Film Review: Half the Sky is half humanitarian heroics, half celebrity ego trip

Cross-posted from Seattle Globalist: A review of Half the Sky, a PBS film celebrated for championing women’s empowerment worldwide. This reviewer says the celebrities hurt this celebration.

By Cyan James


Actress Olivia Wilde hangs at the Umoja Women’s Village in Kenya as part of Half the Sky

Newsflash: being a woman is surreal.

Last night I was supposed to be at the gym. So I could look slimmer and prettier or something. But I had a headache. So I stayed on the couch, stumbled across human dolls on Facebook (seriously?!), and tuned in to the much-trumpeted nationwide premier of Half the Sky.

The documentary sprung from the book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, carrying on the crusade against violence, discrimination, and lack of education visited upon women around the world.

These aren’t stories about women trying to lose weight and look prettier. They’re not vying for attention via extreme surgery. They’re not beating down Harvard’s doors, or scrambling for the next rung in the corporate ladder.

They’re just trying to take their next breath.

Kristof and his film crew whisk us through a worldwide tour of struggling women in struggling countries. From Sierra Leone to Vietnam, we’re introduced to a heartbreaking parade of teenage girls, each one fighting her very culture for a viable life, often with enough grace and forgiveness to keep smiling.

There’s the girl whose “owner” gouged her eye out in a brothel as punishment. There’s the girl who scrapes pennies together from selling lottery tickets to finance her own tuition. There’s the girl bringing a rape charge against her uncle, losing her home and her place in society because of it.

These girls and women live in a different world than I do. I still live in a place where women’s wages lag behind men’s, and where being “like a girl” is still an insult. But I don’t expect my uncle to rape me. I don’t have forced sex with ten drunken men a day, men who won’t stop pounding even when my skin bleeds, even when I cry. I don’t expect to forego education, to sacrifice myself entirely to take care of my family, to service the urges of any male who wants a wet hole, or to become the human equivalent of a disposable razor.

These girls do.

Kristof, WuDunn, the activists introduced in the documentary and (I hope) we viewers believe that ugly, surreal world is wrong.

But Half the Sky introduces its own bizarrely surreal element.

For each section – three sections were shown last night: Violence in Sierra Leone, Sex Trafficking in Cambodia, and Educational Repression in Vietnam – a Western actress rides along as a sort of luminary/tour guide.

And you haven’t seen bizarre until you’ve seen Eva Mendes offer a raped 14-year-old her choice of a necklace from around the star’s neck. Mendes tells the girl to wear the necklace and pray for Mendes, and that she’ll do the same for the girl.

This kind of awkward gesturing quickly becomes endemic. I believe the stars – Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, and Gabrielle Union, in this section – were invited along to pique attention. However, they’re just not germane. They’re actresses stranded without lines. They end up befuddled when confronted with problems they have no frame of reference for in their everyday lives.

This leads to nerve-rattlingly-awkward scenes, like Gabrielle Union telling a young entrepreneur she’s proud of her, even though the girl’s father isn’t. Or Meg Ryan, tousled and gob-smacked, weakly saying she doesn’t have “that Nicholas Kristof gene, whatever that is, the danger gene” when Kristof accompanies Cambodian activist Somaly Mam on a brothel visit, leaving Ryan behind.

It’s not fair to blame the stars for the documentary’s problems. They certainly didn’t claim to be experts in how women are globally oppressed. And they certainly seem sincere in wanting to help.

But necklaces, platitudes, and pained expressions won’t save these girls….

Read on at Seattle Globalist



About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • Left this comment over at the Seattle Globalist, but I’ll leave it here too:

    I agree with your broad point about the use of celebrities. I haven’t watched the doc (not available where I am abroad), but in general I disagree with this glitter, like you say. But if you read “Half the Sky” the book, you notice that it is devoid of celebrities, yet parades women’s stories and “gives women voices” in much the same patronizing way. So I don’t really think the ick factor is the celebrities, but rather the way that Kristof tells stories and his use of stories.However, I think you miss something important when you write, “These girls and women live in a different world than I do.” Wrong. The entire point of Kristof’s storytelling, as patronizing and ill-fated as it may be, is to point out that we DO live in this same world. That is at least the crux we should all get. Some of our sisters in richy rich countries DO get raped by uncles, and do get coerced into horrible things. Drawing some line between “us” and “them” isn’t helpful. We can be aware of our privilege and our place without doing so. That, I think, is the key to effective, compassionate, and process-oriented work in global development.