canada · media · righteous feminist anger · skeptical feminist

More Thoughts on Recent Events

I watched the story unfold in real time. I heard of Jian Ghomeshi’s leave of absence on Friday, then Sunday that the CBC had cut ties with Ghomeshi, which was a considerable surprise. Then I read Ghomeshi’s Facebook post. Then Twitter. Then the comments. (Yes, I read the comments. Probably a bad idea). Then the Star Article. And Twitter again. Yesterday and today I’ve been following closely how the mainstream media has been reporting the story.

There is a lot of confusion related to this thing. As Erin said yesterday, we are not privy to the discussions that have gone on behind closed doors. There is little that is definite, much that is said, more that is unsaid. Voices have been heard, helped by high-stakes media management companies or filtered through the writings of independent male journalists. One voice has laid out the terms of the debate, and another has responded.

One thing is clear: We still don’t know the whole story. We have yet to hear the unfiltered voices of those barred from doing so because of lawsuits alleging wrong-doings, or from those too afraid to speak out in public.

Reading comments like this one, I fear that we may never:

I hope for the unfolding of both sides of the story. For voices that refuse to be silenced by fear of reprisal or backlash, or because the public has already told them how they should feel about what happened. For the truth to come out. For the public to make judgements based on determined facts, not because they take one person’s defence at face value or because they really liked ‘Q.’ We know that only 10% of all sexual assaults are reported to police. That advocates of BDSM have come out questioning Ghomeshi’s claims. And it is important to note that in Canada, you can’t consent to bodily harm. There is clearly more to this than what has currently come to light.

Like Erin, I want to keep the dial tuned to questions of power, issues of misogyny, and rape culture. Let’s continue the conversation.

canada · media · righteous feminist anger · women in the news

Social Media vs. Slow Academe: Some thoughts on recent events

Less than two weeks ago, I was at a conference about Canadian women and/as public intellectuals. On the first of a series of moderated public panel discussions Christl Verduyn interviewed Dionne Brand, Mary Eberts, and Janice Stein. In the question and answer session I asked the panelists about risk. Specifically, I asked them to think with we, the audience, about the ways in which risk is inherent to a woman speaking in public. For context, I cited #GamerGate–specifically feminist gamer and media critic Anita Sarkeesian‘s then-recent cancellation of her public talk at the University of Utah after threats of violence…and the police’s response that guns are allowed on campus if the carrier has a legal permit. I also referenced a less widely known event: an article published on Hairpin by Canadian writer Emma Healey in which the author carefully thinks through her own experience of a relationship that proceeded despite unequal relations of power and was, for her, damaging and abusive. In both cases the women continue to receive varying degrees of public backlash for speaking publicly, albeit about substantially different issues. The connecting thread, for me, is that they are women taking up public space.

The panelists took up my question in turn. Janice Stein spoke about the threats she has received over her career and told the audience that she tries to keep them from her family so that they don’t worry about her. Ultimately, though, Stein’s advice was to keep speaking and ignore the threats. Dionne Brand spoke about some of the ways in which speaking publicly as a woman, and as a woman of colour, are always-already risky. And yet, said Brand, I have to do it. Not speaking would be worse than any public backlash, she told the audience. Mary Eberts responded last, and she said this: women can speak about almost anything in public and survive the backlash. In some cases, they can even use the public backlash to underscore the points they are trying to make. However–and this was the big however–Eberts then paused–there is one thing no woman can speak publicly about without fear of fundamental and ongoing reprisal and that, said Eberts, is sexual abuse. No one else responded after that, and we moved on to the next set of questions.

I have found myself thinking about Mary Eberts’s statement repeatedly in the last week and a half. Since yesterday, since the CBC announced that it was severing its relationship with Q host Jian Ghomeshi, and since Ghomeshi’s own public Facebook post, I find myself with Eberts’s words on a loop in my head. Let me be clear: I don’t know what happened between Ghomeshi and his partners.  I don’t know what went on behind closed doors. Lawyers for both sides have apparently been discussing allegations of abuse–by four women who allege varying degrees of non-consensual abuse, by Ghomeshi for defamation of character — but I wasn’t privy to those conversations. None of us were.   What I do know is this: women are statistically less likely to speak out about abuse. Women are more likely to trivialize their experiences. Women are more likely to use backchannels (emailing, using social media, talking) to alert one another to potentially harmful situations or to circulate stories of inequity. What I do know is that every day Mary Eberts’s words are given more evidence.

