limited time span as mini economic engines who serve their community in a self-abnegated manner, Uma Narayan (2010) and Valentine Moghadam (2010) remind us of the lessons of Women in Development and transnational feminist research that structural inequalities rather than individual actions account for poverty in the Global South. The HTS phenomenon joins a discourse of gender and development in book reviews, fora, and tables of contents of journals, some with a response by Kristof. For example, when Masum Momaya (2009) proposes that the book examines only “half the picture,” Paige Austin (2009) tells us that Kristof’s response was that “the way to empower poor countries, and marginalized peoples, isn’t to focus on charts about power relationships” (73). Kristof and WuDunn disagree largely with the scholarly community over the absence of analysis of structural and systemic inequalities, discrimination, and legacies of imperialism. Regardless of the academic critique that HTS ignores, the opportunity to appear linked to the rescue of Global South girls, for altruistic or self-serving interests, has proved irresistible for many Hollywood celebrities.

Hollywood Holds up Half the Sky

Following best-selling status and massive celebrity endorsements, the book was further mediatized (Livingstone 2009) through the website and subsequent PBS two-part documentary. The book encourages us to take up the charity challenge, and the multi-media website provides opportunities to do so. Whereas Wheeler (2012) bemoaned the decline of public service media, in this case PBS joined the celebrity bandwagon in search of audiences (Bark 2012). Angelina Jolie and George Clooney, arguably Hollywood’s reigning stars and global political ambassadors, presaged celebrity involvement. The entire documentary is staged to elicit reaction, outrage, and, hopefully, financial contributions and political pressure from Global North audiences, especially in the United States since all celebrities in HTS are US-based. At the beginning of the documentary, Clooney argues that celebrities can “amplify” the reach of the message. The audience meets six celebrity advocates deployed to Somaliland, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Sierra Leone, and Kenya, where they are not generally known. The HTS movement website foregrounds media with dozens of mini-video clips about the themes in the book and the documentary: education; economic empowerment; FGM; maternal mortality; cross-generational prostitution; and sex trafficking. In addition to advertisements for the book (that is never offered freely), the HTS movement website includes video games, social network connections through Facebook, the two-part documentary for sale, and a slew of celebrities—Christy Turlington, Desmond Tutu, Gloria Steinem, Melinda Gates, Michelle Bachelet, Madeline Albright, Cherie Blair, and Hillary Clinton—as talking heads plus the six advocates deployed to the Global South to promote the movement, book, and documentary synergistically. As of 2018 “Inspired by the Half the Sky Movement” and “Women and Girls in the Film” have disappeared from the website. The HTS movement has major sponsorship.6 Constructed through celebrity philanthropy in the name of Global South girls, the documentary functions as the culmination of a movement.

Celebrity Advocates and Kristof, the Phantom Thread

Nicholas Kristof functions as the cohesive element through the book, website,7 and documentary.

Traveling with intrepid reporter Nicholas Kristof and A-list celebrity advocates America Ferrera, Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Gabrielle Union and Olivia Wilde, the film reflects viable and sustainable options for empowerment and offers an actionable blueprint for transformation.

(Chermayeff 2012: n.p.)
Kristof (2014) tells us, in an Opinion piece in The New York Times, what is at stake with this movement: “ultimately the greatest threat to extremists is not a drone overhead, but a girl with a book.” (n.p.). Celebrity advocates America Ferrera, Olivia Wilde, Meg Ryan, Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, and Gabrielle Union separately visit an individual country to address particular issues with Kristof, not all of which, like prostitution, found arguably in every country of the world, are reducible to a particular location. Rather, each location is chosen to highlight the work of a local activist and/or institution focusing on one issue. The celebrities who join Kristof in revisiting8 the Global South locations are multicultural—three of them are white, one is African American, and two of them are light Latinas. The three white celebrities, Meg Ryan, Olivia Wilde, and Diane Lane, visit Cambodia, Kenya, and Somaliland respectively to address sex trafficking, economic empowerment, and maternal mortality/FGM. The three celebrities of color—America Ferrera, Eva Mendes, and Gabrielle Union—contribute to the self-representation of the documentary and the movement as inclusive and post-racial. With Kristof and a camera crew, they provide an opportunity for viewers to meet activists and the girls and women whose future depends on foundations and celebrity intervention.

