Photo by Margaret Fox

Last week, I had the opportunity to check out a day of Tina Brown’s Women in the World Summit at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. A lot of it was incredibly powerful. Some of it raised disturbing questions. The pace of the day left me breathless. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the entire production.

The format is unlike any conference I’ve ever attended as either a writer or a professor: audience members sit in the dark while panel after panel unfolds on the stage. It’s highly produced and quite sleek. There’s no time for questions or discussion or reflection; everything is kept tightly on schedule. You can’t digest the stories of genocide and survival told by Rwandan women because you’re immediately thrown into the viewing of a film clip that sets up the next panel. In the course of the morning and part of the afternoon, I watched thirteen panels.

(I missed two because I had to eat lunch, and then I had to leave to cook dinner for my kids. Yes, they have to eat, too.)

This is Tina Brown’s “live journalism,” which she described to Washington Post journalist Emily Heil as follows:

It’s as journalistically intense as anything I’ve done—we spend our time finding incredible stories. We do a great deal of culling to find the most compelling stories and presenting them with a lot of dramatic intensity. It’s like living the pages of a magazine.

Exactly. Like living the pages of a magazine.

To be fair, some panels featured conversations that I recognized as journalism. I was rapt when Charlie Rose interviewed Pussy Riot activists Masha Alekhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova. They are incredibly brave, smart activists who articulated a powerfully trenchant critique of Russia (thanks to their interpreter) along with journalist-author Masha Gessen.

Other panels felt a bit more like corporate PR. This is also the world of WITW: corporate sponsors are all over the summit and in particular, the “Sponsor Solutions” section of the program. A lot of the summit has to do with the promotion of Women in the World as a “global brand” and “global platform” for the “women’s empowerment movement,” which is an accurate name for what this is.

I have mixed feelings. After all, what activist wouldn’t want to gain access to a global platform such as this? It’s a hugely powerful way to spread your message and talk about your work. At the same time, you’re signing on to be part of a media edutainment machine, largely funded by multinational corporations. The forces of neoliberalism and global capitalism are writ large all over this event. As journalist Luisita Lopez Torregrosa puts it:

A hyper organizer and lavish spender, Brown produces a perfect alchemy, mixing glamour and razzle-dazzle (Angelina Jolie! Meryl Streep! Pussy Riot!) with the gravitas of world figures like Hillary Clinton (who has launched her own women’s empowerment initiative), Christine Lagarde and Samantha Power, and the courage of unheralded activists. That high-gloss format draws to Women in the World the sort of media attention few other groups enjoy. It is also a magnet for international corporations like Toyota, Merck, Bank of America, AT&T, Dove, the Coca-Cola Co., Walmart and JW Marriott, all opening their checkbooks to help raise their own profiles among women.

In other words, the revolution is now being brought to you by Walmart.

Earlier this year, Jessica Valenti summed up “corporate feminism” in The Nation as follows:

The corporate interpretation of feminism has more to do with cheerleading all women’s accomplishments than ending patriarchy and pushing for equal rights.

While true, this doesn’t tell the whole story of the WITW summit. I heard many different stories, and a good number of the activists weren’t solely telling a story of individualized women’s empowerment (even when that interpretation was offered by their interviewer). The Rwandan women weren’t. Pussy Riot certainly didn’t. Many of the activists talked about ending oppression and systemic violence of all kinds. Comedian Sarah Silverman (who was there with her sister, Rabbi Susan) spoke out about women’s right to abortion. The activists and feminists at the center of the summit focused on equality, peace, and human rights.

But there were interesting tensions, at times, between what they were saying and the tightly scripted, predetermined format of the summit. The “stories” and the “solutions” didn’t always line up neatly, like the glossy program would have you believe.

The panel that illustrated this the most for me featured Senna, a young Peruvian woman and poet from the documentary Girl Rising (which I wrote about last year). Senna is amazing. She performed a powerful poem that she had written (in Spanish) and, with the help of writer Marie Arana as interpreter, talked with journalist Juju Chang. Then, someone else walked out onto the stage: a young woman from Compton, LA named Marquesha Babers, who had been so moved by Girl Rising that she wrote a poem in honor of Senna. Somehow the WITW team had discovered Marquesha and had flown her to New York to perform her poem in front of Senna.

Let me tell you, this young woman rocked the house. Talk about the power of words spoken by a poet on fire. Everyone was in tears. It was hard not to be deeply moved.

At the same time, it felt a bit like I was watching a daytime TV talk show. Mainly because of the way individual human struggles were being turned into entertainment. And then, as we were all wiping our eyes and everyone on stage was hugging, the journalist—perhaps in a struggle to find something to say? to deal with the overwhelming emotion? to move things along?—commented that she wished she was filming a TV show so that she could fast-forward ten years and see what best friends they had become.

A powerful moment of human connection, instantly packaged into DocuTV. I know she didn’t mean any harm by it. But it startled me.

In 2009, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a memorable TED talk (another powerful media platform) in which she talked about the “power of the single story.” In it, she observed that

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.

Precisely. Who knows what the future will hold for Senna and Marquesha? Will they be friends, or not? Will they achieve their potential? Will they be happy? What meanings will they themselves derive from their lives, and how will they express these meanings—in poetry, or in other ways?

I hope these two girls remain strong. I hope they continue to write poetry. I hope they continue to be the authors of their own lives. But the meanings of their lives will likely unfold in complex and multiple ways. Despite this connection, their lives may be very different from each other. (Their lives are very different from each other.) Whatever meaning they will forge—whatever meaning any of us have—will far exceed the format of a segment on TV.

If this is live journalism, then I’d like more poetry.

Follow Heather online @heatherhewett.