But that’s not all I know. I also know a thing or two about close reading and critical thinking. I know that recognizing, addressing, and changing longstanding systemic issues takes time, and that in a hyper-mediated world slow thinking–slow academe–is not something that is particulary valued. It is, however, something that is necessary. Take, for example, Ghomeshi’s Facebook status update. Reading it purely as someone trained as an academic (I am 50% of the Star’s strange, yet predictable qualifications for the women’s credibility: they are described as “educated and employed”) what I see it this: smart placement, smart rhetorical crafting. First, placement: Among other things, Facebook functions as a kind of faux-intimate confessional. As Chelsea Rooney wrote on Twitter:

In terms of rhetorical craft, the person who speaks publicly first sets the terms of the debate, or so it would seem. Ghomeshi’s post makes the issue about sexual preference and desire that falls outside the restrictive parameters of traditional heteronormative relations, whatever those are. I could go on, but the point, for this post, is not to close read this event. Rather, I’m interested in opening a discussion about how to sustain slow, deliberate, and public thinking about issues of misogyny, rape culture, and asymmetrical power relations in the face of the rapid-fire pace of social media. I’ve written elsewhere that I fear that restorative justice and social media are incompatible. I want to return to that thought here, by way of opening up conversation. How are we–by which I mean (for the purposes of readers of this blog) women working in the Canadian academic sphere–working to sustain slow thinking about these pressing issues in a public way. “Public” here is key, I think. Publicness is not a failsafe, often for women it is the opposite, but it does keep attention on a topic maybe–just maybe–long enough to shake the systemic conditions that sustain inequity.

I don’t know how to draw this to a conclusion, because having the final word is the last thing I want or feel prepared to do. Rather, I will leave you with this cartoon my colleague Xtine sent. The original posting is here:

canada · CWILA · emotional labour · fast feminism · guest post · righteous feminist anger · structural solutions

It’s About More than Livesay

Last week, Kaarina Mikalson wrote a guest post for us titled “Why Dorothy Livesay Matters.” In it, she recounted an exchange with a male acquaintance that ended with the wholesale dismissal of Livesay as a poet and a figure central to the history of Canadian literature. She prefaced it with an epigraph from Joan Coldwell’s “Walking the Tightrope with Anne Wilkinson,” her essay about editing Wilkinson’s collected poems and autobiographical writings, one in which she articulates her reasons for the necessity of recuperating Wilkinson’s work: “To read other women’s lives, especially in their own voices, is to be given a fuller understanding of ourselves. It is to participate in a community of women writers and readers that generates a different kind of confidence than is permitted to women’s voices in patriarchal culture.”

Livesay died in 1996. Wilkinson died long before, in 1961. Jay Macpherson, a contemporary of both and the subject of my doctoral research, died in 2012. All three were among the foremost writers of their generations, but for all three (and for most of the female poets of Canadian modernism, with the possible exception of P.K. Page) reading the body of criticism about their work reveals something strange and important. Like Coldwell, very many critics view their critical work on these women and their writing as an act of recuperation. The fundamental impulse behind much of it is not to reveal something noteworthy about style, or relationship to historical context, or use of language, or community formation in the modernist period, although that happens along the way and often as justification for recuperation. The core message–implicit or explicit–is that the work of these women is on the verge of disappearing from the world, from our critical consciousness, and has been on that verge for a very long time. This criticism, written by those like Kaarina and I who care deeply about this work and advocate strongly for its importance, fights to keep the work of these writers from disappearing from world, from our understanding of what it was like to to be a woman writer in the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, from the matrilineage of writing by and about women that forms a chain that leads right to the present.

Like Kaarina, I’m mad about the state of things. I’m mad that Livesay and her colleagues get dismissed, or ignored, or misrepresented. That anger is a productive one for me, and fuels my work on Macpherson, as it did my earlier work on Wilkinson. There’s plenty to be mad about: I don’t imagine that if the youngest-ever winner of a Governor General’s Award for Poetry were a man, there would be fewer than ten articles about his work and endless digs about his much more famous girlfriend. I don’t imagine that the collected poems of a male modernist, one edited by his lover, would emphasize all of the sexy bits. But I’m angrier still that this isn’t just an issue of temporal remove, that this isn’t just about us forgetting the modernists and those who came before them. CWILA, and its annual count of books reviewed in Canada, proves that this is simply not true. As Erin argues, despite efforts to change this status quo women writers still get short shrift in the present. This doesn’t bode well for the future. We don’t get reviewed and read now, and the chances become ever less likely that we will build up a reputation that will sustain us through the years, that will ensure that some critic will take us up as their personal cause, will advocate for our remembrance and our importance twenty, thirty, forty years from now.

