I count myself among the minority of viewers who walked away more troubled than inspired by Half the Sky. This may sound strange coming from someone who not only considers himself an ally to vulnerable women and girls, but who is also affiliated with one of the organizations mentioned in the film. It was not the message itself that bothered me, but rather how it was presented.
For the uninitiated, Half the Sky is a documentary based on the best-selling book by the same name co-authored by the journalist couple Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It follows six celebrities down some of the roughest streets in the global village in order to shed light on the day-to-day struggles of women living in the developing world. Most of the cases focus on extreme forms of abuse such as sex trafficking and female genital mutilation, and how the women and girls featured overcome these struggles. It was difficult, however, to fully hear and understand these stories of survival over the steady hum of Western egotism.
From the time George Clooney appears on the screen in the opening scene of the first episode, it’s made perfectly clear that Half the Sky is not about the rights of women and girls nearly as much as it is about engaging individuals from rich, industrialized countries. Put simply, it’s not about “them,” it’s about “you.”
There could be some wisdom in this, if, for example, the goal were to raise money for a specific cause. The use of so-called “poverty porn” to drum up capital for international aid programs is, after all, tried and true marketing tactic. But donating cash is not what Half the Sky is encouraging people to do. Instead, it is asking for vague commitments to get involved in order to turn the tide on women’s oppression. It’s less a call for financial capital than it is for social capital for what’s been dubbed the “Half the Sky Movement.”
It seems fair to assume that the type of actions your typical viewer will engage in after seeing such a film will be loosely based on what they saw. That’s all good and well except for the tiny detail that watching Half the Sky does not magically bestow upon those who watch it the ability to provide the life-saving services needed by the women and girls featured in the film. This is precisely my problem with Half the Sky. It sends a strong message that one is completely justified in abandoning their critical faculties when speaking about or participating in acts of service on behalf of the poor. More specifically, skills don’t matter nearly as much as pluck and determination.
Not one of the celebrities featured in the film is a social worker, a medical professional, a psychologist, or other specialist who could actually be of practical use in the places they visit. Despite this, their thoughts and feelings about their experiences in these far off places are given about the same amount of attention as the individuals possessing these skills working on the front lines. Their ignorance of the complexity of the problems is revealed repeatedly in many of these women’s tendency to project their own past life experiences on the individuals they meet. Clearly, reading Half the Sky is not enough if one wants to understand why, for example, men tend to get away with rape in Sierra Leone. And yet, this film appears to be endorsing any and all forms of uninformed “help” that is intended to accomplish – what, exactly?
I did not hate the film, but I think it could have done a better job had it made a stronger case for supporting, rather than supplanting existing local, grassroots initiatives in the developing world. Beyond that, it would not have hurt to look at the respective roles of governments and markets to bring about the development that would get at the root of many of the intractable problems discussed in the film. My only hope is that those who see Half the Sky will see it as a starting point, rather than a destination, for educating themselves on the important role that gender plays in fomenting lasting, positive change in every part of the world.