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The Celebrification of Human Trafficking, Part 1 (in a Six Part Series)

Celebrities, people “known for [their] well-knownness,”[1] now regularly engage in and effect human trafficking policy and practice. As a result, celebrities are not only raising public awareness about the existence of these problems, but influencing people, policy objectives, and ameliorative schemes in the public and private sectors. While criticizing people purporting to help other people can sound like sour grapes, it is important to critique one-dimensional, oversimplified, appeal-to-the-masses (and -funders) approaches to human trafficking, especially when the persons engaging in it have such tremendous access to and influence over the public and political spheres. This six part blog, condensing a full discussion set forth in a forthcoming publication, looks at the ways in which certain celebrities have engaged with human trafficking, raising the question – is celebrity involvement a “good thing”?

The involvement of celebrities in human trafficking discourse obviously benefits some parties and aspects of the issue, otherwise celebrities would not be utilized as widely as they are, speak as loudly as they do, or dictate policy and response with such certitude. Celebrities are a benefit to policy makers––government entities, international organizations (IOs), and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)––personally, in that policy makers get to rub elbows with celebrities, and professionally, in that constituents then view them as important for meriting the celebrity relationship. Celebrities also benefit from relationships with policy makers: they gain publicity and exposure for something other than entertainment value (although their entertainment value is also enhanced).

Some have argued that there are real advantages to celebrity human rights activism. For example, celebrities may have the potential to be more neutral than politicians or politically motivated NGOs,[2] and some celebrities use their celebrity to help activists gain access to policy makers and the public that they would otherwise never attain.[3] More ubiquitous are critics of celebrity involvement, especially when that involvement veers from mere endorsement into diplomacy and policy recommendation. The primary drawbacks to celebrity diplomacy and legislative involvement are the lack of accountability of celebrities and the unrefined, reductive (and, sometimes, uninformed) narratives that even the most well intentioned celebrities often present.

The reductive spin in turn dilutes the public’s willingness to intellectually engage and earnestly attend to the issues and to the people who are suffering.[4] Furthermore, it can detract from learning the solutions that those afflicted by human rights violations would propose for themselves. [5] In shifting the focus away from engagement with those most impacted, celebrity human rights activism risks rendering those people “victims” as opposed to “actors,”[6] and can shift realistic depictions of human rights issues away from the truly gruesome, complex, or boring, toward the more palatable, tangible, or exciting.[7]

While human trafficking is not unique in having attracted celebrity attention, it neatly fits into the type of issue to which celebrities are attracted. It is a sexy issue with visceral appeal; it is “of the moment”; [8] it can be reduced to a simplistic victim–rescuer narrative for those inclined to view it that way; its victims are often foreign and are, therefore, easily essentialized and othered. Furthermore, multiple and conflicting viewpoints exist on many aspects of human trafficking. For example, there are disagreements as to the extent of the problem, the precise definition of the problem, who is victimized, how best to support victims, and how to combat the problem. In addition, statistical data on human trafficking is wildly inconsistent because it lacks rigorous empirical support. Celebrities then lend their voices to this morass of disagreement and inconsistent data.

Celebrities can be especially desirable to those who would venture forth even where data is lacking. Whereas experts are inclined to qualify and question discrepant data,[9] celebrities may be more comfortable using unverified statistics and suggesting untested “solutions” so as not to muddle the visceral and emotional appeal of the issue.[10] There are no easy solutions to human trafficking. Experts often recommend large, expensive, and politically challenging approaches.[11] Celebrities, on the other hand, can be more willing to abridge experts’ detailed, ambitious, and costly proposals.[12] This is enticing to policy makers and the public, both of whom are interested in “doing something,” so long as that “something” is neither too complicated nor expensive. In sum, celebrity voices, conflicting expert opinions, and inconsistent data together induce susceptibility in audiences to a reductionist message about human trafficking. Choosing the path of least resistance, audiences then accept the reductionist narrative to “become aware,” and seek additional celebrity input to determine what should be done to combat human trafficking.