As Woolf argues, we think back through our mothers, and we need women muses, as well as male, to mother our minds and to act as keepers of memory and as inspiration. What happens to women writers now, when those who came before them are already on the verge of being lost? What happens to the women writers of the future, who may have neither the writers of the present moment nor  the ones of the years before to mother their minds? We–and I’m talking readers and writers of all genders here–lose that memory, that inspiration. We lose that fuller understanding of ourselves that comes when we try to see the world from another’s perspective, one often markedly different from our own. We lose historical perspectives that have crucial things to tell us about how we could best deal with the challenges of the present and the future. And we lose that community of women writers, one that generates in all of its members a different and greater confidence to speak as a woman than our current culture provides, to articulate perspectives and truths that our broken world needs to hear. These are things we cannot afford to lose.

And this is why the CWILA count matters. This is why Livesay matters. This is why Hook and Eye matters. It’s hard to say if the work we do here, or the work of CWILA, or the individual moments in which we advocate for ourselves and for other women, are making a difference. To be a woman in the world today is to continually walk the tightrope between hope that it will get better and utter hopelessness at the brokenness of the world’s relationship to women. It’s hard to sometimes to feel that hope justified, to see change in action. But we keep trying.

empowerment · enter the confessional · faster feminism · righteous feminist anger · sexist fail

This life in sexism

Imagine this: you’re going out for drinks with fairly new work colleagues to bid another work colleague farewell, as they* are moving on. Lots of the people present have not met each other before, because some of the people present there have been in that work place for long, while others are quite new. So, you’re walking into the pub accompanied by men and women. So far, so good. When you reach the table, however, it’s all men, some of whom you’ve never met, and who get up to introduce themselves and shake hands with… the other men in your group *only*, while ignoring you, and the other women. All this among the usual banter, posturing, and performance of masculinity of the most patriarchal kind.
Welcome to the club. Not.
Ever since Hook and Eye has started, I have been a fan of reading the positive stories, the wins, the triumphs, etc. My thinking was we all know we deal with sexism and other kinds of discrimination every single day, so let’s rally around the good stuff, to remind ourselves that we can move in better directions. I still am.
However, since 2010, I’ve gotten older and more cynical, and to tell you the truth, I have lost patience with this type of effrontery. I want to pull an SNL-style “Really!?!” whenever I meet with this level of blatant erasure of any gender that is not aggressively in-your-face, homosocial-style masculinity.
My jaw dropped on that occasion, and I could not pick it up off the floor during the entire event. I had trouble speaking, and you already know I’m a talker! My jaw still drops every single time one of my friends tells me about yet another encounter with sexism of the nth degree, because you know what the cherry on top of this BS-filled cake is? We’re talking about academia. Where we all think ourselves high and mighty and feminist and all, but when it comes down to it, we pat young women on the head, and declare them “Charming! Like Heidi” or we withdraw job offers when they try to negotiate a living wage and maternity leave
So, let’s have an Expose Sexism Fest, Academic Style, and denounce it right here and now. If you feel like keeping it anonymous, send it my way at margrit at ualberta dot ca, and I’ll post it in the comments. Otherwise tell us what happened to you or your friend or “your friend,” and let’s expose this life in sexism.

*as much as I loathe grammatical disagreement in number when it comes to personal pronouns, I think that’s the way English is going (or has already gone). On the bright side, it does enable gender-neutral expression.
reflection · righteous feminist anger

Sinister Patterns: Women and the Knowledge Massacre

Is it just me, or does the Harper Government seem to hate women and knowledge?

That’s a rhetorical question, obviously, but one that I found myself thinking about again this weekend as I edited a letter written to Ministers involved with the knowledge massacre and the ongoing cutting of women’s programs.

The current government is and has been attacking women’s rights. Don’t forget, for example, that in 2010 the government strategically cut out the crucial and groundbreaking work of Sisters in Spirit. Don’t forget that in that same year Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth told the spokespeople of several women’s groups to “shut the f-k up about the abortion issue” unless they wanted more backlash from the government. 

And in case you’ve missed it, there is a corollary attack on knowledge going on in this country. National and international media platforms are referring to the burning of archives as libricide. As a literary and cultural studies scholar I teach my students to look for patterns in a given text, to consider the material and historical conditions of that text’s construction, and to make critical observations and analyses about how those things are all working together. The systematic disenfranchisement of women’s groups and the destruction of archives is a pattern, and a sinister one at that.

