Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Force-ful Woman: Star Wars and Gender

I’m hesitant to call any piece of media straight up “feminist” without a lot of thought. There are so many ways a cultural product can uphold feminist values and do feminist work – from content and character portrayals to the role of women and marginalized people working on the writing, direction, and production side. Its not just a films content, but how the story is created and crafted, that can have feminist aspects and be informed by feminist ideas. There are, of course, so many ways to engage with feminism in media and fiction, but nothing about the original Star Wars films, or the prequels, really screamed feminist trailblazers. 

And yes, doing more than giving birth and dying isn’t enough to make a film a feminist paragon, but it’s a start. And The Force Awakens does do more. SO MUCH MORE.

***some spoilers ahead, obviously***

While I love science fiction, science fantasy, and everything to do with space, the original films appealed to me more as a child because of adorable beeping droids and Ewoks than because of female role models. Watching the original films as a kid, I didnt really imagine women Jedis. I thought Leia was cool and I understood her she was, to me, a Warrior Princess. I loved She-Ra. I watched Xena. Warrior Princess fit a larger script. But, to me, she was a Princess first.

Having avoided looking too deeply into previews or speculation on the new film, I glimpsed a lot of imagery around the new character Rey (played by Daisey Ridley), but I didn’t dare to hope that she would actually be the main character, a skilled pilot and mechanic, a natural fighter, and a ~*JEDI*~.

A Star Wars movie...with a main character who is a woman...and has the Force.

What does it means that I was genuinely surprised?

There is nothing surprising about male heroes. In fact, we don’t typically even need to qualify their gender except in this context – they are just heroes. They are unremarkable and normalized. No one questions if Lukes use of the Force is *real* real, genuine, manly Force-use is presumed.

As Stassa Edwards explains in the above mentioned article:
“The franchise has always fundamentally been a story of a battle between fathers (or father figures) and sons recast and expanded into the universal theme of clashes between good and evil, light and darkness, all with intergalactic consequences. Yet in the world of Star Wars, women had little to no access to controlling those forces. That Leia was capable of wielding the elusive but powerful “Force,” yet never did (at least in the films), was a defining aspect of her character. She was powerful, but her power was best used in the service of others.”
The way I see it, the Star Wars franchise is all about The Patriarchy – in the literal sense. At its core, it’s a story about lineages, of various sorts: fathers and sons and (male) Jedi masters and (male) student Jedis. The Empire Strikes Back’s big reveal is basically an elaborate paternity test result. Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker’s estrangement on opposing sides of Light and Dark is a major arc, repeated and reimagined through the relationship of Han Solo and his son with (now General) Leia, Ben Solo, who becomes Kylo Ren of the First Order and is well on his way to following in the footsteps of grandpa Vader.

With the release of Mad Max: Fury Road (read my feminist discussion of this film here) earlier this year and the incomparable Imperator Furiosa, not to mention the recent final Hunger Games film installment and my deep appreciation for Katniss Everdeen, I didn’t dare expect that The Force Awakens would have such an important female lead. But maybe I should have, as films pivoting around powerful women characters become less atypical.

As we can recall, Luke and Leia were poised as potential love interests back in the day before it was determined that – oops, siblings! – and then she was quickly paired up with Han. It’s still too early to see how Rey’s story evolves, but those of us attuned to watching closely for gender conventions (and shouldn’t we all be watching!) noticed how Rey and Finn are depicted as close, caring, devoted teammates, but not as explicitly romantically interested in each other. Rather, more importantly, while I at times anticipated some interest in Rey on the part of Finn, Rey was clearly portrayed as having other, larger preoccupations than romance.

She’s also not interested in being saved, coddled, or led, made explicit in her exclaimed command “stop taking my hand!”

And then...and then: Just when I started to panic that the major lightsaber duel would play out between Kylo Ren (who looks like an Evil Justin Trudeau circa 2011, right?) and Finn, Finn gets knocked out and Rey takes up, like, uses her Force Power Seize Telekinesis, to use Skywalkers lightsaber to battle. How compelling to see such a fight scene.

And while I’m sure there are ample criticisms of the film for its female Jedi-in-training lead character lurking around the Internet and comments sections, I have yet to hear much criticism grounded in frantic cries of “OH NO FEMINISM!” As Tasha Robinson writes Its inevitable: The anti-Rey backlash is coming.” Strong female characters, like strong actual women, tend to be very threatening to The Patriarchy, it would appear.

I spoke too soon: it seems there’s been a lot of discussion critiquing Rey, as a character, for being a Mary Sue, a “term... rooted in a long history of dismissing female characters and holding them to absurd double standards” (read this great overview of the issue by Nico Lang for Salon here).

Still, overwhelmingly, critical reception has been positive and fanfare has been deafening. Unlike Mad Max: Fury Road, and the widespread discussion of the film’s “feminist propaganda” as a detriment (to a few dudes, anyway), I haven’t heard much in the way of claims of feminist propaganda for The Force Awakens.

Are we starting to just accept good films with excellent, smart, strong, powerful women as just good films? Are we there yet?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

That time 15 men managed to get appointed to cabinet despite a gender parity quota

With the advent of our new federal government in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau followed through on his election promise of gender parity in cabinet. For the first time, an equal balance of women and men was achieved, and it was conscious and deliberate.

