Should Well-Meaning Celebs Like Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore Think Twice Before Diving Into Complex Social Issues?
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Last week, a comedy video in which Canadian rapper/singer/actor Drake punches a cute-looking robot went viral. Debuting on the humor website Funny or Die, which frequently produces similar skits starring various famous people, the clip made the rounds from Tumblr feeds to rap websites, which generally posted it either without comment or characterized it as a video specifically made by Funny or Die.
It was easy to see why bloggers would make the latter distinction, though it wasn’t accurate. Titled “Real Men are Distrustful of Robots,” it came off like any other spoofy video the site would create... except for the end, which faded out into Jessica Biel standing in room full of framed photos of “Real Men,” like Burt Reynolds, Bruce Willis, and Harrison Ford. “David is a real man,” she asked. “Are you?” After which a text placard appeared: “I AM A REAL MAN... I PREFER A REAL MAN... TAKE A STAND AGAINST CHILD SEX SLAVERY... demiandashton.org.”
Part of DNA, a new foundation started by Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher to raise awareness of and “help abolish” the global sex slave trade, the Drake clip was but one in a series of humorous yet confusing videos starring celebrities like Justin Timberlake, Jamie Foxx, and Ben Stiller doing/extolling the things that “Real Men” do or don’t do. They equate manhood with activities like using a remote, taking pain, having a sense of direction, and, uh, punching robots. All of which are used to frame the idea that “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls.”
The concept was noble, but the videos were wildly confusing. Not to say using humor to raise awareness for a cause is bad –– "whatever works" is a personal motto for organizing activism –– but DNA’s brand of levity did not draw attention to the specifics of sex slavery, nor did the jokes correlate to anything at all, other than some mildly funny, mostly stereotypical concepts of masculinity. As Videogum blogger Gabe De La Haye wrote in a post entitled Ashton Kutcher’s Anti-Sex Slavery PSAs are Insane:
Look, you can’t criticize them too much because at the end of the day they are trying in their very weird (you’ll see) way to make the world a better place. But you can criticize them a little bit. For example, here’s a criticism: I’m pretty sure that anyone who is interested in buying a CHILD SEX SLAVE isn’t going to be particularly swayed by AN IRONICALLY CLEVER ADVERTISEMENT FEATURING JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE THAT PLAYS ON MODERN CONCEPTS OF MASCULINITY.
At their foundation launch party, CNN interviewed Moore and Kutcher, and asked about the "blowback" they’ve received from the videos. "If you want to reach those that have no concept that it even exists," said Moore, "you have to reach them in the ways in which... it’s going to be met with interest. Sometimes that requires a level of humor." Kutcher continued, "The campaign’s designed for a young male demographic."
Clearly, Kutcher is the unofficial spokesperson for the country’s "bro" contingent, and it stands to reason he’d tap into Punk’d-style humor to generate interest in a cause that, to generalize, might not necessarily be up on that matter. That’s his audience. But for a man who famously garnered over 1 million twitter followers in a few weeks long before Twitter was as commonly used as it is now, it’s misguided that he would narrow and confuse the message with skits and locker room humor in lieu of just using his straightforward voice. People clearly listen to him and to Moore, whether they’re being wacky or not. In this era of diminished attention spans, spelling out the issue would likely prove more effective than simply throwing out a video and hoping it goes viral. Or, more effectively, donating time and money to an already-established organization. On Sunday, Nicholas Kristof dedicated his New York Times column to sex trafficking in the U.S., and pointed out one such place: Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS) started by Rachel Lloyd, who was sexually exploited as a teen and has just released Girls Like Us, a memoir of that experience.