When Kim Kardashian visited US President Donald Trump last month to talk about prison reform, she became the latest in a long line of celebrities to tackle a social issue. In such a celebrity-driven world, having a famous face attached to a social awareness campaign is almost mandatory.
But the “celebration” social change can also be dangerous, blurring the line between entertainment and information.
Celebrities are particularly present in campaigns against human trafficking. Ashton Kutcher, Ricky Martin, Demi Moore, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Emma Thompson have all been heavily involved in anti-trafficking campaigns. Other celebrities like Kristen Bell and Carrie Underwood have lent their support to the cause through Instagram posts raising awareness of the issue.
Recently, comedians Amy Schumer and Seth Meyers starred in a public service announcement in support of controversial new legislation in the United States aimed at reducing sex work in the name of preventing sex trafficking.
The involvement of these celebrities undoubtedly helps bring attention to the problem of human trafficking. Celebrities are the storytellers of our time, capitalizing on their “capital of attention” to set trends. We buy what they wear and we follow their example.
As social activists, they bridge the gap between brand and cause ambassador, between peddler and humanitarian. A clear example of this is Demi Moore’s 2011 partnership with a jewelry retailer to sell diamond handcuff pendants, with part of the proceeds going to support the anti-trafficking foundation created by Moore and her then-husband, Ashton Kutcher.
Making it fashionable to care about human trafficking is a job best suited to celebrities, but the presence of movie and TV stars at the forefront of awareness campaigns can fuel the expecting real victims of trafficking to look like the ones we see on TV or the big screen. .
Sexual slavery, a popular scenario in Hollywood
Human trafficking, especially sexual slavery, is a popular storyline in entertainment media. The 2008 hit film Taken, starring Liam Neeson as the father using “a very particular set of skills” to rescue his teenage daughter from traffickers, was a smash hit, earning over US$200 million and spawning two sequels and a TV show. .
Sex trafficking stories have featured in other movies like The Whistleblower and Trade, and numerous TV shows including Criminal Minds, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Hawaii Five-O, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, NCIS: Los Angeles, Without a Trace and the Wire.
The wide reach of film and television means we are more likely to hear about human trafficking in a fictional context, before reading about it in the news or learning about it through a campaign awareness.
But what if real traffic stories don’t live up to the Hollywood hype? What if the stories weren’t so horrifying? What if trafficking victims aren’t found tied to a bed in a seedy abandoned building, like in Law & Order: SVU, or rescued from a yacht after a gun fight and a knife, as in Taken? Shows like Law & Order claim to be pulled from the headlines, but include disclaimers that the characters are fictional. Whether true or not, these stories have the power to shape our understanding of the problem of human trafficking.
The lines between entertainment, infotainment and information become blurred, especially when we are told true stories of being trafficked by the very people who might play heroes on screen. While Demi Moore Tells Real Trafficking Stories on CNN, Ex-Husband Bruce Willis Battles Fictional Traffickers in Acts of Violence.
Entertainment and awareness converge, creating a set of expectations to be met. The trafficking stories are supposed to be action-packed examples of evil, featuring role-matching victims, villains, and heroes.
Hollywood’s damsels in distress miss the mark
True stories of human trafficking are significantly more diverse than those presented in the entertainment media. The real victims, most often exploited because of their precarious immigration status and desire to work, have more in common with illegal migrants than with Hollywood’s damsels in distress.
The entertainment industry presents a very narrow narrative of human trafficking, characterized by sex slaves, evil gangsters and armed heroes.
A more accurate depiction would depict labor exploitation inside and outside the sex industry, governments more inclined to expel than to protect, and victims who are not always passive and weak. . But that may not ring true for audiences expecting sex, violence, and a damsel who must always be in distress.
The task of identifying and protecting victims of trafficking becomes much more difficult if they are not like those we see in entertainment stories, especially when trafficking stories are so often told by celebrities. The Kim Kardashians of the world certainly have a role to play, but we must be wary, especially since Donald Trump clearly demonstrates the dangers of entrusting reality TV stars with the task of saving humanity.
Dr Erin O’Brien is a senior lecturer in the School of Justice at Queensland University of Technology.