Crying for a Cause: Celebrity Humanitarianism, Angelina Jolie and Bosnia’s Single Story

When Angelina Jolie visited Bosnia-Herzegovina with William Hague in early 2014, in order to attend a conference in Sarajevo and visit the Potočari Memorial Center, as well as a Zenica-based women’s NGO, a curious pattern in media reports, both local and international, ensued in its wake. Most headlines, almost without exception, highlighted one particular thing about the visit:

“Angelina Jolie In Tears On Visit To Bosnia As Part Of Bosnian Anti-Rape Campaign”
Marie Claire UK (March 31, 2014)

“Angelina Jolie Emotional In Sarajevo, Cries For The Rape Victims of Bosnian War”

– International Business Times (March 29, 2014)

“Angelina Jolie Moved To Tears During Bosnia Visit to Campaign Against War Rape”

– The Independent (March 29, 2014)

“Angelina Jolie Sheds Tears in Bosnia Over War Rape”

–       The Today Show (today.com, March 28, 2014)

These headlines made one particular and often overlooked truth about celebrity humanitarianism glaringly obvious: when it comes to humanitarian causes, the crux of the public interest (perhaps it can be called a fascination with the spectacle of suffering) is not merely the issue that the celebrity ostensibly tries to highlight, but rather celebrity’s own emotional investment in the problem. Hence, Angelina Jolie, as a celebrity humanitarian par excellence, becomes fist and foremost the carrier of feelings, an absorber of suffering, more so than a “mere” voice for and of the disenfranchised (even though the “giving voice” paradigm is in itself a problematic setup).

The Marie Claire headline is particularly interesting because it is inadvertently and tellingly ambiguous: “Angelina Jolie In Tears On Visit To Bosnia As Part Of Bosnian Anti-Rape Campaign” – from which the intended interpretation is most likely that Jolie cried on her visit to Bosnia, which she visited as part of an anti-rape campaign. Yet a second, more complicated interpretation is also possible: that Jolie was in tears as part of the Bosnian anti-rape campaign itself. The latter is most likely not an intended meaning of the headline, but nevertheless not far from the truth either, a telling ambiguity that reveals something important about how celebrity tears function in the global exchange of charity and pity. Celebrity feelings have become pivotal parts of humanitarian campaigns, ways to deliver an emotional punch and perhaps move the hypothetical spectators to (vaguely defined) action. This does not imply that the tears themselves are inauthentic. Quite the contrary – Jolie’s staying power as a humanitarian largely rests on her perceived authenticity in caring about the lives of Others. Her tears seem to only strengthen that reputation. But media focus on Jolie’s tears suggests that they are recognized as a newsworthy event in their own right, and moreover, that celebrity tears make the humanitarian message all the more convincing, so much so that they become the lead. The tears are therefore revealed as a key element in the structure that renders (post)modern humanitarianism an effective channel of delivering bad news about Other parts of the world.

Syria & Serbia. (Image credit: ABC News)
Syria & Serbia. (Image credit: ABC News)

But who exactly is the audience to whom celebrity tears reported on in this way are meant to be meaningful? Perhaps to the spectators living in the developed parts of the world, who would ostensibly have the means to support such humanitarian campaigns? Or to world leaders who oftentimes display the exact opposite when it comes to human suffering – a complete absence of emotion? (And indeed, in the images of Jolie crying in Bosnia, one could notice an almost startling contrast in William Hague, unemotional and expressionless, whereby normative gender dynamics are at play as well: woman as emotion, man as reason). Perhaps the tears are intended for the survivors and victims themselves, as a way for their suffering to gain prominence and wider attention through the sheer fact that it moved a rich and famous person? The latter is a curious and seemingly absurd formula when put this way – that survivors’ pain would need to be made visible through celebrity tears in order to be given attention in the first place – yet it is the central mechanism by which celebrity humanitarianism operates today.

