Half the Sky: half humanitarian heroics, half celebrity ego trip

Actress Olivia Wilde hangs at the Umoja Women’s Village in Kenya as part of Half the Sky. (Photo via PBS)

Newsflash: being a woman is surreal.

Last night I was supposed to be at the gym. So I could look slimmer and prettier or something. But I had a headache. So I stayed on the couch, stumbled across human dolls on Facebook (seriously?!), and tuned in to the much-trumpeted nationwide premier of Half the Sky.

The documentary sprung from the book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, carrying on the crusade against violence, discrimination, and lack of education visited upon women around the world.

These aren’t stories about women trying to lose weight and look prettier. They’re not vying for attention via extreme surgery. They’re not beating down Harvard’s doors, or scrambling for the next rung in the corporate ladder.

They’re just trying to take their next breath.

The second section of Half the Sky airs tonight on PBS.

Kristof and his film crew whisk us through a worldwide tour of struggling women in struggling countries. From Sierra Leone to Vietnam, we’re introduced to a heartbreaking parade of teenage girls, each one fighting her very culture for a viable life, often with enough grace and forgiveness to keep smiling.

There’s the girl whose “owner” gouged her eye out in a brothel as punishment. There’s the girl who scrapes pennies together from selling lottery tickets to finance her own tuition. There’s the girl bringing a rape charge against her uncle, losing her home and her place in society because of it.

These girls and women live in a different world than I do. I still live in a place where women’s wages lag behind men’s, and where being “like a girl” is still an insult. But I don’t expect my uncle to rape me. I don’t have forced sex with ten drunken men a day, men who won’t stop pounding even when my skin bleeds, even when I cry. I don’t expect to forego education, to sacrifice myself entirely to take care of my family, to service the urges of any male who wants a wet hole, or to become the human equivalent of a disposable razor.

These girls do.

Kristof, WuDunn, the activists introduced in the documentary and (I hope) we viewers believe that ugly, surreal world is wrong.

But Half the Sky introduces its own bizarrely surreal element.

For each section – three sections were shown last night: Violence in Sierra Leone, Sex Trafficking in Cambodia, and Educational Repression in Vietnam – a Western actress rides along as a sort of luminary/tour guide.

And you haven’t seen bizarre until you’ve seen Eva Mendes offer a raped 14-year-old her choice of a necklace from around the star’s neck. Mendes tells the girl to wear the necklace and pray for Mendes, and that she’ll do the same for the girl.

America Ferrera face to face with Urmi Basu, founder of the New Light shelter in a Kolkata red light district. (Photo via PBS)

This kind of awkward gesturing quickly becomes endemic. I believe the stars – Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, and Gabrielle Union, in this section – were invited along to pique attention. However, they’re just not germane. They’re actresses stranded without lines. They end up befuddled when confronted with problems they have no frame of reference for in their everyday lives.

This leads to nerve-rattlingly-awkward scenes, like Gabrielle Union telling a young entrepreneur she’s proud of her, even though the girl’s father isn’t. Or Meg Ryan, tousled and gob-smacked, weakly saying she doesn’t have “that Nicholas Kristof gene, whatever that is, the danger gene” when Kristof accompanies Cambodian activist Somaly Mam on a brothel visit, leaving Ryan behind.

It’s not fair to blame the stars for the documentary’s problems. They certainly didn’t claim to be experts in how women are globally oppressed. And they certainly seem sincere in wanting to help. But necklaces, platitudes, and pained expressions won’t save these girls.

Perhaps the stars’ notoriety does attract more viewers. In which case, I’m all for them. But what does it say about our own culture that a savvy journalist like Kristof apparently feels it’s necessary to drag actresses into the mix before we’ll pay attention to what’s going on around us (and in our own backyards, for that matter, though the documentary didn’t touch on the US’s own struggles with sex trafficking)?

Can’t real women tell us about their real problems in their own voices? Or are we so jaded we need (white!) actresses to interpret for us?

In a moment of frankness, Kristof himself admits that there could be “potential drawbacks in a bunch of outsiders parachuting in and saying something’s wrong with your culture.”

No shit.

The problem isn’t in saying there‘s something wrong with the culture. The oppressed women are saying that plenty loud and clear themselves, which is the documentary’s strength.

Eva Mendes in Sierra Leone. (Photo via PBS)

The problem is in using outsiders to guide the messages.

We don’t need highly paid, highly non-oppressed women stepping in to create jarring, awkward moments of attempted connection.

