Time for a Bechdel Test for African Characters? Some Thoughts on the Newsroom’s Very Special Africa Episode

The Newsroom went to Africa. It was not good.

In Sunday’s episode, “Unintended Consequences,” ACN sent a reporter named Maggie and a cameraman named Gary Cooper to Uganda to do a segment on the U.S. army building an orphanage there, because apparently that is news.

When she was done interviewing soldiers, Maggie relaxed with a visit to the orphanage’s classroom, in which children of all ages were having a “geography lesson” that consisted of reciting the names of continents when their teacher pointed to them on a map. Seems like geography to me! Then Gary Cooper came in with the camera and all the children screamed and hid under their desks, because they thought it was a gun. (could this be…FORESHADOWING?) See, cattle raiders were roaming them there hills, and the children were afeared.

A particularly adorable afeared child named Daniel – who, the show takes pains to tell us, has parents but has been sent to the orphanage temporarily to avoid cattle raider attacks, and so wasn’t even supposed to be there that day (IRONY) – bonded with Maggie by demanding that she read him him Lyle, Lyle Crocodile over and over again, and petting her hair. The teacher says that Daniel is fascinated by Maggie’s hair because he’s never seen a blonde person before, and that “blondes are trouble.” (OMG MORE FORESHADOWING.)

Through a series of mishaps that include Maggie not knowing where Djibouti is and not understanding that it is not light during nighttime, the ACN team was forced to spend the night at the orphanage. (Thanks again for those strong female characters, Aaron Sorkin.)

That night, obviously, cattle raiders attacked. At first everyone was like “hey, weird, this is an orphanage so we do not have any cattle.” But then it turned out that they were actually CAMERA raiders who wanted the ACN camera. Maggie didn’t know that because the raiders were yelling in a language that her fixer did not understand, and apparently none of the other people at the orphanage thought to bring it up. (Perhaps they were embarrassed to, because camera raiders are not a thing.)

So then everyone hustled to load the children onto what I assume was an AK-47-proof bus, but Daniel was missing! No one saw that coming at all. Daniel was hiding under a bed, with the Lyle book. OMG. Who will save him? The orphanage staff apparently hadn’t even noticed that they were short a Daniel, but never fear, American people are here! Maggie and Gary heroically tore the bed off the floor and dragged Daniel out from under it, then ran for the bus. Except that the raiders shot Daniel while Maggie was carrying him to the bus on her back, so he died from the bullet that was meant for her. MORE OF WHAT I ASSUME WAS INTENDED TO BE IRONY.

All of this is told through the framing device of a deposition, because, you see, the truly important thing about Daniel’s death was how it affected Maggie, and apparently in Sorkin world a deposition is a thing you use to evaluate someone’s emotional state after a traumatic event. We can tell that Maggie is totes messed up about what happened because she came home and gave herself a terrible haircut and tomato-red dye job. (Remember, blondes are trouble.) But she bravely soldiers on through the deposition with barely a wring of her hands because she is BRAVE (if rather bad at her job).

Africa has changed Maggie – changed her forever. You can tell by her hair.

Over at Slate, Willa Paskin suggests that we introduce the term “Lyle-ing” as an equivalent to “fridging” for storylines in which a black child’s death, instead of a woman’s, is used to instigate anguish and personal growth in a white main character. I think that’s a fine idea, but would suggest another addition: a Bechdel test for African characters.

The Bechdel test is a feminist movie evaluation tool introduced by cartoonist Alison Bechdel. To pass the test, a movie must (1) have two or more female characters, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about a topic other than a man. If a movie doesn’t pass the test, that’s a sign that it’s lacking in female characters, and/or just using them as emotional MacGuffins for the males around them. (Many, many movies do not pass this test.)

I think it’s about time for us to introduce an equivalent test for African characters: if a movie or TV show is set in Africa, then it should (1) have at least two African characters, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about a topic other than poverty, disease, or violent conflict.

“But, Amanda!” you say, “how would that even work? Everyone knows that on TV, Africa exists so that white people can go there thinking they will change things, but end up having Africa change them more than they ever imagined it could. What would Africans even talk about with each other? And where will the white characters get their life-changing epiphanies if they’re no longer allowed to save helpless innocents from some sort of horror or tragedy?”