A pattern that I didn’t expect was this: virtually none of the ministries whose libraries have been closed of cut are led by a man. What can we make of this? Understanding how ideologies work is part of the process of breaking them down. How do we understand the correlation between these devastating policies and the ways in which women, women’s knowledge, gendered identity, racial identity, the diversity of knowledge production, and the lands on which knowledges are produced are systematically being shut down?

A few days ago I was talking on the telephone with a dear friend of mine who survived his trip to the MLA. We were chatting about that same “pervasive emotional buzz of desperation” that Melissa unpacked last week. We talked about our similar experiences of being on the job market long term, of the ways that the market has changed even in the years we’ve been on it, and we teased out (again) some of the emotional effects of the current state of affairs. And then he said this: “I always felt as though education — at the university level and outside the university — would lead to some kind of proactive community. I felt as though if workers — let’s say miners — were to go on strike then we would have created enough knowledge of how ideology and material reality work that we would all join them in solidarity.” What worried us then, and worries me now, is this: what is it going to take to get us out in the streets literally or figuratively?

Reader, what are your thoughts? Is old-school protest the way to go, or is the a more effective mode you’ve found?        

day in the life · kid stuff · modest proposal · parenting · righteous feminist anger

Snow Daze

This morning dawned bright and clear and dangerous: the coldest weather ever recorded in Waterloo. Environment Canada was telling people to stay indoors and leave their taps running. Daycares, all the schools, our dance studio, garbage collection, day programs for seniors, all cancelled. Exposed skin could freeze in 5 minutes. A blizzard or blinding squalls were also predicted.

The university? Remained open.

Now, this is Canada. It gets cold. Dudes, I’m from Kirkland Lake, Ontario–45 minutes away from where that guy filled the Super Soaker with boiling water and sprayed ice crystals. I see your Uggs and raise you my knee-high Sorels and an array of lined deer-stalker hats. However. This was extreme weather, full stop, and certainly extreme for Waterloo. Everything else in town was closed. Many students rely on unreliable public transit, and waiting for buses outside is dangerous today. Hell, parking in our assigned space 1km away from our offices exposes us to dangers in this weather. If you can get your car to start. And navigate the roads. Avoiding those drivers who haven’t cleared their windshields. We should have closed.

The university’s closure policy used to be to follow what the local school boards decided. This was a good policy not least because the school boards get the word out before 7am, while Monday on campus, for example, the university put out its closure decision (“We’re open!”) at 8:52, after we’d had a 6 inch snowfall overnight and all the school buses were canceled. Attendance … was sketchy.

No, the really great thing about tying the university’s closure decision to the school boards was that it made life a whole lot easier for parents. Most of us can’t arrange last minute child care. Some of us couldn’t afford it even if we could. Those of us who are contingent do not feel safe bringing children into the classroom and risking looking “unprofessional.” Those of us with tenure might still not be able to manage our kids and our students simultaneously, depending on age, temperament, and subject matter. Students with children are even less likely to feel able to bring them to class. And I know I’m not bringing my daughter to whatever meetings I still have to go to: she knows too much from dinner chatter and I live in terror of what she might blurt out. Ahem.

The university keeps proclaiming its interest in work/life balance, and in recruiting and retaining female faculty. (The university has a big new daycare! It was closed today, due to extreme weather …) It remains true that in most families, when the kids are suddenly off school, it’s Mom’s problem. At my house it’s my problem if Dad’s got meetings, and it’s Dad’s problem if I’ve got teaching or meetings. It’s very stressful, and today our daughter spent the morning playing the My Little Pony video game on her father’s iPad, in his office. I dropped them off right at the building door, before driving to the closest parking lot I could pay dearly for, and staggering in to my meeting.

I know this is a very specialized problem. I know that many businesses in the so-called “real world” don’t close in bad weather. But taking “sick days” to deal with child care on snow days is not really possible if you’re teaching or taking classes.

All I’m saying is, I guess, that the old system was more humane. It aided work life balance, and was attentive to the needs of women in particular. Sometimes we got a snow day that turned into soft rain and a bad call, maybe once out of every 10 snow days (so every 4 or 5 years). I think that’s a fair price to pay for making the lives of a community of more than 30,000 undergraduate students and 5100 grad students, 1100 (full-time permanent) faculty members and 2200 staff members. The university is the size of a big town, and has a lot of decision-making power, and it seems to keep choosing to grit its teeth in the face of real life, domestic and climatological. The rest of us are grinding them, stressed out and frozen and dragging seven year olds across the frozen steppes with us. Take the lead, UW: be better.

in the news · literature · righteous feminist anger · risky writing · sexist fail

