'Rescue' of women and children feeds cultural stereotyping

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Patti Duncan

The Disney film Aladdin is racist and sexist, say some critics; it stereotypes Arab culture, Arab women, and the hijab.

The film tells the story of an Americanized male protagonist who saves Jasmine, an Arab princess, from “the violence and ‘barbarism’ of her own culture,” and, says Patti Duncan, it is typical of popular representations of other cultures in which the women are imagined as needing to be rescued by westerners.

The same kinds of representations are employed for “rescuing” children, often from their families, communities, and cultures as well as from “unfit” mothers. Duncan’s research project, “Saving Other Children From Other Women: Narratives of Rescue, Migration, and Illegitimate Motherhood,” will examine depictions of the rescue of children and representations of transnational and transracial adoption  in film, visual art, and print and web-based media.

Duncan is a Center Research Fellow and associate professor of women studies in OSU’s School of Languages, Culture, and Society.

“At the heart of this study is the image of the unfit mother,” specifically the ways in which ideas about motherhood “circulate within and around these rescue narratives, shaping cultural meanings of kinship, culture, and citizenship.”  

In examining depictions of children’s rescue, Duncan will consider several films, including Born into Brothels by Zana Briski, in which white westerners attempt to prevent the sexual exploitation of the children they encounter in the global south.

“In the film, Indian children are portrayed as innocent, vulnerable, preyed upon for prostitution, and in need of rescue. Indian women, on the other hand—their mothers—are portrayed as either impoverished and incompetent, or more commonly, as hypersexualized, corrupt, threatening, greedy, and eager to prostitute their own children.”

By telling the story out of context and mostly ignoring local efforts to improve the lives of sex workers and their children, argues Duncan, the film “tells an all-too-familiar story that appeals to western notions of rescue. Why in this portrayal are the children worth saving and their mothers are not? . . . What are the processes that shape our understanding of these mothers as unfit to retain custody of their own children? And how do the children in the film come to take on symbolic value, and even exchange value, as Briski battles the Indian government’s bureaucracy to take them out of their homes and communities?”

In a process dubbed Operation Peter Pan, 14,000 Cuban children were sent to Miami in 1961-62 in response to rumors that they might be taken to the Soviet Union for indoctrination. Many never saw their families again. Operation Babylift in 1975 involved evacuation of 4,000 Vietnamese children, most not orphans but possibly vulnerable to stigmatization because of the mothers’ presumed relations with U.S. servicemen.

Such children “came to embody the losses experienced by the nations at large, and for these reasons, transnational adoption in Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere is often perceived as a source of national shame and suffering.”

Transnational adoption, says Duncan, highlights power differences between nations, with the flow of children going “from disempowered occupied nations to wealthy, dominant western nations.”

The cultural works Duncan analyzes for this portion of the study include the documentary films Daughter from Danang, First Person Plural, and Precious Cargo, as well as autobiographical writings, including Family Bonds by Elizabeth Bartholet and The Language of Blood by Jeong Trenka.  

“I ask how and why some women are depicted as ‘good’ mothers while others are ‘unfit’? . . . I will also examine the relationship between motherhood and the state in order to address the production of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ citizens.”