Egos Without BordersMapping the New Celebrity Philanthropy

You can't turn on the television or flip open a magazine these days without encountering an image of a star promoting his or her latest cause célèbre: Oprah handing out makeup kits at a women's hospital in Ethiopia; Angelina Jolie visiting refugee camps (alone or with Brad Pitt); George Clooney zipping around in his tiny electric car and making speeches about Darfur; Jay-Z and Kofi Annan holding a press conference about global water issues; Madonna performing concerts against a backdrop image of aids orphans—and, more recently, bringing a motherless Malawian boy home with her after making a large donation to his orphanage. Having a pet cause, preferably Africa-related, is trendy—an August 2006 New York Times article concluded that the continent is so "hot" right now because it's seen as less politically ambiguous than other regions such as the Middle East, allowing celebs to be seen doing good deeds while remaining safely apolitical. How trendy is Africa? So trendy that even the plasticine likes of Clay Aiken and Jessica Simpson have made trips there, and Lindsay Lohan has reportedly promised to visit Kenya as part of Bono's One campaign.

Of course, celebrity cause-­mongering is by no means a new craze. Famous and wealthy people have long used their time and money to publicize causes—consider Shirley Temple's postshowbiz career as a United Nations ambassador, Audrey Hepburn's work for UNICEF, or Jane Fonda's much-maligned activism against the Vietnam War. But in recent years, as more and more public figures enter the philanthropic fray, it appears that male and female celebrities are going about their good deeds in strikingly different and gender-­stereotypical ways. Generally speaking, men like Bill Gates, George Clooney, and Bono are using their wealth and influence to advocate for specific policy reforms and U.S. political action on issues such as health, foreign aid, and trade. Meanwhile, female celebrities like Oprah, Drew Barrymore, Meg Ryan, and Lucy Liu (to name just a few recent examples) promote a feel-good, totally apolitical mode of philanthropy, in which women are encouraged to consider the plight of people in the developing world as a way (in part) to feel better about their own lives, and to pursue only small, relatively ineffectual solutions to the world's problems.

While women like Melinda Gates and Angelina Jolie are notable exceptions to this trend (both speak out regularly, and knowledgeably, on policy issues affecting the health of women in developing nations and have donated large sums of their own money to charitable causes), the brand of philanthropy promoted by many female celebs sends a troubling message to their fans about what the average person can do to help. With feel-good philanthropy, there's no need to call your elected representatives, attend a rally, or even spend a few minutes each day reading the international news in order to better understand the issues at hand. Give, but give just a little, and then sit back and reap the emotional rewards. Even worse, feel-good philanthropy draws media attention away from the unsexy but incredibly important fundraising, lobbying, and advocacy work done by everyday women and men, reinforcing the notion that philanthropy is best left to the wealthy.

Oprah Winfrey is one of the leading proponents of feel-good philanthropy, and several episodes of The Oprah Winfrey Show illustrate both the allure and the dangers of her approach to "giving back." A December 2005 show about the epidemic of obstetric fistula in Ethiopia showcases feel-good philanthropy at its most problematic. On one hand, Winfrey should be applauded for using her hugely popular show to draw attention to a serious health condition that most women in the West have never heard of (obstetric fistulae are tears in the wall between the vagina and rectum that can occur during childbirth; unless treated, they leave survivors permanently disabled and shunned by their communities). On the other hand, she just can't refrain from turning this tragic but preventable condition into an opportunity for her own personal growth: During the episode, Winfrey toured the wards of the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, listening to the women's horrific stories. "Your strength gives me strength," she told one young woman who had suffered a particularly brutal near-death ordeal. The idea that one of the world's wealthiest and most powerful women needs to draw strength, vampire-like, from a woman so utterly dispossessed goes right to the heart of what's wrong with this brand of do-gooding.