While, encouragingly, it seems like a lot of people are on board (but that may be the view from inside my shiny feminist bubble, aka, circle of equality valuing, open minded people), for everyone who just understood the need to make promoting women in politics a conscious and deliberate priority, there have been many others complaining about gender quotas and “merit.” In light of this topic, here are a few observations and key points from how I see it.

1. Promoting the success of women in politics is not about asking the electorate to choose women just because they are women.

Whenever gender representation and balance comes up, there’s always someone who says “I’m going to vote for the person who is most qualified, not a woman just because she’s a woman!” Calm down. I have yet to encounter anyone who supports women in politics who is asking people to do this.

Promoting women in politics is about undoing and working against the long standing, deeply entrenched history in which 1) women couldn’t vote 2) women couldn’t or didn’t run and 3) women run but still less than men. It’s about acknowledging systemic barriers that keep women from getting to run in the first place or feeling that they could. There are lingering biases in which “we” (the nebulous masses) still tend to automatically consider men more appropriate, inclined, or qualified for political office.
(Yes, I understand that you may have a few examples of some woman politicians you know who handily beat out male opposing candidates and blah blah blah sexism isn’t a thing. Lots of women are successful getting in but what about all the barriers and biases that keep many other women from putting their name forth and securing the nomination in the first place? Or ever considering themselves to be potential politicians because they were never encouraged to try it? Gender biases aren’t about, in all situations, every single person considering any given woman a less qualified politician than any given man, of course. It’s about – overall – a complex of factors causing women to have to work harder to be taken seriously, manage to make the personal, social, financial, and professional commitment to running, and how unremarkable the male politician is. We rarely have to specify the male politician – the male politician has always been there and has never had to justify his existence).
In other words, advocates want more women in politics because there was nothing “natural” about their exclusion and lack of participation in the first place. Patriarchy and sexism are to thank for that. The systems that have marginalized women must be actively undone.

2. Gender parity efforts don’t suddenly exclude “merit” and qualifications.

First of all, “merit” is not straightforward and unproblematic as a concept. How merit is constructed and imagined has a lot to do with privilege, access, and different value systems. Further, gender parity efforts actively resist and work against the unequal conditions that made “being a (white) man” appear to be a qualification. Gender parity efforts aren’t about taking “unqualified” women and plunking them into leadership roles; it’s about understanding that women have always been qualified, capable, and good potential leaders. It’s also about recognizing the inherent benefits of diverse representation in terms of policy and decision making.

And to those who downplay the issues of underrepresentation and say there are already lots of women involved in politics - don’t prop up women’s behind-the-scenes, supportive, often unpaid labour as evidence of full participation in politics. We all know women have always worked tirelessly to help get men elected. That’s nothing new, and it doesn’t mean we are doing enough to put women in elected positions.

3. Not just because “it’s 2015.”

While the PM’s response to why he achieved gender parity in cabinet was pithy, memorable, meme-able, and a veritable mic drop, it doesn’t capture the larger picture. The idea that the year alone necessitates efforts towards fairness sort of presumes that we live in a society in which gender quality has been reached, sexism is over, and we have to construct our political representation to reflect that. But since none of that is true, I’d say gender parity in cabinet matters to set an example for the larger society we want to create.

Caucuses and cabinets should represent the diversity of the actual population. Women belong there not just because the year, presuming the present moment is always more progressive than any given moment in the past. The reason is, truly, because it’s long overdue. Women didn’t become capable of political office in 2015 – 2015 is just the year a Canadian PM decided to consciously acknowledge sexism in politics.

4. Working on creating spaces for women isn’t taking anything away from men.

Reserving 15 seats (half) for women isn’t taking positions from men. The presumption that men belong there, or “own” those spots, is the legacy of male privilege and entitlement. Whenever women make gains, people (often men) complain about what men are losing, rather than considering how men’s presumed appropriateness and qualification for political office unfairly benefited them for eons. When we talk about gender in politics, we squabble about how terrible it would be for affirmative action to get women elected unfairly.  

Yet men’s genders have unfairly allowed them to succeed, rise to power, and earn more money since...forever.

As Laurie Penney puts it brilliantly, “We would do well to recall that for centuries, there was a quota for representation of men in politics and the press, sometimes legally enforced, sometimes so universally accepted that it didn’t have to be codified in law. The quota was 100 per cent.”

5. There was a quota for men, too: it was 15.

While it’s not as much discussed in relation to Trudeau’s cabinet, the gender quota worked both ways. The aim was to make it balanced, not wipe out men. There were 15 seats for women, and 15 seats (and the top job, Prime Minister) for men. So it looks like men benefited from a quota too. 15 seats were saved for them. Who knows – without that implied quota, presumably based on “merit,” perhaps there would have been more than 15 women appointed. Imagine that.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Scholarships for women are good, debates about issues affecting women that don’t include women are not

Debate is great and there are many topics in which I would be greatly supportive of the conversation focusing on men’s voices and involving two male perspectives. Like the rhetoric around prostate cancer screening. You know the idea – some variation of “man up, get checked.” I know what these ads are trying to do, save men’s lives, but personally, I dislike the idea of turning the fear of a loss of hegemonic masculinity into a health incentive. It’s also super cissexist. How we construct masculinity in public discourse needs to be discussed and reimagined. So that, for instance, is a topic I’d love to hear more about from men.

