Several months ago I recommended the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. A documentary based on the book aired on PBS last week; you can watch part 1 online through today and part 2 through tomorrow (Hopefully it will be available by other means in the near future). Here’s the site, and the trailer:
Maybe some of you saw it. It’s not easy to watch, and not easy to reckon with the realities that are so pervasive: sex trafficking, affecting younger and younger girls, even 3 year olds. Maternal mortality. Widespread, virtually unprosecutable rape. Systemic barriers to basic education. Extreme poverty. Female circumcision and its often devastating impacts for pregnancy and childbirth. As does the book, the film allows the stories to speak for themselves, and also gives voice to a handful of the remarkable women who are making a difference in the lives of girls and women in their home countries, whose work often addresses the same problems to which they themselves were once victims.
As I watched, I started to see connections to some of the reading I’ve been doing for a course I’m taking on theology and embodiment. Specifically, I’m thinking of the French theorist Michel Foucault and others who have explored how bodies literally become the site where social power and control is exercised. Certainly, the girls and women featured in Half the Sky are living proof of the harrowing ways in which wider social realities can and will manifest themselves in individual bodies. These are the girls and women whose bodies bear the message of nation-states that blatantly treat women as property, that turn a blind eye to sexual violence and violation in order to maintain gender norms, that can’t, for whatever reason, commit themselves to admit that educating females might actually be a worthwhile endeavor.
Where will change come from? What will it ultimately take to see justice and equality become manifest in these hundreds of millions of lives? What are people in the global West and North doing, and what should we be doing? What are we, as people of faith living on the heap of centuries’ worth of material abundance (abundance that has often come to us through its own ill-gotten ways….by the way, happy Columbus day), called or obligated to do in response to such widespread injustice?
Well, here in the US at least, we have our own bodily expressions of social power, a la Foucault. The texts of culture that are manifest in our body aren’t reflecting oppressive political regimes per se, but they reflect our culture’s zealous devotion to individualism and consumerism. On the afternoon prior to watching part 1 of the documentary, I happened to see a snippet of Katie Couric’s new afternoon show, on which she had a guest dermatologist on hand to address the ‘problem areas’ of some ‘average women.’ Enter a mother of five children, in her 40s, who explained that she’s had to change her haircut and get bangs in order to cover her own problem area–her forehead. The dermatologist compassionately explained that the offending forehead wrinkle was an ‘expression line,’ caused by all the years of making expressions like smiles and frowns as she interacted with her children (which, by the way, is crucial to their emotional development!). But alas, the creases of motherhood on this woman’s forehead are, in America, primarily a beauty problem–but one which, thank God, can be corrected! And people like Katie Couric (along with every fashion/makeup/weightloss/hairstyle/sexiness guru of the industry) are devoted to making us women aware of how much we could and should be doing to improve our looks and defy the aging process. Nevermind how much time, energy, and money we might need to invest (or what worthy endeavors won’t get our time, energy and money as a result). The featured dermatologist admitted to the mom that, although her preferred fix would be botulinum injections, she’d instead use some topical treatments, since the show was all about ‘affordable’ fixes (the issue at hand, after all, is not about whether to live with your wrinkles or not, but simply about how much you are willing to spend to fix them). She then applied some lovely skin glue cosmetic that, she explained, would have to be reapplied every 8 hours, and would temporarily prevent the mom from making certain facial expressions.
I can’t help but wonder how our own cultural norms and values of self-improvement, self-preoccupation, self-obsession (and these certainly apply to both men and women) impact our capacity to care about, or even notice, the plight of our global neighbors. It’s hard to be anxious about the alarming numbers of women who are living as sexual slaves, or dying in childbirth, when you’re wading through endless cultural prompts that encourage you to just focus your anxiety on your own appearance and achievements. We are a nation that gravitates toward living ‘your best life now’, and forgets that the best life, the life abundant, consists in caring for ‘the least of these’ as though they were Christ.