How are women trafficked for prostitution depicted in various genres of media? And what are the possible meanings that these representations offer to audiences? Exploring these questions can tell us something about the construction of victimhood and agency, and perhaps point to ways to more inclusively depict this complex issue.

A few years ago, I completed my MSc at the Centre for Criminology. As a media and visual culture scholar, studying criminology was a departure and a challenge for me, but a worthwhile one. The main goal of the Oxford degree was to gain insight into my topic of interest – sex trafficking – and this is the subject of study I’ve pursued since. In my PhD I explore how women trafficked for prostitution are constructed as subjects of pity in visual and linguistic media discourse, and what possibilities of meaning this opens up to audiences. I analyse a variety of media genres, but at the moment my focus is celebrity culture, so that’s what I will discuss here.

Notwithstanding its potential to move into the space of the frivolous, celebrity advocacy is an important vehicle of visibility for trafficked women. From Kim Kardashian’s recent pledge to mobilise her lawyers to help victim of forced prostitution, Cyntoia Brown, who killed a client after years of abuse, to Emma Thompson’s long-term engagement with the cause, and Jada Pinkett-Smith’s risqué music video telling a dramatic story of sex trafficking, celebrities can be agenda-setters. I would argue that celebrities command significant cultural capital that can reallocate and redistribute symbolic resources to marginalised groups (see work by Shani Orgad) and open up spaces of performance that provide dispositions of emotion and action which can serve as examples for audiences (see Lilie Chouliaraki). So, although advocacy projects can potentially be just self-serving activities for celebrities, unpacking the communicative structure that underpins the representations of trafficked women in this genre of media allows me to learn what forms of moral education such choreographies of image and language offer to audiences.

I view the moral education that celebrity provides through the notion of a politics of pity, or the idea that the suffering of distant others is socially constructed. Analysing celebrity performances through this lens, I propose that, although it is most likely  that celebrities’ hearts are in the right place, trafficked women’s voices and agency are displaced and disembodied in favour of the celebrity. By speaking on behalf of trafficked women, various celebrities express their own imaginations of these women’s victimhood and (lack of) agency. Their impersonations of trafficked women place celebrities instead of trafficked women in the spotlight, for various understnadable reasons including confidentiality, privacy and secondary trauma. In other words, the female body of the celebrity enacts the victimhood of trafficked women, but leaves the women themselves out. It casts trafficked women as body politic, but not as agents.

These gendered, sexualised, motherly bodies of celebrities, as they impersonate trafficked women, become crucial sites through which the victimhood and agency of trafficked women are constructed for audiences to see. While this should not be read as a criticism of well-meaning celebrities, I want to point out that celebrity advocacy is an important way of bringing the plight of trafficked women to wide audiences, and therefore it should be re-thought in a way that is gender-sensitive and that acknowledges the identities, motivations, subjectivities, and aspirations of the women whose well-being celebrities advocate for.

These are the kinds of issues I’ve been grappling with since I embarked on my PhD, and even though it is a move away from criminology, I am hoping that some day soon, I will devise a study that brings together these two social science disciplines to the study of trafficked women. After all, interdisciplinary work such as the study of crime and media is a burgeoning field of inquiry and one that I am hoping can bring out fascinating results.

Guest post by Tijana Stolic, PhD Researcher at the Department of Media and Communications, LSE. Completed MSc at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford.