Most of the Girls Have Their Own Songs
Everyone can help, everyone can do one thing.
“There’s an interesting thing about tragedy,” says George Clooney in his introduction to Half the Sky, “We have to be able to relate to it.” That such an effect is so frequently achieved by the appearance of celebrities is also “interesting,” a sign of the complexities of media culture. How is it, you might wonder, that you identify with a movie star, feel intimacy with someone you see on screens, but find it harder to empathize with an individual whose suffering is visible on similar screens?
However you might explain it, the phenomenon frames the PBS version of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Airing 1 and 2 October, the show brings six celebrities to six countries so they might see the difficulties and devastation endured by women and girls. While, as Susan Sarandon puts it, the actors are in place to “shine a little light on the people who are doing the hard lifting,” their tearful distress is frequently the focus for cameras here, whether you “relate to it” or feel distracted by it.
For the first part, on Monday night, Kristof travels with Eva Mendes to Sierra Leone, where they meet Amie Kendeh, head of the Rainbo Center, which provides refuge and legal assistance for girls subjected to abuses ranging from sexual and psychological exploitation to genital cutting. The multiple structures that allow and sustain longstanding abuses of women are institutional, economic, and historical: men persist in their behaviors because they face no consequences, Mendes points out. She and Kristof meet a young woman named Fulamutu, who brings charges against the pastor who raped her, a process that leads to her father’s outrage and shame, and his decision to force Fulamutu and her mother out of his home. Eva presents Fulamutu with a necklace, and they hug as she leaves: it’s a moment that’s simultaneously heartening and upsetting, authentic and set up for the camera.
On night two, he and Diane Lane go to Somaliland, where they tag along with Edna Adan, also trying to help girls survive genital mutilation. Lane watches a film Adan has made, detailing the mutilation process, the camera focused not on the monitor showing the film but on Lane’s face. It spares viewers from seeing what she sees, and also insists that her response can be ours. The visual strategy is one way to deploy the star, and also, as Kristof says later, to inspire outrage in viewers who will never have to see, much less feel, such horrors. While it was once believed that outsiders shouldn’t “criticize other people’s cultures,” he explains, now he’s committed to stopping such brutality, no matter whom he might offend. When he and Lane meet with a “bona fide cutter,” they learn that the “culture” part of it is less immediate than her own survival. The cutter—looking at the camera—insists she doesn’t care about the tradition, but needs the income.
In Cambodia, Kristof describes a dire situation where girls are considered “truly disposable.” He and Meg Ryan meet with activist Somaly Mam, herself trafficked as a girl, forced to service multiple clients each day (“I don’t count,” she says, “I don’t care”), beaten and impregnated, and forced to have an abortion; trying to describe her, Ryan extols her passion, courage, and strength, then sums up, “She’s everything all at once.” Now Mam maintains a home for girls who’ve been sold, some as young as two years old; the girls are provided with an education and help her when she seeks out other girls to rescue: “Somaly has created this little army,” says Kristof. He accompanies her on a raid of a brothel, with soldiers (the local police can’t be trusted, she explains, as they are paid off by the traffickers). Ryan doesn’t go along, confessing to the camera, “I don’t have the Nick Kristof gene, the danger gene.” Somana, one of the girls now working with Mam, sees her mission differently. Missing an eye after she was stabbed by a brothel owner, she perseveres: as she tells a group of young girls her story, she cries and turns away from the camera, a gesture that speaks to the difference between her experience and that of the actors who mean to “shine a light” on her hard work.
Gabrielle Union—who has previously discussed her rape at age 19—brings a different experience to her visit to Vietnam. Here she meets with Nhi Nu Thi Huynh, a 14-year-old who lives with her father and brother and struggles to do her homework in their tiny muddy-floored home, while also serving as the family’s primary breadwinner. Her father, who beat her mother and her brother’s mother until they left, beats her and forces her to sell lottery tickets. Union tries to cajole the father into saying he’s proud of his daughter, and when he refuses (“She hasn’t done enough”), Union gives Nhi a hug and a note expressing her pride in her, and as she walks away with Kristof, the camera lingers on Nhi’s face, thrilled and heartbroken at once.
Such moments are repeated in Half the Sky, as the celebrity-activists must leave and the girls they meet must stay behind. Kristof and WuDunn have rightly determined that showcasing stars is a proven way to garner attention, empathy, and contributions to organizations who do the work of empowering girls and women around the world. In India, America Ferrera is distraught to find the cycle that determines the “fates” of children of prostitutes. In the red light district, children live in the same rooms where their mothers “entertain clients.” “The whole social system is impelling these daughters to follow their mothers,” she says, “Women are never taught to value their own lives.”
Seeing this system, Ferrera is moved, and serves as your surrogate in that emotional process. As Half the Sky makes clear, this constitutes another system, a means to raise awareness and effect change, to generate discomfort and anger, feelings that might be “amplified,” as Kristof puts it, by your sense of connection to celebrities. In itself, this is a bizarre and disconcerting system, but still, it might lead to real word results.