WEEKEND ARTS SECTION: Marisa Tomei Will Never Invite Me To a Dinner Party

I hate to say that my problem in life is that I have “high standards.” Only jerks say that, right? I mean: Have the standards or not, but don’t invoke them in the name of defending your right to be mean. Those are the basic rules.

Nevertheless, on March 4, I attended an event in honor of Half the Sky, the book on global womens’ rights by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn. This event was broadcast to many movie screens across the country, and featured various celebrities, and a panel discussion to which the celebrities were invited along with actual experts, and a short film co-directed by the actress Marisa Tomei, along with Lisa Leone. At this event, I came to feel that I had perhaps unreasonably high standards for discussion of global womens’ rights, and that these standards had begun to pose a problem.

For example: It’s nice that Nicholas Kristof can look out into the audience and earnestly intone that women are “not the problem,” and that women getting rights can benefit men, too. It’s very nice! If you have never been exposed to these concepts before, perhaps it will help you to hear a very successful journalist say them! However: As a woman, and as someone who has read more than four books and fifteen blog posts about the concept known as “feminism,” I got past the “women are not the problem” and “ladies having rights and stuff is not a direct threat to dudes” point in… let’s say, freshman year of college. I didn’t have a lot figured out, freshman year of college! But those two things, I was pretty solidly aware of before sophomore year.

And so, not having my mind blown by the basic (and, I must emphasize, admirable!) concepts, I was free to fixate on other portions of the event. Like the many cutaways to Sean Penn in the audience. Or Maria Bello and Marisa Tomei being presented as experts on the topic of global womens’ rights. Or, you know, the relatively low number of people on the stage who had… lived in the cultures in question and experienced marginalization therein? More of those would, for the record, have been nice!

There was, I will tell you, at least one woman who had these very basic qualifications present who also happened to impress me greatly. Let us talk, for a moment, about the lady to whom I refer. Her name is Woineshet Zebene Nagash. Woineshet was apparently raped, at a very, very young age, and then had to go through all sorts of troubles to get her rape verified in what was an apparently re-victimizing and harsh fashion, and then Woineshet got abducted by her rapist again, and furthermore, Woineshet was forced to sign a marriage certificate by her rapist. Now, Woineshet has pushed for a change in the laws of her country so as to allow rapists who force-marry their victims to be prosecuted, and Woineshet goes around lecturing both women and men about consent. It is a fact that no matter what I do in my life, I will never measure up to Woineshet. This lady is a hero; when faced with the disparity between the accomplishments of Woineshet (recuperating from damage that would shatter the vast majority of human beings and changing the structure of gender politics in her country as a result) and my own accomplishments (writing cranky blog posts), I feel shame. I could never in my life even attempt critique of Woineshet; she is much, much better than I, and any reasonable observer could confirm this fact.

However, Woineshet’s story is presented to us through the lens of Marisa Tomei. Marisa Tomei co-directed a film about Woineshet, and it is through this film that we are primarily given a chance to get to know her. Unfortunately, Marisa Tomei might not be the best co-director in the world! The film about Woineshet, entitled Woineshet, starts off as a somewhat clumsy biopic, and then, once that sort of abruptly ends, it slams directly into a documentary which heavily features Empathy Faces made at Woineshet by Marisa Tomei.

I can attempt critique of Marisa Tomei, it turns out. Because the disparity between our life achievements is significantly smaller. Marisa Tomei has been in My Cousin Vinny; I would like to believe that I have done at least one thing in my life that comes close to equaling My Cousin Vinny in quality or impact. And, while watching Woineshet’s life story being heavily presented through the lens of what feelings it induces in Marisa Tomei, I felt… well, cheated, for one. I wanted more Woineshet, more time spent listening to her directly. I also felt upset, or at least disappointed, that the audience was assumed to care about Marisa Tomei as much or more than they cared about Woineshet’s life and work.

But it’s cheap to complain about how heavily the Half the Sky event featured various celebrities, and gave platforms to those celebrities. The fact is, these celebrity fundraising and consciousness raising events work, because many people care about this cause less than they care about India.Arie (also featured) or Maria Bello. (And how much do people care about Maria Bello, really? Think about that, and you will come up with a very depressing conclusion.) Those people might need to see Maria Bello or India.Arie in order to try to care about the women themselves. Or to get themselves into a theater! And if, somehow, those people were tricked by their affection for celebrities into thinking about events occurring outside their own lives that are, in fact, very serious, maybe that is a good thing.