I agree that it’s a tough challenge. Western audiences, trained on years of Carter-goes-to-Congo storylines, may be surprised to discover that people in “Africa” have problems other than those that ride in with one of the horsemen of the apocalypse. And screenwriters, long trained to think of Africa as a continent-sized arena for the battle of White Person vs. White Person’s Inner Demons, may initially have difficulty finding other uses for it. So, to get everyone started, here are some storylines that are guaranteed entertainment gold:

  1. Any Wedding Reality Show Ever: Nigeria Edition. After seeing Glenna Gordon’s amazing photo essay on Nigerian weddings, I feel legitimately betrayed by the reality TV industry’s failure to bring me any wedding shows involving mommy lace, little brides, or cash “spray.” Seriously, someone has to get on this.
  2. Arrested Development in Addis Ababa. According to NPR, Ethiopia is currently undergoing a construction boom so powerful that women are leaving traditional work as maids and nannies to join construction crews. Perhaps it’s time for the Bluth family to partner with a development firm run by a family of quirky Ethiopians to blow the McMansion market there wide open.
  3. Scandal: The Kigali Initiative. Olivia Pope & Associates get new client: a Rwandan diplomat who has been in secret talks about joining the opposition, and is afraid that the Kagame regime is about to have him killed. The gladiators in suits get to work, but it turns out that the plot runs deeper than anyone could have imagined, so they have to join with a team of Rwandan fixers to get to the bottom of it before it’s too late.
  4. Untitled Liberian Surfing Project. A ragtag group of Liberian surfing entrepreneurs decide that it’s time for Robertsport to host a major international surfing competition. Hijinks ensue.

Come on, entertainment industry: make it happen!

WTF Friday, 8/2/13

This week’s WTF Friday traveled to the blog via Metro-North from New Haven. Yale University has released its latest Sexual Misconduct Report, which manages to avoid using the terms “rape” or “sexual assault” one single time, even when discussing, well, rape.

You see, when such things happen in the rarified gardens of Yale, they’re not crimes, just “nonconsensual sex.” Observe:

“A YC student brought a formal complaint charging that a male YC student had nonconsensual sex with her.

Update: The UWC found sufficient evidence that the respondent engaged in certain conduct of a sexual nature that was nonconsensual. In addition, the UWC found that the respondent violated the Yale College Code of General Conduct. The respondent was given a two semester suspension, was placed on probation for the remainder of his time at the University, was restricted from contacting the complainant, and was encouraged to continue counseling for alcohol abuse, appropriate sexual behavior and the respectful treatment of others.”

Let’s break that statement down, shall we? The quoted text refers to a complaint by a female Yale student against a male Yale student. The “update” sets forth the resolution of the complaint.

Yale’s University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, or UWC (there’s something amazing about the fact that Yale didn’t even keep the “sexual misconduct” part when choosing an acronym for its committee on sexual misconduct) investigated the allegations, and found that the perpetrator had, in fact, assaulted the victim.

That sexual assault was a crime, and most likely a felony, but there’s no mention of that in the report. (It does, however, make a point of noting that the perpetrator violated the College Code of Conduct, which I think we can all agree is the real problem here.)

Isn’t the term “nonconsensual sex” amazing? The way that it somehow implies a gulf between a situation in which someone has sex with another person without consent, and a totally different situation in which that person commits a rape or sexual assault? Yale apparently thinks there’s a distinction between the two, because the most severe punishment it meted out to any of the perpetrators described in the report was a suspension.

What’s a person got to do to get expelled from Yale? Non-consensual cannibalism?

I don’t know if that counseling for “appropriate sexual behavior and the respectful treatment of others” is available to universities. But it sure seems like Yale could use it.

h/t Texasinafrica.

WTF Friday, 7/26/13

In Germany, controversy has erupted over the town of Schwaebisch Gmuend’s plan to pay African asylum seekers 1.05 euros per hour to work as porters in the local train station:

“Nine predominantly dark-skinned men in red service shirts and jolly sunhats ready to carry the cases of predominantly white clients. For €1.05 an hour. Blacks as luggage coolies for whites – and in our country. How can that be?” wrote Stern magazine.

“Having refugees as bag carriers is a shameless exploitation of the people’s situation,” far-left Linke lawmaker Ulla Jelpke said. Jelpke called the practice “colonial” behaviour.

The bigger WTF, though, goes to the German government’s asylum law, whose policy of forbidding employers to pay asylum seekers more than 1.05 euros per hour – about eight times less than Germany’s minimum wage for temporary workers – is apparently at the root of this program:

A spokesman for Schwaebisch Gmuend told Reuters the conservative mayor was disappointed at Deutsche Bahn’s decision and blamed misplaced political correctness.

“At a first glance, pictures of black people carrying white peoples’ suitcases don’t look good and conjure up images of neo-colonialism and racism, but this is not the case – the asylum seekers want to do this,” said the spokesman.

