One Blond Little Girl … and Many Racists in Europe

EPA/Greek Police – Maria (October 2013) (1)

My previous article ‘The Abducted Girl in Anti-Roma Imagery‘ analysed the use, notably in the early 20th century illustrated press, of the theme of the European little girl abducted by Roma. Now I will discuss the affair of the “blond angel” Maria, where the discovery of a blond little girl in a Roma camp in Greece sparked an international hysteria, with unfounded accusations of child abduction, and led to similar accusations being raised against Roma parents with blond children in other European countries. It revealed deep-seated racist stereotypes about this ethnic group. Finally, we will see that the “child abductors” are not the Roma, but the official institutions that have systematically taken away children from families of ethnic minorities.

Since this article is already very long, I had to leave out a detailed analysis of media coverage—not only the openly hateful gutter press (The Daily Beast, Daily Mail, The Sun, etc.), but also the self-styled “serious” BBC, which only propagated subtler forms of prejudice. I might return to this aspect on another occasion.

I have used many sources: first an article in Spiegel Online International (October 28, 2013), second a consolidation of the case by Natasha Dukach in Fair Observer (June 26, 2015), which contains many links to media treatment of the case, and third an extensive study of the case in the French Wikipedia, with many links to important documents, media coverage and scholarly analyses (this work was awarded the “article of quality” label by Wikipedia). See the references at the end of this post.

The story

Early in the morning of October 16, 2013, Greek police raided a Roma community in the town of Farsala (in central Greece).

Police were actually looking for drugs and weapons, but then they caught sight of this girl who looks so different than the rest of the family — and that alone sparked suspicions and fueled speculation: Maria could have been abducted or sold to a Roma family that kept the girl as an attraction, just as dancing bears were once led on chains through the towns of Europe. They could have forced her to beg or work for them, it was thought. … 10 police officers banged on the door … and then pulled Maria out of bed.
“This child is not yours; it’s white,” yelled one of the policemen. The little girl didn’t cry. The police also took along the parents, and the three of them sat in the backseat of a squad car. –Spiegel Online International, October 28, 2013

The couple claiming to be the parents of the little girl, Eleftheria Dimopoulou and Christos Salis, aged 40 and 39 respectively, were kept in police custody and interrogated.

Maria with her adoptive parents, Eleftheria Dimopoulou and Christos Salis (October 2013)

When police questioned them about Maria, they lied at first. But they eventually told the story of the Bulgarian woman, a migrant worker who placed the child in their care. Nevertheless, mistrust persisted. Dimopoulou, the mother, had a forged passport. To make matters worse, the couple have reportedly been collecting child benefits for a total of 14 officially registered children, six of which must have been born within a 10-month period, according to the information that they provided. They allegedly collected 2,800 Euros ($3,850) a month this way (Spiegel Online International).

DNA tests confirmed that Maria was not the biological daughter of Dimopoulou and Salis. The couple was charged with child abduction and forgery. Interpol released a Yellow Notice stating:

On 16 October 2013, a police operation took place in a camp near Larissa/Greece. During the operation, a little girl (approximately 4 years old) was found and the subsequent DNA check revealed that she was not the biological daughter of the couple who presented themselves as her parents. Preliminary investigations revealed that the couple abducted the minor in 2009 under unknown conditions.

The affair immediately made headlines in the European press, which in most case relayed uncritically the accusation of abduction, and sometimes spread various rumors, that Maria was forced to beg, that she was raised for prostitution, or in order to be sold in marriage at age 12, etc. And according to the Spiegel article, “Some TV reports have even speculated that the family wanted to raise Maria so they could sell her organs, and one story on organ trafficking included images of the Roma settlement.”

On October 22nd, two “blond angels” (blond Roma children with blue eyes) were found in Ireland, a 7-year-old girl in Tallaght and a 2-year-old boy in Athlone. The Guarda (Irish police) removed them from their parents, but in both cases DNA tests revealed that they were indeed the biological parents of the children; the latter were thus returned to their families (The Telegraph, October 23, 2013; The Guardian, October 24, 2013). In Serbia, skinheads attempted to abduct a fair-skinned Roma child:

On 22 October news server reported that a group of men described as skinheads almost succeeded in abducting a two-year-old child last Saturday evening from in front of his home on Šafarikova Street in Novi Sad just because the child’s skin was fairer than that of his father, Stefan Nikolić. The men accused Nikolić, who is of Romani nationality, of having stolen the child from its biological parents.
Nikolić told that when he threatened to call the police, the hooligans ran away. (, October 23, 2013)

Reuters – International appeal

Maria was put into the custody of the charity The Smile of the Child. An international appeal to find her parents was launched, which got around 9000 replies. Panayiotis Pardalis, spokesman for the charity, said that “about 10 cases of missing children around the world are “being taken very seriously” in connection with Maria’s case. They include children from the United States, Canada, Poland and France.” (CNN, October 23, 2013) But none of the cases matched Maria.

Meanwhile the last explanation given by the couple, that they had been given the girl as a baby by a Bulgarian woman who couldn’t take care of her, was confirmed by their Greek lawyer and also by residents of the Roma camp in Farsala, who said that Maria’s biological father had been visiting a few days before. Investigations led to a Roma camp in Nikolaevo, Bulgaria, where many residents show the same features as Maria. A couple with 9 children was identified, Atanas Rusev and Sasha Ruseva, aged 36 and 38 respectively; DNA tests confirmed that they were the biological parents of Maria. A check at the hospital in Lamia yielded her birth certificate, dated January 31, 2009 (GR Reporter, January 14, 2014). Here is the version given by Sasha Ruseva:

In 2008, she went to Greece to harvest oranges and gave birth to a girl there. She actually intended to name her Stanka, but since nobody at the hospital understood that, she called the baby Maria. She said she had no money to acquire papers for the child. One of the women helping with the harvest offered to take care of the child and promised: “You can pick her up her anytime.” She never took any money for the girl, says Ruseva. She worked for another few days in Greece, and then she returned to Nikolaevo, she says.
Ruseva has seen pictures of Maria on TV. “I would take her back, but I’m so poor that I don’t even have enough money to properly clothe my children,” she says (Spiegel).

Stoyan Nenov/Reuters – Sasha Ruseva with 2-year-old son Atanas (October 2013)

The article adds, “And the Greek Roma who have raised Maria are thus neither child traffickers nor thieves, but merely the two adults who have been Maria’s father and mother since soon after her birth.”

Guilty until proven innocent, human rights violated

Media coverage mostly uncritically propagated accusations of child trafficking against Salis and Dimopoulou. As writes the Spiegel article: “The principle of innocent until proven guilty — which should also apply to Roma families — was ignored by the TV reporters. Every day now, the Greek government orders Roma communities to be searched for weapons, drugs and blond children.” Similarly the police assumed that they were guilty of abducting Maria. Indeed the above-quoted Interpol Yellow Notice said “Preliminary investigations revealed that the couple abducted the minor in 2009 under unknown conditions.”