Lisa Chouliaraki (2012) has compared Jolie’s humanitarian persona to that of Audrey Hepburn some decades ago.[1] Chouliaraki finds that Hepburn’s humanitarianism sought to redirect attention to those in need of help while downplaying her own emotional states, while Jolie’s humanitarian moment designates a more recent switch to celebrity herself as the primary carrier of emotion, more so than the survivor. Thus, with Jolie, as Chouliaraki finds, the crux of the affective exchange around a humanitarian issue takes place between the celebrity and the spectator, where the survivor becomes little more than a proxy in this exchange. As spectators, we rely on the celebrity to guide our emotional response to a story, rather than on hearing directly from survivors. And unsurprisingly, the survivors that Jolie met on her recent visit to Bosnia have largely not been featured in the media reports on the visit. Rather, Jolie met with them privately, and then emerged from the meetings alone, to shed tears in front of the gathered cameras and give a few interviews. It is quite possible that the survivors did not want to be in front of cameras, unwilling to recount their trauma and loss in a public way. But even if they had been pictured with Jolie, whose tears would media have been more likely to highlight? Would the aforementioned headlines have been any different? When a celebrity is crying because of a humanitarian issue, what are we witnessing and who are we really invited to empathize with – the survivor, or the moved celebrity herself? 

jolie jutarnji

The Suffering of an ‘Elsewhere’

Another thing that typically characterizes celebrity humanitarianism is that the crises to which it is attending are always ‘elsewhere,’ far away from celebrity’s own native cultures (which are typically Western-based). Jolie has thus concentrated her humanitarian efforts on Cambodia, Syria and Bosnia, among other places; George Clooney on Sudan; Madonna on Malawi, and the list goes on. Never once, to the best of my knowledge, did any of them draw attention to humanitarian or human rights crises domestically, in their own native country of the US (and there are certainly plenty of crises to draw attention to when it comes to the most powerful nation in the world). This is true when it comes to celebrity humanitarianism across the board, and it implies a problematic kind of “truth:” that places to be aided and people to be saved are always elsewhere, that the West needs to save the Rest.

This ‘elsewhere’ thereby serves to mask the fact that within the celebrity’s home culture, there are numerous humanitarian crises equally important of addressing and raising awareness about (did you know that in the US, for instance, 22% of all children – which amounts to about 16 million – live in poverty?[2]). Why is the proximity of humanitarian issues not a desirable thing when it comes to celebrity humanitarianism? Why does the victim that needs saving have to always be safely far away? Perhaps because its proximity might expose celebrity’s own connection to the impenetrable circuits of neoliberal privilege that actively bring about those very humanitarian issues, or contribute to their perpetuation. Ilan Kapoor (2012)[3] argues that celebrity humanitarianism is not only “integral to the neoliberal global order” (3) but moreover “legitimates late liberal capitalism and global inequality” (12). This legitimization helps conceal neoliberalism’s troubling hierarchies of power, privilege and precarity by offering a script of charitable rescue instead. As Chouliaraki has noted: “The celebrity seeks to conceal a scandalous contradiction: by appearing to care for the ‘wretched of the earth’ whilst enjoying the privilege of rare wealth, he or she glosses over the ongoing complicity of the West in a global system of injustice that reproduces the dependence of the developing world through acts of charity.” (4) Moreover, when suffering is displaced to an always distant elsewhere, that symbiotic relationship between the celebrity and neoliberal capitalist distribution of wealth becomes vague and de-centered, if not effectively elided altogether.

Another part of the puzzle that sees celebrity humanitarianism always directed at an ‘elsewhere’ is the perceived danger that drawing attention to domestic humanitarian issues would make obvious the fact that there is “Third World” inside the “First World,” a fact that American exceptionalism has a difficult time coming to terms with. The geographies imagined through celebrity humanitarianism therefore align with those of neoliberalism – First, Second and Third Worlds are neatly separated into autonomous spheres whose lines of separation do not blur, and where some places are perpetually understood as inevitably prosperous and others as inevitably lacking and in need of saving. The division into these three kinds of worlds, as dated and inadequate as it increasingly is, could be understood in its discursive domain through the following formula: First World is late capitalism itself, Second are transitional democracies (transitioning to a form of capitalism itself), Third are “developing” countries whose economic and political systems are still largely impenetrable to the capitalist order.

