CWILA · generational mentorship · sexist fail · social media

Healthy Communities and Mentorship

No new post from me, because what I really want you to read today is Erin’s most recent essay over at CWILA on healthy communities and mentorship for women. Erin is also looking for contributions to a crowdsourced guide for effective and responsible mentorship. Here’s a bit of what she has to say:

Here’s the thing: for the most part, we—and here, I mean people working in various facets of the academic world and the literary economy—don’t know how to mentor women. Or, rather, most of us don’t. We need better and more consistent strategies to mentor women towards the kinds of strength they need in these spheres. If we did collectively know how to mentor, then as a loose-knit community we would see less perpetual damage wrought by asymmetrical power relations, by misogyny, by the seeming endlessness of rape culture. If we knew how to mentor women we would have a different understanding of the valences of access or marginalization inherent in that little pronoun “we.”

For the full post, head over to CWILA.

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.
sexist fail · slow academy · style matters

Let’s talk about outfits, and power, and authority: a fashion post omnibus

Have you seen the piece by Katrina Gulliver, on how she doesn’t like students calling her by her first name? She’s funny and self-deprecating, writing like she’s internalized the critical voice that will indeed soon enough tell her to lighten up, already. Gulliver’s take on the first name issue is about how she has to work hard to get respect in the classroom. Intriguingly, she calls out her white male colleagues for trying to be cool and wearing really casual clothing and inviting students to call them by their first names. She says these guys might be deflating a tiny bit of their own authority, but demolish hers.

Will Miller wrote an incredibly smug response, that mocks Gulliver in taking the very structure of her opening to turn it back on her, disavowing her claims: “If what students call me determines whether I am respected or not, I’m not deserving to be in a classroom.” Miller, unsurprisingly, seems completely at ease in his own prose, without the faintest whiff of self-reflexivity jarring his lightly sarcastic and righteous tone.

Ugh. This is making me tired. This is a feminist blog and you know our politics so I’ll just lay it out: this is the epitome of clueless (in this case white, male) privilege. It’s snotty, and silencing, and smug, and denies Gulliver’s experience. Will Miller: stahhhhhhp.

I don’t want to argue this. I want to start a grounded conversation about the how’s and why’s of managing one’s authority in teaching. Erin wrote about the first name issue. I did, too, in a post about email. And we’ve had a post about the politics of eyewear. And one on how people treat me nicer when I look pretty than when I don’t. Melissa has written about haircuts and so have I. And boots! All of these produced great, useful discussions: what’s great is hearing about other people’s experiences and strategies even if and especially when they differ from my own. Read the comments: they’re thoughtful and engaging and awesome!

I want to talk about my clothing choices and ask you to share yours, if you’d like.

My current positionality is this: mid-career tenured academic, coming into an administrative post in July, 41 and mostly look it, white, cis-gendered, not visibly disabled, normative height / weight range, conventionally pretty. Privileged also in the sense that I’m pretty fluent in the rhetoric of clothing, and adept at constructing (and having access to the tools to construct) grammatically correct utterances in this language.

Me, I’m all about blazers lately. Nothing connotes immediate authority like a blazer. Mine all feature rolled up sleeves, so it’s more fashion-forward than banker-bland, but there’s something very comforting to me about the work jacket. I’ll wear it over a dress, or with a skirt, or dress pants. I can even wear my beloved black yoga jeans and the jacket makes it work appropriate. I have blazers (with suits and not) in: rust/black herringbone wool, grey wool, grey cotton, black wool, navy wool, chartreuse cotton, blue suede (yes!). Most were on sale, some were full price, two were from consignment shops, but they read “expensive” and “tasteful.” I often take it off to teach, but put it back on for meetings of all sorts. I keep one in my office, in case I happen to be without, and I need one.

Sometimes I’m in situations where I’m the only person under 45, and the only woman who’s not an adminstrative assistant to some older man. Sometimes I’m teaching 17 year old. Sometimes I’m on TV. Blazer on / blazer off, like glasses / contacts are choices I can make fairly easily that allow me to manipulate others’ perceptions of me, and thus, manage my interaction with them, in some small way. Bear in mind that I have dramatically two-toned hair, and that I wear fashion-forward nailpolish (today nine fingers are mint green and one is sunshine yellow). The blazer is part of the whole package.