In a later scene, Winfrey handed out makeup kits to the patients, as though a swipe of lipstick would somehow lessen the hardships these young women were likely to face when they returned home (she did also give each patient $100, a far more practical gift than eye shadow). The episode ended with Winfrey highlighting what some of her viewers have done to help the women at the fistula hospital—some raised money to build a new wing of the hospital (well done), but one woman decided to get 60 friends together to make bracelets for the patients, then traveled to Ethiopia to deliver the gifts in person (not so much). The bracelet-making, though clearly well intentioned, served to make the viewer and her friends feel virtuous about what they had done, but provided no tangible benefit for the hospital's patients. Just think about what a group of 60 women could have accomplished had they, say, each called Congress to demand an increase in the U.S. foreign-aid budget for reproductive health in Africa, or even just donated the money they spent on plane tickets directly to the Fistula Foundation. In her assiduous privileging of the personal over the political, Winfrey also missed a chance to publicize grassroots women's groups like the 34 Million Friends of UNFPA, whose work to increase U.S. funding for global reproductive health and change retrograde Bush administration policies on family planning could actually have a major impact on preventing obstetric fistula. Instead, she played it safe, encouraging millions of women in her audience to follow her apolitical lead.

Oprah has also become a forum for other female celebs to publicize their good works, and more often than not, they end up exoticizing the "objects" of their good deeds in the process. A key tenet of feel-good philanthropy is that women in the developing world are passive victims of their cultures, in need of saving by enlightened Western women. For example, when Meg Ryan granted her first television interview in two years in March of 2006, she talked with Winfrey about her divorce and her work in India with the antipoverty ngo CARE. Doing a stint of charitable work somewhere in the developing world after a messy public divorce is fast becoming standard procedure in Hollywood (see also: Brad Pitt, Hilary Swank). Under the guise of talking about women and poverty in India, Ryan and Winfrey discussed how the trip ultimately made Ryan feel much better about her own life. Ryan recalled one woman in particular, who was dancing at a women's meeting: "She was so free in this moment and so beautifully expressive…. She took her veil off and she leaned in and her face was straining and so full of gratitude and love. And she said, 'I have nothing. I work in the fields every day. I have nothing, but I love this life. There is so much color.'" The laughable subtext of Ryan's comments is that, compared with the poverty of these rural Indian women, maybe her own life as a Hollywood star isn't so bad after all.

A further danger of feel-good philanthropy is that its staunch apoliticism can lead to out-and-out misinformation, as was the case when Lucy Liu appeared on Oprah (coincidentally, during the same March 2006 episode as Ryan) to discuss traveling with UNICEF to visit earthquake survivors in Pakistan. After showing some footage of the devastated Kashmir region, where more than 70,000 people died and more than four million were left homeless at the onset of winter, Winfrey asked Liu what viewers could do to help. Liu responded with the reassuring—if patently untrue—statement that "America is one of the most generous countries in the world." In fact, the U.S. ranks second-to-last among the world's wealthiest countries when it comes to government spending on foreign aid, giving a miserly 0.22 percent of gross national income in 2005. (Not that Liu is alone in her misapprehension: Studies show that most Americans think the U.S. spends up to 20 percent of its budget on foreign aid.) Liu continued pushing the warm-and-fuzzy mood by emphasizing that the Oprah audience "can participate by loose change—even a penny for UNICEF counts."

It doesn't take a master's degree in international relations to figure that the good folks at UNICEF might have more pressing things to do than count American pennies sent in by Oprah viewers. Not surprisingly, the anti-UN (and by extension, anti-UNICEF) policies of the Bush administration went unmentioned by Liu, despite the fact that millions of Oprah-watching moms might easily be encouraged to lobby for increased funding for children's welfare worldwide.

Perhaps the most insulting (not to mention gender-stereotypical) aspect of feel-good philanthropy is its insistence on shopping as a panacea for the world's troubles. The April 2006 issue of Marie Claire included a feature blurbed on the cover as "Drew Barrymore's amazing African journey to end hunger." Marie Claire has a reputation for solid reporting on international women's issues, so it's not surprising that the pair of articles—a journal-style account of the star's experiences with the World Food Program in Kenya, and a straightforward piece on women and hunger around the world—are relatively good (though Barrymore does tend to throw around the word "primitive" frequently and uncritically). And the articles are accompanied by unflinching photographs of the slums of Nairobi that would seem more at home in the New York Times than in a fashion magazine.