He added that the 1.05 euros was not a wage as such, as asylum seekers are not allowed to be employed, but is the maximum amount it is possible to give them under the asylum seekers law.

Pro tip: if your migration policy is such that the best case scenario for vulnerable people in your country is a job that makes your citizens scream “OMG, colonialism! Colonialism or perhaps actual slavery!”, something has gone very, very wrong.

On That New “Half the Sky” Game

The New York Times reports that Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half The Sky Foundation is coming out with a Facebook game:

The central character, an Indian woman named Radhika, faces various challenges with the assistance of players, who can help out with donations of virtual goods, for example. The players can then make equivalent real-world donations to seven nonprofit organizations woven into the game.

Ten dollars, for example, will help buy a goat for Heifer International; $20 will help support United Nations Foundation immunization efforts.

To further engage players, those who reach predesignated levels unlock donations from Johnson & Johnson and Pearson, which have each contributed $250,000 to buy real-world operations from the Fistula Foundation and books for Room to Read, respectively.

[...]

Asi Burak, also co-president of Games for Change, said the hope is to draw two million to five million players, persuading 5 percent or more to donate. Players can play at no charge, but they will make faster progress through donations.”

I will hold off of judging this specific game until I have a chance to play it. (It doesn’t come out until March 4th, so it’s not really clear to me why the PR push is beginning now, approximately 179 internet-years in advance of that date).

However, is it just me, or does it seem like using the game for both awareness-raising and fund-raising is a strategy that is kind of at war with itself?

To encourage people to donate, the slow, no-donation path through the game needs to be annoying enough to prompt people to pay for the quicker progression – except that will probably also mean that a substantial number of gamers will neither donate nor complete the game. They will just stop playing, and go back to a non-educational game that’s designed purely to maximize addictiveness and fun. (And which may also offer charitable donations, via the various Zynga.org efforts.)

Basically, charities who use these educational change-making games remind me of parents who sneak vegetables into their kids’ food. Is a brownie that contains spinach more delicious than spinach alone? Probably. Is it, therefore, a decent spinach-delivery device if your end goal is to increase total spinach consumption? Sure. But it’s still less delicious than a regular spinach-free brownie.

If the spinach brownie is free, and the regular brownie isn’t, there is probably some constituency of spinach-hating children who will be like “fuck it, still a brownie, I’ll take five of them please.”  (The imaginary children I know may swear like sailors when speaking to adults, but they never forget to say please.)

But if your theory is that kids can be convinced not only to eat the spinach brownies, but to first buy the spinach brownies from a bake sale that also offers delicious, non-spinach-smuggling regular brownies – then you’ve lost me.  What kid who has to be tricked into eating spinach in the first place is going to take you up on that?

That’s roughly where I stand on this game.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to find myself a spinach-free brownie.

What If We Responded to Sexual Assault by Limiting Men’s Freedom Like We Limit Women’s?

Calls for Men to Be Blindfolded in Public
In response to claims that men are unable to restrain themselves from committing rape if they see women in skimpy clothing, members of law enforcement agencies around the country have called for men to blindfold themselves when they are in places where they might encounter a female wearing a tank top or a short skirt.

“For years, we have been told that men don’t understand how to respond to the sight of a woman wearing, say, gym clothes – that as far as they are concerned, if they can see the outline of her body, then that’s an invitation to sex that they are simply unable to refuse,” said one police chief. “If that’s true, then we have no choice. We want women to be safe, and there is apparently no way for some men to reasonably restrain their own behavior once they catch a glimpse of cleavage, so all men will have to cover their eyes while working out, going to bars or clubs, or relaxing at the beach.”

Popular radio “shock jocks” Skeezer and the Gooch have gone even further, arguing that men should be blindfolded at all times while in public, on the grounds that “it’s not just skimpy outfits, some dudes get turned on by random stuff like women wearing athletic jerseys and sneakers,” making situation-specific blindfolding insufficient to preserve women’s safety.

Unwise to Allow Men to Go Out Alone at Night?
A local coalition of religious leaders, concerned about recent studies showing that an average of 6% of men will commit a sexual assault during their lifetime, and that nearly all sexual assaults are committed by men on their own or in groups, are urging parents not to let their sons go out at night unless they are accompanied by a mother, sister, or trusted female friend.

Mens’ groups have responded with concern, pointing out that this may leave some men unable to complete the tasks of daily life, such as going to school, working, or socializing.

