(written Friday 23rd October 2009)
Possibly the report about Nicole Kidman in today’s Guardian is a good example of the perils of ambassadoring. On Wednesday the UNIFEM goodwill ambassador was addressing a subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs on the subject of violence against women. The subcommittee is looking at the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA), which has apparently been before Congress since 2007 and which proposes that the US government get actively involved in overseas campaigns that oppose violence against women. The first word attributed to the ambassador in the article is “Probably”.
Maybe because this is reported in the culture section of the paper, the article focuses on a question posed about Hollywood’s role in portraying a negative image of women; it then does a brief skip through Nicole’s career, citing examples where she could be judged to be more and less complicit in portraying negative images of women. Oddly, the film where she played a character that plotted to murder her husband seems to be in the more positive category. It’s not clear what category a perfume advert comes into but it is regarded as worth mentioning.
It might be assumed from reading the article that Nicole strolled in alone, gave a fairly weak answer to a straight question and called it a day. The UNIFEM press release reveals that Nicole Kidman was part of a delegation including Mallika Dutt, executive director of anti-violence group Breakthrough; Melanne Verveer, Ambassador for Women’s Global Issues; Janice D. Schakowsky, Congresswoman and Vice-Chair of the Women’s Caucus, and Linda Smith, former Congresswoman and President of Shared Hope International. Nicole’s testimony doesn’t make any mention of Hollywood. The congressman who asked the question about Hollywood’s role was extremely gracious but seeing his question in the context of Nicole and Mallika’s testimonies, it seems a bit beside the point and her response looks intelligent and concise.
I don’t know but there could be some ambivalence around here and not on the part of the goodwill ambassador. It’s standard news journalism practice to put the most important bits of a story at the top of the article (which still doesn’t explain the ranking of the perfume advert mention but lets let go of that). So, the headline states: “Nicole Kidman says Hollywood contributes to violence against women”; that got my attention so the headline has done its job. The article then goes on to say she: “used an appearance before the US Congress to accuse Hollywood…”, which is a bit misleading but at least indicates that she didn’t go to Congress specifically to talk about films or Hollywood. Then it talks about the legislation. Good. Then we come to what she is actually quoted as saying. When I hit “Probably” as the opener, my heart sank. I thought she’d provided more fuel for the cynics who say people from the entertainment industry should keep out of serious issues. Then I remembered that I was only reading one version of events and maybe UNIFEM would have an alternative one.
False equivocations aside, there are important and interesting stories here. For instance, why should the USA get involved in violence against women overseas and what specific forms might that involvement take? What is the scale and what are the main forms of violence against women around the world and are there any trends? Why has this piece of legislation been before congress since 2007 and what is the state of its current velocity? You wanna keep it in the culture section of the newspaper? Okay, how do films about the workings of the UN, such as The Interpreter starring Kidman, compare to the real workings of the organisation? Or how about a serious discussion of violence against women in films? What the article lacks is a proper story and therefore a point and unfortunately it makes a person talking seriously about a wide-ranging and important issue (and surrounded by others doing likewise) sound as if she hasn’t a point either. If the objective of the article is to object to celebrities taking this kind of role, then arguing that case could make an interesting story; the article in question lacks such decisiveness.