EPA/Greek Police – Maria (October 2013) (2)

The Smile of the Child also propagated the worst stereotypes about Roma, accusing Salis and Dimopoulou of the most heinous crimes without proof. According to The Huffington Post of October 19, 2013, Panayiotis Pardalis, a spokesman for the charity, said “it was obvious” that she was not a Roma girl, while its director Kostas Yannopoulos told private Skai TV “We are shocked by how easy it is for people to register children as their own … There is much more to investigate, there are other registered children that were not found in the settlement, and I believe police will unravel a thread that doesn’t just have to do with the girl.” According to CNN, October 23, 2013, Pardalis also said “We don’t have any other information if this girl was forced to work or to beg on streets.” In a video interview shown on BBC News (October, 18, 2013), Yannopoulos declared “it shows that it could be kidnapping and combined efforts of these people to buy and sell children … They will use this little girl in the streets to beg because she was blonde and everybody says she was cute.” Then in a subsequent video on BBC News (October, 19, 2013), he said “she was either sold at maternity or later abducted for begging, because they use children for begging, or later for prostitution or even worse for selling for other purposes.” The nature of this “worse” is left to your imagination.

Natasha Dukach raises an important point:

Not a single article even mentioned the possibility of human rights violations to the Roma couple. As they adopted Maria illegally and had problems with their papers, no one considered their human rights. … Each European country has its own human rights laws, and these should be applied to everyone in the country, regardless of their nationality or ethnicity. Human rights laws were not applied in the case of Maria. The media failed to report on this angle or even ask the question as to whether gypsies have human rights.

Because Maria’s adoption by the Greek couple was informal, both their parenting rights and those of the Bulgarian biological parents were not taken into account. The fact that Salis and Dimopoulou fraudulently declared 14 children in order to obtain child benefits is not a valid excuse for this. Indeed, there have often been affairs of financial or fiscal fraud involving huge sums of money, but each time the (rich and non-Roma) defrauders saw their rights respected, and their family was not broken by authorities. Incidentally, fraud on taxes and social benefits are very frequent in Greece.

As remarks Jana Hainsworth in Euractiv, society tends more and more to remove children from their families because of “bad” parenting, but in the majority of cases, the family problems are due to poverty.

The informal adoption of Maria by Salis and Dimopoulou can be explained by Roma culture. Unlike Westerners, they do not function according to the model of the nuclear family, where parents “own” their children, whose interactions with the adult world are strictly regimented. They rather follow the extended family system, where children can be raised by cousins, uncles, grandparents, etc. and there is an extensive community involvement in the raising, education and welfare of children. Living as a “homeless nation” marginalized and excluded by mainstream society, they tend to follow their own rules, and not those of the countries where they are stigmatized and marginalized. As writes Louise Doughty in The Guardian of October 22, 2013:

Informal adoption is commonplace, particularly in societies where children are raised collectively by extended family units, and families of eight or 10 are not unusual. Across the world, children in economically difficult circumstances are left with grandparents, aunts and uncles, or sometimes given away because the birth parents cannot provide for them. This is hardly a practice unique to Roma society, and it is a long way from deliberate abduction for the purposes of “child trafficking”, an assumption that the non-Roma world has been happy to make with impunity.

The aftermath

As soon as it was revealed that Maria was indeed the biological daughter of the Bulgarian Roma couple, the press immediately lost interest in her case. Most journals that had propagated the accusation of abduction soon forgot her. Some turned their coats elegantly, such as the French online journal Atlantico: on October 22 it titled ‘Greece: “the blond angel” was at the heart of a child traffick and was destined to be sold’ then on October 24 an article by Emanuela Ignatoiu-Sora titled ‘Why affairs of “blond angels” unfortunately awaken prejudices against Roma, children kidnappers.’

Maria as a toddler (c.2011)

As writes Zeljko Jovanovic in The Guardian of October 28, 2013, under the appropriate title ‘Maria is Roma — so now she will become invisible once more’:

When the glare of the media spotlight fades, Maria will go back to a life of exclusion, without basic documentation or rights … But now that it has emerged that Maria is a Roma child, it is painfully predictable that global interest in her fate will fade. Whatever the legal fate of the couple who have been charged with her abduction, Maria, like other Roma children, will have to navigate her way through life suffering illiteracy, unemployment, and segregation in education.

So it has been very difficult to find more recent information about her case (apart in the French Wikipedia article).

On June 30, 2014, the tribunal of Larissa awarded full custody of Maria to the Smile of the Child charity. The decision was motivated by the need to avoid a change of environment for the girl, who had been in the care of the charity since October 2013. She is now going to school. On November 9, 2015, the appeals court of Larissa acquitted Christos Salis and Eleftheria Dimopoulou of the charge of abduction. But for their use of forged documents, they were sentenced to suspended prison terms, 2 years for Dimopoulou and 18 months for Salis.

It seems that Bulgarian authorities intended “to remove seven of Sasha and Atanas’s other children, placing them in different social care services including an institution.” (Jana Hainsworth, Euractiv, November 13, 2013) However I have no information on what was finally decided in this case, as well as on any Greek decision regarding the custody of the other children of Salis and Dimopoulou.

EPA/Greek Police – Close-up of Maria (October 2013)

Blond angels and dark devils

When the DNA of the two blond Roma children in Ireland was shown to match that of their brown parents, the two French media France 24 and L’Express titled ‘No “blond angels” in Ireland, the two Roma children given back to their families’ and ‘No “blond angel” in Ireland: two Roma children have been given back to their parents.’ Apparently, blond children are “angels” only if they are Westerners abducted by Roma. As writes Louise Doughty in The Guardian:

She is, we have been told repeatedly, the girl Greece is calling “the blonde angel”. She is certainly blonde — and she is a young child who deserves concern as all children do, particularly those facing poverty or discrimination. Whether or not she is angelic is a matter of stereotype rather than personality. She is angelic in the eyes of the media only in stark contrast to the circumstances in which she was found: in a Roma camp in Greece, with dark-skinned parents who, DNA tests have revealed, cannot be her birth parents.

Nikolay Doychinov/AFP Getty Images – Three Rusev children inside their family home (2013) (1)

Some people have explained by a kind of genetic defect the light skin and blond hair of Maria and of some residents in the Roma settlement of Nikolaevo. “Maria’s blonde hair and pale complexion was found to be due to her biological father’s albino gene,” writes Natasha Dukach in Fair Observer. In other words, this would be some sort of accidental occurrence.

Nikolay Doychinov/AFP Getty Images – Three Rusev children inside their family home (2013) (2)

However blond hair, a light skin and blue eyes are not uncommon among Roma people. In The New York Times of October 25, 2013, Dan Bilefsky quotes Dezideriu Gergely, the executive director of the European Roma Rights Center, based in Budapest:

Mr. Gergely, a human rights lawyer who has a Roma father and a white Romanian mother, noted that many Roma, who arrived in Europe from India centuries ago and are also known as Gypsies, came from mixed families.
He himself has light skin and blue eyes, which he said punctured the widespread stereotype that Roma have dark hair and dusky complexions.