The universalizing representation of all girls as being at-risk accompanied by the potential can-do-ness of the HTS movement through Kristof and the celebrities frames the book, the website, and the documentary. The structure of the documentary remains consistent throughout the four-hour production. The documentary opens with a zoom in-zoom out montage framing the narrative as a path from destruction, poverty, and despair to a hopeful present and future of happiness, action, and sunny days. There are three types of girls: African girls, sometimes but not always veiled; Indian girls; and Southeast Asian girls, either Vietnamese or Cambodian. The montage begins with a girl-aged mother hugging an infant in a nearly black and white post-bomb rubble of an unspecified location whereupon the camera zooms through a portal onto a girl behind barbed wire, through the barbed wire to a young woman touching her own wounded body, through a door where an African woman is sitting alone on the ground, covering her face, and finally to a veiled African girl working alone in a dark wooden school. When the camera zooms out from that girl, the well-lit school room is full of little girls in blue gingham uniforms happily raising their hands. The camera zooms out to a group of Indian girls in blue uniform riding their bikes in the sun, through a gate on the other side of which some Southeast Asian girls are jumping rope, through a window where a young African woman is selling spices and vegetables in an outdoor market, through another window that takes us to a girl holding out her arms to the back of a young mother, through yet another opening in the wall where many veiled African women in colorful burkas dance in celebration with Diane Lane, wearing culturally sensitive head cover, as the camera turns to the clouds and the sunny sky over which a black window frame is superimposed. The frame originally is opened three-fourths of the way but as the camera pans out, it becomes half opened as the Half the Sky logo closes out this opening scene, throughout which a voice repeatedly sings, “We are almost there.” The framing of this opening montage takes us from individualized dark despair in rubble through happy education, economic success, play, and dance in large groups in the sunny outdoors. The framing sums up the dark before and the bright after—the implicit outcome for the girls as a result of this HTS philanthropic intervention.

Each of the six video chapters begins with an introduction by a celebrity, politician, or NGO authority, with Sheryl WuDunn, who speaks as a banking executive in New York City, providing framing between the documentary’s chapters. Celebrity advocates, activists, and girls on-site serve secondary roles to Kristof’s intrepid protagonist. From the outset he walks through the Manhattan offices of The New York Times, representing the Western male voice of authority. Female celebrity advocates uniformly profess great admiration along with a lack of knowledge, experience, and courage in relation to him. Throughout the documentary he asks pointed questions of activists, authority forces such as police and detectives, and of the girls. Moreover, the camera often zooms in on his notepad and his avid notetaking, a representation of a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist hard at work. Kristof even makes feminist interventions, such as insisting a local kiosk vendor be asked about purchases. Olivia Wilde looks on as the vendor replies that men buy soda for themselves, and women buy yogurt and other food to feed their families. Indeed, Kristof is the most prominent celebrity and feminist in a gendered deployment of authority and style, wherein the female advocates represent the latter.

The Girls

Following Rosie Walters (2016, 2017), I go beyond the narrative tropes of journalist and the Western eyed saviors of Chandra Mohanty (1984) to see if and how the girls speak out within the documentary. After all, this HTS movement is carried out in the name of girls at risk in the Global South. The documentary positions Kristof as the ultimate agent, and the gendered celebrities as inferior to him. The can-do girls and the Global South girls are eternally at-risk. Celebrities are positioned in the interstitial position between can-do girls vis-à-vis Kristof and maternal figures vis-à-vis the Global South girls who are the real can-do figures, even if they not positioned as such by the mediated narrative. In each location, we meet each celebrity briefly as she arrives at her designated country and sets off to her destination with Kristof, usually in an air-conditioned SUV. We then meet the change agent9 who sometimes introduces us to individual role model girls, representing broader issues in that setting. Some girls are introduced by name and issue. For instance, in Kolkata, India, we meet Monisha, daughter of a second-generation sex worker, who thrives in school yet is being sent back to her grandfather’s village. Urmi Basu, the activist who runs the New Light Residential School for Girls, tries to talk Monisha’s mother out of sending Monisha where she is likely to be sold to sex work traffickers. Her mother does not relent because the family needs the money from Monisha’s labor. Urmi and America Ferrera bid a tearful farewell to Monisha, who heads back to her village with a backpack that has New Light’s phone number written inside a seam. In a video update available through the HTS Movement website, Urmi shares that Monisha returned to the residential facility, and that Sushmita, the other model student, also continues to thrive. Most of the update footage recycles material from the documentary, yet a couple of scenes show both girls continuing their education.

