I’ve got a piece out in the Washington Post, a commentary on Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s corporate feminism, on the eve of her book Lean In. I’ve been following Sandberg as one of the more visible “women in tech” since she joined Facebook, just one month after I began writing for Gawker’s then-San Francisco based tech blog Valleywag.
Sandberg, along with Marissa Mayer, has served as a stand-in for a “woman in tech,” and now more broadly, as a “powerful woman.” These are roles that, back when their names were known to relatively few people outside the Valley and those who obsess about it, Sandberg and Mayer have played, and I’d argue, both played to and played against, like any woman handed a role that could elevate her as much as reign her in. Mayer says she isn’t a feminist; Sandberg says she is. In playing these roles, they also make for appealing stories of “what it all means” for the media.
But anyone who knows anything about the tech biz knows that this is a (social) media side show, and that feminism will never be one of the “disruptive” values of Silicon Valley so long as Silicon Valley is principally a machine for producing wealth for the few. (See: the story of Katherine Losse, an early Facebook employee who also crossed paths with Sandberg.) To the extent that someone who so benefits from that business culture espouses feminism, it will be ruthlessly friendly to the corporate environment in which it is exercised.
It’s this limitation that concerns me about the brand of feminism we see in Sandberg – because it’s gaining ascendence, and because we’ve been here before. It’s a trickle-down feminism that centers the concerns of an elite minority of women, and it repeats losing tactics in the history of feminist movements. Sandberg is far from the only prominent feminist who supports these tactics, which – despite their intentions – have been insufficient in addressing inequalities among women. If the book and its attendant publicity had only framed Sandberg’s contribution as something “by and for women in positions of corporate leadership,” I doubt we’d be having this conversation.
The book isn’t out yet, though Connie Schultz has a critical review out (also in the Post), and it affirms the omissions I anticipated based on the materials I had available to me, including Sandberg’s own telling of her leadership trajectory. Here’s one of the most widely-circulated Sandberg quotes on that, from an interview she gave to PBS/AOL for the Makers documentary. You can view it online:
I always thought I would, like, run a social movement. Which meant, basically, I would work in a non-profit.
It’s a telling understanding: of both the qualities of social movement leadership (which few who work within them would call “running” them), as well as where one would find a social movement (incorporated as a 501c3). And it’s another tension that’s too real for those working in movements for social justice – including women’s rights and gender justice – as we try to understand how to actually get change made: outside systems, or within them. And in fact, Sandberg has followed through on this early vision: according to documents obtained by the New York Times in advance of the book’s release, Sandberg has incorporated the related projects around Lean In as a c3. By the strike of her own pen, this is a movement.
But, is this a “real” movement? I think the legitimate concerns about what’s being sold as feminism here has got lost in the many meanings of that word, and how little people who have not been part of movements understand their function. I got my own movement education first as an activist, then while working at an explicitly feminist foundation. So for my part, I wonder what this might mean for those already working in movements on these issues, who struggle for visibility and funding, and who will likely never (and perhaps would never want to) attract the kind of media attention and corporate partners that Sandberg has found in Lean In. Will their work be made any easier? Will they find new allies? Or will they be told, as they have been for decades even by those who claim they work alongside them, that what they want is still impossible?
And what would Sandberg say if she were told the same?
Nick Kristof is a big fan of workplace evaluation for teachers—so we hope he won’t mind if we gather and share the following by way of conducting a performance review of our own.
The occasion? This week Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half The Sky premieres on PBS as a two-part mini series, providing an opportunity for his audience to step into his well-worn white savior shoes. From this unique vantage point, viewers will survey the lives of young women whom Kristof and WuDunn have chosen as the best ciphers for their agenda, to, as the subtitle of their book puts it, “turn oppression into opportunity.”
Yet even linguistically, something nags about that title: one does not go from being oppressed to being opportuned—or do they? Perhaps a better question to ask is: for whom does Kristof’s particular mode of humanitarianism provide opportunity? Some young women may benefit, certainly. But NGOs, private-public partnerships, and other enterprising (and entrepreneurial) young do-gooders are jumping into the fray, too. All turning oppression into opportunity—but ultimately not doing much about eradicating the oppression in the first place.
When Kristof is not proposing dubious schemes for advancing women’s rights—like arresting sex workers in order to “rescue” them from prostitution, or enthusiastically supporting the creation of “sweatshops” to accommodate sex workers and other women in the global south—he is marshalling support for such “solutions,” enlisting folks from George Clooney to President Obama, and from evangelical youth missionaries to the United Nations. Everyone seems to love that he’s created simple solutions (Video games! Donating money! Building schools!) but few note that such “solutions” fail to address the deeply embedded, long-standing, structural problems that cause poverty and gender inequity in the first place.
Let’s not forget that although Kristof may position himself like a walking, talking, reporting NGO, Kristof is not himself a charitable venture. He is a media-maker: his job is to talk and get talked about. Each young woman’s story that he tells bolsters up his own brand; each solution he offers casts himself in a prime-time starring role.
Here he is beaming down at obedient-looking Cambodian girls, or smiling broadly beside a dour, unclothed black man with a spear, whilst there he is with Ashton and Demi, Brad and Angelina, George Clooney. He professes humility, but his approach to journalistic advocacy makes himself a celebrity. He is the news story: Kristof is visiting, Kristof is doing something.
In interviews, he refers to the need to protect his humanitarian image, and he got one Pulitzer Prize because he “gave voice to the voiceless”. Can there be a more presumptuous claim? Educated at both Harvard and Oxford, he nevertheless appears ignorant of critiques of Empire and grassroots women’s movements alike. Instead, Kristof purports to speak for girls and women and then shows us how grateful they are.
I want to tread carefully here: I do not accuse Kristof of racism nor do I believe he is in any way racist. I have no doubt that he has a good heart. Listening to him on the radio, I began to think we could iron the whole thing out over a couple of beers. But that, precisely, is what worries me. That is what made me compare American sentimentality to a “wounded hippo.” His good heart does not always allow him to think constellationally. He does not connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated “disasters.” All he sees are hungry mouths, and he, in his own advocacy-by-journalism way, is putting food in those mouths as fast as he can. All he sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need.
Kristof’s ability to frame and deliver the world’s horrors to millions—in a way that keeps those millions coming back for more—seemingly should make him worthy of the hero worship that has attended his rise. Indeed, what is worse than a privileged bourgeois population that knows nothing of the way the other half (or rather the other 99 percent) lives? And yet the devil as always remains in the details—or in Kristof’s case, the lack of details. For, when exploring why Kristof has become a high priest of liberal opinion in America (arrogating the right to speak on almost any sociopolitical phenomenon, provided it involves an easily identifiable victim), we crash into what can be called Kristof’s anti-politics: the way his method and style directly dehumanize his subjects, expelling them from the realm of the analytical by refusing to connect them to systems and structures that animate their challenges.
All of the copies of Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky were checked out of the libraries of nearby universities last summer. My students know that there are problems with the development and aid industries and can even offer biting critiques of celebrity interventions in aid programs in Africa. But they believe that they can do it better, that their generation understands the failures and can solve them, and that their intentions are pure enough to overcome the cynics. Their confidence is made possible in part by the examples of individual young Americans just like them establishing and running educational, health, and technological programs in Africa trumpeted by a serious journalist like Kristof in a serious newspaper like the New York Times. Kristof’s writing about humanitarianism in Africa makes possible a very limited but accessible form of aid by asking his readers to focus on what they can do and the importance of one individual saving another. So, no, I do not want to write about Nicolas Kristof. But I must, because he has claimed such an authoritative voice in conversations about Americans’ relationship to Africans that he has somehow made the act of writing about them an actual intervention in the lives of poor people in the world.
If you’re an African girl in trouble, there are only two things you can rely on. Your courage … and Nicholas Kristof. At least, that’s what Kristof would have us believe.
The story Kristof tells is the story he’s told before. This time he’s in Sierra Leone. A 15-year-old girl named Fulamatu is raped by her neighbor. This happens repeatedly, and Fulamatu remains in terrified and terrorized silence. She loses weight, becomes sick. Finally, when two girls report that the pastor had tried to rape them, Fulamatu’s parents put two and two together, and asked their daughter, who reports the whole series of events. They take her to the doctor, where she is found to have gonorrhea. Fulamatu lays charges against the pastor, who flees.