This concludes Part One of a six part series, the remainder of which will each detail the particular work of six celebrities currently engaged in activism addressing human trafficking.
[1] Neil Gabler, Toward a New Definition of Celebrity, THE NORMAN LEAR CENTER, http://www.learcenter.org/pdf/Gabler.pdf (last visited Aug. 11, 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted) (citing DANIEL J. BOORSTIN, THE IMAGE: A GUIDE TO PSEUDO-EVENTS IN AMERICA 57 (2d ed. 1992) (lamenting that people used to become famous for their greatness and accomplishments).
[2] Paul ‘t Hart & Karen Tindall, Leadership by the Famous: Celebrity As Political Capital, in DISPERSED DEMOCRATIC LEADERSHIP: ORIGINS, DYNAMICS, AND IMPLICATIONS 259, 271 (John Kane, Haig Patapan & Paul ‘t Hart eds., 2009) (“Where legislatures and other institutional watchdogs are sometimes fully co-opted by executive dominance, celebrity-led initiatives can help ‘keep the bastards honest.’”).
[3] David S. Meyer & Joshua Gamson, The Challenge of Cultural Elites: Celebrities and Social Movements, SOC. INQUIRY, May 1995, at 186-87.
It is important to notice not only that celebrities affect a framing shift within a movement action, but that their participation is driven toward an issue that will allow them an insider’s claim—that is, an issue that can be framed so that anyone and everyone can “speak out” from equal ground.
Id. at 199-200.
[4] See, e.g., Starstruck, supra note 5.
[5] Id. (“[C]elebrity-focused publicity tends to gloss over crucial facts and complexities . . . [a]nd the strong amplification that celebrity voices receive in the public discourse may crowd out the perspectives provided by other, less famous interlocutors.”); accord DAMBISA MOYO, DEAD AID: WHY AID IS NOT WORKING AND HOW THERE IS A BETTER WAY FOR AFRICA 26-27 (2009).
Scarcely does one see Africa’s (elected) officials or those African policymakers charged with the development portfolio offer an opinion on what should be done, or what might actually work to save the continent from its regression [because t]his very important responsibility has, for all intents and purposes, and to the bewilderment and chagrin of many an African, been left to musicians who reside outside Africa.
Id. at 27. But see Michael Gerson, Dambisa Moyo’s Wrongheaded ‘Dead Aid’, WASH. POST, Apr. 3, 2009, (critiquing Dambisa Moyo for oversimplifying the issues, getting her facts wrong, and being a “darling” of the right).
[6] See Andrew F. Cooper, Celebrity Diplomacy and the G8: Bono and Bob As Legitimate International Actors 12-13 (Ctr. for Int’l Governance Innovation, Working Paper No. 29, 2007), available at http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&ved=0CEkQFjAB&url=http%3A%2F%2Fkms1.isn.ethz.ch%2Fserviceengine%2FFiles%2FISN%2F39553%2Fipublicationdocument_singledocument%2F09bba3df-bb5f-4650-9a4e-b23b8587dccd%2Fen%2FWP_29.pdf&ei=QAkHUPK4DoTw0gHltuWiCA&usg=AFQjCNGdvjB0lnCH0t6ajc99hWL1jt89sg&sig2=XUgOr9i3mSABze5hzGVyng [hereinafter Cooper, Celebrity Diplomacy and the G8]. For example, in all of his concerts to “relieve hunger in Africa,” Bob Geldof had only one African performer. Id.; see infra note 60 and accompanying text.
[7] Cf. Hart & Tindall, supra note 9, at 171.
[Celebrity endorsement and activism] can exacerbate the pathology of politics as a popularity contest, which greatly disfavours social problems and groups that celebrities choose not to pay attention to or shy away from (unpopular, controversial, or unglamorous causes). In-depth analysis and careful deliberation may give way to star power, clever marketing, rock concerts and cleverly made but ultimately shallow docu-pics and blogs.
[8] See, e.g., Tracy Clark-Flory, The New Celebrity Cause: Sex Trafficking, SALON (Apr. 11, 2011, 1:53 PM), http://www.salon.com/2011/04/11/child_slavery/ (dubbing anti-child-sex-trafficking campaigns––as opposed to other types of human trafficking––“the hip new celebrity-endorsed cause”).
[9] See, e.g., Chuang, supra note 192, at 1707; Haynes, Eye of the Beholder, supra note 195.
[10] See, e.g., Statement of Ricky Martin, Enhancing the Global Fight to End Human Trafficking, supra note 97, at 6 (“[T]he facts . . . speak for themselves. Each year 2 million people are victims of human trafficking. Of those, 1 million children are forced into the sex trade each year.”); see supra notes 116-25 and accompanying text.
[11] See, e.g., Dina F. Haynes, Exploitation Nation: The Thin and Grey Legal Lines Between Trafficked Persons and Abused Migrant Laborers, 23 NOTRE DAME J.L. ETHICS & PUB. POL’Y 1, 55-71 (2009) [hereinafter Haynes, Exploitation Nation] (recommending tackling poverty, liberalizing immigration, and rethinking adherence to the free market).
[12] See, e.g., Statement of Ricky Martin, Enhancing the Global Fight to End Human Trafficking, supra note 97, at 11 (describing Martin’s foundation’s “Call and Live! Program” in response to Rep. Smith’s query about how Congress should respond to human trafficking).
[W]e created PSA’s [public service announcements] Call and Live. Well, it says it all. You call and you live. . . . People will call when they are being trafficked, when they believe they are being trafficked or when they witness a case, and that moment you will be safe. 

Related posts:

  1. The Eye of the Beholder: How Bad Data, Scrambles for Funding and Professional Bias Shape Human Trafficking Law and Policy, Dina Francesca Haynes
  2. Middle East Program & United States Studies Occasional Paper Series: Rethinking Human Trafficking
  3. Fact or fiction: what do we really know about human trafficking? by Ann Jordan
  4. Human Trafficking and Globalization by Ann Jordan