27 Nov

Half the Sky: Activism or Voyeurism?

Posted By Politybooks

You have probably noticed that people committed to gender equality do not always agree on why inequalities persist or how to create equality. As you already know, we do not recommend uncritically rejecting or accepting efforts to create gender equality. We recommend, instead, that you gather available information, think critically by drawing upon a feminist sociological imagination, and take action based upon your analysis. 

To illustrate, we are using the film Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide which premiered in the US on PBS (2012) with an international distribution scheduled for 2013. Half the Sky (2009) is also a book co-authored by New York Times journalists and columnists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

To raise US interest, Kristof invited US celebrities (America Ferrara, Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Gabrielle Union, and Olivia Wilde) to go with him to countries in Asia and Africa to see firsthand what issues women and girls face, including education, childbirth, and sex trafficking. Viewers have the opportunity to hear women and girls talk about their lives and the support they have received to leave dire circumstances and build new lives for themselves. The film shows the powerful work being done by local activists and highlights ways that women and girls have transformed their lives. The book and film have inspired a social movement dedicated to ending the oppression of women and girls (halftheskymovement.org).

Critics argue that the book and film focus on women and girls in the global south with emphasis on the ways that the culture of a particular country encourages their mistreatment. Prasse-Freeman (2011) contends that Kristof’s approach dehumanizes people and disconnects them from the larger socio-political structures and processes that affect their lives. DasGupta (2012) maintains that the celebrities are tourists of violence (2011), having little knowledge of the issues they encounter and of the countries they visit.This results in people from high-income nations, whether celebrities or viewers, being voyeurs. Further, such an approach ignores the central role of high-income nations in creating the exploitative world system that creates privilege for a few and oppression for many.

            What can gender analysts and activists do when faced with such controversy? We recommend you begin by gathering information. For instance, read Half the Sky or see the film. We highly recommend that no matter the issue, you gather information about individuals’ experiences and their assessment of their own lives. We believe that personal stories, like the vignettes with which we open each chapter, increase people’s empathy and feelings of connection to an issue. For instance, one of the strengths of Half the Sky is giving viewers the opportunity to hear women and girls talk about risks in childbirth, discrimination in education, and horrors of sex trafficking.  

Individuals’ stories are a necessary part of gender analysis and activism, but are insufficient without consideration of the social context. What does gender mean in this time and place? How is gender experienced by people in different social locations? For example, in Half the Sky, how is gender socially constructed in each country visited? How are women’s and girls’ experiences affected by their social location within their community and society? How are age, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality, and social class addressed in the film?

Not only is it important to examine intersections within specific countries, but we need to consider how a relational global perspective enhances our understanding of issues. In Half the Sky, for instance, we can ask: how are the personal stories of women interviewed tied to larger political issues and structures not only within their own countries but globally? How is sex trafficking in Cambodia linked to sex trafficking in the rest of Asia, in Europe, or in the U.S.? As discussed in Chapter 9: Interpersonal Violence, pages 293-294, what do you learn in Half the Sky about countries that serve as destination, transit, or source points in sex trafficking?

We can also consider how a relational global perspective helps us examine relationships between individuals from different countries and the resulting power dynamics in their social interactions. In Half the Sky, for example, how are commonalities and differences in education, income, and life circumstances between the celebrity women and the women they visit addressed? How much personal information is asked of women depending on their social location? Who initiates physical contact? Who is proud of whom? Is there a power balance or imbalance depending upon individuals’ relative social location? In Half the Sky, are poor women of color portrayed as victims of the “bad” men in their lives? Is a sense of women and men from high-income nations as superior smuggled into the film? For more on this framing as it pertains to female genital cutting, see the suggested reading by Lisa Wade that we discuss on page 66 in Investigating Gender.

In terms of social justice, we recommend that you look for actions taken or implied by people engaged in different aspects of an issue. Based on your reading of our discussion of empowerment and helping organizations in Chapter 1: Introduction, assess whether actions reflect an empowerment approach whereby individuals are supported in self-determination and participating democratically in their community. Consider whether actions fall along the lines of helping people whereby people are offered support and resources in the form of momentary assistance that does not create scaffolding for self-determination and self-sufficiency. A strength of Half the Sky is that local activists are interviewed and their interventions on behalf of other women and girls are captured on film. The film is a rich resource for assessing actions as examples of empowerment, helping, or some combination.As you draw your own conclusions about whether a particular approach contributes to gender justice, we urge you to find organizations in your community or region addressing the issues that you want to work on.



DasGupta, Sayantani. “Your Women are Oppressed, But Ours Are Awesome:” How Nicholas Kristof and Half the Sky Use Women Against Each Other. Afropop. October 8, 2012. Web. Retrieved November 10, 2012. www.racialicious.com/?s=half+the+sky.

Half the Sky Movement. N.d. Web. Retrieved November 17, 2012. www.halftheskymovement.org/

Kristof, Nicholas D. and Sheryl WuDunn. 2009. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. New York: Knopf.

PBS. Half the Sky. Independent Lens. September 17, 2012. Web. Retrieved November 17, 2012. www.pbs.org/independentlens/half-the-sky.

Prasse-Freeman, Elliott. Be Aware:Nick Kristof’s Anti-Politics. The New Inquiry. December 31, 2011. Web. Retrieved November 10, 2012.http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/be-aware-nick-kristofs-anti-politics/