That’s where Kristof comes in… He argues for US Congressional passage for the International Violence Against Women Act, but his story suggests a more important line of action. The story says, if you’re Black and a girl, in `a place like Sierra Leone’, you better have the phone number of a prominent White American Male. You need Nicholas Kristof.
Nicholas Kristof has been issuing ad-hoc Presidential guidance on the sex trade for years now. The archive of his editorial column in the New York Times serves as a record of his proposals. In 2004, he “bought the freedom” of two women working in brothels in Poipet, Cambodia with the intention of returning them to their villages. Kristof wasn’t prosecuted under US law for the purchase of sex slaves — he wrote of this sale as an “emancipation,” and in 2005, he was back in Poipet to check up on the women. One had returned to prostitution, prompting Kristof to offer another round of recommendations to President Bush, pleading with him to commit the United States to a New Abolitionism. Now he’s back with his 2009 agenda, delivered like the others, as a kicker to his column. In it, he asks that the Obama administration pressure the Cambodian government to bust more brothels, on the premise that the risk of going to jail for selling sex will hurt brothel owners’ profits and will protect more women from abuse and violence. Yet such stings and raids are already the centerpiece of a disastrous crackdown on Cambodian prostitution.
The narrative proceeded in a familiar fashion: There were villains, even some with military ties; then there is a rescue. Kristof tweeted, “Girls are rescued, but still very scared Youngest looks about 13, trafficked from Vietnam.” And then, “Social workers comforting the girls, telling them they are free, won’t be punished, rapes are over.” He was accompanied by Cambodian anti-trafficking activist and forced-prostitution survivor Somaly Mam. Post-presidential niece Lauren Bush chimed in perkily, “Awesome reporting by @NickKristof as the (sic) raided a brothel in Cambodia with @SomalyMam this morning!” The trouble is, nothing involving sex work is ever quite as cut-and-dried as a sweeping rescue.
During the Egyptian Revolution, when the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof was wandering Midan Tahrir giving the uprising his ponderous approval, I told friends that if Mubarak wanted to get at least one pesky journalist off his back, he need only give Nick directions to Clotbey Street — the capital’s ancient red-light district — and tell him there were girls who needed saving. Such is Kristof’s passion to rescue misused and trafficked women that he would have dropped everything to head there. And given that Nick permits no struggle for human freedom to go on without him, the revolt would surely have been suspended, and Mubarak would still be in charge.
Kristof suggests that an expansion of bad sweatshop conditions (and despite relatively better conditions, Cambodian factories are largely sweatshops) is a solution to poverty. He’s full of it. His heart might be in the right place, but he’s stopped using his reason. The factories are not doing the job that development economists expected it to do from the beginning, which was to industrialize the country and expand the off-farm job base (and therefore, reduce poverty). Today, 91% of Cambodian heads of households still list agriculture as their primary employment, and at least 80% still live in the impoverished provinces. The factories won’t expand (indeed, as I point out, they are rapidly shrinking) just because Kristof thinks that the scavengers at Stung Meanchey dump could use a better form of subsistence.
If Kristof had ever demonstrated some actual regard for the complex and often contradictory desires, needs and behaviors of real women I might not read this subtext into his silly game, but he hasn’t; females of every age are simply props to him, little game-pieces whose function is the aggrandizement of Nicholas Kristof. He treats the real lives of sex workers as FarmVille players treat the existence of their virtual creatures: as things to be manipulated for profit and “points”. He uses the stories of girls to build up his own reputation, exaggerating their lurid details and reworking them into enslavement porn from which he reaps the profit while condemning others as “pimps” (talk about pot calling kettle black…) He participates in Hollywood cowboy “brothel raids”, then never stops to wonder what happened to the women he “rescued” afterward. And he no more bothers to consider what the girls he “rescues” and writes about might want than a FarmVille player considers the desires of his digital farm animals. To Kristof, individual women are as interchangeable and passive as endlessly-duplicated digital beasts, and our function is to stay wherever he puts us and earn him money and status.