How about you? Maybe you are like Steve Jobs and hate to think about clothes and have a functional uniform. Maybe you are junior and trying to stay fashionable and a very limited budget. Maybe you are a little older and thinking about appropriateness. Or something else. Please share!

backlash · sexist fail · slow academy · teaching

Why We’re Here (Or, the Inevitable David Gilmour Post)

As you’ve probably heard, there are still professors out there who say things like this:  

“I don’t love women writers enough to teach them. That’s all I’m saying. What I teach are guys. If you want women writers, you go down the hall.” (David Gilmour)

“I got this job six or seven years ago, usually the University of Toronto doesn’t allow people to become professors without a doctorate. You have to have a doctorate to teach here, but they asked if I would teach a course, and I said I would. I’m a natural teacher, I was trained in television for many years. I know how to talk to a camera, therefore I know how to talk to a room of students.” (David Gilmour)

“But I can only teach stuff I love. I can’t teach stuff that I don’t, and I haven’t encountered any Canadian writers yet that I love enough to teach.I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women.” (David Gilmour)

And then blame any offense on misinterpretation, or bad intent, or being distracted by a Frenchman:

“And this is a young woman who kind of wanted to make a little name for herself, or something…” (David Gilmour)

“I’m sorry for hurting your sensibilities…” (David Gilmour)

“Quite frankly, I was speaking to a Frenchman, so I was more concerned with my French than I was with what I was saying to this young woman. But I think anybody who teaches Truman Capote cannot be attacked for being an anti-anything.” (David Gilmour)

But provide opportunities for smart and open-minded critics to say things like this: 

“I’ve got a dare for you, David Gilmour. I dare you – I fucking dare you – to spend six months reading nothing but writers who aren’t white cis males. Read female writers. Read Chinese writers. Read queer and trans and disabled writers. Read something that’s difficult for you to love, then take a deep breath and try harder to love it. Immerse yourself in worlds and thoughts and perspectives that are incredibly different from your own. Find a book that can change you and then let yourself be changed.” (Anne Thériault)

“I now believe that professors have an ethical responsibility to show their students the world, as best they can. I’m not calling for quotas, and I’m not saying bad books should be taught through affirmative action. I am calling for those in positions to influence the understanding and discussion of literature to think bigger and better, to see farther and wider. To, quite simply, do better. We’ll all benefit.” (Jared Bland)

“Let’s implore all those ‘girl’ students who have had the misfortune to enrol in Gilmour’s class to keep walkin’ “down the hall.” That’s where they’ll find the trained underemployed Ph.Ds who know how to teach a diversity of great books, even if they don’t speak to their own narrow middle-aged guy perspective.” (Cheryl Cowdy)

“‘And I said, “No, I tend to teach people whose lives are a lot like my own, because that’s what I understand best, and that’s what I teach best.’ Oh, oh, but he feels qualified to teach Tolstoy and Chekhov? He probably has a Russian soul, that one. … Completely unable to reflect on what he is actually saying. Translation: I feel that a nineteenth-century Russian male serf-owner is more like me than a North American woman who is my contemporary. What a prince. Not a sexist bone in his body indeed.” (Наталия Хоменко)

And call attention to the ongoing necessity of organizations like this, and blogs like ours:
“Every time Gilmour opens his mouth, you’ve got a reason to support CWILA’s work for gender and racial equality in Canadian literature.” (CWILA)
In the end: 
That there are still university syllabuses that include only straight, cissexual, white, able-bodied, neurotypical men;
That there are universities who hire the people who design those syllabuses and teach those courses over those who are open-minded, inclusive, and skilled as both readers and teachers; 
That being offended by casual and blatant sexism and racism still invites accusations of oversensitivity and overreaction;  
That men are always men but women are often “girls”; 
That students are still walking out of some university classrooms with the impression that women, non-Caucasian people, transgender people, queer people, differently-abled people, neuroatypical people, Canadians, are third-rate writers and unworthy of our attention and of having us experience their perspective for as long as the story lasts (and hopefully long after);
That’s why Hook & Eye exists. So thanks to David Gilmour for demonstrating how vital our project really, and still, is. And for showing just how big the community of pro-diversity, good humoured, literature-loving, brilliant, and student-centric people really is. It wasn’t what he intended, but as he claims not to have intended much of what he said in his original interview, it seems apropos.

