Annals of the Rescue Industry: Celebrities pose, feeling good

Last week PBS ran Kristof’s documentary of his Half the Sky book. I’m not in the US so didn’t see it (and don’t have the option of seeing it at all), but publicity material abounds, including photos showing Hollywood stars, such as this one of Meg Ryan hugging a girl at a shelter for victims of trafficking. Some of the press-packaged stories discuss the techniques being used to manipulate viewers into joining a Half the Sky movement. It’s tempting to point to the maternalism inherent in the images, but the publicity makes it clear that this was conscious and deliberate – no one’s pretending real relationships are being portrayed. Ryan explained why ‘privileged celebrities’ were used to tell the stories:

The actresses are the emotional conduits for the experience… Fame is such a perverse power when it comes to this type of advocacy. Celebrities bring attention to the problem, but they’re also resented… How we become sensitive to one another and less judgmental and more forgiving is what’s good. We’re all human. If we can increase compassion in the world, then we have a better place. Meg Ryan and Somaly Mam on Celebrity, Human Trafficking, and Compassion.

Emotional conduit is a pop-psychology notion I’m not sure serious media analysts would go along with here. It sounds more like Kristof’s wish about what would happen – that using attractive female actresses would magically make poor, dark, needy, less attractive women and children easier to care about. Or care about for longer than it takes to watch the documentary, long enough to sign up to do something further, like give money or volunteer on some project.

The publicity photographs have been set up to convey an intimacy disproportionate to the brief visits involved, as though Hollywood stars were gifted with an ability to bond deeply very fast. But in fact they are simply acting. The pictures are portraits of affection acted by people who’ve had training in how to do it. This has nothing to do with real feeling, and perhaps it needn’t. I am not accusing anyone of cynicism here, because the whole project has been calculated.

Eva Mendes is said to have embarked on a ‘life-changing’ visit to Sierra Leone. In this pose she seems to be physically touching a number of children at once, at the same time leaning toward the camera as though giving herself to it.

America Ferrera plays with children of sex workers in Kolkata, India. This shot plays on Ferrera’s more natural, less glamorous style but is equally contrived. The pose suggests she could be a sibling of all these children, playing on our knowledge that this actress is Latina.

Olivia Wilde in Kenya. The inclusion of a cameraperson in this shot underscores how posed and self-conscious it is. The children have obviously been told to hug her so close one might think they actually loved her. Wilde is good at acting genuine-looking emotion, but the children just look squashed and uncomfortable.

By merely standing beside two older women in Somalia (although one appears to be touching her back), Diane Lane’s set-up appears less effusive and intimate, more like people of equal status standing together. Does this mean less potential emotional conduit?

Kristof is hoping to catalyse his movement via CrowdriseTurning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide. Something’s going on in the world of so-called social movements, isn’t it? Remember the two boys with their Hope Boutique Bakery? That was part of Crowd-Fuelled Causes, and I still don’t know what that does.

What I am sure about is how sophisticated media techniques are being brought in to modernise traditional Rescue-Industry events and publicity. Kristof prides himself on being a with-it guy in terms of social media – remember when he live-tweeted that brothel raid? So what’s next – conversations with the camera personnel about how they set up those emotional conduits?

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

14 thoughts on “Annals of the Rescue Industry: Celebrities pose, feeling good

  1. Frank

    Hello Laura. I don’t know if the website was available where you are, but the documentary was available for 7 days (after the initial broadcast) online at ( Episode 2 is still up, but Episode 1 has been taken down, I guess (because it is past 7 days).

    The very political Kristof is pretty savvy at cloaking his general disdain for non-Western countries and their customs – even going to the point of claiming (in the documentary) that he isn’t “parachuting in and telling them they are all wrong”. Unfortunately, some of the actresses aren’t. In one scene, the American NGO-funded Vietnamese translator refused to translate an insulting question from Gabrielle Union (actress) to a Vietnamese father (who, according to the documentary, was bad). I wonder what the reaction in Vietnam would be to this?

    1. laura agustin Post author

      National borders usually limit who can see publicly funded television stuff, and I don’t think pbs is different. I don’t actually want to see the thing at all, was just clarifying that I hadn’t. Looking at the stills and promotional texts was enough.

      My feeling is Kristof thinks he cares about what people in other countries feel about his actions but is actually completely absorbed in his own egotistical projects, which are overwhelmingly ‘American’, in his sense of the word.

