One of the greatest achievements in human history.
Barbara Walters wasn’t technically incorrect when she used this phrase to declare Amal Clooney as the most fascinating person of 2014. After all, Walters’ choice was a lawyer who has waged many important battles for human rights. Yet as Walters made clear in her segment, her tribute to the woman formerly known as Amal Alamuddin was inspired not by her career, but by her ability to snag Hollywood superstar George Clooney as a husband.
By honoring a worthy role model for the wrong reasons, Walters inadvertently highlighted much of what is wrong with how our culture continues to view powerful, successful women. As an ironic twist, Walters’ journalistic error also managed to overlook what is arguably Amal Clooney’s most important legacy—namely, protecting the vulnerable new frontier of Internet journalism through her representation of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
Of course, since one of Amal’s main distinctions is her prominence as an influential champion of women’s rights on the international stage, the blatant sexism in Walters’ report is particularly jarring. “Walters either has an advanced and sophisticated sense of comic timing,” writes Emily Yahr of the Washington Post, “or that she is just trolling us all.” Stephanie Marcus of the Huffington Post further argues, “Despite the fact that Amal had previously been appointed to a number of UN commissions, advises the likes of former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and was recently tasked with advising Greece on winning back the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum in London, it’s her marriage to an actor who said he’d never marry again that Walters seemed to find most fascinating.”
Susan Denley of the Los Angeles Times echoed this sentiment, describing how Walters had deftly glided over Clooney’s “robust career” to instead marvel at her ability “to land one of Hollywood’s most elusive bachelors, George Clooney. Oh, and she dresses well, too.”
There are two dimensions to the sexist prejudices at play here. The first and most obvious was the disproportionate emphasis on Amal Clooney’s physical appearance. “There is no reason to deny that Amal is a beautiful woman, but there was a disproportionate focus on her wardrobe,” explained Beth Elderkin, a writer/producer at TouchVision and former Daily Dot contributor.
As feminists have pointed out since the days of the first gender theory treatises produced by 18th century philosophers like Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the primary cultural forces contributing to gender oppression is the reduction of women to their sexual attractiveness. “Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body,” Wollstonecraft put it, “and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.” This tendency has only been further fueled by the growth of the Internet, which scholarly studies have repeatedly shown has exacerbated the mass media’s overall objectification of women.
Along with repeatedly referencing her beauty, Elderkin also noted how Walters framed Amal Clooney’s story as a commentary on her husband’s longstanding status as a perennial bachelor “instead of focusing on this important woman based on her own merit.” Elderkin says, “If you look at the length of the time when she is herself on screen and juxtapose it with the time that he is on screen by himself, he was actually there for 5 to 10 seconds longer than she was.”
In addition to reinforcing patriarchal notions about marriage roles, Walters emphasis also drew on our culture’s celebrity worship. While celebrity gossip is nothing new—sensationalized obsession with the private lives of monarchs, warriors, aristocrats, athletes, and artists can be found as back as the writings of classical historians like Herodotus and Suetonius—the digital revolution has made it much easier for those so inclined to indulge their fandom—or fanaticism. “You have so many opportunities for celebrities to develop, because there are so many platforms,” explains Stuart Fischoff, an emeritus professor of media psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, in an interview with LiveScience. “There’s this explosion of celebrity possibility.”
Unfortunately for social justice activists, Amal Clooney’s real value as a role model has been lost in this cultural whirlwind of celebrity infatuation.
Shortly after Julian Assange’s publications on Wikileaks became international news, the government of Sweden demanded that he be extradited to face rape allegations. While the veracity of the charges remains in dispute, Assange’s rights were compromised in at least one serious way: Because the identities of his accusers were kept from him, he was unable to effectively develop a case to defend himself. This inevitably led to a deeper concern among Assange’s supporters that his extradition to Sweden would ultimately be used as a pretense to present him with criminal charges for the materials he had published on Wikileaks.
According to Mark Stephens, who worked with Amal Clooney on Assange’s case, she quickly demonstrated enormous skill in handling the “difficult and complex—and politically tricky—cases” involved in protecting Assange’s civil liberties. Assange himself was even more glowing, describing her as “a friend and a lawyer with a global perspective who is not afraid to deal with corruption of power or to tackle politicised cases.” Thanks to her efforts, Assange was able to obtain asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy.
For supporters of journalistic expression, particularly as it can be realized online, the importance of Amal Clooney’s success in protecting Assange from persecution cannot be overstated. There was more at stake in this case than Assange’s personal freedom. “Journalism should be more like science,” Assange explained in an interview with the Guardian in 2010, arguing that “as far as possible, facts should be verifiable,” such as “the idea of a 2,000-word article backed by 25,000 words of source material.” This is a level of comprehensiveness that, practically, is dependent today on the Internet.
In addition to maximizing the quality of journalism in the Internet era, Assange’s case was one of the first of international import to show how cyberspace could empower whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning. Putting the Assange case in perspective, Daniel Ellsberg—a former RAND Corporation employee who changed American history by leaking the so-called Pentagon Papers in 1971, which exposed the American government’s deception about the Vietnam War—points out that “truly effective resistance to wrongful practices by one’s own group, organization or nation… may not be possible without telling secrets without authorization.” Forty years later, the same principle applied to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq “to change harmful or wrongful policies or practices (putting aside questions of accountability) will very often require exposing them to those outside one’s organization.”
Thanks to the Internet, Mike Harris of Don’t Spy On Us could accurately write that “the process [of whistleblowing] itself in the digital age has its own challenges. The scale of data disclosure is unprecedented.” Denver Nicks, author of Chelsea Manning’s official biography, summed it up more succinctly when he described WikiLeaks as the “beginning of the information age exploding upon itself.”
Years from now, Walters’ bungling of her story on Amal Clooney may be viewed as a sign of changing times in the history of journalism. Despite her undeniable role as a pioneer for women in the field, Walters still came from an era in which she could fondly recall being given lingerie by future presidential speechwriter and columnist William Safire as a professional joke to get her to “loosen up.” In light of her work defending the legal rights of those who use the Internet to expose government corruption, however, Amal Clooney deserves better than that treatment today.
Hence it seems more likely that when Clooney ’s place in history is recorded, its spirit will be captured by the headline written by Business Woman after her marriage to George Clooney was announced: “Internationally acclaimed barrister Amal Alamuddin marries an actor.”
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