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.