The Finkbeiner Test and What We Say When We Talk About Dead Canadian Writers

By now, it seems that everyone has heard about the almost-laughably sexist New York Times obituary of aeronautical scientist Yvonne Brill. You know, the one that describes her beef stroganoff, her sacrifices for her husband’s career, and her childcare arrangements before it notes that “in the early 1970s [she] invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.” Douglas Martin, the article’s author, notes that “the University of Manitoba in Canada refused to let her major in engineering because there were no accommodations for women at an outdoor engineering camp, which students were required to attend,” but instead of critiquing the gender bias that prevented Brill from becoming an engineer, uses this circumstance as evidence of her resiliency. Martin, and the newspaper, have been roundly criticized for the article’s sexism, and yet it has been only slightly edited since.

Critiques of Brill’s obituary and mentions of the Finkbeiner Test, designed to avoid gender profiles of female scientists, have started to go hand in hand. To pass the Finkbeiner Test and stand as a profile of a scientist, and not a profile of a woman scientist, the article cannot mention:

  1. The fact that she’s a woman
  2. Her husband’s job
  3. Her child-care arrangements
  4. How she nurtures her underlings
  5. How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
  6. How she’s such a role model for other women
  7. How she’s the “first woman to…

While the test was designed to assess writing about female scientists, it works just as well for writing about professional women in any field, particularly in those where men outnumber women and women are often held up as trailblazers for their gender. My dissertation work is currently about Canadian poet and academic Jay Macpherson, who died in March 2012. As Cameron Anstee notes, her death was almost entirely ignored by the Canadian literary community, except by people who knew her. When a long and praise-filled obituary appeared in The Globe and Mail, albeit nearly six months after Macpherson’s death, I was initially pleased that a major publication had even remembered her. Never mind that it seemingly should have been a given, considering that she was for many years the youngest Governor General’s Award winner for poetry and one of the few Canadian recipients of the prestigious Poetry [Chicago] Levinson Prize. (I later learned that Margaret Atwood, one of Macpherson’s closest and longest friends, convinced the newspaper to run the obituary). But my pleasure largely disappeared when I decided to apply the Finkbeiner Test.

The title of Sandra Martin’s piece was the first red flag: “The nurturing nature of Jay Macpherson.” No mention of her brilliant poetic mind, her many awards, or Martin’s own newspaper’s statement, back in 1957, that Macpherson was Canada’s “finest young poet.” Indeed, no mention of the fact that Macpherson was a poet at all. Despite Macpherson’s choice to remain unmarried and childless, Martin still manages to construct an image of her as maternal which trumps her professional identity, suggesting that her poetic output was small because “she was a ministering angel to waifs and strays, often to the detriment of her own work and health.” Point 4. on the Finkbeiner Test: fail. Points 1 and 7 are spectacular fails in the first paragraph: “After winning the Governor-General’s Literary award for The Boatman in 1957, Jay Macpherson was asked to give a talk about Canadian poetry at Hart House at the University of Toronto. The invitation, which marked the first time the all-male Hart House student union had invited a woman to address its members, provoked such a fuss that women were barred from attending Macpherson’s talk.” And while Macpherson didn’t have a husband to mention, Martin can’t help but credit Macpherson’s success as “a collegial and hard-working member of the Canadian poetic community” to her prominent male mentors: “It didn’t hurt that as a very young poet, she had already attracted the attention of three key mentors and literary scholars: George Johnston, Northrop Frye and Robert Graves.” Let’s consider that a fail on Point 2. Even Macpherson’s work as the founder and sole editor of Emblem Books, which published collections by major Canadian poets including Dorothy Livesay and Al Purdy that Anstee argues are “surely among the most beautiful produced in Canada in the 20th century,” is construed as an act of charity rather than of literary labour: “Macpherson put her meagre financial resources into publishing other poets.” I could go on, but I won’t. [Note 1]