Whether or not scholarships designated to support woman identified students is “sexist” towards men is not a topic I’m eager to see “debated,” let alone by two men. There are many great web articles that can more thoroughly explain why reverse sexism,”  like reverse racism, is not a thing. It has to do with power dynamics. Sexism requires prejudice or discrimination + power.

So I was confused to see a “Point/Counterpoint” opinion article in the August 27 issue of the Muse newspaper, titled “Do female-only scholarships promote or undermine equality and fairness? Does reserving some scholarships for women prevent or encourage equal and just relations between genders?” argued by two men. And I’m not assuming their gender identities based on their names – each writer identifies themselves as male in their writing.

There is never a valid reason to put forth a discussion or debate around a topic that specifically impacts women – and specifically invokes theories of what is or isn’t good for women, as a group, and good for feminism, as a movement – and not involve women. Even constructing this topic as something to be debated is evidence of shortsightedness around the topic and the advocacy that underpins equity-oriented action and policies, but to pursue the debate in a student newspaper and not ensure to find at least one woman writer is inherently flawed.

As a friend said in relation to this topic, “This isn't good enough, folks. And neither is the excuse that ‘no women wanted to write it.’”

Maybe there were no women, working or volunteering for the paper, that were interested or came forward with gusto. But that doesn’t mean someone didn’t want to write it. The challenges of being a feminist, an outspoken feminist, in public and online are many. Ignoring the barriers that could make a woman disinclined or even afraid to step up to an argument involving feminism only perpetuates the problem.

It’s like when we see committees or panels full of men and don’t question them. Nothing strange here! Men as experts, authorities, respected leaders – normalized. It doesn’t mean there aren’t women who are equally (or more!) qualified to participate. We need to continually remember that the system that normalizes male participation as unnoticed needs to be challenged.

So, for whatever reason, there are no female voices in this published debate. Not even, say, one tackling one side or the other. The “counterpoint” author does a great job explaining the many valid reasons why we should designate certain supports for marginalized groups, particularly around access to post-secondary education and further career advancement. He recognizes and explains how regardless of perceived inherent aptitude between different genders, people of different genders may be encouraged, supported, and promoted differently. He even contextualizes practical, daily life barriers and challenges that can adversely impact women’s actual experiences in post-secondary classrooms and on campuses. Have you asked any women what it’s like to be the only woman in a given trades program, for example?

While this writer does a really nice job, it wasn’t really his place. Since his points are good and appreciated, though, let’s talk about the argument against scholarships designated for women students.

The writer states “this scholarship is undeniably sexist.” No it’s not – please familiarize yourself with the definition of the term, the role of male supremacy in shaping society, and the necessity of oppressive power dynamics to make something sexist.

The writer states, “This scholarship does not help women achieve equality, it only acts to subvert their self-respect as able-bodied humans and corrupt impartiality for everyone.”

Nope. I’m a female student who, for my Master of Gender Studies degree, received a $2,000 scholarship earmarked for women in the program. It didn’t subvert my self-respect. And while this particular scholarship was specific to my individual program, in which there are typically more women studying, it doesn’t make me feel like I only received it because men weren’t eligible. Why? Because it has nothing to do with men! 

I’m also really uncomfortable with the term able-bodied here. Perhaps he meant “capable” humans. I have no idea what able-bodiedness has to do with feeling deserving of a scholarship. Women, like men, in post-secondary may face a variety of intersecting challenges that further compound the need for equity and support. Further, my femaleness or femininity is not a disability.

It’s exceptionally patronizing for a man to suggest women supporting scholarships might undermine our collective womanly self-respect. My self-respect remains entirely intact, but thanks for your concern.

The writer also contextualizes his interest in the topic through the lens of his own perceived disadvantage, being a male student interested in a scholarship that is earmarked for female students. The worst, basest argument against feminism would have to be “men will have to give up their power” or, a variation, “efforts to help women gain equity and the advantages men have long taken for granted will hurt me, as a man.” Key terms here would have to be male privilege and entitlement. You haven’t lost anything; something just exists that is actually foregrounding the educational needs of women.

I care about this as a woman in post-secondary who has benefited from scholarships, specifically ones that have been designated for people facing challenges like “financial need” or “being a woman.” I also care about it having been a volunteer or employee of the Muse for four years several years ago.

A student newspaper has a responsibility to not just promote and discuss topics of importance to women, but to promote and encourage, rather than further stifle, women’s representation in their coverage. Its also really key to involve the voices of people with actual stakes in the discussion.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

"Taking" nature: Cecil the lion, trophy hunting, and humanity's desire to dominate

Today the world learned a wealthy American dentist (with clearly nothing better to do, as in, productive and useful for society and the planet) went on a “professional” hunting excursion in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park earlier this month and lured, shot, and killed a beloved local icon, 13-year-old lion Cecil.

The dentist from Minnesota, Walter Palmer, who paid $55,000 USD for the excursion, has since pseudo-apologized; rather, Palmer stated he’s sorry it was a beloved local favourite that he killed. Mainly, he just denied wrongdoing and insisted he was under the impression all aspects of the hunt were legal.

I’m not interested in whether or not this was “poaching” or “hunting” or whether or not Palmer believed his expedition was legal or not. He clearly does not actually deeply regretwhat he did, as his statement claims, since he has trophy hunted many other large animals all over the place and posted triumphant photos of his conquests with a beaming, pearly white smile.

“Again, I deeply regret that my pursuit of an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally resulted in the taking of this lion.”
Non-apology. Tantamount to “I’m sorry you’re upset” rather than “I’m actually sorry.”