jolie blic

Putting Bosnia on the Map of Celebrity Humanitarianism

Bosnia’s own positioning on the map of celebrity humanitarianism hit its proverbial peak with the release of Jolie’s debut directorial feature, In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011), a film that received mixed reviews but was nevertheless variously lauded, depending on where it was being lauded, as either an educational tool or an apolitical work of art. As mere anecdotal evidence, I can attest to never having gotten so many questions about the Bosnian war in my years living as a Bosnian immigrant in New York City as when Jolie’s film came out. Suddenly, it seemed as if everyone rediscovered this nearly forgotten conflict. The inquiries I received would typically start with: “I haven’t seen it yet, but I heard that Angelia Jolie made this film about Bosnia and I was wondering…” Indeed, it appears that the film did not make much impact at the US box office, and back in the territory of the former Yugoslavia it seemed to have further divided more than repaired things, stirring ethno-nationalist passions rather than inciting constructively meaningful conversations about mass rape across ethnic divides. The one domain where the film was undoubtedly a success was in strengthening Jolie’s own stature as a humanitarian par excellence, seemingly across the board.

Indeed, the film’s reception in the West was firmly locked inside the framework of Jolie’s humanitarian persona, so much so that notable film critics made it clear that, regardless of its clear shortcomings as a film, Blood and Honey was nevertheless praiseworthy as an extension of its director’s humanitarian efforts. Blood and Honey was thus treated as a touching reflection of Jolie’s noble humanitarianism to bring to the fore a troubled ‘elsewhere’ about which she purported to make the film, never mind the film’s startlingly simplistic dramatization and depiction of the conflict itself. And with that, the spectator was invited to align with Jolie’s view from a privileged distance from which this conflict is simplified and stripped off of contextual or nuanced insight, turned into a “universalized” love plot (in Jolie’s own words, “the film is specific to the Bosnian War, but it’s also universal”[4]), whose potentially tragic proportions were numbed by a stark sense of directorial distance.

Many insightful critiques have been written about celebrity humanitarianism and its contribution to the politics of pity, and the perpetuation of troubling binaries along the developed/developing, us/them lines. Celebrity humanitarianism re/establishes maps by which the world is divided into trouble areas with not only single, but also singularly defined issues. Moreover, celebrity humanitarianism does not simply bring focus to troubled parts of the world – it creates troubled parts of the world as pitiful geographies to be summarized by a single story, to use Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s powerful denomination.[5] The problem with single stories is that they become singular, defining narratives about a place and its inhabitants, typically conveyed in the most simplified terms devoid of contextual depth. In the global exchange of information, the geographies of single stories are often marked by celebrity affect as the most important landmark of their existence.

In this process, a region is often put on the map of the popularly disseminated circuits of empathy only after a celebrity “discovers” it, is affectively moved by its “plight,” and locks its problems into a single story. Oftentimes, the celebrity voices a near-mythical, borderline exoticizing connection to the country s/he helps put on the map of such circuits of pity (Madonna: “I didn’t choose Malawi, Malawi chose me”). Adoption, incidentally or not, is often the guiding metaphor for such a relationship: the celebrity becomes symbolically adopted by the country, as an enactment of gratitude for the attention that s/he grants. Through this symbolic adoption, the celebrity is given power to speak for all, to speak a single story in their name, to cry not only for them, but also instead of them.[6]

jolie_klix

Bosnia’s moment of emergence within such an imagined map of single stories closely aligns with Jolie’s cinema-humanitarian attention, which did not go without controversies,[7] but ultimately peaked in Jolie’s adoption into an honorary citizen of Sarajevo.[8] But she arrives always already too late, because the story she intends to “educate” about is a story that has been intimately lived – in a much more multi-dimensional form that life takes – by many, and for a long time now. Yet a single story of Bosnia is suddenly re/discovered under the cloak of celebrity humanitarianism, repackaged for easier understanding of the audiences in the spectacle of charity and pity. A story supposedly about a wounded society, but deep down, really a story about the celebrity herself, and about her own quest for self-discovery through empathy with the wretched of the Earth.