Eva Mendes follows a similar process in Sierra Leone. Upon arrival, Mendes and Kristof meet with Amie Kandeh who runs Rainbow Center, a rape center where they meet a 3-year-old victim of rape—Jessica—who is not shown to us, the audience. Next, they meet Fulematu, a 14-year-old who reports having been raped by her pastor. Fulematu and other girls confirm that the pastor is a predator and that he is often seen taking girls into his private quarters. By the end of the episode no charges have been laid against the pastor, and Fulematu and her mother, who were originally praised for their courage, have been kicked out into the street because the formerly supportive father is now personally ashamed. Eva Mendes bids good bye to Fulematu by giving her one of the two bead necklaces she has. The team moves on.

In Siem Reap, Cambodia, Somaly Mam, once abducted as a child for prostitution, has created two shelters, one in the city and another in the countryside, to care for and educate girls rescued from sex trafficking. Meg Ryan declines to join Kristof in a child brothel raid but joins the girls in the shelter. The girls poignantly perform their songs, relating their tales of abduction and abuse for which they have composed original music and lyrics. We meet Somana, whose eye was gouged out while she was enslaved in a brothel. Somana embodies Somaly Mam’s fantasy of having these girls turn into activists who will comfort new girls in the shelter and educate civic groups about sexual and physical abuse, condoms and other contraceptives, STDs, and so on. Somana teaches and shares her own story. Somaly checks Kristof’s tendency to see progress: when he wonders if things are getting better, Somaly responds that what has changed is that girls are abducted at a younger age.

Gabrielle Union travels to the Mekong Delta, Vietnam, to join Kristof to visit Room to Read, an NGO founded by John Wood, a former Microsoft executive. Girls in this program have either to travel long distances or endure a double shift of work and education. We meet two girls who represent two family approaches. Nhi Nu Thi Huynh, who is 14 years old, sells lottery tickets to support her family. She lives with her father and brother, and our hostess worries that she has a hard life. Indeed, a visit to her home finds Nhi crying and her father proudly sharing that he has to teach her that life is hard. Union and the hostess consider the possibility that in addition to everything else, Nhi is being sexually abused by her father. Union shares that she was raped, and that school was where she could control her destiny. As the two of them walk away, Nhi bikes up to her visitors with a smile. Bikes feature prominently as a mode of transportation, along with river boats. Phung Ngoc Dao, the other featured girl, wants to attend university and her family supports her education despite the costs of money and time since the NGO requires parents to attend meetings at the school. Union worries about the long bike ride Phung makes to get to Room to Read. Both girls live in conditions of abject poverty yet are shown to want an education and we see them going to great lengths to get one.

Diane Lane travels to Somaliland where she and Kristof meet Edna Adan, founder of a maternity hospital. Given the high rates of maternal mortality (one in twelve) in Somaliland, Adan’s hospital is not only the only women’s hospital for hundreds of miles but is also a training facility for midwives. The FGM performed on prepubescent girls affects maternal health. This episode tackles cultural and religious beliefs through health and education and does not feature an individual girl. Girls are alluded to as dying after arriving at the hospital and as subjects of a tape about genital cutting that we do not see but watch Diane Lane watching. Girls who affirm their resolve to cut their daughters and other girls joyfully receiving their midwife certification represent the oppression and the opportunity respectively in this location.