In contrast, The Globe and Mail just published the obituary of Milton Wilson, who was one of Macpherson’s first publishers and reviewers, as well as one of her doctoral supervisors. Unlike the title of Macpherson’s obituary, Wilson’s foregrounds his professional accomplishment: “Romantic poetry expert Milton Wilson ‘a truly civilized man.'” The early paragraphs focus not on his gender, as they do in Macpherson’s, but on his accomplishments; his family life doesn’t come in until well toward the end, and his wife is described only as “attractive.” But what bothers me most is that one of the first things he is praised for is his non-sexist hiring practices: “He hired women at a time when that was a rarity. Jill Levenson, who recently retired as an English prof at Trinity, remembers her job interview in 1967 at which Prof. Wilson asked only gender-blind questions about her professional qualifications and nothing about her personal life.” I find this paragraph problematic for a few reasons. Firstly, I object to the way the author, Judy Stoffman, uses this instance of non-sexism to whitewash the blatant gender-bias he displays elsewhere; this is a snippet of his review of Macpherson’s The Boatman, which was considered by many the signal collection of the 1950s in Canada: “Her palace of art is distinctly feminine, … her apocalyptic imagery, pervasive as it is, remains gratuitous and decorative, [and] her Atlantis is a pink cloud, not a prophecy.” Secondly, I can’t imagine that a female professor would ever be praised for asking nothing about a candidate’s personal life. Thirdly, there’s the fact that a lack of sexism should be a baseline expectation of decent human behaviour, and therefore not worthy of praise, whether it’s 1967 or 2007. [Note 2] As Kelly Williams Brown argues on her cult blog Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 486 Easy(ish) Steps:

Step 277: Do not expect kudos for being decent

Let’s say you are a non-racist, thoughtful-to-LGBTQA folks, non-sexist, bill-paying-on-time, recycling-sorting, never-kicks-puppies kind of person: To you I say, and mean it, congratulations. That is awesome. Take a second and feel nice about yourself. All done? Good. Because those are not things that make you worthy of praise. That shit is standard. Do not expect others to pat you on the back for a lack of assholishness. Pat yourself, and others, on the back when it is merited.

If there’s to be a test for profiles about men like the Finkbeiner Test, it needs to contain the rule that it must not include “How he didn’t discriminate against people with less power and social currency than himself.” As Brown says, “That shit is standard.”

I’m angry a lot about the state of CanLit, and the state of writing in general. There’s lots to get mad about: Brill’s obituary, Deborah Copaken Kogan’s stunning account of the sexism she’s faced as an author and war-photographer, the disparity between what we say when we talk about dead Canadian writers if they’re male or if they’re female. But there’s some to get excited about too: despite the fact that I can predict with near 100 per cent certainty that CWILA‘s national survey of book reviews–now underway, if you want to volunteer–will again reveal that women are seriously underrepresented as both reviewers and the reviewed, at least someone’s doing the counting. Hopefully the numbers will look better than last year:

And at least Brill’s obituary now lists “rocket scientist” before “beef stroganoff.”

What gets you mad about issues of gender in CanLit, or in the arts more generally? What gives you hope? 

Note 1: Sandra Martin’s piece is otherwise well-written, accurate, and positive; she’s also been generous with her time and knowledge in helping me with my own work, for which I’m grateful. I also don’t mean to suggest that her gender-bias is intentional; these sorts of gender profiles are far from rare in the genre, and we need things like the Finkbeiner test to alert us to our own blind spots as readers and writers.

Note 2: It pains me to note that when I raised my issues with a male colleague, I received a brisk dismissal; he did, however, later concede that he understood my point. I read his gaslighting, which I’m sure was unintentional, as a symptom of the normalcy of casual gender-bias. 

best laid plans · emotional labour · parenting · pedagogy · righteous feminist anger

Pedagogical and Parental Responsibility in the Face of Precarity

You might have heard that the Alberta budget was released a couple of weeks ago. You might also be familiar with its consequences on education, the higher one in particular, although there are deep cuts at all levels, without enough noise being made about them. This austerity move from the province everyone in Canada views as the richest, most privileged one, led me to think more deeply about precarity. It seems to be the going theme here at Hook & Eye this week. What do we do about it? How do we combat this neoliberal wave of blowing up every remnant of job security, human solidarity, and certainty in the near future?

My interest started due to my own unexpected, deeply emotional reaction to the budget and its implications. I felt disbelief, betrayal, grief, etc. I was going through all the stages of mourning, and I wanted to understand why. What was it about my relationship to the province that made me react this way? An unwarranted, and definitely unreciprocated attachment? Once the initial hurt–also the reason why I couldn’t formulate a blog post last week–passed, I was able to think about it in a more detached manner: my reaction is personal, because I don’t think I’m prepared for this brave new neoliberal future.

The answer came, as it sometimes happens when we have the benefit of children to mirror our own idiosyncrasies, through my oldest, when she explained to me that she can now perform a certain physical feat, because “I practiced it a lot.” She had internalized, you see, my parental injunction that “we only become good at something if we practice it a lot.” I froze on the spot and the coin dropped: yes, that’s how I was raised, that if you work hard enough at something, whatever it is, you will eventually become good at it. But what happens when the world around shifts so that being “good at it” doesn’t guarantee any kind of gratification, no matter how much you defer it? Am I parenting on a Fordist model, when the world stopped being like that a very long time ago?