  2. William Thirteen

    i am glad to see that those poor folk are happy and grateful that WE are sharing our celebrities with THEM….

    Also interesting here is the idea of the celebrity being the only one capable of acting as ’emotional conduit’. Like saints they sacrifice themselves (for a few hours anyway) so that WE (poor, unwashed) may commune with THEM (poor, unwashed). Then it’s back to get a shower, get a few drinks with fellow saints and then appear on ‘media outlet’ to gesture to the sacrifice they’ve made. Very Catholic actually…

    1. Laura Agustín

      I wonder what emotional conduit means, really, and agree with you it’s not clear why actresses should make better ones. Although on the other hand it is clear, because we know that glamour makes us feel things, and we willingly suspend disbelief while watching films in order to experience emotion. I’m thinking of Hollywood classics, though, and not documentaries. And that’s why I say that Kristof wishes the presence of the stars will have this effect, but I imagine it is a gamble, since this is not Casablanca or Dark Victory.

  3. MJ

    I’m as cynical as most are when it comes to celebrity PR philanthropy but this film admits at face value that this is a way to get more people to tune in, whatever our opinion may be of that being viewers’ motivation, it’s true. But if you would actually watch the film before railing against it you will see how these actresses took part in the project. None of them claim to be experts on what they’re about to witness, or attempt some grand show of their own ingenuity. They each set out to learn more by listening, observing & earnestly asking questions & sharing their observations and their own experiences (Gabrielle Union gets to know a girl quite well that all involved with are concerned about the possibility of sexual abuse in her life & they emphasize the importance of education in lifting these girls & Union relates that she herself was taped and what she was left with was a sense of lacking control & the only thing she could control was pouring into education & that made her feel safe. Just because they’re famous doesn’t mean they aren’t people with value to contribute to cross cultural communication.) In fact, instead of being “above” or “othered” the actresses are surrogates for the viewers who have not experienced these things in person (pretty much no one watching the film will have witnessed all these kinds of issues/locations) and the contrast between their reactions & the more resigned or world-weary reaction of those who’ve long been on the ground is stark & affecting.

    Seriously, it’s easy to judge things, easier than taking the time with an open mind, but find a way to see the film before espousing such attitudes, anymore that is.

    1. laura agustin Post author

      This piece is a critique of the promotional, publicity materials associated with the film but also the book. I have made no claim to be critiquing the documentary. Perhaps to understand my analysis one needs a bit more background in what I’ve been doing for nearly 20 years now. This is a single media analysis in a great sea of research and thinking. Look at the upper menu on my website, or some of more than 500 blog posts or my book Sex at the Margins. Unlike many others I don’t come to this field lightly.

  4. Sheldon

    Kristof erupted in yesterday’s Times (10/10/2012) in an op-ed, “Her ‘Crime’ Was Loving Schools”.

    He talks about a girl in Indonesia thusly – “Sex traffickers had reached out to this gril through Facebook, then detained her and raped her for a week.” Well, is Kristof now going to campaign against Facebook like he did Mark Zuckerberg – billionaire pimp???

    I can’t wait to see how this plays out.

  5. john smith

    I know I shouldn’t say this but I could not resist . (humor)

    It shows that Kristof is an international traffica in white celebrity women, who he then “pimps” out to the rescue industry for their own ego gratification.

  6. Skeptic

    An article came out today in the Cambodia Daily (which fortunately recently went online), which appears to demonstrate almost beyond a doubt that the girl in the picture is not a trafficking victim, was never involved in sex work, and in fact the entire story was fabricated. I find it to be absolutely shocking! While I do think there is human trafficking in Cambodia, it’s really disturbing that Somaly Mam gets the credit she gets while lying repeatedly.

    1. laura agustin Post author

      Yes, I ran the debunking article on facebook and twitter yesterday. It’s a really terrible case of Rescuers *exploiting* a victim’s pain to further their cause.

      1. Aphrodite

        OMG. I read about the story on this ‘fabrication’ of victims of sex trafficking. A few years ago, I saw an awareness video with Angelina Jolie, about the trafficked victim Long Pros.
        I genuinely thought all this were true, until I read about this on Maggie McNeill’s website. How disgusting.
        Kristoff and Somaly Mam are doing exactly the thing they’re supposed to be fighting against: The exploitation of people.

  7. Pingback: Annals of the Rescue Industry: Celebrities pose, feeling good | The Naked Anthropologist | critical reasoning |

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