Olivia Wilde, wearing a pair of Tom’s shoes,10 joins Kristof in Kenya to meet two women whose microfinance grants from Jamii Bora11 have fueled their so-called anti-poverty economic empowerment. As in the Somaliland chapter, we meet the adult women change agents, and girls form the backdrop of the story although the narrative is about rescuing the girls. Jane Ngoiri, a single mother and former sex worker, makes girls’ dresses out of used wedding dresses with her micro-financed sewing machine. She is also trying to educate her four children. Our hostess informs us that poverty is so stark in Kenya that there is not enough food. In fact, Jane tells us that when she cannot make enough to pay for school, they “fast.” We see her very thin children—all of whom are good students (on their mobile phones).

After Jane, we encounter recipient Rebecca Lolosoli at the Umoja Women’s Village that she created to shelter women from physical abuse, including FGM and marital beatings. Their business consists of making traditional intricate bead necklaces that are sold to tourists. There a young mother who has just given birth nurses her child—since she had not been cut, her father might have killed her when she became pregnant. She expresses her wish to be able to raise her child uncut and without violence. This last episode ends on a cautiously optimistic note with Olivia Wilde dancing with the women, even as the voice-over details the fragile economy and safety of the village. All six visits represent hope and despair. None of them suggest a happy ending.

Analysis

I focus on the discursive use of girls in the Global South to further a mostly US philanthropic enterprise, which takes a neoliberal approach to development. The HTS Kristof and WuDunn book and documentary offers readers, viewers, and celebrity advocates a chance to meet and help real girls in the Global South. Stark conditions on the ground, all of which involve extreme poverty, little access to education, and physical and/or sexual violence, offer the promise of turning oppression into opportunity. The real opportunity presents itself to six female celebrities, all of whom receive press coverage for their philanthropic efforts. Partnered with Kristof and with selected change agents, celebrity advocates function as the connection between audiences and girls. All celebrities declare themselves to be pro-girls. Eva Mendes declares she’s “a girl’s girl.” Meg Ryan nearly weeps into the camera about the wasted promise of girls. We are interpellated through the narrative to help girls at risk. We encounter girls at risk who face nearly insurmountable challenges and must, as a matter of survival, become can-do girls. Indeed, just reaching the philanthropic locations is a massive achievement for girls who have been trafficked, tortured, abandoned, and rejected. Many of the agents of change, celebrities, and the Kristof-WuDunn couple repeat that even changing one girl’s future is enough. This speaks to the enormity of the situation, the fact that even once they reach the locations of possibility, the girls’ outlook is far from certain. The lack of discussion of structural issues makes us focus on individual girls who metonymically represent their own country and the Global South.

We do not meet many girls. The change agents as well as the girls represent locations. In four locations they introduce us to exemplary girls turning their oppression into opportunity although their future is far from secure. In Sierra Leone, we cannot help but wonder what happens to Futulemu and her mother once they have been kicked out of their home. Eva Mendes’s gift of a bead necklace seems nearly offensive given the challenges this girl and her mother face. In Kolkata, we fear for Monisha’s safety. America Ferrera’s teary farewell hug accompanied by her words, “You stay safe, ok?” appears equally empty. Meg Ryan hugs her way through Cambodia, something all six advocates do often and freely. In Vietnam Gabrielle Union tells a girl who wants to be a model that education takes you much further than beauty. In these situations, girls face unspeakable challenges, and celebrity advocates offer them mothering through empty affective gestures or can-do platitudes from the Global North.

When girls speak, they do so directly. This seldom happens since, even when Kristof, the advocates, or the change agents step aside, parents intervene. Sometimes, as in Kalkuta and Sierra Leone, parents support their daughters. In Vietnam we encounter a supportive set of parents and an abusive father whom we are led to suspect of molestation. Girls have dreams of further education—accountancy or law—or business prospects. Mostly, girls want to stay safe in school, a luxury in their setting where the costs of tuition have to be weighed, in the short run, against the opportunity cost of wages they can earn to contribute to basic needs such as food and shelter.