Sort of. Because the thing is, if you need an actress to lend her support to a cause in order to care for it, I question how capable you are of caring about causes in the first place. I doubt, to be quite honest, your commitment to Sparkle Motion.

Half the Sky, the book, is apparently doing very well right now, and that is just super. I am heartened to know that people are willing to read a book on these topics, and that it can be considered an important book of the moment. It is doing well enough to have an event in its honor broadcast to many movie screens across the country, and for the theater I attended to be relatively packed, and that’s great. I don’t, for the record, even come close to suspecting or having problems with the agenda of the event. But the book’s website provides avenues for direct action in a more up-front and accessible way than the event itself, and there, I suppose, is where I have the problem. At the event, people were exhorted frequently to get involved with CARE; Woineshet name-checked Equality Now; there were nods to the world of global womens’ rights advocacy outside of this one night. And, honestly, I know about Woineshet now; I didn’t before, though I knew about the problems of forced marriage in the abstract. But I wonder – I really do just wonder, and feel like a jerk for wondering – how many people took that home. What happens, when the one night is over and the work has to start.

23 comments for “WEEKEND ARTS SECTION: Marisa Tomei Will Never Invite Me To a Dinner Party

  1. Lurkin Merkin
    March 6, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    It can be really frustrating dealing with those events – in that the most important or even the most interesting things can get glossed over, while some of the people speaking seem the least qualified to do so . Speakers at promotional events always make me think of having a party and figuring out the politics of “If I invite X, then I need to invite Y, and if I invite Y but not Z, it will hurt Z’s feelings.”

    It seems like this was indeed supposed to be more promotional than educational. Unfortunately, the people who probably most need to read the book might be more drawn in by India Ari than by one of the actual women whose story is in the book. Hopefully I’m wrong about that. But if you already have an interest in the lives of women all over the world, then India Ari probably won’t dissuade you from reading the book either. As you pointed out, the success of Half the Sky is a good thing, and it does help.

    Anyway, I just woke up, so please try to excuse me if none of this seems to have a point or make sense.

  2. March 6, 2010 at 10:58 pm

    Thanks for the very illuminating post. Sadly, this kind of ego-massaging goes on at all levels. I have served on a couple of boards of organizations that provide microloans for poor women entrepreneurs in Central America and it is impressive the percentage of time and energy spent mediawise on the board directors, as opposed to the women they are supposed to benefit. Photo ops, films, print articles, etc., seem to be as much about the board members as it is about the women whom the program is supposed to benefit. It is nuts. However, I guess that if that is what it takes to get people with money interested in these issues, well … what can I say!

  3. RD
    March 6, 2010 at 11:19 pm

    Nicholas Kristof is a dumbass who pushes agendas that hurt women he wants to claim to help. He’s worse than any of those dumbass celebrities.

  4. RD
    March 6, 2010 at 11:20 pm

    The fuck? Why do my comments keep disappearing?

  5. RD
    March 6, 2010 at 11:32 pm

    This is a letter I wrote to the Rachel Maddow Show a while back that touches on the issue of Nicholas Kristof being a disgusting fuckjob on the issue of global women’s rights:

    Dear Rachel Maddow,

    I would like to respond to Barbara Boxer’s appearance on your Tuesday, January 13th show and on her line of questioning during Clinton’s confirmation hearings. Boxer cited some of Nicholas Kristof”s recent columns in the New York Times, especially the columns on forced prostitution in Cambodia. I feel very strongly that those columns have painted a false portrait of some very misguided U.S. policy and pressures. Some policy makers, I believe, Democrats and Republicans, have very knee-jerk reactions to the issue of sex trafficking, and respond in ways that actually make the situation worse for both trafficked women and other women in prostitution (in the US and Cambodia, as well as elsewhere abroad).