In response, the religious leaders said that they “understand that this may be an inconvenience for some men,” but that “the minor difficulties this imposes on men are nothing when compared to the lifelong horror sexual assaults cause their victims.” “Really,” said the organization’s leader, “almost any limitation on men’s freedom is better than the risk that they might sexually assault someone. That’s just common sense.”

Time to Admit That Some Jobs May Just Be Too Dangerous for Men?
Recent allegations that Jimmy Savile raped numerous children while working as a television presenter for the BBC, have led to widespread calls for television stations to avoid allowing men to do similar jobs.

“We know that not all men are rapists, and that some men can probably be trusted to present tv shows safely,” said the director of Televisions Within Borders, a professional group that promotes the welfare of TV hosts and the people they cover. “However, now we know that some men can’t. And why take the risk? There are plenty of qualified women who can do this job instead.”

Voices from the blogosphere agree. “You wouldn’t send a cocaine addict to do a Good Morning America segment about a big pile of cocaine,” said a blogger who calls himself “UltimateMindz.” “Letting men be TV presenters is basically the same thing.” That post has since been shared more than 180 times on twitter, and has garnered nearly 2000 Facebook “likes.”

Supporters of this movement point to the fact that there has not been a single recorded case of a football coach raping a child since all college football coaching staff were replaced by women after last year’s Penn State abuse scandal.

Deans of 25 prominent journalism schools have taken a more moderate position, however, urging television programs to do more segments on bodybuilders and military contractors – subjects who are seen as safe for male presenters to interact with because their physical strength leaves them less vulnerable to assault. That way, the deans argue in a widely-circulated letter, male presenters may be able to remain in their jobs, albeit in a role with less visibility and almost no opportunity for advancement.

(If you’re wondering where this post came from, see, e.g., here, here, here, and here.)

WTF Wednesday, 12/19/2012

I’m headed out of town for the holidays tomorrow, so here’s a supersize dose of absurdity to tide you over until 2013:

  • Apparently half of Africa fell for a spoof article reporting Mike Tyson’s sex change surgery and subsequent adoption of the name “Michelle.” Because excessive lactation totally seems like a plausible explanation for the 1996 loss to Holyfield… (h/t Ben in Lusaka)
  • The Teletubbies will begin airing in Burma in January. Call me crazy, but this does not seem like a great way to incentivize other authoritarian regimes to liberalize.
  • Current longest-serving-African-dictator Teodor Obiang is building a shiny new capital city deep in the jungles of Equatorial Guinea, where he won’t have to worry about sea invasions. (But he will have a 6-lane highway and a golf course.) The government plans to drag approximately 1/3 of EG’s 700,000 inhabitants along with it when it moves into Oyala in 2020.

WTF Friday 11/30/2012, Opportunity Costs Edition

Yesterday one Lawrence E. Mitchell, Dean of Case Western Reserve Law School, published an Op-Ed in the New York Times entitled “Law School is Worth the Money.” It’s pretty funny.

Amongst the gems contained therein:

  • People shouldn’t be so upset about the bad job market – in which only 50% of new graduates are able to get jobs in law firms – because it’s only 9% worse than the worst market in recent memory. (Oh, well, when you put it that way, of course it’s an excellent use of hundreds of thousands of dollars!)
  • On the subject of that 50% figure, the “focus on first jobs is misplaced,” because law schools are educating people for “40-50 year careers.”  (HA.  Good luck having a 50 year career in the law if you can’t get a first job in it within a few years of graduation.  Law school teaches you nothing about legal practice, and that J.D. credential becomes stale right quick.)
  • Law school is an awesome investment because “Many graduates will find that their legal educations give them the skills to find rich and rewarding lives in business, politics, government, finance, the nonprofit sector, the arts, education and more.”  (I’m sorry, did he actually say that students should drop off a six figure sum with his law school on their way to careers in the arts?  That is messed up, yo.)
  • That the “thousands of students” who have been discouraged from attending law school will be unable to find fulfilling careers elsewhere, because “[t]hey’re not all going to be doctors or investment bankers.”  (Guess what, dude?  They’re not all going to be lawyers, either, even if they graduate from law school.)

To our vulnerable young readers, who might be considering law school: Put down the Op-Ed, and back away slowly.  Dean Mitchell wants your money.  Do not take his advice.  For more on why, see here, here, and here.

WTF Friday, 1/6/2012

Don’t worry, guys. I’m back and I only missed three of the four fist fights in the Somali Parliament.

Looks like the Justice Department, after 85 years, has finally gotten around to broadening the definition of rape. Unfortunately, some commenters on CNN took this not as good news, but instead as an opportunity to make “cougar” jokes.