That lion wasn’t yours to “take.” That lion wasn’t anyone’s to “take.”

Organizing, paying for, and undertaking a hunting expedition to Zimbabwe clearly takes a lot of resources, effort, and thought so it’s not like Palmer didnt have the chance to learn more about the area, learn about the lions there, and reconsider this idea. He’s now claiming ignorance of the particulars of the hunt and the prey, deferring blame to his local guides. Palmer is only sorry he’s in trouble and taking heat for the death of this particular animal. 

I’m more concerned about what motivates a human to pursue trophy hunting in the first place. What feeling is a person who trophy hunts actually paying for?

This isn’t hunting for food, or killing for survival or self-defence. This isn’t hunting to promote and ensure sustainable, local, non-factory farmed meat harvesting. 

This is killing to feel powerful, to feel important, to dominate “the king of the jungle.” To take its head and hang it on your wall.

It’s not just pointless hunting, it’s deeply inhumane. It’s sadistic to use a bow and arrow, for the challenge, I suppose, only to miss a fatal shot and cause the animal to suffer and die slowly. Cecil reportedly took 40 hours to die. If the thrill of a clean, quick kill is what Palmer is after, it’s hard to fathom how baiting, luring, and failing to successfully shoot the animal could make him feel powerful.

To inflict that kind of needless, purposeless pain and suffering on a living creature for no other reason than to know its within your power to kill it is unconscionable. 

It’s not about whether or not the proper permits were secured, whether or not it was on nature reserve property, whether or not the hunt was “legal.” It’s not about this particular beloved and well-known lion as more valuable or deserving of life than another lion, or any other less revered animal. It’s not even just about the fact that the hunt was inherently inhumane and drawn out, causing the animal to suffer while injured for almost two days before it was finally shot fatally. 

It’s about the fact that humans desire to inflict this kind of violence on other creatures at all. It’s about recognizing the deep and disturbing horror of that fact.


A few weeks ago, a conservation officer in British Columbia was suspended without pay for refusing to kill two black bear cubs. Their mother was killed by officers after breaking into and raiding a freezer filled with salmon and meat near Port Hardy.  As reported by several news outlets, the officer in question, Bryce Casavant, refused to destroy the now orphaned cubs.  As a result, the two cubs are now at the North Island Wildlife Recovery Association in Errington, BC.

Imagine if more people, with direct access to animals and the ability to affect animal welfare, were equally insubordinate? Imagine if we, as humans, didn’t take our own supremacy for granted, as some kind of foregone conclusion, and worked a bit harder to co-exist in harmony with the animals whose habitats and food sources we’re routinely impacting and degrading.

Loving and respecting animals has always been a cornerstone of my life since I was a child. I have a lot of mixed feelings about my access, as a human, to “own” animals as pets. I believe deeply in the value of animal companions, and the potential for human and non-human animals to co-exist as companions in domestic settings. But as I work with more animals I become more resistant to considering myself a pet “owner.”

I primarily work with/ take care of small animals and have an ambivalent relationship to pet stores. I dislike and am wary of the commoditization of animals, yet without such establishments (as well as breeders) it wouldn’t be possible to have the chance to live with animals as pets. Yes I primarily take in animals via a rescue, but most of those same animals originally came from pet stores. They were bred to be possessions. 

Stores and breeders are a part of the commodity machine that provides us the chance to know and love and care for domestic animals, but its also part of the problem because too many animals are bred, and they’re too easy to purchase, too accessible. Yet, I wouldn’t want to give up the joy I get through caring for rats, guinea pigs, rabbits, and other critters. I wouldn’t want cats and dogs to not exist as pets and companions.

We need to move away from the view of animals as objects and property to “own” and reorient ourselves as stewards with immense responsibility to the creatures we have domesticated. I don’t want to be a pet owner, rather a pet “keeper.”

From pet “owning to trophy hunting we, as humans, have a fundamentally flawed perception of our entitlement to animals’ bodies and a frightening desire to dominate nature. To exert our power and flaunt our status as top of the food chain. Only we dont have better teeth and claws and we arent faster and stronger. We need so many inventions to even compete.

We, as humans, have evolved to be dominant over other species and, to hold on to that dominance, we conceptualize our needs and whims as inherently superior.

Yet we are the species that demonstrates malice and a will to kill and destroy that is not in any way connected to survival or sustenance.

How, then, can we be the superior creature?

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Don't be 'politically correct' for the sake of political correctness - respect and value people

I recently had the opportunity to think through the notion of “political correctness,” and how the term is often used pejoratively against people, ideas, and ways of doing things, for a radio interview. I have a lot of ideas on this topic, and wanted to elaborate upon them there.

First of all, I don’t think anyone should do anything because it is politically correct, whatever that means. If I had to define what is, at its core, the set of behaviours and attitudes that constitute political correctness, I would say it means being sensitive, empathetic and in tune with issues around oppression and marginalization. These are the principles that often undergird so-called political correctness. But political correctness is not an end in itself. To do something solely in order to fit a subjective idea of political correctness, and not to value the underlying principles of that idea, defeats the purpose.

Sure, to be sexist is often seen as not politically correct. But I don’t want you to not be sexist in order to be adequately PC; I just want you to not be sexist. We need to strip away the connotations of the term, as shutting down debate, and get to the bottom of the issues we’re actually trying to have informed conversations about.