We need to meet the oppressed on their own ground, in their own words. We need to acknowledge the complexities of other places, as the raped 14-year-old so gracefully alluded to when she confessed that no, she didn’t do anything wrong, but that she also wanted the police to release her uncle because her uncle’s family begged her to. She lives in a world both surreal and complex, where she’ll bear the brunt of the rape’s fallout and where she already defied her own culture in pointing out the rape to begin with. She lives in a world of no easy answers.

We need to acknowledge that we share our planet with 3-year-olds who are being raped, then sold to brothels because their mothers can’t bear the shame.

We need to acknowledge, as this documentary never really does, that culture and male desire drive massive amounts of female oppression, and that until we grapple with these kinds of desires and build ways to collaborate instead of battle one another as opposed genders, we’re going to stay locked in an opposition that makes us all losers.

My point is not to batter Half the Sky, but to bemoan the fact that Kristof and Co. think we’re so far gone as viewers that without glittering celebrities (George Clooney!), we can’t simply connect to the powerful struggles of fellow women around the world—women brave enough to keep going with missing eyes, women brave enough to speak about HIV and rape on Cambodian radio, women brave enough to stand up to policemen, the military, and their entire culture. Women like Mam, who testifies “We’re going to keep talking…we’re not tired at all.” Or the nine-year-old who, before dying of AIDs, told Mam to tell men: “A few minutes of their pleasure kills me.”

These women, not the movie stars, are the ones actively changing our hearts and minds and cultures, and these are the women who deserve center stage and all the empathy and partnership we can give them.

The second segment of Women Hold Up Half the Sky airs on PBS tonight.

For local resources on human trafficking visit: http://www.seattleagainstslavery.org/


  1. Great piece! Need to see it to fully comment but I half-expected many of the issues you reference with respect to the use of the celebrities. Do we really have to use the funnel of Hollywood to deliver every story? No, because it doesn’t actually work.

  2. I don’t comment often pieces I read, but I felt compelled to share the cringe I experienced when I read your reference to “white” actresses. I don’t know whether or not you intended that reference to be inclusive of the actresses of color (Mendes, Union, and Ferrera), but I know I’m not the only person of color who has loathed being referred to as “white”, rather than “western” or “privileged”, in a non-western and/or non-privileged context. Otherwise, ditto on Scott and Sarah’s comments.

  3. Disagree. I hate this political correctness where celebs get blamed for everything. Sorry, but thanks to them a whole lot more people watched this documentary than would have in no celebs were involved. Now, that might tell a lot about us ourselves, but it also makes me feel it was the right decisions to involve celebs. Heck, had I gone there I would probably have had the same reactions as the actresses, so I feel even that was genuine.

    Also, love that you paid attention to this show, but why whine on and on about the celebs involved instead of just having this post about the topic itself – the sick way in which women and girls are still treated in huge parts of this world. which deserves all the attention it can get.

  4. Thanks for sharing your comment, Christina — I really appreciate hearing that. And I agree — I believed I used the term “white” in a somewhat sloppy way. I confess I was thinking mainly about Ryan when I wrote that–I also think that “western” would have been a better choice. Thanks again.

  5. this is a thoughful piece about a doc series I find excruciaing. the list of sponsors tells it all: cocacola, nike, microsoft, etc. their names are posted in 64 point type, while the filmmakers are somewhere like 8 point. like I guess you’re supposed to know who is really responsible for this.
    No discussion of capitalism or imperialism. Is entrepreneurism really the answer? or “education”? What kind of education? The only subject mentioned is “accounting”. Believe me, these women are getting a heavy dose of education about the realities of capitalist exploitation.

  6. This is some incredible media critique Cyan! I always appreciate the reviews that take time to evaluate how and why the audience is experiencing media in a certain way.

    I can’t wait to see it…hopefully they’ll post it online after it airs for us non-cable folks.

  7. I agree with your broad point about the use of celebrities. I haven’t watched the doc (not available where I am abroad), but in general I disagree with this glitter, like you say. But if you read “Half the Sky” the book, you notice that it is devoid of celebrities, yet parades women’s stories and “gives women voices” in much the same patronizing way. So I don’t really think the ick factor is the celebrities, but rather the way that Kristof tells stories and his use of stories.

    However, I think you miss something important when you write, “These girls and women live in a different world than I do.” Wrong. The entire point of Kristof’s storytelling, as patronizing and ill-fated as it may be, is to point out that we DO live in this same world. That is at least the crux we should all get. Some of our sisters in richy rich countries DO get raped by uncles, and do get coerced into horrible things. Drawing some line between “us” and “them” isn’t helpful. We can be aware of our privilege and our place without doing so. That, I think, is the key to effective, compassionate, and process-oriented work in global development.

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