No, the shock is not that Marie Claire would publish a lengthy feature on such a serious subject; rather, it's the massive letdown at the end of the 22-page spread, when readers are urged to "join Drew Barrymore and the United Nations World Food Program in the campaign to end hunger" by…calling their legislators to demand reforms on foreign aid and farm subsidies? Volunteering at a local food pantry? Using their professional skills to organize benefit events for the WFP? Sadly, no. The elusive solution to world hunger lies in purchasing a gold-plated, heart-shaped locket "designed exclusively for Marie Claire with the help of Drew Barrymore" for only $29.95. Reading the fine print at the bottom of the page reveals that only $5 of that amount actually goes to the World Food Program. So instead of just writing a check for $30 to the WFP, readers are encouraged to acquire yet another piece of junk jewelry in the name of compassion. By following strong reporting with such a weak call for action, Marie Claire sends an unmistakably cynical message to its readers: Are you unsettled by the photograph of a starving mother and child in Niger on page 102? Then turn to page 110 and order yourself that necklace—no need to worry your pretty little head any further than that.

Nothing quite captures the shortcomings of feel-good philanthropy in both its style and substance—or rather, lack thereof—more than the recent "I am African" ads for the Keep a Child Alive campaign featuring Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Jessica Parker, Iman, Alicia Keys, Lucy Liu, David Bowie, and others. Each ad consists of a black-and-white headshot of the star in question looking serious and solemn, wearing vaguely "tribal" makeup and proclaiming "I am African." One can only imagine that this preposterous assertion (with the obvious exceptions of Iman and Alicia Keys) is meant to lead the reader's eyes to the tiny type at the bottom of the page, which reads: "Help us stop the dying. Pay for lifesaving aids drugs that can keep a child, a mother, a father, a family alive." Of course this is a compelling sentiment—who among us doesn't want to "help stop the dying"? But such a piecemeal approach (provided donors are willing to keep on supporting their "adopted" aids patients year after year) completely ignores the far messier political realities of providing aids treatment: Many countries hardest hit by the epidemic lack both the infrastructure and health workers to ensure effective treatment, and in the U.S. sustained political pressure is needed to further drive down the price of aids drugs and to demand that U.S. foreign aid for hiv/aids is spent on science-based programs rather than ideologically driven ones. By exploiting the cognitive dissonance of the descriptor "African" paired with, say, the inimitably waspy face of Paltrow to draw readers into a larger discussion about how people can work together to systematically improve the U.S.'s response to the hiv/aids epidemic, the campaign relies on a spurious mix of faux-solidarity and easy, apolitical solutions to complex problems.

While it has always been annoying to watch pampered celebrities getting sanctimonious about their charitable works, the problem with today's feel-good philanthropy is not that celebs are using their fame to draw attention to important issues. The real issue is that the solutions they're promoting are small and likely to be ineffectual, ephemeral, or both. At worst, the kinds of quick fixes embraced by feel-good philanthropy may actually discourage people from engaging in the difficult, decidedly unglamorous grassroots political activism that is the only likely way to achieve the meaningful large-scale policy changes needed to address the world's worst problems. The trouble with trying to make philanthropy fashionable is that fashion is by definition fleeting—just as hemlines rise and fall, Africa may be abandoned next week for a new, sexier continent or region. And that raises the question: What happens to the old cause when the fame and money move on to a new one—or when having a cause at all ceases to be fashionable?

Summer Wood studies anthropology, health, gender, and media at New York University.


This article was published in Green Issue #34 | Winter 2007

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2 Comments Have Been Posted

Egos Without Borders

That was a great article; extremely poignant. I agree with every point -- I have no idea why this is called "Bitch Magazine."

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