I come to this topic because people (interestingly, often privileged people with a lot of access to resources and platforms to espouse their ways) are complaining that things are “too PC.” They think upholding political correctness as a goal interferes with free speech, diversity of opinion, and stunts the intellectual growth that comes from unrestricted viewpoints circulating in public discourse. Many people think this is especially a problem on university campuses, where students are increasingly “sensitive” and find everything “offensive.” Rather than imagine that students may be getting more involved in social justice and responsible discourse as part of their education, as well as speaking up for their own rights as embodied subjects and citizens, critics depict vocal students as sheltered and fragile victim wannabes.

Strangely enough, the people arguing for free speech and diversity of opinion are not at all pleased with the diversity of opinion that has come from increased access to the public domain for formerly silenced and marginalized voices. So basically, they want access to their free speech, likely, the free speech they’ve always had.

When critics say an issue is merely a matter of political correctness, they are basically saying “this is silly. You’re overreacting. This topic doesn’t matter to me, I’m not negatively impacted by it, so we shouldn’t think twice about it.” It’s a tactic to delegitimize arguments and shut people up, which completely contradicts the argument that being “too PC” hampers productive debate.

Here’s an example: British scientist Tim Hunt recently said he would prefer labs to be segregated by gender and that there are issues working with women, because we, women, are so excessively emotional and we cry if criticized. Objectively, these comments are absolutely sexist. That’s not my opinion; that’s knowing the definition of the term “sexist.” They aren’t the worst comments ever uttered, and I don’t think anyone tried to argue they were. But they’re still not OK and simply irresponsible for a person in his position.

Well, women reacted, all over the world, and, wonderfully, women scientists starting tweeting photos of them in their labs, doing their work, with the hashtag #distractinglysexy. The reaction testified to the challenges women already have in traditionally male-defined and male-dominated fields, without a high profile Noble laureate going and perpetuating the idea of women are unpredictable, hormonal powder kegs who are a liability to SCIENCE! SCIENCE is serious business and must be protected, by the mens!!!

Science cannot be seen as neutral, devoid of human politics and interaction. Science, and men’s roles within its various disciplines, is of course linked to men’s historical supremacy over women. How can a person, in a high profile honourary professorship, make comments that are damaging to the strides women have made and are making in STEM fields, and expect not to get called out? That just shows this man could have benefited from some education in addition to biochemistry. You’re allowed to slip up, reflect, and profusely apologize. This isn’t a “witch hunt.” But people in certain public platforms also have responsibilities for public good. If you’re not going to actively promote social improvement, progress, and tolerance, at least don’t hamper it, Sir Hunt.

While people devoted to the noble fight of ensuring old, white, privileged men should be able to say whatever they want were quick to blame the uproar on “political correctness,” they’re missing the point. From my perspective, I don’t want this scientist to simply not say these things, I don’t want him to think them! And before you go try to call the thought police, hear me out: Anti-sexism, anti-misogyny work isn’t just about getting men to resist sexist making comments and suppress their misogynistic impulses. It’s about teaching boys and men to actually value girls and women as people and respect their inherent dignity. Convincing people to speak and act appropriately is only one small aspect of an overall social justice project.

Politically correctness, as a term, has gained traction as a way to convince people they are overreacting. For example, if someone asks a government or a media outlet to, say, use the term sex worker instead of “prostitute,” a deeply stigmatized and antiquated term, or to check their language  ask for feedback around some other topic in order to convey it responsibly and with empathy, others cry “you can’t say anything anymore.” They eulogize some lost utopia where you could further marginalize and stigmatize minorities by voicing your opinion.

When confronted with this complaint, I ask you to stop and ask who feels their ability to speak is being threatened? Is it a person who has, historically, benefited from saying and doing whatever they want, at the expense of others?

It seems to me that people who champion the claim that society has become too PC may be, ironically enough, uncomfortable that their way of thinking is finally being challenged. Shouldn’t the champions of free speech and diversity of opinion be happy that other voices are speaking up? That women, gender and sexual minorities, marginalized races and ethnicities, and people facing an array of marginalizations are having a say?

So, while showing themselves as heralding free speech and difference of opinion, the anti-political correctness people are actually trying to suppress dissent and critique.

When people bemoan that spaces, such as universities, are too politically correct, it seems to me they’re lamenting that they can’t get away with being ignorant, uniformed, and offensive. It’s inconvenient to be socially conscious and empathetic. It takes time and energy. People cry political correctness foul because they have an investment in keeping things unequal. People in positions of privilege and power don’t want to relinquish that privilege and power, and they don’t want to accommodate others.

I mean, why has gender inequality been so hard to change? Because one group benefits from the inequality. Patriarchy is easy for the patriarchs.

I love intellectual challenge, argument, and productive debate. I think political correctness or, rather, caring about people and respecting their experiences, identities, and challenges as individuals is not at all the same as censorship. But when we argue about protecting someone’s right to voice their opinion without fear of “getting in trouble,” we need to ask what that opinion is. Is it sexist? Racist? Prejudice? Hurtful? Society isn’t filled with easily offended, over-sensitive victims, rather people who have benefited from not being challenged or held accountable, and who are now threatened by a loss of power and impunity.

Don’t learn respect, empathy, and take care with language in order to be “politically correct” – learn respect, empathy, and take care with language for the fundamental importance of valuing the rights and dignity of people.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Fashionista Manifesta: Fashion as Radical Visibility and Embodiment

Mostly my own clothes, costumified.

