My internets exploded this week over the news that famous actress-and-attractive-person Angelina Jolie will be joining the London School of Economics as a visiting professor at the Center for Women, Peace & Security. Reactions in my inbox ranged from “OMG WTF LSE” to “Is a blockbuster movie career now a prerequisite for a decent university teaching gig?” to “Do we really have to talk about this?”
The answers to the last two questions are, respectively, “let’s hope not” and “yes.” For help with the first, I reached out to Dr. Nimmi Gowrinathan, an actual expert on women, peace, and security. Nimmi directs the Politics of Sexual Violence Research Initiative at the City College of New York. She has a PhD in political science and works on women’s participation in, and experience of, violent conflict. (And she and I coauthored a report on the situation of Tamil women in post-war Sri Lanka last year.) Here’s a transcript of our email conversation, edited a bit for clarity:
KCF: Is this appointment as nutballs as the internet seems to think? Is Angelina Jolie an expert on women in war?
NG: Angelina Jolie has certainly spent the kind of devoted time listening to women affected by war that ‘experts’ often do not. However, [this appointment] reveals a disturbing trend in celebrity activism — where a combination of star power and good intentions combine to erect a powerful platform, elevating the actor above the activist. In recent years, the role played by early celebrity ambassadors has slowly transformed. From symbolic place-holders, public relations practicalities for ineffective UN agencies, to coveted positions of power. Positions as political actors representing the realities of a people, and a politics, that they have not researched, inserting their voices over lines that they have not rehearsed.
KCF: What do you make of her work with former UK Foreign Secretary William Hague on the issue of sexual violence during conflict?
NG: The partnership between Hague and Jolie is representative of the naively de-politicized engagement of celebrities in humanitarian work. And when the issue at hand is the victimization of women, the de-politicization is further entrenched. William Hague is a key member of a nation whose record on accepting asylum cases of women who were ‘only’ raped in conflict zones is dismal, at best. Countries hand-selected by the initiative to showcase on sexual violence violations (Afghanistan, for example) re-inforce political agendas that justify the use of feminist imperialism to justify entrenched militarization. Those that don’t make their initial list, Sri Lanka for example, have little strategic value, or threaten to reveal a complicity of the UK in crimes committed. With one hand, the initiative partners with qualified and thoughtful individuals and institutions to develop protocols for documentation of crimes for legal prosecution, but with the other, they use their celebrity glow to beckon war criminals to the table who have stacked domestic courts to guarantee their impunity, for generations to come.
KCF: I know you attended their Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict two years ago. Did that feel like a positive use of celebrity to improve women’s lives?
NG: From the floor of the Hall to Expose violence against women, my critique captured the constant cognitive dissonance, a dream-like dedication to a staged activism — where Angelina Jolie made an occasional cameo. The scourge of sexual violence across the globe is offered a secure place in the lives of women by the strictures of repressive societies, violent states, and humanitarian interventions that fail to see the survivor behind the sewing machine. For the scholars and activists who are resigned to the small audiences that gather around complex political solutions to deeply entrenched problems, there is no envy of the attention celebrity attracts. The most effective critique they offer, is to temper overly-ambitious, purposely de-politicized, large scale acronymed programs with caution.
KCF: So fair to say that while her commitment to this issue is genuine, the effects of her engagement has been mixed?
NG: If we are to consider Jolie a true humanitarian, and a practicing one, then the interventions created by her, or in her image, must (at the very least) be held up to the first commandment in the humanitarian gospel — to do no harm. It remains to be seen whether the attention and agenda-driven approach to sexual violence will, in fact, shift the reality of marginalized women to provide them with a power similar to actors offered a platform, because they pretend.
KCF: Notwithstanding these very real concerns about impact, do you feel like Jolie’s history of involvement means she has something useful to offer to LSE students?
NG: While masters programs often, effectively, rely on Professors of Practice, the ‘practical’ element of Angelina Jolie’s engagement in critical issues remains an exceptional experience that students cannot, and should not, expect to mimic. In humanitarian crises, the secure nature of her travel and access to pre-selected sample sizes, rivals that of a Vatican visit. In her advocacy and activism, she is handed a microphone and captive audience of policymakers. Those that have lived to tell the tale of violence, spend lifetimes navigating apathy and checkpoints, hoping to be the background noise that doesn’t get drowned out of critical conversations. Her practice of celebrity activism may be more thoughtful than most, but the next generation of scholars and analysts should formulate new critiques from an understanding of the hard realities of the development sector, not the plushly carpeted pathways to power.