Nikolay Doychinov/AFP Getty Images – Four Rusev children inside their family home (2013)

One can guess that Westerners don’t see white children with coloured parents in the same way as the reverse:

“Imagine if the situation were reversed and the children were brown and the parents were white, would they have ever been taken away?” said Dezideriu Gergely. … “The most dangerous consequence of the hysteria is that now we have to live in fear that our children can be removed from us on the basis of a wrong perception. No one should be profiled on the basis of their ethnicity.” (Dan Bilefsky, The New York Times)

Gene Demby in NPR, October 27, 2013, inquired with readers:

We asked readers on Twitter about times when people treated them and their relatives as if they weren’t related. Some stories were funny. But sometimes the cops were called.
One Asian-American woman told us that her white adoptive parents and her white husband are assumed to be related, while she was assumed to be the person who married in. But several women of color with light-skinned children said people just assume them to be their nannies and not their parents. Several people remembered that as children, people inquired with concern about their safety — in echoes of the Roma cases, strangers thought their darker skin parents might have been abductors. (Interestingly, white or lighter-skinned parents with darker children were instead assumed to be adoptive parents.)

Greek Police – Maria (October 2013) (3)

The dark-skinned Rom is seen as a symbol of dirt and crime. For dirt, compare the image of Maria on the day of the police raid, shown at the top of this article, with the one used in the international appeal to search her parents, shown here: fingers tainted purple, unkempt hair and a distressed look in the former, then neatly combed hair, a nice pink and white sweater and a smile in the latter. According to The Huffington Post, Panayiotis Pardalis, spokesman for The Smile of the Child said “She was afraid and under some psychological pressure when she arrived. Colleagues have been trying to communicate but are struggling. She seems to understand Greek but cannot speak it. She was living under bad conditions and was very dirty but is now safe.”

For crime, I quote again the words of Gergely given by Dan Bilefsky:

“It is mystifying that those accused of criminality are seen to represent the Roma community,” he said, noting that if people engaged in human trafficking it was because of severe poverty, not their cultural background. “Applying collective responsibility to the entire Roma community is unacceptable.” … Roma advocates counter that if there is crime among some Roma, it is the byproduct of severe economic deprivation and social exclusion that allowed a minority of unscrupulous ringleaders to exploit poor people desperately eking out an existence on society’s fringes.

Who are child abductors?

In my previous article, I quoted Thomas Acton, Emeritus Professor of Romani Studies: “I know of no documented case of Roma / Gypsies / Travellers stealing non-Gypsy children anywhere.” Quite to the contrary, there are many instances of minority children being systematically removed from their families in order to be put into the custody of white middle-class families. Well-known are the plight of the aboriginal children in Canada (the “Sixties Scoop”) and Australia (the “Stolen Generations”). The Yenish are a nomadic group living in Central Europe; in Switzerland, between 1926 to 1972, 600 Yenish children were forcibly taken from their parents by the “Oeuvre d’entraide aux enfants de la grand-route”, a charity set up to “protect children in danger of abandonment and vagrancy.”

So, sadly, the accused are rather the victims, poor, marginalized and unable to defend themselves.


Further reading:

The Abducted Girl in Anti-Roma Imagery

This is the first of two articles on the use of the girl image in anti-Roma racism. Here I will describe the hundreds of years old accusation that Roma steal non-Roma children. In the next one, I will discuss in depth the case of the “blond angel” in 2013, when the presence of a blond little girl in a Roma camp led to the claim by both police and media that she had been abducted from a non-Roma family.

Note: Following European usage, I use the singular noun Rom and the plural noun and adjective Roma to designate people of this ethnicity, while the adjective Romani will designate the corresponding culture and language. There are also ethnic Roma subgroups carrying specific names: Sinti, Kale, Manush, Romanichal, etc. However well-known designations such as “Gypsy” or “Tzigane” / “Gitano” should be avoided, as they usually carry cultural and literary stereotypes.

The Roma people originated from India and migrated into Europe during the Middle Ages. For a long time it was thought that they came from Egypt, as illustrated by the novel Isabel of Egypt, first youth love of emperor Charles V written by the German romantic Achim von Arnim in 1812 (imagining a brief love affair between the Holy German Emperor and the daughter of the leader of the Roma people); indeed the word “Gypsy” comes from “Egyptian.” On the other hand designations such as “Tzigane” or “Gitano” come from the medieval Greek Atsinganos, meaning “untouchable.”

Roma were enslaved in Romania until the middle of the 19th century. In Western Europe, they have been persecuted since the 15th century, first accused of being Turks, or Turkish spies, then of being criminals. Over and over, laws and ordinances were enacted to prevent them from settling down, with various penalties for offenders: deportation, forced labour, flogging, mutilation, execution or their children to be taken away. In 1721, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI ordered the execution of all Roma adults, while children were “to be put in hospitals for education.”

Being always expelled from one place to another led the Roma people to a life of forced nomadism (similarly, during periods of persecution, Jews often moved from one town to another); from that comes the image of Gypsies living in caravans. While Jews were generally emancipated throughout Western Europe during the 19th century, the same did not happen for Roma, who were considered “born criminals.” The persecution culminated in the Nazi genocide that targeted both Jews and Roma for systematic extermination; the number of Roma victims is estimated between half and one and a half million. This genocide has been called Samudaripen (meaning “mass killing”) or Porajmos / Porrajmos / Pharrajimos (meaning “devouring” or “destruction”).

Sinti / Roma children victims of Dr. Mengele in Auschwitz-Birkenau

Sinti / Roma children victims of Dr. Mengele in Auschwitz-Birkenau

Literary depiction of Roma shows two apparently contradicting aspects. On the one hand they are presented as criminals on the dark side of humanity. For instance in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the vampire Count is transported by savage Gypsies. On the other hand the word “Gypsy” suggests a free and careless life made of travel but no hard work, with picturesque customs, clothing, singing and dance, as well as alluring and liberated women, such as Esmeralda in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, or Carmen in Prosper Mérimée’s novella and the opera by Georges Bizet derived from it. A similar dual racist stereotype holds for African-Americans, seen both as criminals and as people endowed with a very potent sexuality.

Minorities seen as dangerous are generally presented as posing a threat to children. For instance in medieval Europe, Jews were accused of killing Christian children in order to use their blood in the making of unleavened bread for Passover. Now it has been repeated over and over that Roma abduct non-Roma children. Often the abducted child is a girl, as a symbol of helplessness.

