Dec 1 2012

‘Half the Sky’ Tells Half the Story

PBS doc oversimplifies gender violence

The PBS documentary Half the Sky is disturbing, and not just because the film depicts violence inflicted on women and girls around the world. A shuddering amount of information about the complexities of violence and human rights abuses was left on the cutting-room floor (or never filmed at all), creating a neat, American-friendly, tie-it-up-with-a-bow film that oversimplifies and misrepresents gender-based violence.FireShot Screen Capture #008 - 'Half the Sky I Independent Lens I PBS' - www_pbs_org_independentlens_half-the-sky

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide is a four-hour “event” based on the book of the same name by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife, investment banking executive and former Times reporter Sheryl WuDunn. In the film, which aired on PBS in October, Kristof and WuDunn highlight 10 countries where they think violence toward women and girls is at its most extreme. They pluck six female celebrities from their homes—America Ferrera, Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Gabrielle Union and Olivia Wilde—and plunk them alongside Kristof in India’s back alleys and Somaliland’s dusty roads so they can witness and exclaim over the violence themselves.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a male journalist writing on or making a film about women’s issues, nor is it terrible that Meg Ryan wants to use her celebrity status to highlight sex-trafficking in Cambodia. Millions of women around the world face dire, violent situations, and it’s important that we come to understand and change them as a global community.

But for God’s sake, don’t make it look like a Hollywood thriller. And don’t quietly rewrite history, so that Westerners appear to live in a post-violent and post-discriminatory society. And don’t put Eva Mendes in a headscarf, which seems more like a costume for a movie than a token of cultural respect. And don’t open the film with a clip of George Clooney armchairing it with a quote about tragedy.

Ugh. Really? Really?

When Clooney remarks of the film, “This is how people get engaged,” I want to scream, “No, this is how people get ill-informed.” What’s most troubling is how the film presents six tidy story arcs, each with a villain, a victim, a problem, a solution and a happy ending.

What happened to the girls who were “rescued” from the brothel in Cambodia at gunpoint? How did the mother of the child in India decide to put her child in school rather than commit her to prostitution just as the cameras were pulling away? It all seems so made-for-TV that I have to wonder whose story we’re really seeing—and whether these women and girls are characters in a tale that satisfies a Western, white perspective. Meaning, this is already how we view you, and thus how we will portray you, and, in effect, you still don’t count.

Halfway through the film, Zainab Salbi, the founder of Women for Women International, says rape and domestic abuse are not simply Third World issues. But the film portrays otherwise, with scant mention of oppression against women in the U.S., including a booming trafficking industry (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 4/28/11). We’re given a voyeuristic view at the “other half” of the world so we can tsk-tsk our way through the film without looking at our own troubles. The countries are depicted as backwards and exotic, with Meg Ryan gasping of Phnom Penh, “It’s like the Wild West.”

Kristof himself suggests there might be “some drawbacks to a bunch of outsiders parachuting in and saying, ‘Your culture is all wrong. You’ve got to change it.’” But that doesn’t stop him from doing just that. Yes, I do believe that female genital mutilation should end, but I don’t think Kristof’s colonial, our-people-know-best approach is helpful.

And Kristof and crew didn’t seem to get the memo that the word “empower” is itself a symbol of oppression, signifying that Kristof believes power is his to bestow. Yet they throw this term around so regularly you could make it a drinking game.

Writer Sayantani DasGupta summed up the problems with the film’s us/them paradigm in a post for Racialicious (10/8/12):

White/Western-dwelling men and women highlight the suffering, as well as local activism, of brown and black women. Brown and black men are portrayed consistently as violent, incompetent, uncaring or, in fact, invisible. And it’s only a small leap to realize that such formulations—of countries incapable of or unwilling to care for “their” women—only reinforce rather than undermine global patriarchy, while justifying paternalization, intervention—and even invasion—of these “lesser” places by the countries of the Global North.

It’s a dangerous path—one that should be equally troubling for the prospects of women and girls around the world.