In addition to the dispiriting story of Futulemu in Sierra Leone, action agents in Kenya and Somaliland do not offer can-do girls for our consumption. Thus, Africa receives a representation poorer than India and Southeast Asia with girls in that global region more at risk than elsewhere in the Global South. The combination of culture, religion, and poverty challenge even the can-do neoliberal missionaries as, for instance, even Jane Ngoiri in Kenya, whose personal history Kristof has followed since 2011,12 appears to be living on the edge of solvency, unable to pay for her children’s education, and engaging in occasional “fasts,” a euphemism for going hungry because she cannot afford food. Her children do not get to speak to us. African girls remain largely silent.

Although three of the six celebrity advocates are considered women of color in the US, their domestic racialization does not transfer to this global issue documentary. Whereas Lene Christiansen and Lisa Richey (2015) found that the intersection between and among race, culture, and celebrity places celebrities of color in a liminal position, the documentary studiously avoids the celebrities’ race as a component of the narrative. This post-racial, color blind project, in the sense that a discussion of race as a differentiating factor is not mentioned, implies that we are beyond such issues. All celebrities, regardless of their race or ethnicity, function as imperial mothers of Global South girls, performing empty affective gestures, none of which can intervene in nor assuage the poverty and challenges facing the girls. Furthermore, the relative poverty of African in relation to Asian girls reaffirms a global hierarchy of race left out of a neoliberal narrative that ignores structural issues.

We are living through a moment in which the voices of girls and women are recruited toward a global acknowledgment of deep and engrained gender prejudices and toward greater capital accumulation. Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafsai exemplifies both the enduring oppression suffered by girls and the attention to girls by philanthropists. Contemporary neoliberal philitainment foregrounds celebrities in neoliberal efforts carried out by the private sector. The mediated version of challenges turned into opportunities represents girls as being both at-risk and as can-do agents. Survival is a major accomplishment. The girls we meet are all can-do girls. They are survivors. Finding a place potentially to flourish seems nearly fantastical. Nonetheless, the media vehicle does a bit more to foreground the actions and voices of celebrities than those of the girls. Color blind celebrity casting serves to implicate all celebrities as self-serving. Kristoff emerges as the most fore-grounded celebrity.

What is at stake here is how to intervene. On the one hand, a small capital contribution has the potential to make an immediate on-site difference. On the other, nearly every instance of intervention has led to a short-term outcome whose long-term consequences appear to have been minimal. Treating the audience as partners in a neoliberal movement encourages us to join an HTS chapter and participate in activities, none of which address the root causes of the Global South’s poverty. Relying on the girls to save themselves pits them against formidable obstacles. Yet engaging them and including their voices in philanthropic efforts in concert with working at home to encourage policies that begin to dismantle global inequality might be a strategy with short and long-term goals. Given that celebrities and media platforms have the most to gain from the symbol of the girls of the Global South at this time, a more significant engagement than a bead necklace or (empty) tears is in order. Repeating that even saving one girl makes a difference further distances us from the enormity, in both senses of the word, of the situation and our complicity in it.

Acknowledgment

My thanks to Wenrui Chen and Morten Stinus Kristensen for providing research assistance.

Notes
1

One day an elephant saw a hummingbird lying on its back with its tiny feet up in the air.

“What are you doing?” asked the elephant.

The hummingbird replied, “I heard that the sky might fall today, and so I am ready to help hold it up, should it fall.”

The elephant laughed cruelly. “Do you really think,” he said, “that those tiny feet could help hold up the sky?”

The hummingbird kept his feet up in the air, intent on his purpose, as he replied, “Not alone. But each must do what he can. And this is what I can do.”A Chinese Folktale (http://halfthesky.org/en/our-story)

3

Donors include the J.P. Morgan Chase Foundation, The China Care Foundation (founded by Matt Dalio, a US citizen who once lived in China), Baring Private Equity Group, Capital Group, World Childhood Foundation, The Coach Foundation, Credit Suisse, and Deustche Bank.

