In recent weeks Israel – Palestine has probably taken up more column inches worldwide than it has in years. In fact the ‘conflict’ has enjoyed a showbiz makeover, gaining a place in every Hollywood rag and becoming a topic of conversation on daytime talk shows.
It’s entry and new found status is not however because the gossip pages have become conflict conscious or felt the humanitarian need to report on the everyday life of Palestinians under occupation. It’s because Palestine has caused much trauma in the life of one celebrity starlet.
Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansson, like any ‘star’ worth their weight in gold added to her repertoire of bombshell, beauty queen and leading lady, the must have title of Oxfam Ambassador.
Since 2007 Ms Johansson has been seen talking to refugees in Kenya’s Dadaab Refugee Camp, spent time at an Oxfam funded girls school and enthusiastically signed letters calling on Governments to tackle climate change and address global poverty. Sadly, her humanitarian halo seems to be slipping after she acquired another Global ‘ambassador’ title, this time for Israeli company SodaStream which operates a factory in the West Bank Settlement of Maale Adumim.
As expected Oxfam (at least in the UK) was in uproar. Saving the organisation from making the difficult choice between morality and celebrity, Johansson quit. While she goes off to earn whatever eye wateringly lucrative figure SodaStream is going to pay her, we are faced once more with the reality of ‘celebrity saviours.’
Far from being altruistic, ‘celebrity humanitarianism’ is significantly contaminated and ideological: it is most often self-serving, helping to promote institutional aggrandizement and the celebrity ‘brand’; it advances consumerism and corporate capitalism, and rationalizes the very global inequality it seeks to redress; it is fundamentally depoliticizing, despite its pretensions to ‘activism’; and it contributes to a ‘postdemocratic’ political landscape, which appears outwardly open and consensual, but is in fact managed by unaccountable elites. ~ Ilan Kapoor
Acts of charity can be great, many celebrities make large donations or set up their own organisations supporting good causes, but then so do non-celebrities, civilians like you and me.
What we are discussing here is a very different kind of animal, the neo-colonial kind, that which is now a part of popular culture involving the stars flying first class, armed with a must have kit of anti-bacterial hand lotion, camera-man, sad smile and the anticipation of finally saying the words ‘All the pain and sadness, yet these people are smiling, it makes me appreciate everything I have, my life will never be the same again.’
If there is one continent which has shouldered the burden of the celebrity it is ‘Africa’.
Be it Salma Hayek breastfeeding a baby in Sierra Leone during her trip to the West African Country with UNICEF, Angelina Jolie travelling to Iraq in her role as a Special Envoy for UNHCR or George Clooney speaking in Capitol Hill about Darfur, a cause, particularly Africa related, is a must have accessory.
To quote journalist Andrew Mwenda (writing for CNN in 2013):
‘All too often, these campaigns are not about the welfare of the people they claim to be helping but act as a platform for celebrities to promote their brand to their audiences at home by exhibiting their humanity.’
Now you must understand there are various levels of how involved a celebrity is in ‘Africa’ (for the purpose of this piece we will follow their lead and not bother to acknowledge the fact that Africa is not a country).
The Celebrity Adopter
First are those that choose to save an African child from hardship by adopting them and giving them a life which some describe as being ‘beyond their wildest dreams.’
In 2012 the UK Department of Education announced that there were 6000 children in England alone waiting to be adopted, while it was estimated that in America there were 130,000 children in the foster care system who were in need of adoptive parents. With figures like this, critics of Madonna and Angelina Jolie have questioned their choosing to adopt children from Ethiopia and Malawi.
Most recently Madonna has caused controversy when she posted a picture of her biological son Rocco with the caption ‘#disn****’. Despite her apologies for using the word about her ‘white son’ there was uproar from people on social media with one lady saying ‘Madonna is a mother to two black children, if she can use the N word so casually then what respect is she giving them and their heritage? Her celebrity status allowed her to go to Malawi and pick up these kids because she can offer them every luxury; however one wonders if they are no more than an accessory to her.’
Madonna’s adoption of her son David Banda and daughter Mercy James was doused in controversy from the get go: allegations of both children not actually being orphans, side stepping the correct channels in order to complete the adoption process and using her status and wealth to put pressure on authorities are as yet un-answered allegations. Fellow ‘philanthropist’ Bono came out in defence of Madonna stating,
‘Madonna should be applauded for helping to take a child out of the worst poverty imaginable and giving him a better chance in life. Baby David is lucky to have been adopted by someone who can give him a chance of survival in this world and I don’t think it’s fair that people are criticising her.’
The Celebrity Saviour Complex
Beyond the controversial adoptions was Madonna’s attitude which reeks of the ‘White Saviour Complex’; when discussing her first trip to Malawi the singer was quoted as saying,
‘I thought, “I have to help. I have to save these people”. And then I thought, “Wait a minute; I think it’s the other way around. I think they might be saving me”.’
In her quest to save (and be saved) she set up the charity ‘Raising Malawi’ aimed at bringing to an end the ‘extreme poverty endured by Malawi’s orphans.’ To condemn such projects would be unfair; however, Madonna subscribes to the ‘wanting to save’ motives which are a common theme among many celebrities, including everyone’s favourite saviour, Bono.
In 2005 the U2 singer stated,
‘I represent a lot of people [in Africa] who have no voice at all… They haven’t asked me to represent them. It’s cheeky but I hope they’re glad I do.’
