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Mia Farrow: dieting for the cause

A narcissistic ‘hunger strike’ for Darfur is getting far more attention than protests without celebrity endorsement.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics World

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You would be hard-pressed to find information in the international media about Parameswaran Subramanian. ‘Parame-who?’ you’re probably asking yourself. Subramanian is the 28-year-old Tamil student who went on hunger strike on 7 April as part of an ongoing protest against the Sri Lankan government’s assault on the Tamil Tiger separatists. ‘I will die here’, said Subramanian two weeks into his protest outside the British parliament.

Unlike Subramanian, who broke his fast on the twenty-fourth day following assurances from the British government that it would help to bring about a ceasefire in Sri Lanka, a hunger-striker wishing to bring attention to the plight of Darfurians has received a significant amount of media attention.

Mia Farrow, UN goodwill ambassador and star of movies such as Rosemary’s Baby and Hannah and Her Sisters, set a relay diet for Darfur in motion last month – and it caused a global media flurry. Upon announcing that she would hole herself up in her comfy New York flat for 21 days without food as an act of solidarity with the people of the Darfur region of Sudan, she was inundated with calls from the press.

‘Day one was crammed with radio and TV interviews’, she wrote on her blog. ‘Good Morning America’s Chris Cuomo began the segment with “Darfur is back in the news” and at the end he read out the staggering realities. This is what I hoped for, to bring focus to Darfur. Larry King’s satellite dish rolled down my dirt driveway at 8:30pm. It looked like something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. By then I was a little loopy.’

A few days into her 21-day ‘hunger strike’ (‘fast’ would be a more accurate term for a set period of food abstention), Farrow modified her target to 16 days – one day for each of the 16 aid agencies that have been expelled from Darfur. It was these expulsions that triggered Farrow’s decision to Do Something and so she set about starving herself for the sake of the hungry Africans who are suffering because of the ongoing violent conflict in Sudan. Twelve days in, however, Farrow called the whole thing off on her doctor’s advice. She had lost 14 pounds, but her ego, it seems, remains as bloated as ever.

Readers of Farrow’s blog could follow her video diary, allowing them to keep up with her various bodily dysfunctions and her daily demands for the West to intervene and show Khartoum who’s the boss. When she was not blogging or talking to her web cam, she kept herself busy by reading books like Autobiography of a Yogi and Care of the Soul. She watched Schindler’s List ‘all the way through’ and ‘couldn’t stop crying’ and she listened to music, ‘mostly Bach and Mahler – the slow movements only’.

So Farrow’s fast is over. But the people of Darfur need not fret. When her blood sugar hit rock bottom, the billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson announced that he would take over her fast – for three days. Then, congressman Donald Payne, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, declared that he would take over the dieting baton from Branson and abstain from food for three days, too. Farrow had said at the start of her fast that she hoped it would inspire others to go on hunger strike until ‘there is finally justice and peace for the people of Darfur’. It appears she has started a new trend: the hunger strike pose looks set to be all the rage this summer.

Farrow and her fasting buddies are presenting their efforts as selfless sacrifices, all done for the sake of suffering Darfurians, to ‘raise awareness’ of their plight and put pressure on the ‘international community’ to intervene. But rather than shedding light on the conflict in Darfur, aloof celebrity activists are primarily drawing attention to themselves while at the same time obscuring the facts on the ground, which are, in reality, complex.

However, for Farrow and other celebrity activists, like Matt Damon and George Clooney, the conflict in Sudan is a black-and-white issue. Clooney, for instance, once said of the conflict in Darfur: ‘It’s not a political issue. There’s only right and wrong.’ These celebs present themselves as the virtuous good guys in a morality play where the Khartoum regime are the evil barbarians, the people of Darfur the pathetic victims and Westerners are the heroes coming to their rescue.

Last year, in a stunt that suggested that these activists believe that Hollywood blockbusters can come true, the celebrity-studded Save Darfur Coalition parked a black military helicopter on Second Avenue in New York with a banner saying ‘Send me to Darfur’. Clooney explained: ‘It is time for governments to put their helicopters where their mouths are.’ Last year, Farrow even held talks with Blackwater, the controversial private military firm that has done much of the US government’s dirty work in Iraq, about sending troops to Darfur. (This was before she had read Autobiography of a Yogi, remember.)

From celebs demanding, in neo-colonialist fashion, that the West intervene to save Africans from themselves, to greens claiming to represent ‘The Planet’ against mankind, many protests today are staged ‘on behalf of others’ – even if those others have not asked for it. Farrow’s diet for Darfur is part of this contemporary trend. These days, it seems that protests that lack celebrity endorsements and which are staged by those who are actually affected by the conflict they are trying to end, get little attention or airtime. Just consider the striking contrast between the extensive media coverage of the celebrity dieters for Darfur and the minimal attention given to the hundreds of thousands of Tamils around the world who have protested against the Sri Lankan government over the past month.

In Britain, Tamils – who are representing only themselves and who have demanded ‘the right to choose our own destiny’ – have been protesting outside the Houses of Parliament for over one month. The protests have included a march through central London by at least 100,000 people, attempts by some Tamils to set themselves on fire and to jump into the river Thames, and hunger strikes.

Whatever you make of the Tamils’ demands, something is not right in the world of protest coverage when the media devotes major airtime and column inches to narcissist celebrity slim-fast diets while largely ignoring young people prepared to starve themselves to death in front of one of the world’s most influential power houses.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild and Brendan O’Neill noted how the Tamil protests revealed the limits of liberal outrage. Philip Hammond warned of the dangers of celebrity imperialism. Philip Cunliffe argued that Darfur had been colonised by ‘peacekeepers’. Brendan O’Neill looked at the prostitution of the notion of genocide. He also argued that Darfur was damned by pity, while in 2004, he called the proposed Sudanese intervention a post-Iraq political stunt. Or read more at spiked issue Africa.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World

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