Miguel de Cervantes - La Gitanilla (book covers)

Miguel de Cervantes – La Gitanilla (book covers)

The accusation already appears in La Gitanilla (The Little Gypsy Girl), the first novella contained in the Novelas Ejemplares (The Exemplary Novels), the collection of short stories written by Miguel de Cervantes between 1590 and 1612. La Gitanilla is the story of a 15-year-old gypsy girl named Preciosa, who is said to be talented, extremely beautiful, and wise beyond her years. A Spanish nobleman falls in love with her, and after many peripeties, it is revealed that Preciosa is the daughter of a magistrate, Don Fernando de Acevedo, knight of the order of Calatrava; Preciosa’s Roma grandmother confesses to having kidnapped her as a young child and raised her as her own granddaughter. Notice the link between the qualities of Preciosa (talented, beautiful and wise) and the fact that she has been abducted, hinting that Roma as an inferior race could not have such qualities themselves; also in many book covers, Preciosa is shown having blond hair.

I searched the French illustrated “popular” press of the early 20th century for illustrations of anti-Roma racism. Les Faits-Divers Illustrés was a weekly published between 1905 and 1910, with a peculiar taste for the most horrendous crimes and the worst catastrophes. Part of the collection has been digitized by Gallica, and I downloaded there the following image (also found on Wikimedia Commons):

Les Faits-Divers Illustrés, no. 164 (10 December 1908) - Romanichels voleurs d'enfants : Une mère défend sa fille

Les Faits-Divers Illustrés, no. 164 (10 December 1908) – Romanichels voleurs d’enfants : Une mère défend sa fille

The caption translates as “Gypsies child thieves: a mother defends her daughter.” I have transcribed the corresponding article here. It tells that one morning, as gypsies had left a small town, a mother noticed the disappearance of her 3-year-old daughter.  She alerted people around her, then thought about the departed gypsies. Armed with a pole, she ran after them and saw her daughter at the front of a caravan. She snatched her and fought off the gypsies with the pole. Meanwhile, townspeople who had followed her arrived, accompanied by policemen; the latter had to use their authority to prevent people from lynching the gypsies.

Le Petit Journal was a daily published between 1863 and 1944. Politically, it was republican (in the French sense), conservative and nationalist; in 1937 it became the mouthpiece of a fascist party. Between 1884 and 1937 it published an illustrated weekly supplement. Part of the collection of the weekly supplement has been digitized by Gallica, and the website Cent.ans has an almost complete collection of the front and back covers between 1890 and 1930, often with a transcription of the corresponding articles.

The first image, downloaded from Gallica, can also be found—with different colours and contrast—on Cent.ans and on Wikimedia Commons (where it is credited to the Musée d’Histoire de la Ville de Luxembourg). The caption translates as “Child abducted by nomads.” I have transcribed the corresponding article here. Antoinette Mirguet, a 10-year-old girl, was going to school, when she was called from a caravan. As soon as she entered it, the man made the horse start. She screamed, but she was threatened with a knife. Approaching the German border, a brave vine grower heard the girl’s screams, and he warned the nomads that he would split their heads with his spade if they did not release their prisoner. Intimidated, they released her, and her savior could bring her back to her parents.

Le Petit Journal Supplément Illustré no. 585 (2 February 1902) - Enfant enlevée par des nomades

Le Petit Journal Supplément Illustré no. 585 (2 February 1902) – Enfant enlevée par des nomades

This second image, also downloaded from Gallica, can be found on Cent.ans with the transcription of the corresponding article. Calling for an “energetic law” against vagrants, it tells how a gang of nomads assaulted a 11-year-old girl who was going back home from school, taking her to a caravan. But she resisted bitterly and screamed desperately, so that the Roma had to abandon her and flee.

Le Petit Journal Supplément Illustré no. 1082 (13 August 1911) - Fillette enlevée par des bohémiens

Le Petit Journal Supplément Illustré no. 1082 (13 August 1911) – Fillette enlevée par des bohémiens

This third image comes from Cent.ans. I do not have the corresponding article. The caption, titled “A caravan went by…”, tells that a 9-year-old girl was playing when she was abducted by a Rom, tied up and gagged, then brought into his caravan, which departed. But the child managed to escape.

Le Petit Journal Illustré no. 1675 (28 January 1923) - Une roulotte passa...

Le Petit Journal Illustré no. 1675 (28 January 1923) – Une roulotte passa…

In this collection I also found several images about Roma girls, with a quite different tone. The following one comes from Cent.ans. I do not have the corresponding article. The caption tells that a little Roma girl was going to her parents’ caravan with a basket full of fish. Then wild cats, attracted by the smell, attacked her and disfigured her. Readers will notice that no mention is made about rescuing her.

Le Petit Journal Illustré no. 1656 (17 September 1922) - Attaquée par des chats affamés

Le Petit Journal Illustré no. 1656 (17 September 1922) – Attaquée par des chats affamés

The next image, downloaded from Gallica, illustrates the theme of Roma teenagers being precocious criminals: “A farmer woman attacked by Roma.” The corresponding article (with the image) is found on Cent.ans. It says that two “impudent daughters of Bohemia,” “Roma of pure race,” were begging for food. As the farmer woman said she had no food to give them, they assaulted her. Her screams attracted her husband and a hunter. The two Roma escaped but were afterwards arrested and jailed. They were aged 15 and 17. The article ends by calling on the State to address the “scourge” of people without regular home or employment.

Le Petit Journal Supplément Illustré no. 782 (12 November 1905) - Une fermière attaquée par des bohémiennes

Le Petit Journal Supplément Illustré no. 782 (12 November 1905) – Une fermière attaquée par des bohémiennes

There is also an image and an article (in No. 877 dated 8 September 1907) about Roma releasing a bear in a sheep enclosure, together with a longer one about the origin and customs of the Roma people, repeating the usual stereotypes mixing the fascination for their picturesque life with their labeling as “lazy” and “born criminal”.

The child abduction libel against Roma is also found in “children’s songs” or “nursery rhymes,” which were told to children to warn them against approaching Roma. The following one is famous in the English-speaking world:

My Mother Said… (Anonymous “Children’s Song”)

My Mother said, I never should
Play with the gypsies in the wood.
If I did, she would say;
‘Naughty girl to disobey!

Your hair shan’t curl and your shoes shan’t shine,
You gypsy girl, you shan’t be mine!’
And my father said that if I did,
He’d rap my head with the teapot lid.

My mother said that I never should
Play with the gypsies in the wood.
The wood was dark, the grass was green;
By came Sally with a tambourine.

I went to sea – no ship to get across;
I paid ten shillings for a blind white horse.
I upped on his back and was off in a crack,
Sally tell my mother I shall never come back.

These accusations repeated for centuries rest on nothing. Thomas Acton, Emeritus Professor of Romani Studies, University of Greenwich, clearly stated: “I know of no documented case of Roma / Gypsies / Travellers stealing non-Gypsy children anywhere.” In a letter to Dennis Marlock dated August 2nd, 1990 (quoted by Ian Hancock), he wrote:

Compared with the massive record of murder, theft, kidnapping and other crimes by non-Gypsies against Gypsies throughout history, Gypsy crime against non-Gypsies pales almost into insignificance, so that to prioritize the study of the latter over the former shows a twisted sense of values.

