Remember when I was all “The KONY 2012 campaign is ineffective! Raising awareness doesn’t work!”? Well, the truth is that as much as I’ve come to dislike the phrase, raising awareness can be a useful tool. At its core, raising awareness is about educating people (in a much broader sense than I’ve been using it thus far; I mean education as it extends to people beyond students and situations beyond schools and universities). Suppose no one ever put effort into educating people about the dangers of factory life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Or campaigning about smoking, or lead paint, or contagious disease. Society is constantly developing and evolving, and people benefit from recognizing mistakes. After all, it’s only through the process of identifying weaknesses that we can create effective improvements.
So I want to draw a comparison today between two films that are very similar on the surface, both nominally intended to “raise awareness,” but whose potential impact is wholly divergent. The first is KONY 2012, which I mentioned briefly earlier. (Hah. Briefly.) The second is Two Spirits, which tells the story of Fred Martinez, a Navajo teenager who was biologically male but embraced femininity as well and was murdered for it at age 16. In Western terminology, Fred would fit under the category of transgender, which makes the film a good vehicle for awareness about anti-LGBT hate crimes. However, Two Spirits also challenges the Western concepts of gender and sexuality, which are primarily binary, even from the perspective of the LGBT community itself. In Navajo culture, people who embody both men and women are revered and referred to as Two-Spirits. Being transgender doesn’t just mean being male-to-female or female-to-male, but encompasses a huge spectrum of gender expression, the same way that sexual orientation includes a lot more than just hetero- or homosexuality. Two Spirits
makes this point wonderfully through its treatment of Fred’s life and untimely death and its thorough presentation of Two-Spirit people throughout Navajo history.
Now you’ve got a background on both films, and you’ll notice that both address issues of social justice, both elicit a strong emotional response, and both have connected campaigns for not much more than greater publicity. What’s the difference? Why haven’t I torn apart Two Spirits yet? Well, for one, Two Spirits doesn’t try to oversimplify a colossal issue like the wars in Central Africa to the point of misrepresentation. It’s also not intended to garner support for one specific organization, and the film itself doesn’t have a tangible goal the way the KONY campaign did. That may sound counter-intuitive, but let’s face it, the goal of arresting Joseph Kony is about as concrete as you can get, and that didn’t make it any more meaningful.
The difference actually seems to be rooted in each film’s subject matter. Issues of gender expression and discrimination lend themselves very well to discussion, which is innately helpful in opening people’s minds. War crimes that aren’t explained fully…not so much. They certainly spark discussion, but the conversation itself isn’t anywhere near a solution, and Invisible Children merely proffered Band-aids that perpetuated a cycle of media production and fundraising.
The Two Spirits campaign is much different, and very nicely suited to provoking dialogue: they want to get copies of the film to libraries and universities across America, which is fantastic since it opens the door for conversation to anyone with a library card. (Man, I really need to write an ode to libraries. Next week, next week.) If you’re interested and able to help, they’re raising money for that goal throughout the summer. Your support is greatly appreciated.*
*I will totally bake you cupcakes if you donate.