Lastly, let us not mourn Kim Jong-il, but instead look back at the good times.

In Which We Discover That We Improperly Jumped to a Conclusion, and Jump Back off It Again

Hey, remember that time a few weeks ago when Kate and I pronounced Fonderie 47 “Another Contender For The Worst Idea Ever”?  Yeah, us too.

But then a funny thing happened.  We got a couple of emails from alert readers who told us that they disagreed with our assessment, and explained why.  And because there’s nothing we love more than digging around to find out if someone’s wrong on the internet – even if it’s us – we decided to look into the matter further.  After finding conflicting reports about what Fonderie actually does, we emailed them directly:

Dear Fonderie 47,

We are the writers of Wronging Rights, a blog focused on human rights, conflict, and development issues. We recently published a post that was critical of your strategy with regard to AK-47s, based on the article about you in Good. However, other press coverage we’ve encountered since then has suggested that their description was wrong, and you don’t actually purchase the guns yourselves, you just donate the proceeds from your jewelry to an organization that disposes of them.

We certainly don’t want to mislead our readers or describe your organization unfairly. If you’d like to respond to our post, or clarify your strategy, please let us know. We’ll be happy to publish your response as a guest post on the blog.

Best, Amanda Taub & Kate Cronin-Furman

 Soon afterwards we received a response from Peter Thum, one of Fonderie’s founders (try saying that 10 times fast), who politely informed us that we had in fact mischaracterized their program. He accepted our offer to write a guest post clearing up the matter:

Dear Kate and Amanda,

Thank you for inviting us to provide you and your readers with some clarification about our approaches to facilitating the removal and destruction of assault rifles from circulation in Africa and to raising awareness of and action on the issue.

Fonderie 47 creates wearable art pieces – jewelry, watches and accessories—that incorporate steel that is recycled and transformed from AK47 type weapons that we have taken out of circulation in Eastern Congo. We destroyed these original guns for this purpose in Africa and brought the material back to the US, where we further process it for use by the designers and craftspeople who create our pieces. In turn, the sale of each piece funds the destruction of a specific number of weapons back in Africa.

In your post, which I understand was based on an email from one of your readers, you described how Fonderie 47 “buys AK-47s at above-market-prices in conflict zones and turns them into extremely expensive accessories, all in the name of helping Africa.” This depiction is inaccurate. [Editor's note: The email was actually based on this article from Good Magazine, which gives quite a mistaken impression of Fonderie's work]

What we do is sell handmade and limited edition pieces of jewelry that incorporate transformed AK47 material. Each sale funds the destruction of a predetermined number of assault rifles in Africa. Funds from the sale of each piece are then donated to Foundry 47 Foundation, a not for profit, which in turn makes grants to NGOs that perform the weapon destruction programs.

Currently, our grant funding is provided to the Nobel Prize winning, UK-based NGO, Mines Advisory Group, who in turn carry out the technical oversight and physical destruction of the weapons in conjunction with staff of the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo. These weapons are not as your post stated, “bought at above market prices.” Rather, these assault rifles were collected from conflict by the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the United Nations from combatants who have turned them over as part of the disarmament process at the cessation of combat. Once these weapons are destroyed, the scrap metal, which belongs to the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is recycled locally. The economic arguments about the trade of assault rifles globally and in Africa, which were made by your reader and cited in your post, do not agree with our research. We have found that the average traded price of AK47s in Africa is about ¼ that of the rest of the world and that the average quality of these weapons is extremely low; old, heavily used, poorly maintained. The pricing of the AK47 and its derivatives, which represent about 70% of all assault rifles in Africa, are a good proxy for the pricing of assault weapons in Africa. These guns have a service life of between 20 and 40 years and represent the very low end of the global supply of these weapons. The majority of these weapons arrived in Africa under geopolitical and economic conditions, during and in the years after the Cold War, that no longer exist. They thus are not replaceable at the same cost from stocks or suppliers outside of Africa. The reduction of supplies of these old, poor quality weapons from the continent of Africa therefore means that resupply with significantly higher-priced weapons from newer stocks outside Africa is not possible at a 1:1 rate.

Thank you, Peter Thum CEO and cofounder FONDERIE 47

Thank you, Peter!

WTF Friday, 10/21/11

You guys blew it. Day of Gaddafi’s death was the perfect chance to push this through without anyone noticing.

“And Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he was ‘glad’ that Gaddafi had been captured.” Truly moving stuff.

The third comment down from “Atrawick” attempts to eviscerate an argument I’ve made and heard many times. Figure I could get some input from our readers?