To finish, readers who want to learn more about the history of the persecution of Roma in Europe, can watch the Holocaust Living History Workshop video Porrajmos: The Romani and the Holocaust with Ian Hancock, produced by University of California Television.

Random Images: Oliviero Toscani

Oliviero Toscani (born 1942) is an Italian photographer known for designing controversial advertising campaigns for Italian brand Benetton from 1982 to 2000.  With a photoreporter father, it makes sense that Toscani would have an intimate understanding of the media and politics.  His campaigns have dealt with such issues as AIDS, racial issues, war, religion and capital punishment—all in the guise of selling clothes.

Oliviero Toscani - Benetton ad

Oliviero Toscani – Benetton ad

After leaving Benetton, his campaigns continued with men participating in homosexual behavior in 2005 and another against anorexia showing an emaciated woman in 2007,

In one of his latest campaigns, he takes on violence against women, for the magazine Donna Moderna.  The idea is ostensibly to sensitize Italians to this problem.  Boldly written words are placed under a picture of a naked boy (“executioner”) and girl (“victim”). According to Toscani, the point is that these values of how men treat women starts at an early age.  Donna Moderna even has a website where women who have suffered violence can tell their stories anonymously and ask for advice.

Oliviero Toscani - Violencia de genero 1

Oliviero Toscani – Violencia de genero 1

On the surface, this seems like a noble campaign with a courageous artist and concerned company willing to shock people to get the job done.  However, the reality is that Oliviero is a master propagandist helping his client grandstand in the spotlight.  And sensitizing people to the problem only makes the perpetrators more defensive and secretive.  The real solution to the problem is not sexy and would probably be of no interest to a big media company.  But for anyone interested, an excellent example of something that does work is the work of Jackson Katz and others that really gets under the skin of the problem to help turn it around.

Oliviero’s interest in communication technology is clear and, in collaboration with Regione Toscana, a new research facility for modern communication called ‘La Sterpaia’ was established in 2003.

Corporate Mentality and the Invisible Artist

As I have said many times, I am an avid reader of non-fiction. I have noticed over the years that people or organizations with certain political ideas tend to discuss issues in a specific way based on a set of assumed principles. It sometimes feels like they are following a script and, in some cases, they may be. One of the most pronounced examples is the way corporations communicate to the public, most commonly called Public Relations (PR). The trouble with the corporation—expressed very well in the film The Corporation—is that no matter what service or product it purports to provide, its goal is to maximize profit for its shareholders. Naturally, these companies and conglomerates do not want the public to think in this way because it interferes with sales. Because of this, the most important department in any corporate entity is its PR department. It must somehow create the impression that it is serving its customers and generally offering something for the common good.

Artists are a necessary part of advertising and perhaps in the design of a product as well. However, because a company does not want the public to be privy to its use of labor—stories of child labor and virtual slave wages is ubiquitous—they must play down the value of that labor while convincing the public that they are good corporate citizens. Money is the bottom line and so even those with the needed talent are regarded as laborers; artists and craftsman in particular are usually not given the credit for the work they would if the companies had to follow some kind of guild rules.

A case in point is this charming advertising promoting Domini Social Investments.

(Unidentified Artist) - Domini Funds Promotional Art (2014)

(Unidentified Artist) – Domini Funds Promotional Art (2014)

This fund manager promotes itself as a responsible business by refusing to invest in stocks (or other financial products) involving weapons production or some other distasteful industry. If the PR is to be believed, people can feel good doing business with them because no harm is being done. This is naive since many large corporations have entangled relationships others making this almost impossible and what about this company’s own behavior? This work of art is not credited and there has been no reply to repeated requests for more information on the history of this piece.

I did get a response in the second case. I had seen these trading cards on sale on the web—featuring girls, naturally—and was thinking of doing a short post.

(Unidentified Artist) - Forever Clover Swap Card No. 136

(Unidentified Artist) – Forever Clover Swap Card No. 136

Since the images were of low quality, I had hoped to convince the company, Forever Clover®, to not only identify the artists who made these images, but send some higher-quality images for use in this post. Following a classic corporate script, I received an email expressly forbidding me to use their artwork or even link to their site. These threatening and lawyerly letters are commonplace and are made to intimidate people who are not well-versed in the law. I assure you that we have every right under international copyright law to present a sample of their product and criticize their company.

(Unidentified Artist) - Forever Clover Swap Card No. 194

(Unidentified Artist) – Forever Clover Swap Card No. 194

(Unidentified Artist) - Forever Clover Swap Card No. 191

(Unidentified Artist) – Forever Clover Swap Card No. 191

(No Artist) - Forever Clover Swap Card No. 185

(Unidentified Artist) – Forever Clover Swap Card No. 185

These trading cards come in a variety of themes; some are embossed and some are embedded with glitter. According to their website, Forever Clover was established in 2011 and celebrates young girls and their friendships. It started with swap cards for girls (age 4–11) to collect and trade and has expanded into novels and activity books. Their PR involves a blog and other forms of interaction meant to show an interest in the girls’ lives and promote brand loyalty. You can read more about their mandate here, but you will find they express a very superficial and saccharine sentiment clothed as wholesome values.

(Unidentified Artist) - Forever Clover Swap Card No. 158

(Unidentified Artist) – Forever Clover Swap Card No. 158

(Unidentified Artist) - Forever Clover Swap Card No. 171

(Unidentified Artist) – Forever Clover Swap Card No. 171

(Unidentified Artist) - Forever Clover Swap Card No. 88

(Unidentified Artist) – Forever Clover Swap Card No. 88

It should also be noted that whoever these artists are, they are not the copyright holders; the companies are.

Alpha Girls and Secret Agents

It occurred to me after working on Pigtails in Paint for a short time that it was too easy for people to regard the appeal of little girls as a superficial exploration. I knew in my heart that there was some unspoken importance to this phenomenon, but that it would be hard for the general public to take it seriously. I decided to make a conscious effort to include more overtly socially-relevant posts, starting with ‘The “V” Word’. Naturally, Pigtails was not going to shy away from the more intimate, charming and controversial expressions of little girls, but I did not want it to be just another showcase of eye-candy.

Little did I realize that after the posting of ‘State-of-the-Art Exploitation’, there would be an almost unending series of serious issues involving little girls—and by extension, women. I have recently discovered a number of university lectures that can be viewed online by Professor Sut Jhally of the University of Massachusetts (Amherst). Jhally’s work makes me think of where I might be in the years to come. Like me, he has been a prolific reader and viewer of documentaries. Because he watches and analyzes the media intensely, he has an amazing collection of images and videos—some of which he helped produce—that he uses to illustrate his talks. His expanding contribution to the analysis of the modern market economy and how it influences our culture is too great to cover here, so readers can expect me to make periodic ongoing references to Jhally’s scholarship.