What about teaching? We and others keep making the point of the relevance of humanities for today’s world, that universities should not cater to industry, etc., but what is it that I do in the classroom that prepares students for the world that I’m not doing at home? I suppose it’s critical thinking, as in the ability and the flexibility that allows students to thrive in a variety of situations, to tackle problems from novel angles, and, ultimately, to create new, better worlds. One would hope. Do these skills work when students themselves face a precarity in their professional lives that does not allow them to “think big!” “be creative!” “change the world!” but insists their efforts go into the less glamorous “paying the bills” “buying food,” and “getting rid of that student debt”?

This pragmatism does not in any way go to undercut the importance of arts education. If anything, it reinforces the potential of arts education to allow people to step back and gain perspective in the face of sustained and systematic blows from a global system bent on breeding and generalizing inequity. So, what is the solution? How do we–teachers, adults, educators, parents–empower the young ones to tackle this increasing precarity or deal with it better than I see my generation doing it? What right do we have to place such an immense burden on their shoulders, when we couldn’t solve it? (and yet I realize that our inability to solve this issue necessarily places the burden on them).

In Taking Care of Youth and the Generations, Bernard Stiegler charges contemporary (French) society with having failed the youth altogether by withdrawing the responsibility of the older generations towards the younger ones, severing the ties, while at the same time demanding the youth display the behaviour that only the careful education of such responsibility would have provided. Instead, he says, we leave it to contemporary capitalism to exercise its psychopower on generations of youth devoid of the care that should have prepared them to engage with it. Stiegler promises to come up with solutions in the next volume, but the charge is clear now: there is an intergenerational failure, whether of pedagogy and/or of parenting, which leaves youth unprepared, while capitalism continues to do its thing.

So, my unfair question to you, just before the weekend is, what do we do? How do we live up to our responsibility in the classroom and elsewhere? Do you have little tips and tricks. I know the questions are big, but the solutions need not be. How do we teach four-year-olds critical thinking without swiping their big-eyed wonder at the world in one? Anything? Bueller?

faster feminism · media · popular culture · righteous feminist anger · sexist fail

Now welcoming women?

This week, I thought I would talk about one of the reasons I feel strongly about continuing to pursue feminist research. It is, in part, because of the very issues that Liza Piper raised last Thursday in her post chicks dig big brains. For me, it is the everyday, constant detritus of gender bias and gender inequality that really push me over the edge. I’m talking about those insignificant little details that on their own aren’t a big deal, but added up over the day, over a week, over a lifetime, have a significant effect on gendered attitudes.

A new ad campaign for Mark’s Work Warehouse that is being featured in GTA subways and buses provides a good example of this very issue. I spotted it on my way to work one morning, grabbed a few photos of it with my phone, and have been struggling ever since to articulate the exact extent of my disappointment with Mark’s careless gender politics. As featured above, the ad claims that Mark’s is “now welcoming women.” I suppose this is a gesture towards some kind of expanded women’s clothing line (although Mark’s has had women’s clothing for quite some time), but it really hits an inclusion and equality nerve for me. Well, gosh, if women are now welcome in Mark’s Work Warehouse, I’d say that’s mission accomplished for feminism. Am I right? …Ladies? …Right?

I hope that it is safe to assume that this was intended to be tongue-in-cheek. Nevertheless, there is always something a little bit cringe-worthy about ads that attempt to incorporate the rhetoric of political movements, but end up getting it horribly, horribly wrong. I feel that the Mark’s campaign’s parroting of gender equality discourses offers a shining example of this. To begin with, although there are many institutions that still exclude women in practice, the chest pumping pride with which Mark’s announces that women are now welcome is absurdly outdated.

These problematic connotations are taken to an additionally troubling level when combined with the “male” version of the ad, which features a generic group of attractive, young, masculine men doing man things with the caption, “Less work. More you.”

Now, I might be taking my reading of this ad to its semiotic extreme here, but it seems to me that Mark’s Work Warehouse is inadvertently stumbling upon one of the enduring failures of second-wave feminism. That is, the reason that these men presumably have the leisure time and disposable income to spend at the pub relates to their experience of heteronormativity and gender inequality in which their spouses are working the double shift – adding household income while also continuing to take on the lion’s share of domestic work. After all, the women in the ad are not out playing pool and drinking pints, they are buying “work” clothes. The ad is an unintentional parody of shifts in the workplace, which are now also “welcoming women,” with many growing pains still being experienced along the way.

