That same year, Michelle Lowry submitted a thesis(1) submitted to the University of Toronto, arguing that these infomercials “deny voice and agency to the children, helping to construct a “needy” subject of Western imagination, an imagination still ripe with racist, sexist, and class-based ideologies and prejudices.” The author argues “these visits speak volumes about the racist discourses and ideologies at play in such charity projects.”
The first segment shows Ruffman visiting her seven year old daughter Aloma in Ethiopia. Lowry criticizes Ruffman and Aloma for playing a lackluster game of soccer with a “homemade” ball made from rags. Ruffman described the ball as a “brilliant African innovation.” Lowry says that Ruffman’s statement “implies that the most brilliant innovation to come out of Africa are hand-made toys for children.”
Another segment shows Gema visiting her sponsor child Bernivella in Guatemala. Gema is criticized for asking “inappropriate” and “ridiculous” questions to her foster child such as “Does it scare you a lot when you don’t have any food?”, “Do you feel sick,” and “You don’t have much energy?” Bernivella is quiet during the segment and Lowry questions whether Bernivella feels humiliated. “Zamprogna never interrogates the possibility that Bernivella could be humiliated by her lack of power and voice, and by her treatment at the hands of privileged Westerners.”
Lowry argues that the realities of racism and class oppression are not addressed in the infomercials and “Zamprogna is also not held accountable for what she says, or in this case what she does not say when she refuses to name racism and class oppression as causes of Bernivella's poverty.”
While one may question why the author is insistent that Gema engage in complex social, political and economic discourse with a child, Lowry questions the motives of the actresses charity work:
Do you agree with the author that Mag and Gema participated in World Vision charity to work through “feelings of guilt and pity” rather than providing help and awareness for those in need?How self-satisfied and charitable must the hosts have felt as they gave gifts, built houses, bought food, and sought medical help for poor children? At one point Ruffman and Zamprogna tell the viewers how good it feels to give money to help a child and how giving to others makes one feel good. The tears of the two women may speak more to their own self-therapy, a working through of feelings of guilt and pity, rather than to a true understanding of the injustices of race and class discrimination in parts of the Third World.
Do you believe that Gema should be held accountable, as the author suggests, for not discussing racism and oppression in Guatemala? Do you think Mag and Gema denied these children a voice?
(1) Lowry, M. (1998). The Construction of “needy” subjects: An Analysis of the Representation of “Third World” Children in Charity Advertising. Master of Arts, University of Ontario.