One of the most shocking revelations has to do specifically with little girls—what marketers refer to as “tween girls”. I already mentioned in ‘State of the Art Exploitation’ that one of the most important markets is children, but until now, I had not realized that it was the most important market. Children influence the purchasing choices of adults amounting to over $300 billion per year. With the advent of television, marketers began to realize that they could have exclusive access to a malleable and influential demographic. Saturday morning and after school shows began to advertise toys and other products for children. Of particular concern was the ubiquitous presence of unhealthy sugary cereals in targeted programming. In response, Action for Children’s Television (ACT), established in 1968, began to petition the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to take action about this distressing exploitation of the most naive members of our society. In 1977, the FTC proposed some seemingly reasonable guidelines, but the powerful food industry fought back hard and through its influence turned the FTC into the impotent agency it is today. What few concessions might have been made to ACT evaporated during the Reagan Administration’s mania for deregulation. A powerful illustration of the importance of little girls in market analysis is a program called the Girls Intelligence Agency. A special news report on this organization was aired on CBS—some of which can be seen in a film called Consuming Kids (2008).

Kim Kennedy - from CBS's Born to Buy? (c2005)

It is remarkable to think that billions in marketing dollars are spent on the decisions girls as young as 8 make. On the surface, this may seem empowering to girls, but when analyzed carefully, the fact is that companies are just using these girls as a relatively cheap source—cheap for the research companies, not their clients—of market research.  As shocking as this development may seem, there are companies that do something called ethnographic research where psychologists essentially stalk—with parental consent and compensation—children to observe how they interact with products, even following them into the bathroom to note their behavior during bathing or showering! An excellent book on the modern paradigm of children’s marketing is Born to Buy (2005) by Juliet B. Schor. Schor also adds that although the parents of the alpha girl sign a permission form and are aware of the nature of the event and are compensated, none of the guests are.  Any time your little girl is invited to a large slumber party, you may want to double-check what is really going on.

Also of great relevance is Jhally’s analysis of gender roles in society. Particularly, the escalating portrayals of masculinity offer some clues to the latest hysteria about child nudity and sexuality and readers can expect some of these points to appear in future posts as well.

Relevant Sut Jhally lectures here, here and here
Official Sut Jhally website
Media Education Foundation (MEF) videos website


Bug Splats

I noticed this item and it reminded me of protest street art writ large. Although it is a kind of escalation of the art form, given the magnitude of the issue, it seems perfectly appropriate here. And you will not find any local people calling this an eyesore or defacement of property.

Combat is messy, but in the modern age of advanced technology, combatants can destroy their targets from a distance, practically eliminating any emotional impact. This godlike power has no small psychological affect and drone operators often refer to kills as “bug splats”, since viewing the body through a grainy video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed. To challenge this insensitivity and raise awareness of civilian casualties, an artist collective installed a massive portrait in the Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa region of Pakistan—where drone attacks regularly occur. Now, when viewed by a drone camera, an operator sees not an anonymous dot on the landscape, but an innocent child victim’s face. The child featured in the poster is not named, but is reported to have lost both her parents and two young siblings in a drone attack.

MQ-1 Predator camera footage - Not a Bug Splat Installation (2014)

MQ-1 Predator camera footage – Not a Bug Splat Installation (2014)

The installation is also designed to be captured by satellites in the hope that it will become a permanent part of the landscape on online mapping sites. Read more here.

…Like a Girl: Lauren Greenfield

A reader just informed me of a video recently posted on YouTube. It is an advertisement in the form of a casting call asking women and girls what it means to do things “like a girl”. The video is part of a new campaign by Always, a feminine-hygiene brand of Proctor & Gamble, with the premise of boosting adolescent girls’ self-confidence. As in practically all advertising, there is no shortage of hyperbolic bravado.

“We’re kicking off an epic battle to make sure that girls everywhere keep their confidence throughout puberty and beyond…”

To give the video a feel of genuine documentary, the company hired Lauren Greenfield with a track record of films focusing on the realities and tragedies of growing up in “the shadow of Hollywood” such as girls lamenting that they are not yet old enough to get cosmetic surgery—legal with parental consent at age 15. It is true that Greenfield has witnessed one of the most destructive forms of peer pressure revolving around money but, true to form, savvy advertisers focus on a superficial catch phrase and use it to create the impression that their client is a good corporate citizen. The catch phrase is neither the real problem nor the key to a real solution.

First, we see some adults act out actions like “run like a girl”, “throw like a girl”, “fight like a girl”, etc. to illustrate the stereotype and then young girls are brought in—presumably not yet affected by the stereotype—to show that doing it like a girl just means doing their best. The first girl shown is Dakota (age 10) and is followed with cuts of many others. The unfortunate thing about commercial advertisements is that they are not required to credit the actors like they do in other films, so nothing is really known about the girls.

Lauren Greenfield - Always LikeAGirl (2014) (1)

Lauren Greenfield – Always LikeAGirl (2014) (1)

Lauren Greenfield - Always LikeAGirl (2014) (2)

Lauren Greenfield – Always LikeAGirl (2014) (2)

Lauren Greenfield - Always LikeAGirl (2014) (3)

Lauren Greenfield – Always LikeAGirl (2014) (3)

As I reminded readers in ‘The Publicity Dilemma’, corporations are mandated to make the maximum profit possible and whenever they engage in public goodwill campaigns, there is necessarily (and legally) a less noble agenda behind it. Sometimes, it is just a short-term PR effort to compensate for some bad press the company may have received. But in this and many other cases, the company conducts an ongoing effort to foster an image of genuine concern over a specific demographic meant to enhance customer loyalty. As explained in ‘State of the Art Exploitation’, the younger the better and so we see a subtle attempt here to target girls who are not yet ready to use their products.

It is also something of an insult to girls’ intelligence that—at the “tender” age of ten—they do not already understand this stereotype or would be emotionally affected by it if it weren’t for the meanness at which it was hurled at them. It is still commonplace for marketers—with varying degrees of subtlety—to treat girls and women condescendingly. A strong illustration of this can be seen in ‘The Tyranny of Cheerfulness’.

In their campaign, Always encourages girls to offer their feedback and we can expect them not to heed or post any dissenting opinions. Therefore, in the interest of fairness, I invite girls and women to use Pigtails in Paint as a venue for expressing their disdain for such a cynical campaign. Be advised that I, too, have editorial control and will not allow this site to become a hate fest!

The Publicity Dilemma: Girl Rising

Coincidences never cease to amaze me. While I was reading Tina Rosenberg’s remarkable book, Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World (2011), I rented a video, Girl Rising (2013), that just became available. I am almost sure that Rosenberg and the producers of Girl Rising do not know about each other and yet the stories complement each other so well. Girl Rising is a non-profit fundraising organization that distributes money to worthy causes that support the advancement of girls throughout the world—in this case, a girl’s right to an education.

