Using #BringBackOurGirls to #GiveFirstLadiesSomethingToDo

When exactly did #BringBackOur Girls jump the shark and become less about 200+ kidnapped girls and the lack of regard their government has for their safety, but more about every B-lister, politician (and his wife) attempting to use the girls’ disappeared bodies in order to make themselves more visible? Was it when model Irina Shayk, that champion of women’s equality, posed topless with a placard? Or when Wesley Snipes, a bearded Mel Gibson (who once beat the veneers off his then-girlfriend’s teeth), and a lavender-jacketed Sly Stallone milled about at a photo-op at Cannes (above), holding squares of flimsy paper bearing the now ubiquitous slogan?

Even French president Hollande’s former partner, Valérie Trierweiler, accompanied by former prez Sarcozy’s current wife, Carla Bruni (who wouldn’t miss a photo opportunity if Boko Haram plonked themselves in the middle of Paris), and Julie Gayet (the French actor known for charged sex scenes with whom Hollande was having an affair last year, leading to the split with Trierweiler) are busy publicly advocating for the release of the kidnapped Nigerian girls.

It’s like the Third Wives and Undercover Lovers Club, looking for something important to #GiveThemBackTheirDignity.

Before this, France’s First Ladies never paid mind to any African anything, never mind the plight of young women caught in the middle of a failing state’s power struggles. Such subjects were just too unchic. But now, with a hashtag promising to push them into the spotlight, how could Trierweiler, Gayet, and Bruni not take advantage? Trierweiler seems to be using the opportunity to put herself back in the First Lady seat, after months of embarrassing press about Hollande having an affair with Gayet. (BTW, props to the gonads on these women, who don’t mind hanging out together after some pretty crazy times sharing a middle-manager-looking man—all just to get some camera time.)

This strategy—wherein a somber-looking first lady holds up a sign with an appeal in the form of an imperious demand—doesn’t always work. Although Michelle Obama received enormous accolades for posting a pic of herself wearing a flowery dress and a stern expression while holding a placard with a hashtag, it’s been hacked by many who called her on her bullshit and hypocrisy: some people replaced the text with #BringBackOurDrones, “Nothing will bring back the children murdered by my husband’s drones” and “Your husband has killed more Muslim girls than Boko Haram ever could” (as has Bush, Jr., to be fair). There’s even an image of Mala Yousefazi holding a placard saying “If I’d been injured by Obama’s #dronestrikes, you would not know my name.”

But so far, the tried-and-true strategy is working for the French first ladies, whose husbands haven’t sent any drones to kill brown people yet.

But pay closer attention to the video above–watch it again if you can–for exposing some of the contradictions at the heart of #BringBackOurGirls.

In the brief footage, we see Trierweiler being interviewed at the Paris protests, intended to draw attention to the issue. The entourage of white French women monopolise the photo-op. We hear Trierweiller saying the obvious to a reporter: blah blah rehearsed statement. Then, we hear an interruption: it is a black woman in a headscarf (with a small Congolese flag), shouting over Trierweiler’s inane comments, wanting to be included, to be heard.

The journos interviewing Trierweiler briefly focus on this interloper: maybe she, too, is saying the obvious, but she is passionate, powerful, and is obviously able to speak to the issue with authority. The camera focuses on that woman briefly. But Trierweiler won’t have it. She turns her head, looks. Another woman (not a white woman, BTW, but someone of either South Asian or Arab background) in the group who is facing the cameras smiles—not in friendly recognition of the shouting woman, but in condescension. Watch and you’ll recognize that “GOD! Look at them. Again with their loud ways” look. Then French film/TV director and producer Lisa Azuelos dismisses the black speaker with a simple “Eh, voila” (So, there you have it…). Eventually, Trierweiler is forced to give the woman a brief audience.

Finally, a bunch of white French women are lined up with the cliché posters (clearly made for them, not of their own making) to be photographed. A group of black women gather together separately; the video camera just pans across them while a tall photographer stands in front of them, blocking our view of them. Clearly, this women in this group were not intended for the photo-op; they are not the intended voice of France, no matter how hard they shout over First Ladies.

What happened? Rafia Zakaria, in “#BringBackOurGirls and the Pitfalls of Schoolgirl Feminism” explains that local stories are most often “transferred to a global context only when they fit the stereotypes of a majority”. I guess this is a lesson to us, Africa. If your movement is about something that is deeply compelling, has a good strategy for reaching folks, and has a well-defined, reachable goal, it will become appropriated and rendered meaningless by part-time feminists and fame-heaux who will use it to…well, heaux themselves. All before you can hashtag a new slogan.

Further Reading