4

Half the Sky Foundation changed its name to OneSky.

5

halftheskymovement.org

6

Sponsors include IKEA, Ford Rockefeller, Bill and Melinda Gates, John D. and Catharine T. MacArthur, Hewlett, Nike, Goldman Sachs, 10,000 Women and Coca Cola 5by20.com, and CPB.

8

Most celebrity advocates admit that they have not previously visited that location, but these are return visits for Kristof.

10

Tom’s shoes, “the one for one” company, embodies contemporary neoliberal approaches to philanthropy. For every overpriced pair of basic espadrilles costing $50+, customers are told that a person in the Global South receives a free pair of shoes. Similar claims are made about the purchase of eyewear and backpacks.

11

An NGO started by fifty beggars pooling their savings in concert with Swedish philanthropist Ingrid Munro

12

Kristof wrote about her in 2011 providing an opportunity for readers of the New York Times to donate used bridesmaid dresses to Jane Ngoiri. Later she was featured in the Independent Lens part of PBS.org. Yet, when the documentary was taped her situation seemed quite precarious.

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  • KristofNicholas D. and Sheryl WuDunn. 2010. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. New York: Vintage Books.

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    • Export Citation
  • LittlerJo. 2008. “‘I Feel Your Pain’: Cosmopolitan Charity and the Public Fashioning of the Celebrity Soul.” Social Semiotics 18 (2): 237251.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • LivingstoneSonia. 2009. “On the Mediation of Everything: ICA Presidential Address, 2008.” Journal of Communication 59 (1): 118.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • MeyerThomas. (2002) Media Democracy: How the Media Colonize Politics. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

  • MoghadamValentine M. 2010. “Global Gender Inequality and the Empowerment of Women: A Discussion of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” Perspectives on Politics 8 (1): 284286.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • MohantyChandra Talpade. 1984. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Boundary 2: 333358.

  • MomayaMasum. 2009. “Half the Sky Only Half the Picture: A Review of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” Women’s Policy Journal of Harvard 7: 7172.

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  • NarayanUma. 2010. “Global Gender Inequality and the Empowerment of Women: A Discussion of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” Perspectives on Politics 8 (1): 282284. “Review of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” Ethics & International Affairs 23 (4): 432433. doi:10.1111/j.1747-7093.2009.00237_ 3.x

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  • ScottMartin. 2014. “The Role of Celebrities in Mediating Distant Suffering.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 18 (4): 449466.

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  • ShomeRaka. 2014. Diana and Beyond. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

  • SmytheDallas W. 1994. “Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism.” In Counterclockwise: Perspectives on Communication ed. Thomas Guback263291. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

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    • Export Citation
  • StreetJohn. 2011. Mass Media Politics and Democracy. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • WaltersRosie. 2016. “‘Shot Pakistani Girl’: The Limitations of Girls’ Education Discourses in UK Media Coverage of Malala Yousafzai.” British Journal of Politics and International Relations 18 (3): 650670.

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  • WaltersRosie. 2017. “‘This is My Story’: The Reclaiming of Girls’ Education Discourses in Malala Yousafsai’s Autobiography.” Girlhood Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 10 (3): 2338.

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  • WheelerMark. 2012. “The Democratic Worth of Celebrity Politics in an Era of Late Modernity.” The British Journal of Politics and International Relations 14 (3): 407422.

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  • WilsonJulie A. 2012. “Cosmopolitan Stars, Interactive Audience Labor, and the Digital Economy of Global Care.” Television and New Media 15 (2): 104120.

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Filmography

ChermayeffMaro. 2012. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. USA.

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Contributor Notes

Angharad N. Valdivia is a research professor, former inaugural head of Media and Cinema Studies, and former interim director of the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois. Her books include A Latina in the Land of Hollywood, Feminism, Multiculturalism and the Media (2000), A Companion to Media Studies (2003), Latina/o Communication Studies Today (2008), Mapping Latina/o Studies (2012), and Latina/os and the Media (2010). She served as the editor of Communication Theory (2009–2012) and edited the seven-volume International Encyclopedia of Media Studies (2012–2013). Email: valdivia@illinois.edu

Girlhood Studies

An Interdisciplinary Journal

  • AustinPaige. 2009. “Half the sky Co-author Nicholas Kristof Responds.” Women’s Policy Journal of Harvard 7: 7374.