Note: “Don’t read the comments” doesn’t apply here–the comments on both of Gilmour’s articles, the transcript of the interview, Bland’s article, and Theriault’s post are incisive, supportive, and heartening. And for a special treat, check out The Toast’s “The Life of Virginia Woolf, Beloved Chinese Novelist, As Told By David Gilmour.” And, of course, there’s Twitter.
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. 

animals · day in the life · sexist fail

The sexual politics of meat modification

I was just speaking with a colleague earlier today about how there are things that I love about Edmonton and things that I hate about Edmonton. And this applies across the board – whether it has to do with Alberta politics, or local politics; or the character of the city itself; or the weather – you name it.

Feminist politics in the city, for instance, I’ve written about here before. But they go beyond the public library and the naming of city parks. Edmonton’s anti-rape campaign has been widely discussed online as a progressive effort to target rapists and change their behaviour rather than targeting the victims of sexual assault. Nevertheless, this campaign exists in the same city where a teenager is sexually assaulted, and rather than getting support and assistance, is sent to the overcrowded Remand Centre for the weekend. Although she finally did get to a hospital and get some support, she also concluded that she didn’t want to press charges because “How am I going to prove it, with the cops already mad at me, the way they are?” If you follow the link, you’ll see it’s a complicated story, but it nevertheless speaks to a very problematic culture around women and sexual assault – one that, at the very least, demands progressive campaigns like that noted above.

But my particular example for today is less appalling and tragic, but nevertheless part of Edmonton’s anti-woman urban landscape. For several months now, on Gateway Boulevard (the main drag in the centre of the city when you arrive from the south), there’s been a large billboard using a naked woman in a chef’s hat to advertise Halford’s Hide and Leather company, which appears to offer for sale a range of butcher supplies, leather, fur and craft supplies, and “animal damage control” products. 

This is but one of countless billboards with partially clothed (if the hat counts) women used to advertise a local business. Most advertise bars or restaurants. And while I don’t know how a partially clothed woman is essential to welcome you to “cowboy country” (not to mention that Edmonton is hardly cowboy country, but that’s a whole other matter), the connection drawn here between a naked woman and buying sausage, jerky, and leather making supplies is, on some levels, even more problematic.

Certainly, all I think about every time I drive past is Carol Adam’s Sexual Politics of Meat, and her persuasive argument that the oppression of women and animals is historically shared. While a sympathetic reader of the billboard might argue that the woman is the “professional” shopping for her meat-modification supplies, that seems pretty unlikely, given that no sensible person is going to operate their “Big Easy Infrared Turkey Fryer” or stuff their “Natural Hog Casings (Tubed)” in the nude. At least not if they have any concern for personal safety or sanitation. The lazy interpretation is that naked women draw attention, (it got mine after all, didn’t it – aha!) So it’s a successful ad and we, in our capitalist world, should celebrate the advertising acumen of Halford’s. Well perhaps, except (a) I rarely feel like celebrating capitalism and (b) the billboard wouldn’t work at all if there wasn’t some sense to the connection being drawn between the naked woman and the products for sale. And this sense lies in the, rarely so explicit, linking of women and animals as vulnerable, foolish creatures, each subordinate to men.

I can thank Edmonton that it offers me tangible, daily, and ridiculous examples of why I am a feminist. But in the grand scheme of things, I’d rather such billboards not pollute my urban landscape.
academy · saving my sanity · sexist fail

Blogging dilemmas

I’m emotionally exhausted out of frustration from a work issue that is very much about equity, professionalism, process, and fairness. But I can’t write about it! Even though it foregrounds issues that are pretty high on the agenda around these parts, there is no way that I could possibly discuss the details (at least online) without getting in deep s#@!

This particular episode follows upon at least two other instances this past semester of egregious sexism that I can’t blog about because of confidentiality. I am okay with that, on one level. Confidentiality exists for a reason: there are many instances in academia when people have to be comfortable to express difficult opinions on sensitive and important matters. Moreover, having agreed to confidentiality, I consider it unethical to then break that agreement. So my lips are sealed. 

But I’m also not okay with that because that sexism nevertheless hangs in the air, at least in my atmosphere, shaping and colouring my work life. And I know that people take advantage of the protection of a confidential setting to express things that they could not get away with otherwise. So I find it problematic that I’m bound by confidentiality, when that works to perpetuate a sexist, chauvinist work culture. 