I am using “fashion” inclusively to mean all aspects of bodily self-presentation: clothing, accessories, hair, make-up, etc., rather than to suggest what is “fashionable” or “in fashion.” 

I am a feminist researcher, student, and blogger and also a fashionista. I imagine most readers will not assume this to be a problematic link, as contemporary feminisms have helped many to unlearn assumptions about feminist praxis as unilateral and singular in focus and method. While some people think devoting any time to the argument that women* should be able to wear makeup and “feminine” clothing (and be taken seriously amongst the prevailing, deeply entrenched false correlation between feminine-ness and artificiality) is meaningless compared to other more fundamental feminist concerns (such as reproductive justice and freedom, to name one), I operate from a feminist viewpoint that seeks to avoid ranking or hierarchializing feminist issues. 

*When I say women, I always mean all women, cis and trans. 

My right to access safe and legal abortion is more valuable, on an immediate, visceral, life changing level, than my right to walk down the street, as a person with feminine or female-appearing body, safe from catcalling, yet both inform and shape my embodied experience of life as a woman under heteropatriarchy. 

Isn’t feminism, at its core, part of a movement to dismantle social hierarchies? In a sexist culture, there is no shortage of concerns facing women to choose from.

So while widespread knowledge of feminism as a lived, daily, meaningful praxis continues to increase (thanks, in large part I believe, to the continued seepage of feminist scholarship and activism into other, primarily online, spheres and outside of strictly academic circles), there is so much to discuss and consider in terms of lived realities for embodied subjects presenting their gender as female/feminine.

What we wear on these gendered bodies may seem trivial at first glance, but I believe a lot can be learned about how we judge, respond to, and interact with bodies. In my experience – in a northern region of a northern country in the West – clothing and self-styling are hugely important. In the societies I’ve lived in, my body must be clothed. If bodies are so integral (even if, often, because of our rejection of the physical body’s centrality to gendered embodiment) to our understanding of self, others, and gender relations, how can we dismiss clothing, hairstyling, accessories, make-up, and other mediations of self-presentation to the world, as trivial and peripheral. 

Fashion is just one aspect of how we self-present, but it’s a hypervisible one. 

For me, clothing is not apolitical. Clothing is not simply about utility, or comfort, or warmth, or adhering to the public nudity taboo. Clothing has always been part of my praxis, described as self-expression on a basic level and radical visibility on a more theoretical level, even before I had the words and knowledge to recognize it as such. At its core, it connects to visibility. I am a woman, and women are often told – through many different means – to blend in, to not take up space. 

Women’s appearances in societies are regulated. Many social influences, including the beauty industries that I both participate in and critique, tell us to fit in by ensuring we are fashionable, trendy, and properly dressed and coiffed. The weight loss and fitness industries teach us to aim to shrink our bodies into invisibility. It’s long been examined and critiqued (by books like Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, which I both agree and disagree with, in different facets) that if women are busy worrying about appearance, beauty, and weight, we won’t notice our systemic inequality.

I also recognize how class operates in mediating participation in clothing and beauty industries. Having grown up with minimal disposable income, and having often had to shop at thrift stores out of necessity, rather than because it was cool and trendy to do so, I feel that I can work within this framework to an extent. Still, my experience of class-based lack of access to clothing and fashion doesn’t compare to the experiences of many others. 

It’s also worth noting, that self-styling, fashionableness, and self-presentation were priorities. My mother didn’t force me into narrow boxes of self-expression, a wonderful, incredible thing for any mother to do, even (especially) if it means weathering the myriad bizarre phases of child and teenage self-expression.

Still, my desire to self-present was obliged. I was able to start colouring my hair as early as age 11 (and I’ve never looked back). So even with limited means, my mother and I valued fashion, hairstyling, and accessories, and thus I believe that we “passed” as having more means than we did. Conveying more wealth and disposable income than I had was never a conscious goal for me, and certainly isn’t now, but it’s fascinating to me how that aspect was at work as well.

I would say how I have dressed myself throughout my teen and adult years has been helpful, in terms of social capital, both in terms of standing out and fitting in. While I have often benefited from the self-esteem boosting that corresponds to compliments on one’s clothing and hairstyling, 90 per cent of the interactive feedback I’ve ever received (usually unsolicited) on my self-presentation has been that it is different. I’m not sure what it’s different from, or why, as I feel conservative compared to many alternative forms of self-styling I’ve witnessed. 

Nevertheless, I never underestimate the productive utility that standing out has afforded me, personally and as a woman in a sexist world.

I find great productive feminist potential in the radical visibility brought about by daring to be seen. I had the great fortune of taking in a panel by gender studies students working on fat* acceptance and activism at the recent Women’s and Gender Studies et Recherches Feministes conference in Ottawa. One presenter in particular linked fashion and, what she called, (super)fatness in terms of radical visibility, a connection that spurred self-reflection on my own fashion practices and how I conceptualize them similarly. To paraphrase her work (less eloquently than she presented it), fat women are hypervisible and deal with constant visual scrutiny. Further, there is a persistent belief in the correlation between body size and self-respect; we often continue to conceptualize fat people as lazy and disinterested in their appearance. Thus, to be a fashionable fat feminist can be a radical practice. 

*I’m not going to use euphemisms like larger, bigger, plus-sized, or “medical” terms like obese. 