Have your own “critical take”?
Let us know in the comments.
Anne Elizabeth Moore has been working in and around young women’s issues in Cambodia for five years. Her book Cambodian Grrrlhas been suggested as a Half The Sky alternative, for folks made reasonably uncomfortable with white neoliberal portrayals of feminism.
Melissa Gira Grant writes on gender, sexuality, politics, and more often than she would like, on badvocacy like Half The Sky. She is indebted to the sex worker rights’ activists around the world and in Cambodia in particular for their firsthand accounts of the damage this dude has wrought.
Well, that was frustrating. In an address today at Clinton Global Initiative 2012, President Obama gave his most elaborate policy position yet on trafficking, and used it as an opportunity to throw some red meat to the anti-prostitution activists who are jumping on the anti-trafficking bandwagon to get money and legitimacy for their activism, thereby necessitating my having to know who they are and what they do in order to report on sex work responsibly.
Here’s my rough-up based on tweeting the speech. Again, I am not an expert on human trafficking writ large, and I have great respect for the evidence, justice-based activism done to support those who endure and escape forced labor, and those who address root causes of forced labor. Obama’s speech was not really about them. It was crafted to hit anti-prostitution keywords and fuel the new Evangelical anti-prostitution activist base.
After all Clinton’s introductory talk of Obama the community organizer, I am aching for him to walk not just a picket line but anywhere in my own old work shoes.
Sent this Monday under the subject line, Village Voice: Stop child prostitution, MoveOn.org is now leaning on their lists to pressure Backpage off the internet. The email reads in part:
Dear MoveOn member,
My name is Victoria, and I’m 13 years old. I recently found out that girls as young as me are being sold for sex by people using a classifieds website called Backpage.com.
You can buy and sell stuff on Backpage.com, look for an apartment, or find a job. That is all cool. But pimps are using Backpage.com to advertise girls my age to men twice their age and older, and that’s not okay.
It makes me so upset to think that every night while I sleep safely in my bed, there are other girls who are spending the night being raped and abused.
Backpage.com is owned by Village Voice Media. They read the news—they know that pimps have advertised girls for sex in the adult section of their website, but so far Village Voice Media has refused to take down the section. That’s why, with the help of my mom, I started a petition on SignOn.org to tell Backpage.com to close the adult section so that girls aren’t bought and sold for sex by sick people using the site.
In it, an actress plays a young woman, and graphically describes her experience of sexual and domestic violence, ending with two points: “[my boyfriend] sold me on Backpage.com” and “I’m thirteen.”
What this young woman experienced is horrific. But does putting the blame on Backpage help us end this abuse? As Emi Koyama points out, reflecting on interventions to prevent violence, much of what is described as “domestic minor sex trafficking” overlaps with and might be more accurately understood as domestic or partner violence. How might our responses to the violence this young woman and young women like her experience be different if we took Backpage out of the equation? I’m sure some of the anti-Backpage campaigners would argue that Backpage fosters rape culture, but I don’t buy that, and I certainly don’t buy that alone. It’s an argument built on feelings and gut reactions, and wholly dependent on myths about prostitution (which is, and I can’t believe I need to say this, not rape).
We are told a story about rape and Backpage, and then told it’s a story about prostitution – not an individual piece of a very big puzzle through which, if we worked to understand it, we actually could end gender-based violence and economic inequality.
What do they say in the slacktivist email petition world, about choosing your targets based on who can actually make some change? This email might be better titled, “Village Voice, stop making us feel bad about not having a reasonable analysis of sex, class, and the law for so many years that we went in for this sensational mess.” The click-throughs would suffer. But people economically dependent on Backpage might suffer less.
But you know, click here.
POSTWHOREAMERICA is a blog about sex, money, politics, and what's left of America.
I'm a contributor to TheNation.com, Wired.com, the Guardian, Reason, Glamour, Slate, Jezebel, Rhizome, AlterNet, and $pread, among others. I'm a contributing editor at Jacobin, and my essays have been selected for inclusion in the annual anthology Best Sex Writing.