The dilemma is that whatever horrific things are happening throughout the world, that information still needs to be collected and passed on to those who might do something about it; that is the simple reality. The problem today—with consolidated corporate media and the need to operate under capitalist principles—is that anyone dedicated to getting the word out must find the money for production and distribution, even for the noblest of causes. Therefore, the producers of Girl Rising took a chance and gambled that money that might have been used to open about 100 schools around the world, would be better spent producing this film in the hopes of raising even more money for these girls. In the case of Join the Club, Rosenberg had to use hard work and her reputation to convince a publishing company to promote her book so it could be read by people like me.

Girl Rising tells the story of nine girls and how they got access to an education and resist cultural pressures that would deprive them of it.

Sokha is from Cambodia, orphaned, and was found collecting recycling at a landfill to survive. This is a common story throughout the world and reminds me of the documentary Waste Land (2010) about an artist (Vik Muniz) who brought the public’s attention to garbage workers in Brazil. This story is a bit short on details, but this girl dreamt of wearing a crisp school uniform like the other girls and it came true.

Martha Adams, Richard E. Robbins and Tom Yellin - Girl Rising (2013) (1)

Martha Adams, Richard E. Robbins and Tom Yellin – Girl Rising (2013) (1)

Wadley is from Haiti and went to school until the big earthquake that devastated that country. The realities of money then became apparent as only those who had it could still send their children to school. Here we see Wadley—sometimes girls acted in their own stories; sometimes actors were hired—defiantly refusing to leave the classroom and the teacher finally gives in and lets her stay.

Martha Adams, Richard E. Robbins and Tom Yellin - Girl Rising (2013) (2)

Martha Adams, Richard E. Robbins and Tom Yellin – Girl Rising (2013) (2)

Suma is from Nepal and although it was officially banned, a kind of indentured servitude is still practiced. Suma tells her story through song about the three masters she had to serve starting at age six. They and their families all treated her badly until she met a teacher who convinced the third one to release her. She then worked to help free others by putting public pressure on these masters. This story is an example of what Rosenberg calls “The Social Cure”. When people are organized and can create a perception of something being popular or extremely unpopular, they can use the power of the crowd to motivate people to do the right thing.

Martha Adams, Richard E. Robbins and Tom Yellin - Girl Rising (2013) (3)

Martha Adams, Richard E. Robbins and Tom Yellin – Girl Rising (2013) (3)

Yasmin from Egypt is a story of a girl that was lured away by a man to be raped. In this case, she was able to valiantly fend off her attacker with a makeshift weapon. She refrained from killing the man and this scene shows her with her mother explaining their story to the police. The political reality is that this man was well-to-do and so the family could get some financial compensation, but not the kind of proper justice the family had hoped for. The man is still free and so a pseudonym is used for the girl in this story. It is because of things like this that families are motivated to marry their girls off young and forego school.

Martha Adams, Richard E. Robbins and Tom Yellin - Girl Rising (2013) (4)

Martha Adams, Richard E. Robbins and Tom Yellin – Girl Rising (2013) (4)

Asmera is from Ethiopia and she did not have an unpleasant childhood or family life, but it does illustrate how personal tragedy can devastate a family. Her father died and then an older sister, so the village elders were putting pressure on the widow to “save” Asmera by having her marry young. She was rescued by her older brother who finally convinced the mother not to let her marry and to continue her schooling.

Martha Adams, Richard E. Robbins and Tom Yellin - Girl Rising (2013) (5)

Martha Adams, Richard E. Robbins and Tom Yellin – Girl Rising (2013) (5)

Ruksana is from Bengal, India and her family lives in a makeshift house on a sidewalk in the city. Education is a priority for this family but living on the streets as they do is not safe for girls so the mother and the two girls were sent to a shelter for a time. There is one happy moment when she is brought to a shop and the father spends some money on her so she can have color markers and a tablet for her drawings which she uses to express her dreams of a better life.

Martha Adams, Richard E. Robbins and Tom Yellin - Girl Rising (2013) (6)

Martha Adams, Richard E. Robbins and Tom Yellin – Girl Rising (2013) (6)

Senna lives high in the Andes in Peru and uses poetry to express herself. Her father had a tough job as a miner and hoped for better things for Senna by insisting she go to school. He fell ill and died, but Senna (named after Xena, the Warrior Princess) managed to get a good job and become an “engineer”, a class of people who can make a living without working in the mines.

Martha Adams, Richard E. Robbins and Tom Yellin - Girl Rising (2013) (7)

Martha Adams, Richard E. Robbins and Tom Yellin – Girl Rising (2013) (7)

Mariama lives in Sierra Leone and is actually a regular teenager. She got a job at a radio station giving other girls advice that really helped. This is another illustration of the “The Social Cure”. The thing about giving advice is that it will only be listened to if someone respects the person giving it. Being a teenage girl herself, Mariama had credibility and could affect real change in other girls. Unfortunately, peer pressure from her uncle’s friends, compelled him to forbid her from working at the station anymore. Fortunately, she was able to persuade her uncle’s wife to help her get him to change his mind and recognize the important work she was doing.

Martha Adams, Richard E. Robbins and Tom Yellin - Girl Rising (2013) (8)

Martha Adams, Richard E. Robbins and Tom Yellin – Girl Rising (2013) (8)

Amina from Afghanistan is another whose identity had to be kept secret for her own safety. It is a simple story, but due to the severe policies of the Taliban, girls in much of the country are denied access to education. There are some organizations making headway and getting at least some of girls surreptitiously back to school.

Martha Adams, Richard E. Robbins and Tom Yellin - Girl Rising (2013) (9)

Martha Adams, Richard E. Robbins and Tom Yellin – Girl Rising (2013) (9)

Since the U.S., U.K. and Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan is ostensibly to combat terrorism, it is worth mentioning that Rosenberg described at length some possibilities for a “Social Cure” in that arena as well. As it happens, many of the young men willing to martyr themselves and promote violent action are London Muslims alienated by the surrounding Westerners and their culture. This kind of isolation means that any rash or radical ideas by compatriots (or imams at the pulpit) gain more credibility than one would normally expect and gets reinforced within the group until they are motivated to do something extreme to look good in the eyes of their peers. Western authorities make the mistake of not understanding this dynamic and not taking obvious steps to mitigate it. Fortunately, there are some organizations making some progress, paralleling similar efforts to eliminate gang culture in Europe and North America.

Rosenberg spends a lot of time describing one success story of Otpor! (Resistance!), a Serbian group run by young people and the key to president Slobodan Milošević’s ouster. There are many reasons for its success involving “The Social Cure”, but what was most remarkable is how young some of the participants were. In one instance, when the police were cracking down particularly hard, one of the leaders found a few 10-year-old girls to place stickers in the windows of the prominent businesses in Belgrade near the Otpor! headquarters; the police didn’t have a clue. I can just imagine the pride of these girls participating in this great adventure, mugging in front of the camera for a publicity shot. To the best of my knowledge, such a shot only exists in my imagination.