Perhaps there is some perverse justice in this dynamic: if there is suffering out there, why not send members of the most privileged stratum of neoliberal wealth to witness that suffering in our collective name, absorb it and act as conduits of our collective catharsis-through-empathy? But what does it really change for those who are living, or have lived under precarious circumstances that now cause a celebrity to cry? Who did Jolie’s tears, visits, film, and statements aid? Whose story does the celebrity-driven attention omit? What is different in Bosnia in particular, and with respect to coming to terms with mass rape as a war crime in general, in light of Jolie’s efforts? What happens after she wipes away her tears and leaves? What is left in the wake of celebrity humanitarianism? These are the most important questions to ask if one were truly invested in empathy for the survivor(s). Tellingly, they are most rarely posed, as the caravan of celebrity’s emotional response to suffering moves on to a new site. When they are asked, the answers reveal a chasm between humanitarian credentials and meaningful change: as Zala Volčić and Karmen Erjavec have found in their interviews with Bosnian informants in the wake of Jolie’s film, “the film’s story of war rapes and suffering did little to raise awareness about war rape victims generally and was interpreted primarily within two discursive frameworks: celebrity and ethno-nationalistic ones that tend to reinforce the status quo in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina and perpetuate misunderstandings about war crimes. Jolie’s activism, in other words, did not contribute to the reconciliation between different ethnicities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but has, on the contrary, further fostered polarization that continues to plague the region” (2014: 1).[9]

Recently it was announced that one of the future directorial endeavors by Angelina Jolie will be a film about the famous palaeoanthropologist Richard Leakey and his fight against poachers, set in Kenya. Upon the official announcement of the project, Jolie released the following statement: “I’ve felt a deep connection to Africa and its culture for much of my life.” Yet again, it is about a celebrity’s deep affective connection to a place, a connection that is usually of a mysterious, transcendental kind, and ultimately amounts to self-realization. Notice, also, Jolie’s wording – she speaks of her connection to Africa, a singular place, and its (one) culture – a single story is being put on the map all over again.


[1] Chouliaraki, Lilie. “The theatricality of humanitarianism: A critique of celebrity advocacy.” Communication and critical/cultural studies 9.1 (2012): 1-21.

[3] Kapoor, Ilan. Celebrity humanitarianism: The ideology of global charity. Routledge, 2012.

[6] Furthermore, in the case of Jolie, adoption of children from various countries has quite literally added credentials to her humanitarian persona. As Jo Littler argues: “The specific type of charity and humanitarian work is significant here too. Its transnationalism indicates a globalised sensibility and a cosmopolitan caring, an effect augmented by Jolie’s high-profile Benetton-style adoption of a range of differently shaded children from a variety of countries” (Littler, Jo. ““I feel your pain”: cosmopolitan charity and the public fashioning of the celebrity soul.” Social semiotics 18.2 (2008): 238).

[9] Moreover, Jolie’s celebrity humanitarianism has prompted an editorial in the Guardian which proclaims that “Celebrity endorsement like Angelina Jolie’s is the curse of good causes” (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/02/angelina-jolie-celebrity-endorsement-curse-good-causes)

 

Dijana Jelača’s forthcoming book Dislocated Screen Memory: Narrating Trauma in Post-Yugoslav Cinema (Palgrave Macmillan) will look at the representations of trauma in regional postwar film, specifically through the critical ethnic, feminist and queer analytic lens. Of particular interest in this projects are cinematic representations that seek to dislocate trauma’s embeddedness within stable narrative frames, and through this dislocation, challenge normative ethno-national screen memories of the war.

 

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Dijana Jelača

Dijana Jelača teaches in the Department of Rhetoric, Communication and Theater at St. John's University in New York. She holds a PhD in Communication from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her areas of speciality include cinema studies, transnational feminist theories, critical ethnic studies and trauma studies. Jelača's work has appeared in Camera Obscura, Cultural Studies/Critical Methodologies, Studies in Eastern European Cinema, Feminist Media Studies and elsewhere. She is a contributor for the Bosnia-based Buka Magazine. Dijana splits her time between New York City, Bosnia and Russia.