So, as an “average” sized woman, in terms of body fat, with a petite frame, in terms of height and overall stature, I recognize that I undertake radical fashion visibility in a different way and with different considerations than the kind of work this scholar is doing. I am also white, able bodied, and fit many normative assumptions for feminine gender, such as long hair, for instance. I recognize that, because of various systemic prejudices, my body has been deemed more acceptable than others, an oppressive reality that we must continue to consider and challenge.

I propose a revisioning and reconceptualization for anyone who has dismissed or ignored fashion and self-presentation as artificial, superficial, meaningless, and normative, in essence. Fashion and beauty are capitalist industries, but that doesn’t mean we are all mindless consumers. There can be as much meaning in participating in these industries, as in rejecting them outright. There are valid and important critiques of women’s participation in regimes of fashion, beauty, body modification, and body improvement/ maintenance, but to continue to strip women’s agency and assume false consciousness when they choose to participate in projects of self-presentation, is futile and harmful. 

My fashion is only one small aspect of my feminist work as an agentive, embodied being, but it is a radical one.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Woman Saves Women: Furiosa Runs Down the Patriarchy in Mad Max: Fury Road

Never, in a work of fiction that I can recall, have I witnessed such a brutal and desperately tenacious depiction of characters defending female bodily autonomy and freedom. Max Max: Fury Road is, at its core, nestled among retina-burning explosions and hypnotically nightmarish visuals, about freeing five wives/sex slaves/offspring incubators from a repugnant, patriarchal despot.


Fury Road is a stunning action film, two straight hours of relentless pursuit, spinning tires, sandstorms, and blood spatter, but the immediate plot is fairly simple, although set in such a well-established dystopic wasteland that it’s easy to immediately feel immersed and invested in the plight of the protagonists.

The virtues of Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, as a fearless, cunning, resourceful, and definitively badass War Rig driving heroine, have been extolled in various reviews. She’s a woman who uses her rank, command of (male) underlings, and access to resources to smuggle five young women, selected to be breeders and kept in chastity-belted captivity as wives of the leader Immortan Joe, out of the Citadel and on a mission to freedom.

Along the way they team up with Max, who has escaped from also being held captive as a human blood bag for sick War Boys in need of transfusions. After a terrifying stint chained and manacled to a pursuing vehicle’s hood like an ornamental figurehead, simultaneously transfusing blood to its driver, he survives, becomes free, and meets the group of women.

While Tom Hardy’s Mad Max is a skilled fighter and a useful ally, he is not a savior and he does not drive the action. Max does not rescue these women – it is not his plan to lead them to safety, and even when he joins the effort, he does not approach them as a paternalistic protector rising to some inborn duty of helping the helpless.

Furiosa is far from helpless. When Max first crosses paths with Furiosa and the five wives, during a brief respite from being pursued by Immortan Joe’s vast vehicular army, he is afraid and distrustful. Having been alone, taken captive, branded and tattooed, enslaved, and hung upside down for blood, Max is scarred, desperate, and focused solely on his own survival. Even when he gets control of the War Rig and tries to drive away, leaving Furiosa and her gang in the desert, he doesn’t make it far – she is too clever, too well-prepared, and has rigged the vehicle to shut down if she’s not driving. With no other way to flee, he is helpless without her knowledge and skill.

So Max, while a great action character, never falls into the formulaic trappings of a machismo-fuelled warrior-saviour. He can fight, he can shoot, he can drive, and he makes an excellent co-pilot. During the opening title credits, Hardy’s and Theron’s names appear simultaneously – while Hardy plays the titular character of this well-known franchise reboot, it is clear, from marketing posters to trailers to opening credits, that Theron’s Furiosa is an equal, or more important, hero figure.

And while the wives are scantily clad in gauzy, billowy, white rags (this is a movie, after all), this rather titillating costuming can be justified considered they have just been smuggled directly from life in a tyrant’s sex cave. Furiosa, on the other hand, isn’t sporting short shorts (no matter how much Tomb Raider tried to convince us they were practical for archaeology and ass-kicking). There is no bare midriff, no conveniently misplaced bra – Charlize Theron is gorgeous even (especially?) with a shaved head, a face covered in axel grease and a mechanical, prosthetic arm, but Furiosa isn’t here to look pretty.

The wives aren’t helpless either. Considering they’re half naked, were kept in captivity, and (at least) one is pregnant, they earn their keep on board the War Rig and do their part during battle-chases.

Without any significant spoilage, just when you think you couldn’t enjoy the film’s depiction of female autonomy, resilience, and power any more, you stumble across a motorcycle gang of militant matriarchs in the desert – the Vuvalini/ Many Mothers. They are old, they are fierce, and they are women.

This is important. Reviewers and critics analyze female action heroes in film and television a lot. We have teenage to early 20s Buffy (the Vampire Slayer). We have teenage Katniss Everdeen. We have (somewhat) older heroines like Alien’s Ellen Ripley (like, before she goes into cryosleep and lives a million years) and the Terminator franchise’s Sarah Connor. We have the horror/action/sci-fi likes of Alice (Resident Evil), Selene (Underworld), Kill Bill’s Beatrix Kiddo, a whole bunch of X-(Wo)Men and a scattered Avenger. What do they all have in common? They are young. Even if they aren’t teenage or depicted as particularly young, they are usually of indeterminate age and rarely depicted as “old.”

