Joyful Heart in the News

Mariska Hargitay and Hugh O'Brien show how to use celebrity ethically

May 18, 2013
Ethics Alarms
Jack Marshall

I have left the impression in more than one post that performers and celebrities too often use their fame and finances to garner wide dissemination for opinions that they are unqualified by experience, intellect, maturity and education to have taken more seriously than the rants of a typical 7th grade blogger. That is an accurate observation. Unfortunately, such public figuresare taken seriously, so we must listen to Sean Penn sing hosannas to a South American dictator, see Kanye West pronounce a President guilty of wanting see blacks drown in New Orleans, and watch Ann Hathaway protest the existence of rich people with Occupy Wall Street (while collecting her million dollar fees.) Not all celebrities waste their influence and our time on dubious pursuits, however. There are others, and since they are interested in substantive issues and more concerned with accomplishing something than getting publicity, we often don’t know about their work.

George Clooney and Matt Damon are in this group, as is classic TV Western star Hugh O’Brian, better known as “Wyatt Earp.” Since 1958, O’Brian has been funding and building the Hugh O’Brian Youth Foundation, which was founded to “inspire and develop our global community of youth and volunteers to a life dedicated to leadership, service and innovation”  after a meeting between O’Brian and famous humanitarian Dr. Albert Schweitzer. This large and thriving non-profit commonly goes by the name of “HOBY”; one has to search the fine print to find any mention of its once famous founder, now in his eighties.

And then there is Mariska Hargitay.

Hargitay is an unusual Hollywood story. The daughter of a screen legend (her mother was famous sex symbol Jayne Mansfield, and Mariska, then a toddler, was in the car  Mansfield was driving when she died in a horrific accident), Hargitay achieved stardom the old-fashioned way, by working  through the ranks. Fifteen years ago she landed the female lead in what is now the last surviving of NBC’s “Law and Order” franchise, as a detective, the product of rape, who investigates sex crimes. While researching her role, she learned how often sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse were inadequately investigated and prosecuted. One discovery especially shocked and angered her:  hundreds of thousands of rape kits remained unprocessed in cities across the country.

As her stardom, celebrity and bank account grew, Hargitay saw the opportunity to take affirmative action to help the estimated thousands of victims whose rapists were free and likely to rape again. Like O’Brian, she created a non-profit organization, the Joyful Heart Foundation, which dedicates itself to “heal, educate and empower survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse and to shed light into the darkness that surrounds these issues. advocates for justice and the sort of prosecutorial zeal one wishes weren’t only on TV.” Hargitay sought substantive results, not headlines, and has achieved them impressively.

Columnist Kathleen Parker, who heard the actress speak about her foundation at the National Press Club in D.C., writes:

“In Detroit, where 11,000 rape kits have been collecting dust for as long as 20 years, 23 serial rapists have been identified from the recent processing of just 400 kits. Three resulted in convictions, according to Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy. New York — which has a DNA databank that, thanks to Hargitay’s lobbying efforts, includes samples from anyone convicted of a crime — has cleared its backlog of 17,000 kits. The result: an arrest rate that leaped from 40 percent to 70 percent, according to Hargitay. Similarly, Los Angeles has cleared its 12,669 kits.”

There’s no photo of Mariska on the Foundation website homepage, because it is clear that she didn’t start Joyful Heart for publicity or to make people watch her TV show. She did it because she knows that as a wealthy Hollywood actress that people will listen to, she has the resources and influence to do something important in an area where she is qualified to provide inspiration and leadership.

That’s the right way to use celebrity.

I’m sure “Wyatt Earp” approves.

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