    In response to U.S. pressure, Cambodia outlawed prostitution last February, which has had some horrible and disastrous consequences. To quote Melissa Ditmore, former Executive Director of the Sex Workers Project (SWP) at the Urban Justice Center in New York City, “The [Cambodian] government’s promotion of a “no condoms, no sex” program in legal brothels there had succeeded in reducing HIV infection rates, but now those brothels have closed or gone underground, along with bars, karaoke clubs and street areas. Hundreds of women have been arrested, jailed or displaced, while dozens have been raped and beaten by police and prison guards. The HIV prevention and care programs that were working have collapsed” (http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/blog/2008/06/23/sex-workers-grateful-banki-moon).

    It should also be noted that Bush’s anti-prostitution pledge, which is tied to PEPFAR funding, has also had adverse impacts around the world. Many important harm reduction groups have lost funding. See especially the video “Taking the Pledge” by the Network of Sex Work Projects (http://www.sexworkersproject.org/media-toolkit/TakingThePledgeVideo.html).

    As a former AIDS activist, I’m sure you appreciate the fact that harm reduction is a better approach toward preventing the spread of HIV than punitive measures for groups such as intravenous drug users, sex workers, and others. Of course, the collapse of AIDS prevention programs isn’t the only reason women are suffering from this new criminalization in Cambodia; as Melissa Ditmore said, women are now routinely rounded up and jailed (in “rehabilitation centers”), and raped and beaten by police and guards. Any woman carrying condoms is assumed to be a sex worker and can be arrested (which, by the way, is also the case in much of the U.S.), and women are routinely denied anti-retroviral drugs in detention. You can see a video of Cambodian women protesting the MTV Exit Campaign against trafficking and exploitation here: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=c35ZXL_2oNc. You can also read a letter by Cambodian sex workers to the prime minister here: http://www.sexworkeurope.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=217&Itemid=217. Finally, you can read a news story about Cambodian prostitutes protesting police treatment and alledging physical and sexual abuse in custody here: http://a.abcnews.com/International/comments?type=story&id=4996865.

    Although in my opinion no prostitute deserves such treatment, it is important to note that trafficked women/sex slaves are most likely among those women rounded up in raids. This is certainly the case in the United States, where trafficked women (now federally recognized as trafficked) say they have been rounded up by local vice raids and arrested many times without ever being identified as coerced or trafficked. The U.S. raids are traumatizing for all the women arrested and can be accompanied by human rights abuses. For more on trafficking raids in the U.S., please see the Sex Workers Project’s new report, which was just released last Friday, “Kicking Down the Door: The Use of Raids to Fight Trafficking in Persons” (http://www.sexworkersproject.org/publications/KickingDownTheDoor.html).

    I would like to encourage you to discuss this issue more thoroughly on your show. As a woman who has experienced coercion in the sex industry, I feel very strongly that any solution to sex trafficking must be victim-centered (the SWP report lays out some very good ideas) and that the criminalization of sex work, such as that seen in the U.S., does great harm. Many women who work as prostitutes are raped by the police, and pimps, traffickers, and abusive clients (not to imply that all clients are abusive) are able to use the threat of arrest or deportation to prevent prostitutes and trafficked women from reporting crimes against them.

    If you are looking for guests who could discuss these issues cogently, I would suggest Sienna Baskin, a staff attorney with the Sex Workers Project. She helped author the report I mentioned earlier, “Kicking Down the Door,” and works regularly with sex workers of all types in New York City, including trafficked women.

    I wish you all the best and am a huge fan of the Rachel Maddow Show.

    Sex Workers Action New York
    Sex Workers Outreach Project – NYC

  6. Caroline
    March 6, 2010 at 11:47 pm

    This reminds me of the amazingness that is INCITE’s work around the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, and their anthology The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. Highly recommended if anyone hasn’t read it.

    -But yea, highly frustrating. I mean, it’s more fun to feel empathy for a night, feel like you’ve done something, then go home to your big house, right?

  7. Lizzie
    March 7, 2010 at 12:22 am

    I would like to recommend this: http://www.kiva.org/

    I found out about it because of Half the Sky and it is awesome. You lend money in increments of just $25, to third world entrepreneurs (via vetted local partners to ensure that they are not corrupt). So far my husband and I have made four loans and have had some money repaid! We are trying to make one a month. It’s not charity, it’s simply helping enterprising people to get ahead for themselves, which is much better!

  8. March 7, 2010 at 12:23 am

    @Caroline–truth. So many issues remind me of INCITE’s The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. That book should be required reading for all feminists.