Men, on the other hand, keep on fighting into old age. Male action characters, from Obi-Wan Kenobi to James Bond, can be older. Gandalf gets older, almost dies, and only becomes more powerful and awesome. Liam Neeson has vitalized the “dad” action hero.

Movies like The Expendables are completely premised upon older dudes (characters and actors) continuing to fight, blow shit up, and have wild adventures while being older. Sylvester Stallone was like “I’m old and still wanna be an action hero!” so started a new film franchise for him and his buddies. Not unlike the situation for women actors generally, as women age the roles are fewer and different. Action and related filmic genres certainly haven’t maintained or developed roles for older women. We need to see strong, awesome women on screen, and we need to see them continue to be strong and awesome at later ages.

While the Many Mothers clan is not the focus of Mad Max, its warrior women are important, notably aged (for the most part), extremely wise, skilled in battle, and integral to the movie’s culminating battle-chase. Although I’m impressed with the actual portrayals of women characters in Fury Road, what strikes me as more significant is the fact that the action pivots around a story about freedom, specifically, women’s freedom. Women aren’t just depicted as strong and self-reliant, their actions drive the entire film.

So there you have it – a film chock full of post-apocalyptic car chases, brutal violence, and explosions, but the underlying driving plot revolves around a woman rescuing women, previously treated as object/possessions for the sole utility of sex and spawning, from a tyrannical patriarch. She steals his wives and liberates them. Furiosa literally fights the patriarchy.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Schools have a responsibility to create anti-sexist environments

Since last week, renewed focus has been devoted to the issue of school dress codes and the potential for sexism in schools here in Newfoundland and Labrador (and everywhere) regarding how we respond to the bodies of both girl and boy children and teens. Most importantly, the issue is connected to our extremely problematic societal tendency to tell girls that they need to dress a certain way because their bodies may be “distracting” to boys.

Similar stories of students speaking out against the oppressive nature of dress codes steeped in sexism – are popping up all over the place. I dont know if Im paying more attention, more closely following such reports than I did years ago, more in touch due to the greater connectivity of social media, or if, perhaps, young people are speaking out more.

A group of girls at Beaconsfield Junior High in St. John’s spoke out using typed signs – with impressive articulation and poise – about their frustrations with feeling that their bodies are sexualized and their clothing choices deemed inappropriate in a way that, they feel, is not the same as how their male classmates are treated.

While this event has raised many discussion points ranging from the problem of negative messages directed at girls about their bodies, to calls for the implementation of school uniforms as a potential answer to the problem, it’s crucial to analyze how bodies, clothing, and appearances are judged, scrutinized, and evaluated in a way that continues to be inherently sexist and marginalizing.

We all have deeply fixed convictions about what is and is not appropriate, and a lot of it is absolutely rooted in notions of propriety around sexuality and sexual expression, whether you’re willing to admit it or not. You cannot separate notions of attire and “respectability” from the social imperative against public nudity; there are parts of the body we’ve all been socialized to conceal in public. 

Most of us would agree that an elbow is fine to be seen in school, but an entire breast may not be fine. Sure. But why? Where do our ideas and assumptions come from?

We need to be critical thinkers when negotiating clothing and bodies around regimes of “appropriateness” and “professionalism.” These are not fixed absolutes. They are entirely deserving of challenge, and, when considering a multi-generational environment such as a school, we need to consider how ideas that have never been challenged have the potential to be damaging to kids and teens.

“It’s always been that way” and “we all know dressing a certain way makes people think you’re a certain kind of girl” are not valid justifications for a sexist dress code. Telling girls parts of their body “invite” male attention, and normalizing that boys “can’t help themselves,” are horribly uncritical messages to send to girls.

On another note, most of the discourse around school dress codes and discouraging sexual attraction or “distraction” among students is extremely heterosexist. Kids have same-gender attractions at many different ages, and it should never be assumed the attractions being discussed are all heterosexual in nature. Any notion of a dress code must also consider how to legislate the “appropriate” clothing for different genders in a way that is not cissexist and exclusionary – trans and non-binary kids need to be supported and have their needs and concerns approached in a way that is educated and sensitive.

Here are some things to consider when discussing teens’ bodies, attire, and notions of appropriateness:

Teachers and administrators should consider all the ways they can react to a situation in order to respect and centre the needs, thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the students actually involved. There is a range of ways to approach, consider, and reflect upon clothing norms and sexualization of pre/teen bodies without threatening suspension. I think teachers have a responsibility to conduct all aspects of their job in a way that actively challenges sexism and prejudice.

There is inherent sexism and oppression in how female/feminine bodies have more “no show zones” than male/masculine bodies. To pretend that patriarchy isn’t a thing, that there isn’t a long and deeply entrenched legacy of the marginalization of women, and that many of our contemporary ideas about female bodies are not intertwined with a history of suppressing and controlling women’s sexuality from earlier eras, is foolish and shortsighted.

Having been a teenage girl, I can attest to the negativity of early sexualization imposed upon me by others and the reinforcement of my developing body as aberrant. It’s embarrassing to have your body constantly scrutinized just for daring to wear something that fits your body better than a burlap sack. Until you know what it feels like to be in this position, from a young age, it’s important to ask those who can tell you about it.

Schools should be anti-sexist. Not just non-sexist – there is a subtle, but significant, ideological difference. Schools need to do more than just passively not perpetuate sexism – they should actively work to create environments that challenge sexism everyday.