With regards to my current situation (which actually reaches back 2 years), there is nothing confidential about it. But to discuss it would only stand to hurt me professionally more than I stand to gain by sharing with you folks. And that is incredibly disheartening because, when combined with the aforementioned sexism, it makes me wonder where can change come from? The hierarchies in my institution make it clear that I have no means to address the issue head on. I could raise a grievance with my faculty association, but that is putting myself out there again in a way that will likely do more harm to me then it will actually realize substantive change. If I put my head down and protect my self-interest, then of course nothing will change. 
I grew up thinking that you always fought back. Every time you saw something that was wrong, you called it out, and you kept calling it out until you got a response. But in our culture broadly, and narrowly within academia, sexism and inequity can be so pervasive that I have to “pick my battles.” So my question to you folks, given that I can’t ask for specific assistance on the matter in question, when you pick your battles, what criteria do you use to decide?
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.

heartbreak · mental health · popular culture · righteous feminist anger · sexist fail

Amanda Todd: the problem is sexism, not the internet

Amanda Todd’s recent presumed suicide made me very sad, and then made me very angry.

My heart goes out to her family, and to those who cared for her. What a terrible loss. That’s the sad part. I was myself bullied for years and years and years, and it was awful. And that was in the 1980s, so at least the vicious commentary was all in pink pen on ruled paper pulled from notepads. Every story like Amanda’s brings me back to what it feels like to be so gleefully excluded, to have random acts of cruelty visited upon you, just so that the rest of the group can bond over your expulsion from it. So sad.

The angry part is just getting angrier, every time I read about how Amanda was bullied, about why she was bullied, and about the terrible terrible paradoxes that being a girl has always entailed, only now much more publicly. I am angry that we are calling this “bullying” like it’s not very specifically gendered. And how we are blaming the internet, rather than endemic sexism. It is a re-victimization to deny what is really going on here.

To review. When she was 12, Amanda and a friend were goofing around a webcam chat, having a flattering interaction with a stranger. She flashed her breasts. Screenshots, it transpires, were made. At 14 she found herself confronted again by these images, now being used to try to extort further webcam performances. She refused, and the pictures went public. Vicious public shaming and bullying, online and off, ensued.

What happened to Amanda is an amplifed version of what happens to all women who were once girls: we suddenly found ourselves with new bodies, and a social system that tells us, at one and the same time, to manifest an increasingly normative hypersexualized self-presentation (to be popular, to fit in, to have friends) and to viciously slap down as sluts any other girl who went just a shade too far in this hypersexualized self-presentation (again, in order to be popular, to fit in, to have friends). Dating introduced further complications: be sexy, but not necessarily sexual; put out, but not too enthusiastically. The range of acceptable teenage girl behaviours and self-presentations is very, very, very narrow. The band widens a bit for those who are conventionally pretty, if they also happen to have good self-confidence, and a higher than average starting social or economic position. Kim Kardashian can made a sex tape and become a global brand icon; Amanda Todd can flash her nascent boobs for one person over a webcam and be driven to suicide.

What if we lived in a world where 12 year olds didn’t feel like they had to flash their breasts at men to make friends? Or, perhaps more radically, what if we lived in a world where when people wanted to flash their breasts at some point, the later circulation of these images wasn’t so incredibly shameful as to bring down a virtual lynch mob onto this girl?

[Let’s go further: what about a world where boys didn’t learn about adult sexuality from a pervasive porn culture, or where such a large part of their own social standing didn’t come from treating girls as some kind of social currency to acquire and just as rapidly spend?]

The internet is a gossip and picture machine. No law in the world is ever likely to curb the wildfire of teen gossip, stop the screen shots or the camera phone snaps from zipping around a school before the bell finishes ringing. What we can change are our social relations. Maybe we can stop being ashamed of our bodies and our sexuality. Maybe we can stop letting these be manipulated to our detriment by parties who would exploit or harm us to exert power over us.