When speaking to African Heads of State in 2008 he was quoted as saying ‘I’m Irish. We came out of colonization, we had to deal with the British, we have a lot in common with Africa.’ In this process he attempts to differentiate himself from other ‘white saviours’ through using his Irish heritage to justify his interest in Africa, while undermining the role race has played in the challenges faced by the continent.
As described by Zine Magubane, for Bono,
‘Colonialism’s sin is not the sin of race prejudice, but rather of having introduced and promoted economic backwardness.’
Ironically, this thinking is what leads to Bono fitting the same white saviour description he seems to want to avoid. In deciding that the problems faced by Africa simply require economic solutions just like that of Ireland, he repeats the actions of those saviours that have come before him who have decided what Africa needs. Similar to this is his RED campaign encouraging people to buy certain branded products which would donate part of the profit to fighting AIDS in Africa. Some call it ‘ethical consumerism’ – however, in reality it is encouraging the ‘pity purchase’ all in the name of ‘Africa’.
The Celebrity Tourists
Also deserving a mention are the Comic Relief celebrities. For those not familiar with this cause, Comic Relief was set up in 1985 to respond to the famine in Ethiopia. Over the years the charity has raised money for what it calls ‘poor and disadvantaged people.’ Part of this process is an annual telethon on which celebrities are shown visiting some of the projects supported by it. In 2013, members of British Pop Group, One Direction were filmed with babies and toddlers at a hospital in Ghana. The aim of such clips is to encourage people to donate, a worthy motive. However, true to stereotype, days before it was aired the British papers released images of the group with tears in their eyes sat next to sick African babies. Perhaps those images would have boosted fundraising efforts, but are we not tired of the same photos being used to define Africa?
Another example is World Food Programme Ambassador Christina Aguilera visiting Rwanda. Let’s take a moment out to acknowledge that the genocide in Rwanda ended almost 20 years ago, the country’s economy is projected to grow by 7.2% this year and it is now one of Africa’s top tourist destinations. Yet People Magazine described Rwanda as ‘War Torn’ and proceeded to tell us how the trip allowed Ms Aguilera to connect with ‘bigger issues in the world’.
Perhaps the most bizarre celebrity fundraising attempt to help ‘Africa’ was that by ‘Keep a Child Alive’, an organisation supporting initiatives for HIV/ AIDS affected families. The ‘I am African’ campaign featured celebrities including Gwyneth Paltrow, Richard Gere, Lucy Liu, Tyson Beckford and Sarah Jessica Parker photographed with tribal markings on their faces and an ‘I am African’ caption under the image. The campaign may have been spearheaded by Somalia born model Iman and featured a number of black celebrities, but this does not take away from the fact that its use of tribal face markings to depict African culture and lumping together an entire continent without any differentiation between countries and their individual cultures is patronising.
According to one Public Relations Agent, ‘activism and philanthropy are an important part of a celebrity’s image. For example George Clooney had good looks, talent and a fan following, once he started speaking out about Darfur people loved him more. By almost appointing himself as a spokesperson for the suffering Sudanese, Clooney made Sudan sexy.’
Many critics including Sudanese-born writer Nesrine Malik and author of ‘Saving Darfur – Everyone’s Favourite War’ Rob Crilly pointed out that Clooney’s Save Darfur analysis simplified a complex conflict and
‘reduces Africa to simple notions of good versus evil, and suggests that outsiders hold the key to finding solutions’.
The Celebrity Missionary Position
The actions of many of these celebrities echo those of the missionaries and religious leaders who were known to preach about their saving of ‘the Africans’. The colonialists arrived in Africa and decided what the continent needed, no matter how well-intentioned; how different are the actions of these stars and starlets?
Perhaps celebrities seen visiting conflict zones or asking for donations to support projects or setting up their own projects in parts of Africa does ‘help’ in creating awareness of global issues, which always seem to somehow take a backseat to the antics of Justin Bieber or Kim Kardashian’s latest fashion disaster.
It would also be unfair to suggest that their actions are simply another PR exercise to aid their image. However, in trying to ‘help’ Africa, these men and women, from Oprah to Bono to Madonna, are continuing to reinforce the stereotypes long associated with the African continent. War torn, corrupt, poor and backwards, leaving so many unaware that the countries in Africa are functioning; there are cities, roads, schools, hospitals, normality, a thriving tourism sector and intelligent and capable human beings.
So while Africa takes responsibility for providing these famed beings with a cause, and while we grieve the fact that we now live in a time where popular culture is so dominant that the only way many people hear about what is going in the world is when Angelina Jolie releases an image of her picture perfect face nestled against that of an emaciated brown baby. Celebrities may want to bear in mind that through stepping down as Oxfam Ambassador Scarlett Johansson has probably created more awareness of the plight of the Palestinian people than she did while in the role.
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Samira Sawlani is a UK based writer specialising in politics, economy and development of East and Horn of Africa, in particular Kenya, Uganda and Somalia. She also writes fiction and human interest stories set in Africa. A holder of an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London she has previously worked with the Commonwealth Secretariat and as an International Election Observer for the Kenyan elections in 2013. Aside from journalism she has also worked in the emergency humanitarian relief and refugee care sector. Twitter: @samirasawlani
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- Scarlett Johansson and Oxfam: is celebrity sponsorship a lost cause? | Catherine Bennett (theguardian.com)
- Charity, Celebrity and the contradictions of Coevalness (PDF):
- Darfur: Where Celebrities love to tread (bbc.co.uk)
- Raising Africa: Celebrity and the Rhetoric of the White Saviour
- White Man’s Burden, Rudyard Kiplin