Africabeat template: Africabeat: What Angelina Jolie can tell us about Sierra Leone

Friday, December 23, 2005

What Angelina Jolie can tell us about Sierra Leone

An insightful article by James Poniewozik on the recent popularity of celebrities traipsing off to "discover" Third World suffering appeared in this week's Time Magazine. Its thesis was that yes, celebrities do look like ridiculous dilettantes when one minute they are strutting down a red carpet wearing $5,000 Versace couture, then squatting with wrinkled Kashmiri earthquake survivors, donning a head scarf, the next, but we (Americans) need them. They exploit their glamour and their notoriety to focus our attention on issues we would rather ignore. And besides, they a) could be doing much worse and b) do much more than most:

Celebrities can make us pay good money to watch movies based on TV shows we wouldn't watch for free in reruns. They change our clothes and haircuts. They even get us to buy--God help us--puggles. You should be grateful that Sharon Stone and Tom Hanks merely ask you to join the fight against AIDS. They could just as easily command you to build a pair of wings out of newspaper and fly off the roof of your garage.

It is easy to say that people don't help others because they're unaware of what's going on in the world. But maybe the problem is that they're too aware. In a world of endless woes, you can be overwhelmed into inaction. Or you can make, at some level, an arbitrary choice. That is where celebrities come in, because there is no phenomenon more arbitrary than celebrity. They are attention filters, the human equivalent of throwing a dart at a map. A pretty face and a famous name are a convenient excuse to focus on one problem in the midst of a thousand equally unignorable others. To give to Tibet and not Africa may seem callous. But to pick Richard Gere over Bono--that's just show biz. . .And attention is the celebrigod's lightning bolt. If the most fatuous celebrity plants himself near a problem, he may embarrass himself. But at least someone will see it. And someone will film it. And a few of us may, little by little, be moved to change it.
Poniewozik has a point. Celebrity can be a very powerful tool when it's put to good use. But if we read a story about famine or fistula just because a pretty face we recognize is championing its victims, does that mean that we are any more likely to act? It's not enough to simply raise awareness or to raise a few million dollars (drops in the bucket) to throw at an issue. People need to advance solutions to problems. But the minute that celebrities become political, they risk tarnishing their image and attracting too much of the wrong kind of attention. It's one thing to participate in a public awareness campaign against AIDS. It's quite another to say "abstinence only" doesn't work; we need condoms and sex education, and any aid policy that doesn't promote these methods is just plain irresponsible.

And when Angelina Jolie goes to Ethiopia to adopt a new child (under questionable circumstances) and starts a tabloid feeding-frenzy, isn't she actually trivializing the issues she champions? Africa or Kashmir or wherever Ms. Jolie happens to be is then merely a beautiful and exotic backdrop for the same silly dramas we obsess over when our favorite celebrities are safe and warm in Hollywood.

I'm still undecided as to how much good (or harm) celebrities do when they seek to shed a light on the problems of developing countries we in the First World too easily ignore. What do you think?

News articles:

"The Year of Charitainment" Time Magazine

More links:

"Jolie film angers Ethiopians" (A BBC News article about Beyond Borders, a really bad film staring Angelina Jolie and Clive Owen as humanitarian superheroes.)

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