My interpretation of the Mark’s ad can very much be accused of reading too much into it, but I stand by my initial disgust at the tagline: “now welcoming women.” Joking or not, I don’t care to have a clothing store remind me of historic exclusions of women from the workplace, or attempt to capitalize on their supposed corporate progressiveness through misplaced political rhetoric. Now welcoming women? Thanks, Mark’s.

community · learning · righteous feminist anger

Chicks dig big brains

I love libraries. When I was in Grade 2 and we were asked for our school yearbook what one thing we would change about the school, I wanted more books for the library. (Yes, I’ve always been a nerd!) Libraries are not only an extension of my love of books, but also a place where, as a child, I saw puppet shows and my first movie (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial). I became a professional historian in part because I love libraries (and their close cousins, archives, which I discovered later).

This past summer, I took my son to get a library card at the Edmonton Public Library (EPL) and was asked to choose a slogan for the card. Most were pretty innocuous – we chose “I’m happy and I know it” – but one made me cringe: “Chicks dig big brains.” I didn’t engage the subject then and there as Michael was on the move — I had to go after him before he dismantled a shelf full of CDs. Later that week though, I was in traffic behind a city bus with a big purple EPL advertisement on the back with the same slogan staring down at me. I growled about it to my partner, and the next time I was in my branch, I scribbled down on one of their comment cards that I found that particular slogan sexist and signed my name with my email address.

I didn’t give it much more thought. I’m surrounded by incredibly sexist advertising here in Edmonton – the bars especially have huge billboards with hardly-clothed women featured prominently all around town. Yet, the city also has a series of river valley parks named for the Famous Five. The EPL slogan becomes part of a complex landscape.

Three weeks ago, I got an email from the Director of Marketing and Fund Development at the EPL. She detailed why the term “chicks” is not sexist and told me that, if I didn’t like the slogan, I could choose a different card; she also mentioned that other women and girls don’t find the term “chicks” sexist.

I saw red.

I have no problem with the term “chicks.” Granted, I don’t use it myself much, but I also feel that taking issue with it is a bit like taking issue with using the word “kids” or “guys” or “gals;” it seems a bit trivial.

What I didn’t like was that in taking the time to refute my point, the Director if Marketing had not bothered to identify my actual concerns. I was most troubled by her claim that this was simply a matter of personal choice and the suggestion that because other women might view something as not sexist – that makes it so. (Just one example of the fallacy of such thinking: Many women opposed extending the franchise to women in early 20th century Canada; this didn’t make women’s lack of civil rights any less sexist.)

I sent a long email in response, focused on the slogan and the question of preference.

My problem arose from the fact that the slogan was not about girls or women and their interests – books, reading, being smart, or what have you; but reduced women’s interests to their appreciation of someone else (who actually possessed the “big brains”), and that someone else – I felt – was clearly gendered male. As I wrote, “I consider it problematic and sexist that [the slogan] reinforces culturally-prevalent ideas that value women only in relation to men rather than in their own right, and moreover implicitly encourages men to read and develop their brains and women to, secondarily, appreciate these qualities but not necessarily share in them.”

I continued “….[If] the “big brains” were intended to be gender neutral,” which is still problematic, but let’s address the counterargument that “big brains” = “smart people” for the moment, “I think that greater effort should have been made to ensure that that was clear. Especially because the punchiness of the slogan lies in part with the fact that the reference to “big brains” evokes other aspects of the male anatomy that women are thought to evaluate based on size.”

I closed by saying, “The issues that I raise here are not matters of preference (that would be along the lines of, I don’t like the orange colour on the library cards) but rather a reading of the assumptions that underly the slogan, and in turn are perpetuated by it. That such a reading is not immediately obvious only speaks to how pervasive such messages are, to the extent that they have become a form of common sense. You are right – I don’t need to have the “chicks dig big brains” library card, nor do I need to select it for my son. But we still have to see that slogan and the messages that it conveys displayed in and around the library, on city buses, and elsewhere in our community. It is not a question of preference, it’s about what kind of messages the EPL wishes to convey to the wider community.”

I was principally speaking on behalf of my childhood self. I was one of countless girls who loved books and felt that the library was a welcoming, wonderful place. Had I confronted that slogan when I was younger, I would have hated it — and been angry at the library for it — but I doubt I would have been able to articulate why. Thankfully, because I wasn’t confronted by that slogan when I was younger and I continued to love libraries and books, I’m now equipped with my own “big brains,” to tell the EPL exactly what I think.

I have yet to hear a response from the library, but I’ll let you know if I do.