  • BarkEd. 2012. “Using Fame to Shine a Spotlight on the Suffering: ‘Half the Sky,’ About Sex Trafficking, on PBS.” The New York Times30 September.

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  • BassHolly. 2016. “Zadie Smith’s New Novel Takes on Dance, Fame and Friendship.” The New York Times10 November. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/13/books/review/zadie-smith-swingtime.html (accessed 11 January 2018).

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  • BrockingtonDan. 2014. Celebrity Advocacy and International Development. New York: Routledge.

  • BulutErginRobert Mejia and Cameron McCarthy. 2014. “Governance through Philitainment: Playing the Benevolent Subject.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 11 (1): 120.

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  • ChristiansenLene Bull and Lisa Ann Richey. 2015. “Celebrity-black: The Meanings of Race and Performances of Aid Celebrity Outside the Mainstream Hollywood/UK Circuit.” Celebrity Studies 6 (4): 505518.

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    • Export Citation
  • HarrisAnita. 2004. Future Girl: Young Women in the Twenty-First Century. London: Routledge.

  • KristofNicholas D.2014. What’s so Scary about Smart Girls? Opinion. The New York Times10 May. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/11/opinion/sunday/kristof-whats-so-scary-about-smart-girls.html (accessed 1 August 2018).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • KristofNicholas D. and Sheryl WuDunn. 2010. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. New York: Vintage Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • LittlerJo. 2008. “‘I Feel Your Pain’: Cosmopolitan Charity and the Public Fashioning of the Celebrity Soul.” Social Semiotics 18 (2): 237251.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • LivingstoneSonia. 2009. “On the Mediation of Everything: ICA Presidential Address, 2008.” Journal of Communication 59 (1): 118.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • MeyerThomas. (2002) Media Democracy: How the Media Colonize Politics. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

  • MoghadamValentine M. 2010. “Global Gender Inequality and the Empowerment of Women: A Discussion of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” Perspectives on Politics 8 (1): 284286.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • MohantyChandra Talpade. 1984. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Boundary 2: 333358.

  • MomayaMasum. 2009. “Half the Sky Only Half the Picture: A Review of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” Women’s Policy Journal of Harvard 7: 7172.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • NarayanUma. 2010. “Global Gender Inequality and the Empowerment of Women: A Discussion of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” Perspectives on Politics 8 (1): 282284. “Review of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” Ethics & International Affairs 23 (4): 432433. doi:10.1111/j.1747-7093.2009.00237_ 3.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • ScottMartin. 2014. “The Role of Celebrities in Mediating Distant Suffering.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 18 (4): 449466.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • ShomeRaka. 2014. Diana and Beyond. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

  • SmytheDallas W. 1994. “Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism.” In Counterclockwise: Perspectives on Communication ed. Thomas Guback263291. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • StreetJohn. 2011. Mass Media Politics and Democracy. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • WaltersRosie. 2016. “‘Shot Pakistani Girl’: The Limitations of Girls’ Education Discourses in UK Media Coverage of Malala Yousafzai.” British Journal of Politics and International Relations 18 (3): 650670.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • WaltersRosie. 2017. “‘This is My Story’: The Reclaiming of Girls’ Education Discourses in Malala Yousafsai’s Autobiography.” Girlhood Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 10 (3): 2338.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • WheelerMark. 2012. “The Democratic Worth of Celebrity Politics in an Era of Late Modernity.” The British Journal of Politics and International Relations 14 (3): 407422.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • WilsonJulie A. 2012. “Cosmopolitan Stars, Interactive Audience Labor, and the Digital Economy of Global Care.” Television and New Media 15 (2): 104120.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • ChermayeffMaro. 2012. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. USA.

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