Adolescence is awful. It’s a time of separation from our childhood and the various kinds of security it offered us. We are meant to rethink who we are, to take social risks, to experiment with identity at that time. This shouldn’t kill us. It shouldn’t, either, lead us to become monsters in the name of social standing either: so terrified of not fitting in ourselves, even those of us who were bullied are quick to turn on anyone a little weaker, a little more precarious, than ourselves, just to turn that heat away, to feel like we belong even momentarily. And of course puberty is a misery as well, perhaps particularly for girls, who, it seems to me, have absolutely no way of getting through the physical and emotional changes without feeling like they have in some very significant way failed very significantly: too hairy, thighs too squishy, desires too strong, boobs to big or too small or too visible or too hidden. Too tall or too short. Too ‘boyish’ or too ‘womanly’.

Adolescence plus puberty is bad. Adolescence plus puberty multiplied by an unforgetting, unforgiving internet? Multiplies the capacity for harm.

But the internet isn’t really the problem. “Bullying” isn’t really the problem. The problem is systemic, pervasive, all-encompassing sexism, and the stifling of female power, the rigid policing of female identity at the time when this identity is barely nascent, and its bearer so very vulnerable.

If we all learned that lesson, about the impossibility of being female, we might become kinder. We might push out the boundaries a little further, to allow the Amanda Todds of the world (among whom I would place my own teenage self) a little breathing room, a little kindness, to become who they are, without shame, without coercion, without violence.

With love.

conferences · guest post · making friends · righteous feminist anger · sexist fail

This guest post, by Megan Dean, a masters student in Philosophy at the University of Alberta, reminds us that not all subjects move through the world in the same ways, nor are all technologies and practices “selfish” in the same ways. It reminds us as well that interpersonal interactions can be asymmetrical in ways that are scary. This is a useful reminder.


At this year’s meeting for the society for Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture, I attended a thought-provoking panel entitled “How Big is the Body?” Tracy Nicholls’ contribution contrasted the disparate experiences of listening to music with others—described in rich and vibrant language as the expansion of the body through space—and listening to an iPod—characterized as an isolating experience that effectively limits the body, foreclosing possibilities for community by buffering the earbudded individual from others’ “big bodies” which otherwise might “bump into” her. I was drawn to Nicholls’ description of communal musical experience, to the feeling of being thrown out of oneself by music. At the same time, I was troubled by her description of the ipod as a technology that entails selfish or even rude disengagement from others.

I always carry an iPod. The central reason for this is not to provide a soundtrack to my day, but to lessen the personal impact of sexual harassment. Appearing as if I can’t hear anything isn’t always effective in preventing harassers from calling out or making comments, but at least I can pretend I didn’t hear them when they do.

Two days prior to Nicholl’s talk I had been sexually harassed while in the line-up for conference registration. The incident had left me flustered and upset, and I had spent the rest of that day alone in my room, wanting to avoid running into the harasser again or having to explain my emotional state to colleagues. The harasser’s “big body” was one that I’d have been better off having never bumped into. 

Thinking through Nicholl’s paper in light of this incident, I suggest that disengagement via iPod should not be dismissed as a selfish, community-degrading practice; while it sounds counterintuitive, I think self-imposed isolation deserves consideration as a useful strategy for building moral communities, or at least for supporting the sorts of persons who can engage in that work.

Some level of personal fortitude is important for political engagement, especially where one’s politics is a fundamentally critical one. Such a politics suggests that one will be regularly disgusted, frustrated, and outraged by the everyday behaviour of institutions and individuals. Dissatisfaction, anger, and frustration generated by such encounters can be productive and motivate people to become politically active. It can also be dis-enabling and self-destructive. I draw strength from feminist colleagues and friends, whose support helps me withstand “bumping into” the bodies of “normal” individuals—normal meaning sexist, racist, ableist, and speciesist—without devolving into rigid bitterness, apathy, or ressentiment. Even with this support, the harassment left me upset and frustrated. The fact is that most of us are more than aware that sexual harassment exists and calls for a response. Being harassed one more time did little to enhance my appreciation of this. What it did do is undermine my confidence and lead me to withdraw from an important professional event. Having an option to strategically avoid, however imperfectly, situations like this one merits consideration as a tool for preserving personal well-being and avoiding some of the very real negative individual consequences of sexual harassment.

So while I am sympathetic to the imperative to open ourselves to others in the interest of building better, more equitable and just communities, and I am certain that in many cases, we should confront what (or who) is problematic face to face, we should consider the political and personal value of occasionally sticking the earbuds in and tuning those big, “normal” and unfortunately sexist bodies out.

Megan Dean