  9. Mama Mia
    March 7, 2010 at 12:49 am

    I don’t know. I guess you kind of have to meet people where they are. Feeling empathy for a night and going home to your big house may be more than they ever did before, and it could be the opening to something better. Plus, they probably donated a fair amount of money to get in, which will go to the cause, and that isn’t nothing. It seems to me that things like this need to be acknowledged for what they are: an intro to activism for folks who generally aren’t activists. So yeah, there are things that are obvious to people already involved, but for some other people, it may be a major turning point moment. I would hope other people wouldn’t knock my attempts at activism just because I don’t know as much yet.

  10. Infamous Amos
    March 7, 2010 at 1:43 am

    Thank you, Mama Mia, for being human about this. Rather than seeing something like this as a net good, potentially inspiring someone, somewhere may act (even incrimentally) in an more morally-defensible way than they did before, Sady has regrettably chosen to crap all over anyone she feels is less “enlightened” than she sees herself as being.
    But she probably feels better about herself having done so, and that’s what really counts.

  11. March 7, 2010 at 5:32 am

    Well, you have to decide whether the purpose of those events is publicity or actual advanced discussion of the topic at hand. Going over the basics is annoying, but if it gets the message to a broader audience then would otherwise be possible it’s great.

  12. March 7, 2010 at 6:12 am

    “But I wonder – I really do just wonder, and feel like a jerk for wondering – how many people took that home”

    ?? we know that you took it home, though you appear concerned that you were among a minority who did. I suppose then my question is, why? What set you apart from the others? You seemed confident earlier that a celebrity presence could mobilise people to act, yet you’re less certain of it by the end. Is that intentional?

    Perhaps I’m confused because this could so easily have been 3 posts: one honouring Woineshet Zebene Nagash, one dismissing Marisa Tomei (I won’t complain) and one sort of wondering aloud. At any rate, you seem to have had a livelier weekend than the rest of us.

    @Mama Mia: “I guess you kind of have to meet people where they are. Feeling empathy for a night and going home to your big house may be more than they ever did before” – agreed. I don’t think we can fairly conclude that everyone except Sady went home to their big houses, more pleased with themselves than anything. It’s a limiting assumption to make. What was ever started by writing people off at the outset?

  13. March 7, 2010 at 7:22 am

    Society is set up in such a way, that most people just aren’t going to give a fuck about Woineshet Zebene Nagash unless you have someone like Marisa Tomei, beautiful and famous, offering a lens. You run up against this in the publishing world just as surely as you run up against this in the world of film. The Marisa Tomeis of this world know this, just as surely as Angelina Jolie knew it when she went to Afghanistan, and looked lovely for the photographers in a hijab. Most people are mind-numbingly shallow.

    You’re right to wonder how many people took anything home from such an event at all. I would wager that the breakdown is usually pretty basic – about 2/3 don’t, not really, and about 1/3 do. I don’t know if that’s the best we can hope for.

  14. March 7, 2010 at 9:03 am

    The rich, well-connected, and famous annoy me with their inability to recognize that they are not the causes they champion, and that who they ought to look out for is much more than their public personas.

    But herein lies the challenge of any activist, namely how to encourage the spread of equality, even though its message is watered down or obscured by self-aggrandizement and in so doing is whittled down to its basest elements.

  15. March 7, 2010 at 10:51 am

    I can definitely understand your frustration, Sady, but I think your disappointment is more related to being an expert at a presentation for a generalist audience. I’m not surprised that the event wasn’t more insightful, but for someone who had no exposure to the concepts it was probably (kind of) interesting. I feel the same way whenever I hear a presentation that acts like “baby boomers are retiring” or “people use mobile phones for more than just talking” are really groundbreaking observations. Maybe for some people in the audience they are.

  16. March 7, 2010 at 11:06 am

    Right. Often the takeaway is “this is sad” or “this sucks” as opposed to “I will take action to alleviate this problem.” I feel like putting a celebrity face on a social issue not only waters down the social problem, but waters it down to the point where it ceases to be a call to action and becomes a mere narrative story. Consciousness-raising has its place, but its effects are limited.

  17. RD
    March 7, 2010 at 11:32 am

    It is also about issues being framed and shit solutions being suggested by people the issues don’t affect even a little bit (as OP said).

