Hell Gate: The Implications of Representations of Human Trafficking in Popular Culture

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Women's and Gender Resource Center



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Journal of Human Trafficking


When the thriller Taken was released in 2008, many anti-human trafficking advocates were cautiously optimistic that the film would be useful in raising awareness of human trafficking. Until we saw it. In the film, a beautiful, rich, white, American teenager is kidnapped out of a luxury Parisian apartment to be sold to an Arab sheik. The film’s distorted portrayal of what populations are vulnerable to becoming trafficking victims, the mechanisms by which trafficking tends to happen, and the ways in which victims are able to be liberated creates a false sense of what kinds of efforts might be effective in addressing human trafficking.

Do other popular culture representations provide more accurate representations? This essay analyzes Linda Fairstein’s Hell Gate, which centers on a multi-victim case of international sex trafficking. The novel emphasizes the connections between the US transatlantic slave trade, encouraging readers to connect the individual tragedies of slavery and the structural injustices that condoned it with the tragedies and injustices which continue in human trafficking. It also accurately reflects the difficulties for the criminal justice system of enacting a victim-centered and trauma-informed approach to trafficking victim-survivors. However, the novel follows Taken in emphasizing the role of individual actors in achieving justice in human trafficking cases. This approach implies that justice will be served if a passionate, knowledgeable advocate takes action; it also then excuses the rest of the criminal justice system from its duty to effectively respond to the crime of human trafficking.


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