The day that Angelina Jolie was appointed to LSE as a visiting professor at the Centre for Women, Peace and Security, it was all over my social media accounts, and several friends sent me messages asking if I had seen it. Even though I was in the middle of a few days of intense fieldwork, I knew I had things to say about this:
In the few days that have passed, several people on Twitter have given their takes, many of those thoughts well-considered.
I’m truly ambivalent about her appointment. I recognize that LSE has a status and a brand to maintain, and the university’s Centre for Women, Peace and Security and its MSc program will benefit from the exposure that Jolie brings. (I’ve participated in an LSE WPS Centre-sponsored workshop and hope to more in the future, but that is not censoring my thoughts here. I am also not addressing the lack of uproar over relative qualifications of former UK foreign secretary William Hague, a gendered response for sure.) These sorts of appointments happen often, especially from people who have been involved in policy practice. And it could have been worse:
My problems with her appointment come more from what work her celebrity activist position does in the WPS agenda, how it distorts priorities and politics already in the WPS resolutions.
Celebrities reinforce stratification and hierarchy that was present before. When UN Security Council Resolution 2106, which focused on sexual violence, was passed in June 2013, Jolie addressed the Security Council in the debate preceding the resolution. By contrast, the speaker who addressed the Security Council for Resolution 2122—which focuses on including women at all phases of conflict prevention, conflict resolution, and peacebuilding—in October 2013 was Brigitte Balipou, a lawyer and member of the Constitutional Court of Central African Republic. Balipou is prominent in international legal circles but is certainly no celebrity. In October 2015, Resolution 2242 was passed, also a broader discussion of gender in peace and security as well as countering violent extremism; the prior debate saw remarks from high-level policymakers and advocates but no celebrity activists.
The effect of using celebrity activism in urging the Security Council to pass a resolution addressing sexualized violence lends legitimacy to this resolution and its focus on sexualized violence as an issue that those who might not otherwise pay attention to the United Nations should care about, the “fetishization of sexual violence,” as Sara Meger has written. The discrepancy in the advocacy between these resolutions illustrates that enlisting a celebrity for policy work lends legitimacy as well as spurs donors, casual observers who might become involved in advocacy work, and governments to devote attention to the issue. In essence, because of Jolie’s advocacy, there is likely an unintended consequence of attempting to address sexual violence in conflict without addressing the underlying political and economic factors that contribute to it, both during conflict and before and after.
While there is, perhaps, some “academic snobbery” in criticizing Jolie’s new appointment, neither is her presence an unalloyed good. As Lauren Wolfe points out in a defense of Jolie from two years ago, “the attention economy for truly caring about suffering is tiny.” Yet it is this, allowing suffering to become part of an “economy” – making it a political problem to be debated, toward which to allocate resources that can be taken away in the next moment, that addressing suffering of any type is vulnerable to market forces is what is the problem with her attention.
Wolfe goes on: “Now we just need governments to take on the complex problems that lead to rape in war and the needs of survivors after the fact.” Herein lies the problem. This sentence is essentially an afterthought in her post, but it is the crux of remedying gender inequality and gender-based violence in both conflict and peacetime. Having policies on women’s issues (and broader gender issues) rest on activism, whether that is celebrity or grassroots, instead of spurring government action means that these issues will never receive sustained attention.
As one of my research participants told me recently, “Activism is exhausting, but we must keep doing it, or people will stop paying attention.” With policies for women relying on women’s activism, governments and policymakers can continue to use women as a tool when it is politically expedient.
Truly, Jolie’s attention to the rights of women, especially to combatting sexual violence in conflict, is genuine. But universities, especially centers devoted to the WPS agenda (and the career academics that are part of this center, who I know to be invested in women’s security and rights as a holistic endeavor), should be cautious about involving celebrities, even when it brings much-needed attention.
Travel and research notes
Fieldwork and travel in Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Mali, as well as Burkina Faso, Morocco, Tanzania, South Africa, and wherever else I end up. Plus occasional research-related thoughts.