  18. theitemgirl
    March 7, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    First: this piece is very well done, and puts to words a phenomenon I experience a lot in these situations.


    “It is a fact that no matter what I do in my life, I will never measure up to Woineshet.”

    Why do you do this? It hurt to read this part. I just don’t understand why you would want to compare your achievements with Woineshet’s. Yes, she is a hero; yes, she has done a great many things, for which she can and should be admired, lauded, and greatly respected. But why do you feel that you need to denigrate yourself when you speak about her achievements? Your and her achievements shouldn’t be compared, because a) it is a somewhat needless exercise–how does comparing them make good? it seems, unfortunately, to have made you feel worse; and b) how could you compare them, anyway?

    Sadie, you write these essays on a website that is a forum for discussion and a safe space on the internet for such people. Your articles are informative and insightful. Woineshet has accomplished great things, AND so have you. You don’t need to compare, because you two are not competing–you are, in fact, complementing each other in your work. Please don’t feel shame for not accomplishing what she has; feel encouraged that she and you have accomplished so much, and have the means to accomplish more.

  19. March 7, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    @Infamous: Oh, it certainly wasn’t my intention to crap on anyone! I do, as some commenters have noted, go back and forth in the piece. Largely because I went back and forth while WRITING the piece, and during the event itself. I’m so very sure that some people took a lot home. But during the panel discussion – which was where stuff got more substantive, and a little less star-studded – people actually started to leave the theater I was in. Like, more than a few! I don’t know if they were college students attending for credit, or huge Marisa Tomei fans, or if somebody in the back row smelled really really bad, or WHAT, but that was ominous to me. So, as glad as I am to know more about Lady Superhero Woineshet, I am also just weirded out by that kind of engagement with these issues.

    Furthermore, I think we can scientifically verify that unless there are any magical typing chickens who frequent Feministe, it is possible to disagree on these issues while still remaining “human.”

  20. March 7, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    @theitemgirl: Awwwww! Thank you!

  21. aleks
    March 7, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    The sad fact seems to be that if you need people’s help you have to give them something they’re interested in. If you can’t coerce them, you have to bribe them. Rational argument can only convince people once you already have their attention. Money doesn’t know or care if it’s being given for admirable or shallow reasons.

  22. Paul Escobar
    March 7, 2010 at 7:31 pm

    I have to admit, I discovered your site (and feminist” issues in general) in a pretty shallow way.
    I did a web search for “Lost”, and the your roundtable came up as a result.
    I fell in love with your little panel discussions about the episodes.
    Yet, I had no clue what the rest of your site was about.
    Like I’d read the roundtable, then leave the site.

    I’m a 24 year old guy studying commodities & geology.
    So “feminism” has never been a concern.
    I’ll be honest and say I had a pretty negative view of it…before.

    But later, I got curious & started reading your other articles.
    In time, I started understanding & appreciating the issues you guys are passionate about.
    I think I’m a better man for it.

    So, I don’t know.
    I guess my point is, alot of us need these shallow entry points, because we come into this as shallow people.
    A guy needs the pretty, quirky girl from “My Cousin Vinny” to introduce him to Woineshet.
    Maybe he won’t appreciate it that night.
    But as this world becomes less alien & scary to him, he’ll warm up to these issues & start forming a passion of his own.
    And that passion will inevitably lead to action.
    That’s my experience anyways.

  23. Julie
    March 8, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    I agree with the basic ideas of your post. I went to the event, actually I even organized a bunch of people to go from a networking organization that we’re all a part of. And for us it was a lot less informative than we were looking for. A lot of people I know have this problem when we go to “feminist issues” panel discussions in general. If you’re in the movement, they tend to be very basic. Saying that women and girls need education and economic independence (while true) gets old after like the sixth time. I saw people walking out of my theater, too, and I’m hoping it was because they’re already familiar with these very basic concepts and don’t feel like hearing from a couple of celebrities who happened to visit other countries.

    I also found it highly insulting that every time they plugged joining CARE, they felt it necessary to announce completely unrelated prizes that were in the drawing, like a ticket to John Mayer’s concert and some sort of vacation. If they really felt it necessary to give away prizes they could at least have made it something related such as a signed copy of the book, or dinner with one of the panelists or something.

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