Half the Sky: Responses and Further Resources

As a follow-up to my earlier review of Half the Sky, here are some further thoughts and resources. If you haven’t seen the entire series, check it out through next week (10/8-10/9) at PBS online here.

I was referred to this interesting blog post about the series by Anna North. I want to clarify that I agree we shouldn’t accept the insights of Kristof and WuDunn’s Half the Sky project uncritically. My earlier review mentions my discomfort with the use of beautiful American actresses in the special to lend the project awareness and pop appeal. In classes I have taught where we used the Half the Sky book as an instructional tool, we also discussed the issue of “rescuing” sex workers in particular. What kind of moral judgment is involved in this? Is sex work universally bad and, if not, how do we untangle that? Most importantly, when individuals “rescue” girls from sex work, what new complications/dangers/ideas are we introducing into their lives? What ripple effects does it have for those who remain in the system or are vulnerable to this? None of this can be adequately engaged in a 40-minute TV segment. But I also take issue with some of the criticisms advanced by North and others:

  • Just as Kristof is an “elite,” many of those criticizing the HtS project are also elites–other members of the media, academic elites, etc. North quotes critics as stating that a view of the lives of women in the developing world “should include women in the developing world creating their own media.” There’s a very fine line here, namely that it makes me uncomfortable to see elite women chastising non-Western women activists for not doing more, which is essentially what this statement implies to me. I have to wonder how the average rape crisis worker or a rape victim in Sierra Leone is going to be able to effectively make their own media and get their own message out without further resources. Do we live in an age of YouTube and Twitter? Sure. But does the average woman living in conditions of extreme poverty have access to the technology, the time, even the safe space to engage with these fora? I don’t think so. However, Half the Sky is the kind of project that might make such engagement more possible. Case in point, Edna Adan is on Twitter as of yesterday and already has nearly 500 followers, Somaly Mam also has a Twitter page in place with nearly 400,000 followers. This is the kind of media that will allow these women to speak directly without using Kristof as a mouthpiece, but would these pages exist or would they receive such attention without this documentary? Even on my blog, I noticed a spike in hits on my review after the special aired. There is clearly an impact here.
  • There also seems to be a larger backlash lately against any attempts by Westerners to intervene in developing world issues. Some of this debate goes back to the Kony 2012 campaign earlier this year and before, but this dialogue makes me uncomfortable as well. Take, for example, Anne Elizabeth Moore’s statement, quoted by North: “Readers should be asking themselves, ‘Who’s being quoted? Are they all white? Are they young? Is there a translator present?’ If everyone involved is speaking perfect English, they may be tailoring what they say to an English-speaking audience (though of course translators can tailor as well).” A statement like this is overly simplistic, and it should be made clear that this is only one of many ways to determine an individual’s audience–I assume by “perfect English” she is implying unaccented or American English, but it’s worth noting that English is the first or a primary language in much of the developing world. Speaking English well is a poor criteria for judging someone’s veracity and, as Moore points out, speaking through a translator also poses pitfalls. So what insight is this statement really giving us? Being Western or speaking English is not by itself what we should be emphasizing as criteria for legitimacy. Instead, a better litmus test might be: “Are these Western, English-speaking activists knowledgable? Do they have dialogue with those they are helping? Have they adequately assessed the community’s needs?” Just as a Westerner may not always be the best person to help, they also aren’t necessarily doing more harm than good because of their identity.

Anyway, I’m rambling a bit on this but I wanted to respond to these points. I sometimes get resentful when I see some feminists (and this is particularly true of academic feminists) implying that all feminists should or should not like a project or consider it acceptable. The critical response to Half the Sky from these women is unsurprising and in some ways is valid, but it’s also disappointing. My point is that criticism should be constructive, and to tear down this project without offering ways to move forward or make something better is not beneficial. It also runs the risk of alienating allies and casting feminist political projects in a poor light. To be critical is often good, but to place individuals in such a quandary that they throw up their hands and decide to do nothing is dangerous. Where do we draw that line?

I am following Edna Adan, Somaly Mam, and others on social media because I want to hear more of what they have to say. I believe the impact of Half the Sky will encourage others to do the same, and I hope it encourages some of you to do so as well.

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