The performance of suffering for the rich white audience

A friend of mine posted a video on Facebook today featuring Anuradha Koirala, a Nepalese activist fighting sex trafficking in her country and in neighboring India, being honored at the CNN Heroes Award ceremony in 2010. The courage with which she fights for the rights of girls and women to have control over their bodies, to live with dignity, and to rediscover their right to freedom and self-determination, inspires and moves any viewer without a doubt.

I guess it’s my fault I got a little distracted.

While I was watching the video of the ceremony, introduced by Demi Moore, I found myself irritated by shots of audience members getting teary-eyed through the presentation of Koirala, whom the women she has helped save call “elder sister,” and her mission. Moore’s voice broke with emotion as she spoke…but weirdly, I wanted to holler at her. I became tearful, then annoyed with myself, while I sat and watched the music, the video clips, Koirala’s earnest plea to “take each child as your daughter” and remember that it is in solidarity that we can stop such abominable practices. I felt a sense of distant yet palpable anger: How convenient it is for me to sit, safe, untouched, in my dining room with my laptop and shed a noble, clean tear for poor women thousands of miles away whose suffering I could never understand!

The convictions and missions of people with brown faces in this country, either home-grown movements like the civil rights movement or international causes like human trafficking, have always been framed by white, wealthy voices, voices that include those of Hollywood actresses, activists in the same cause, or politicians. I don’t mean to say that the publicity of such missions has no merit; quite the contrary – they need to be heard. But there’s a process of cooptation, of reappropriation, that takes place once they pass through the dominant discourse of charity and social change, which normalizes them for the public. In a way, the weeping of rich white women at the awfulness of the truth of kidnapping and enslavement of girls in Nepal makes the mission more real to us, safer to view through the shared lens, while in some ways it acts as a distancing performance of the much more savage and brutal existence – it cannot be called “life” as we understand it – of the women who are kept as slaves.

Weirdly, these survivors are objectified once again through the lens of Hollywood, even as their story is told. And we rich white Americans get to sit here in our lives of ease and convenience and enjoy our easy moment of catharsis before getting back into our days.

Varietévorführung im Haus Vaterland

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