Regarding the stories in Girl Rising, it is hard not to be moved by them and I personally support sincere efforts to give girls a proper education and freedom from poverty. But having a carefully-honed skepticism made the production of this film feel a little fishy. Because of the agendas of certain institutions, carefully crafted messages have a distinctive character. This one has a kind of slick blandness that you see in productions that are being careful not to offend anyone in the hopes of gaining a wide audience.

One of the first things I found out about Girl Rising is that it does not conduct any of the logistics of programs that support girls; it is strictly a fund-raising organization and distributes the money evenly among a number of organizations doing actual work in the field. It is as though it is a self-appointed public relations arm of these organizations. These organizations are referred to as partners, but partnerships imply a two-way relationship. Visiting each of the websites of these “partners” did not give me any sign that they acknowledged Girl Rising. Except for whatever publicity the film offered, it does not appear that any other service is provided to these organizations. Therfore, if you are inclined to contribute, it would make more sense to contribute to these partners directly. The convenience of donating through Girl Rising will incur two fees: a 5% fee to a company that provides the financial transaction software application for the website and another 3.5% fee to a financial services company that disseminates the money as directed. The partners themselves, though, seem worthy of attention: A New Day Cambodia, CARE, Girl Up/United Nations Foundation, Partners in Health, Plan International USA, Room to Read and World Vision. I should add that Plan International has been tracking a story about 200 Nigerian schoolgirls who were abducted from their school in April. They are still at large and PI is attempting to pressure the Nigerian government to make a more concerted effort to get them back.

The other disturbing thing about Girl Rising is the heavy corporate sponsorship. Intel is a Founding Partner and a number of companies including Bank of America, Charles Schwab, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase are called Mission Allies. I single out these companies because these “too big to fail” financial giants have had a big PR problem after the unpopular U.S. government bailout. It should be understood that although these corporations have budgets for improving their image, their obligation to stockholders means they cannot expend more than token funds on philanthropic endeavors unless it also affords some opportunity for market expansion.

See also: The “V” Word

A Second-a-Day

It is so easy to be out of touch with the latest technology as it is changing so rapidly around us. One of the remarkable new phenomena is the practice of using one-second clips and patching them together to tell a story. On one level, it is an interesting innovation but it also speaks to the need to find new ways to catch our attention while we are bombarded by media imagery. It also speaks to the diminished attention spans of those who have adapted well to the use of certain new technologies.

Ordinarily, I would wait to post something like this until it was properly researched since little material that comes my way is particularly timely. However, an associate of mine—who sends me a lot of curious leads—sent me this one. It is a second-a-day film just posted on YouTube on March 5, 2014. It is a part of the Save the Children, UK’s Syria campaign. It covers the change of circumstances of a little girl from one of her birthdays to the next in a theoretical scenario in which military aggression has taken place in the U.K.  Watch the video here.

Save the Children, UK (2014) (1)

Save the Children, UK (2014) (1)

Save the Children, UK (2014) (2)

Save the Children, UK (2014) (2)

This is an impressive little actress as the rigors of composing this piece and the sincerity of her numb expression at the end demonstrate.

By the time I got to see the video, there were already a lot of comments: I would say the usual gamut of mindless sentiment and requisite hate-mongering. One comment caught my eye because it is something I might have said if I hadn’t given it deeper thought. I think the commenter’s eagerness made him or her too hasty. Nonetheless, the idea was a valid one and one that I have made a few times on this blog (here and here): namely, the image of a little girl is a compelling one and that fact has not escaped the notice of top publicity people. The detractors were equally hasty, condescendingly pointing out that this is a non-profit organization and that perhaps such patent manipulation might at least have a noble purpose. Now, I am not personally familiar with Save the Children and I will not risk defamation by making declarative statements about that organization specifically. But I have learned in my years of study that almost any organization big enough to be known to the general public is driven by monetary forces that inevitably distort its stated mission and it is wise for us to view any publicity—whether it be called advertising, public relations or propaganda—with skepticism.

On another note, I would be delighted to know more about the production of this video. Perhaps the actress (or her family) will have interesting stories to tell about being selected and fascinating facts about its shooting.

The Tyranny of Cheerfulness

I have to admit that this delightful turn of phrase is not mine; it comes from Dr. Samantha King, author of Pink Ribbons, Inc., Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy. As many readers know by now, I watch a lot of documentaries and two remarkable things continue to surprise me: films that I never thought would be worth the bother happen to be the best films and little girls persistently make their presence known in history, art and the media.

I already wrote about the cynical use of children’s charm to promote products in my State of the Art Exploitation post, but what follows is one of the worst examples I have seen to date. When I first saw it, I knew it had to appear on this site. This clip is an excerpt from the film Pink Ribbons, Inc. directed by Léa Pool and produced by Ravida Din. There are many powerful points made in this documentary, but the one illustrated here is how the color pink is used to inappropriately soothe the impact of a truly horrible disease, namely breast cancer.

I included a short bit from Barbara Ehrenreich—well-known author and a woman coping with the disease herself—about how hurtful and condescending it is to promote these ubiquitous pink products and insist that women be cheerful through the ordeal. Ehrenreich became interested in this “cancer culture” when she was diagnosed and instead of doing personal research on treatment options, she became fascinated by this monstrous phenomenon. The second part of the clip is an advertisement from The National Breast and Ovarian Cancer Centre, Australia Campaign 2005. It is composed of a charming series of vignettes—as if patched together from home video footage—of girls padding their bras and playing with the idea of their bodies’ future development.

Ravida Din and Lea Pool Pink Ribbons Inc. (2012) excerpt

For those who are interested, I would like to share a couple of illuminating highlights from the film. The pink ribbons are everywhere and events all over the world are promoting breast cancer awareness and raising money, but the dark side of this is that it evolved to support the megacorporations’ balance sheets. To foster goodwill with their customers, they have engaged in token fund-raising efforts that do not focus the efforts in an effective or coordinated way. The apex of this hypocrisy occurs when the consumer products that promote cancer awareness actually contain known carcinogens!

Even the story of how the pink ribbon got started is an interesting one. It began with Charlotte Haley who after having lost a number of friends to the disease, sent cards with ribbons stapled on them to heighten awareness. In fact, the ribbons were more salmon-colored and when Estée Lauder and Self Magazine approached her and wanted to use her idea, she refused knowing it was only to promote their bottom line. They consulted their lawyers who simply advised them to change the color. Millions of dollars is thrown at the problem and there is no accountability on how it is spent and anyone knowledgeable about the history of cancer research knows there is a disgraceful lack of funds going toward prevention or studying the disease in minorities.

Women and men should be angry about these developments and it feels as though the pink (a deliberate marketing choice of color) is used to deflect militant protests that might stimulate real change into inane events that make people feel better, but does little or nothing to help people.

The following have nothing to do with the film but have worthwhile information most people know nothing about: