I Am A Bad Feminist

Over the weekend I read Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. It was equal parts affirming and educational and her essays inspired me to think of the ways that I am a “bad feminist.” Here is what I came up with – an incomplete, mostly serious, partly tongue-in-cheek list of the ways in which I am bad at feminism.

  1. I love high heels.
  2. I am skeptical of “manspreading.”  Having spent a lot of time on public transportation in the last 7 years (in 3 major cities – Denver, Montreal, Toronto) I have found that people taking up a lot of space doesn’t conform to a perceivable gender trend. In my experience women seemed just as likely to put their bag on the empty seat next to them as men were to spread their legs.
  3. I am guilty of enjoying dancing to music that includes misogynistic lyrics. I know it’s problematic and yet I can’t deny that it pumps me up when I jog and that it gets me dancing in my kitchen.
  4. I think the “for every dollar a man earns, a woman makes 78 cents” tagline is recycled and not useful.
  5. Feminist circles have been talking a lot about “manterrupting” and I feel embarrassed because a bad habit of mine (that I’m working on!) is interrupting people.
  6. I (sporadically) count calories. And don’t feel bad about it.
  7. I have never and will never burn my bra because they are expensive.
  8. I love plenty of TV shows, movies, and books that fail the Bechdel test.
  9. I have problems with the “body positive” movement.
  10. I am ignorant of the struggles of women of colour and the ways in which mainstream feminism has excluded them. This is something I’m actively working on but I am not excused.

Lest you misinterpret my list as me saying “I’m a feminist but not one of those feminists” let me be clear that the point of this list is to recognize that as a fallible human being I regularly fail to live up to my own ideals. It’s also to point out that the mainstream feminist narrative has been dominated by white, heterosexual, middle-class women and has often failed women of colour, transwomen, and poor women.

I am a bad feminist but I am a proud feminist committed to listening, learning, and advocating. In the words of the formidable Roxane Gay, “I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”

Brief Thoughts on Equal Pay Day

It’s Equal Pay Day – a day intended to recognize “how far into the new year the average American woman would have to work to earn what the average American man did in the previous year.” Hashtag activism is surging today via #EqualPayDay. Below is a small sample of Tweets – including Tweets from The White House and the U.S. Labor Department – referencing the gap and demanding equality.

As a feminist, I’m absolutely in favour of the sentiment expressed by these Tweets. But as a feminist, I’m also discouraged by the lack of specificity in these demands. To be fair, hashtag activism doesn’t lend itself well to specificity, but I think we can do better than recycling the “for every dollar a man earns, a woman makes 78 cents” tagline. The statistics regarding the gender pay gap are knotty and not easy to interpret, causing many to declare the wage gap a myth, a bogus statistic. Missing from online activism is acknowledgement that there is some truth to this claim.

Research suggests that women tend to make less than men not because of blatant discrimination but for a variety of other, more complex reasons that are still steeped in sexism but are less overt than the “78 cents” statistic suggests. Issues like society’s perception of women as the default caregivers, lack of paid maternity leave, lack of societal support for paternity leave, confidence gaps, male-dominated professional networks, and occupational choices may account for the wage disparity between men and women. As Hanna Rosin said in her 2013 Slate article, “The point here is not that there is no wage inequality. But by focusing our outrage into a tidy, misleading statistic we’ve missed the actual challenges. It would in fact be much simpler if the problem were rank sexism and all you had to do was enlighten the nation’s bosses or throw the Equal Pay Act at them.”

Which is why I wish #EqualPayDay conversation did more than emphasize the inherent unfairness of pay inequity and instead emphasized the specific changes that are needed to close the gap. It’s easy to talk about the injustice of the wage gap, it’s much tougher to figure out why it persists and take action to change it.

Earlier I Tweeted this:

My point is not to deny that sexism plays a role in the gender pay gap because it does. My point is that we must uncover the particular sexist mechanisms that are causing wage disparity and actively dismantle them. As a starting point, I would love to see #EqualPayDay activists demand not just pay equity but paid maternity leave, support for paternity leave, professional networks for women, or whatever specific proposal they believe to be most valuable. Then the arduous task of turning conversation to action must begin.

Oscars Wrap Up

I watched the Oscars last night (obviously) and was eager to see what impact the virtual #AskHerMore campaign might have on the red carpet. I watched Robin Roberts and company on ABC and was impressed by their coverage. They mentioned the campaign explicitly which was fine but more importantly Roberts et al. asked women great questions about their films. Julianne Moore, for instance, had a great moment where she made important points about the subject of her film, Alzeihmer’s disease.

Honestly, I don’t mind that women on the red carpet are asked about their dresses. Even a fashion amateur like myself can enjoy seeing all the gorgeous dresses and chatting with her friends about which ones we liked and disliked. That’s part of red carpet tradition and there isn’t anything inherently wrong with it. It’s also good to have designers and their work are acknowledged. The need for #AskHerMore arose, however, when red carpet Q&A’s ventured into the realm of the absurd (see the cringe-inducing mani-cam from last year) and downright sexist. Common examples being that men seem more likely to be asked questions about their film or their character development while women are more likely to be asked about their wardrobe, hair or how they manage a work-family balance (though men with families are rarely asked the same question). It was great to see ABC break away from that trend last night, it made me really happy.

What made me less happy was some of the online snark about #AskHerMore. Some derided the campaign by suggesting that it was silly to expect thorough responses to complex questions in the frantic red carpet environment. This skepticism prompted me to Tweet this:

Plus, I think the success of #AskHerMore last night demonstrated that it is possible to ask thoughtful questions and receive a brief but insightful reply.

Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there. The Oscars themselves were flat and while I generally find Neil Patrick Harris to be positively charming his jokes didn’t work and the atmosphere felt stiff. He made some valiant attempts to call out the Academy for its depressing lack of diversity but the impact just wasn’t there.

There were some great individual moments though. More than once Oscar recipients refused to be played off by the orchestra which was awesome. There were some truly touching speeches especially by The Imitation Game screenwriter Graham Moore. Lady Gaga reminded the world that she is a phenomenal singer and Julie Andrews made a surprise appearance. Common and John Legend’s performance of “Glory” was beautiful and a great moment to acknowledge the under-appreciated (at least by the Academy) Selma. And this gif of Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez reacting to Patricia Arquette’s call for wage equality is everything.

While last night might have been my favourite Oscar’s red carpet so far, the ceremony left much to be desired. Here’s hoping next year’s awards are less white and more fun.

My Problem With The Body Positive Movement

There’s a new kid on the Body Positive block. This Girl Can is a UK national campaign aimed at encouraging women of all shapes to get physically active. The blurb below their YouTube video (which has been viewed by over 5 million people since it came online two weeks ago) states: “This Girl Can celebrates the women who are doing their thing no matter how they do it, how they look or even how sweaty they get. They’re here to inspire us to wiggle, jiggle, move and prove that judgement is a barrier that can be overcome.”

It’s not a perfect campaign. The Guardian has some valid concerns, one being why are women being referred to as girls? And The Telegraph notes that middle-aged and senior women are non-existent in the ads. Its message also doesn’t feature any people with physical disabilities. Still, the campaign’s most redeeming quality is its focus on fitness. I’m on board with the idea it’s sending: that women of all shapes and sizes can and should learn to embrace fitness and the fact that their bodies allow them to. Plus they make it look like a lot of fun.

As a Body Positive message it’s a pretty good one because I’ll be honest, I have one big problem with the broader Body Positive movement: its focus on bodies at all.

Whether it’s buying into the “healthy at any size” mantra or spending a lot of time pinning “thinspiration” to a Pinterest board, the common thread is an obsession with women’s bodies and how they should look. As women, and even as feminists, we spend an awful lot of time telling each other what is right and wrong about how we view each other’s bodies. Placing such a high value on body image risks minimizing other characteristics – like intelligence, humour, compassion, courage – that frankly are more important.*

Interestingly, one of my favourite things that has ever been written on our cultural obsession with bodies was a post author J.K. Rowling made to her website several years ago. She has since revamped her website and the post is no longer there but I loved it so much at the time that I wrote it down. This anecdote is really illustrative of my problem with how we talk about each other’s bodies (a problem that I’m not sure the Body Positive movement effectively subverts):

“I went to the British Book Awards that evening. After the award ceremony I bumped into a woman I hadn’t seen for nearly three years. The first thing she said to me? ‘You’ve lost a lot of weight since the last time I saw you!’
‘Well,’ I said, slightly nonplussed, ‘the last time you saw me I’d just had a baby.’
What I felt like saying was, ‘I’ve produced my third child and my sixth novel since I last saw you. Aren’t either of those things more important, more interesting, than my size?’ But no – my waist looked smaller! Forget the kid and the book: finally, something to celebrate!”

She goes on to point out that:

“‘Fat’ is usually the first insult a girl throws at another girl when she wants to hurt her… is ‘fat’ really the worst thing a human being can be? Is ‘fat’ worse than ‘vindictive’, ‘jealous’, ‘shallow’, ‘vain’, ‘boring’ or ‘cruel’?”

When we care deeply about fat vs. thin we are by definition loading these terms with power and meaning. We are responding to insults about our bodies by trying to reclaim that insult and while the intention is good, the discussion still inevitably circles back to weight and how we should feel about it. It’s hard for me to see this as progress.

Take for example the recent Internet kerfuffle surrounding Tess Munster, a plus-size model who was recently signed to a major modeling agency. Her message is “eff your beauty standards” and predictably people are debating whether or not she is a positive role model for women or if she is promoting obesity and an unhealthy lifestyle. It’s the same old, tired debate that never reaches any meaningful conclusion or changes anybody’s mind. For the record, when I first read about Tess Munster my first thought was “Good for her.” My second thought was “Wow, she’s pretty. How does she do her eyeliner like that? How do I get my hair that shiny and bouncy?” I was still focused on what she looked like. Whether we view her positively or negatively we are all still obsessed with Ms. Munster’s physical appearance. We know very little about her as a person. This isn’t necessarily problematic as she is a model after all. Models make their living and become known to the world through their bodies. I just wish we knew more about the person we want to hold up as an example for women.

Similarly, the song “All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor was released this summer and hailed by some (though not all) as a Body Positive message. But the message of self-love still relied on the cliché that “boys like a little more booty to hold at night” and “You know, I won’t be no stick-figure silicone Barbie doll.” Once again we saw the conversation circling the same drain: “Real women have curves!” “You’re body shaming thin women!” “She’s promoting an unhealthy lifestyle!” “You don’t have to be skinny to be healthy!”

I’m not trying to skewer Meghan Trainor any more than Tess Munster. They are both women making their own choices about their careers and their bodies and all the more power to them. What I’m trying to do is examine our reaction to them and note that maybe we could empower women in a way that doesn’t focus on bodies.

I would love for us to teach young girls that not only should they love their bodies but that there are also more important things to worry about. I know this is idealistic and the valid counterargument is that since we don’t live in such a utopian society we should embrace body positivity. I acknowledge that point but question if we’re effectively counteracting all the nastiness related to the judgment of women’s bodies. I also wonder why we devote so much time to the subject when women still have to conquer major issues like reproductive rights and political under-representation. Sure, we are complex individuals capable of caring about multiple issues at once. But I wish the online debate about the best way to get women into political office (as an example) was even half as vigorous as the online debate about body image.

If we keep digging our heels into the superficial issues related women’s bodies (i.e. what they look like) will we be able to get out? Will we still be able to entrench within society an alternative idea – that bodies shouldn’t matter as much as character? These are not just rhetorical questions. I’m open-minded on this issue and keen to be educated. But every time I see something online – whether it’s body shaming or body positivity – I scream inside “Who cares?! We have more important things to worry about as women and as people!” So instead of screaming on the inside, I thought I’d work through my thought process here.

To respond to the question put forth by J.K. Rowling – yes, I think there are tons of things more important than one’s size. And I think most women and feminists would agree. Hence my issue with the Body Positive movement. It tries to re-shape the conversation about women’s bodies but why not actively work to shift the conversation away from bodies? That’s what I like about the Ask Her More campaign. It encourages the media to ask women on the red carpet about more than their appearance. It’s great that viewers can ooh and ahh over the pretty dresses (absolutely nothing wrong with that) and also learn more about the actress and her film/show/music. I wish this line of thinking would become more pervasive. Wouldn’t it be great if a little girl beamed with more pride when we tell her she’s smart than when we tell her she’s pretty? Wouldn’t that be the most positive kind of empowerment?

*Note: I know my “let’s just not focus on bodies” stance is not helpful for those who suffer from anorexia, bulimia, body dysmorphia, and other body-related issues. But I have to ask, does the Body Positive movement help them? I’m not an expert so that is a genuine question. I am inclined however to think that such individuals would benefit most from treatment and care by a mental health professional, not an ad campaign.
Also, thanks to my super smart sister Christine Handrahan for her comments as I was writing this entry. All opinions remain my own.

Tina and Amy vs. Bill Cosby

The Golden Globes were last night or as I referred to them in a previous post “The Tina and Amy Show” because let’s be honest it was their show. In the last blog post, I also confessed my embarrassing love of awards shows despite the fact that I know them to be oddly political, potentially meaningless, outdated, woefully undiverse. Given these problems with awards shows, I wholeheartedly appreciated the feminist bent this year’s broadcast had. Huffington Post also made a list of the most feminist moments of the evening which included a gorgeous acceptance speech honouring rape survivors by Downton Abbey’s Joanne Foggart and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s celebration of complicated women. I could have done without the Margaret Cho/North Korea bits. They were awkward in an awards show sorely lacking Asian representation and weren’t even that funny. Had they been replaced with more Tina and Amy I would have been much happier.

The hosts (am I supposed to say hostesses? Don’t care) were on fire with their monologue and fortunately, Buzzfeed has already compiled a list of the best jokes from their opening which will save me from having to recount them here. But of course I have to single out the fact that they went for the Bill Cosby joke. Hell yes, they did! I know some people didn’t approve of the joke because they felt it wasn’t the time or place, it was basically a rape joke, it made light of serious allegations etc. I hear those criticisms but respectfully disagree. Here is largely why, summarized for me by Elizabeth Plank of Mic News.

When the allegations against Cosby broke in the media recently, I learned that his mistreatment of women has been something of an open secret in the industry for years. It is therefore likely that there were people in the room last night who turned a blind eye and for that they should feel uncomfortable.

Others felt that Tina and Amy were essentially making a rape joke which feminists abhor so aren’t we being hypocrites here? The thing is, they weren’t making a rape joke because they weren’t making the victim the butt of the joke nor were they trivializing rape. The butt of their joke was the rapist. When Tina did her impression of Cosby and Amy steps in to correct her by saying “that’s not right” the joke is that Amy takes issue with the impression, not with the fact that Tina is accusing Cosby of drugging someone. The point is that Cosby slipping drugs to women is so believable (see the point above about his behaviour being an open secret) that what is unbelievable about what Tina’s impression is that she hasn’t nailed the idiosyncrasies of Cosby’s speech pattern. By focusing on the rapist and indirectly shaming the industry for failing to protect these women, Tina and Amy are making a comment on rape, not trivializing it. Similarly, they were making a joke about serious allegations, albeit a joke charged with condemnation, but it felt appropriate given the role comedy has played in bringing these allegations into the public forum. After all, it was comedian Hannibal Buress who brought all this recent media attention to Cosby when he called the latter a rapist during a stand-up routine. It’s also not the first time Tina Fey has made Cosby’s reputation the butt of a joke. Ironically, comedy has been the catalyst for a serious conversation about this particular issue. For these reasons, I do not agree with the characterization of Tina and Amy’s comments yesterday as equivalent to a rape joke. To see an example of an actual rape joke, check out the one Cosby himself is said to have cracked during a recent show in Ontario. (Another reason why I’m not inclined toward sympathy for Cosby.)

Still others may point to the fact that the American justice system is based on the notion that an accused is innocent until proven guilty, thus jokes implying guilt before his day in court (should that ever happen) violate a fundamental principle of the system. While I agree with this in principle, no criminal charges have been brought against Cosby (though there is a current defamation lawsuit against him) perhaps because many of the incidents are alleged to have occurred during a time period that now falls outside of the statute of limitations. Moreover, according to some experts “the current state of the law and the nature of sex crimes and evidence collection often render it next to impossible to secure a criminal conviction against rapists.” For all of these reasons, it is not clear to me that we will get any definitive answers on Cosby’s guilt or innocence by way of the judicial system.

Which means we are left with the court of public opinion. At least 23 women have accused Cosby of some form of sexual assault, ranging from groping to rape. It seems that you either believe that the accusations against Cosby are part of a large, orchestrated campaign to slander him, or you believe at least one of these women is telling the truth. I admit to being in the latter camp and based on last night’s Golden Globes ceremony, so are Tina and Amy.

December 6, 1989

In Canada, today is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. It was established in 1991, in part to commemorate the anniversary of the École Polytechnique de Montréal shooting of 1989.

On that awful day, a man entered the school armed with a rifle and a hunting knife. During his rampage, he deliberately targeted women, killing 14 and injuring 10 more women and 4 men. His suicide note stated that feminists had ruined his life and he intended to “send them to their Maker.”

(This CBC feature is an excellent commemoration of each of the victims.)

In addition to remembering these women, today is also an opportunity to reflect on how to combat societal violence against women. As the Status of Women in Canada’s web-page states:

“As well as commemorating the 14 young women whose lives ended in an act of gender-based violence that shocked the nation, December 6 represents an opportunity for Canadians to reflect on the phenomenon of violence against women in our society. It is also an opportunity to consider the women and girls for whom violence is a daily reality, and to remember those who have died as a result of gender-based violence. And finally, it is a day on which communities can consider concrete actions to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls.”

The web-page also includes a link to “action” being taking to reduce violence against women in Canada. A quick glance suggests that some valuable programs and initiatives have been established, though how effective they have been is less clear. Lobbying the government for increased action to end violence against women is certainly necessary, but it is equally important to reflect on violence against women at the societal level.

In the 25 years since the École Polytechnique de Montréal massacre, there are still huge problems with violence against women in Canada and elsewhere. What’s more, discussing violence against women is still extremely difficult. Take the partisan squabbling that occurred in Parliament when discussing the anniversary of the Polytechnique shooting, as reported by The National Post. Minister Peter MacKay was sharply rebuked by the opposition for saying that “we may never understand what occurred, why this happened, why these women were singled out for this horrific act of violence.” Leader of the Opposition Thomas Mulcair responded “We know why this happened, we know whey they were singled out — it’s because they were women.”

The conflict between MacKay and Mulcair is indicative of an uncomfortable debate surrounding the relationship between misogyny and violence. One perspective clearly sees misogyny, in and of itself, as a motivation for violence. Which is not to say that all misogyny manifests as violent action but that it can. The other perspective suggests that violent misogyny is more typically part of an otherwise delusional, murderous mindset.

The latter perspective is intellectually tempting because it corresponds with our understanding of people like the Polytechnique murderer as madmen. While it is clear that he was disturbed, there is a the danger of leaning too heavily on this explanation for his behaviour. It makes it easy to undervalue the harmful nature of misogyny. It makes it easy to respond to violence by saying “well that person was just crazy” and ignore the broader context in which their ideology is situated. The fact that not all misogynists kill people does not make their misogyny acceptable. It does not make misogyny less destructive.

Taking action against gender-based violence means recognizing the role misogyny played in destroying so many lives on December 6, 1989. It means holding harmful ideologies accountable. It means acknowledging that those responsible for violence against women are not “just crazy.” It means standing up to sexism be it subtle or extreme.

Unpacking the motivations for violence of any kind is a complex endeavour that can be deeply uncomfortable. But to claim that “we may never understand it” is too easy. For the sake of the 14 women murdered 25 years ago, we can do better.

Remembering:
Sonia Pelletier
Anne-Marie Edward
Anne-Marie Lemay
Annie St-Arneault
Annie Turcotte
Barbara Daigneault
Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz
Geneviève Bergeron
Hélène Colgan
Nathalie Croteau
Michèle Richard
Maud Haviernick
Maryse Leclair
Maryse Laganière

A Tale of Two T-Shirts

A few days ago, Sally Kohn published an article in The New Republic that discussed what she called feminist overreach. Using several recent examples, she argues that many feminists online are too quick to call sexism, thus detracting attention away from real feminist issues like pay equity and reproductive rights. One example she highlights is the criticism Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sustained after he explained why he wears the same, plain t-shirt every day. Zuckerberg responded, “I’m in this really lucky position, where I get to wake up every day and help serve more than a billion people. And I feel like I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life.”

Some, including New York Magazine’s Allison P. Davis and Mic’s Ellie Krupnick, put forth arguments that Zuckerberg’s response was evidence of casual sexism. I agree with some aspects of both of these articles – notably Krupnick’s reminder that women are multi-layered and can care about both fashion and more pressing issues like foreign policy – but in general I prefer Kohn’s analysis that it’s more likely that Zuckerberg was expressing his distaste for fashion, not offering an underhanded criticism of women. I would have no problem hearing an argument that caring about the clothing we wear is not frivolous, but that’s a separate issue that both men and women can engage in. And I also have to ask Zuckerberg’s feminist critics, is it not equally sexist to equate fashion with women? Do not misunderstand me, I am not suggesting that casual sexism isn’t an important issue because it absolutely is. I’m suggesting that Zuckerberg’s defence of his t-shirt is not obviously casual sexism.

Kohn’s concern is that this kind of feminist overreaction will usher in a “cry wolf” phenomenon that risks de-legitimizing feminist voices. She worries that we may see a “return to the period of the sidelined, shrill feminism” and that the stereotype of the “hypercritical and humorless” feminist only gains credence from such overreactions as the critique of Zuckerberg’s t-shirt response.

When I first read her article days ago, it resonated with me as a proud feminist that is sometimes concerned that we are not always striking the most productive tone. I had planned on writing about Kohn’s article and then the new “Do They Know It’s Christmas” was released and I had to set it aside temporarily to rant about Geldof and African stereotypes. In the meantime, another shirt caused controversy in feminist circles and I suddenly found myself on the other side of my previous argument.

Last Wednesday, a team of scientists landed a robot on a comet. It was a really cool moment that was blighted by the fact that physicist Matt Taylor wore a shirt while addressing the media that featured scantily clad women in suggestive poses. Most of the criticism online focused on two related things. First, that the shirt reinforced the notion that women are unwelcome in STEM fields where they are already underrepresented. Second, that Taylor likely knew he would be addressing the media thus his choice of shirt is deliberately provocative at best and overtly sexist at worst. Kind of makes you wish he shared Zuckerberg’s gray t-shirt philosophy, huh?

Taylor apologized, and I’m inclined to believe him when he says that he made a mistake and he is sorry. Still, I have been reflecting on why it is that I think the criticism over Zuckerberg’s t-shirt comment was overblown but the criticism over Taylor’s shirt was apt. Both criticisms are related to the perceived subtext of the offending shirt decision. Both criticisms pointed to casual sexism as the offense. But only in one case do I think that casual sexism was actually present. It’s just my opinion but I’m sticking with it.

Which brings me to my main point. Trying to define casual sexism is a tricky thing to do. Some instances are overt but many are not. Often it comes down to how an action or statement is perceived which is inherently subjective. As such, constructive feminist dialogue is key and I think we need more of it as we walk this fine line. Sexism is a serious offense and should be perceived as such. For this reason, we feminists have to weigh the charge of sexism carefully before we accuse someone of it. We have to maintain vigilance but also avoid crying wolf. We have to vigorously oppose casual sexism where it exists but we have to be equally vigorous in our determination that it is casual sexism. This is no easy task. Two people can disagree over whether something is sexist and both be feminists. We need to remember this and push the conversation forward with integrity.

One of my favourite conversations regarding the Taylor shirt debacle was written by Connor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic. It’s fictional but I would like to think that it’s a good representation of the type of conversations that feminists can have both with each other and with the rest of society. Kohn states in her article, “Feminists have to not just hold society accountable but hold each other accountable to keep mainstream feminism from losing its edge.”

As a feminist mantra, I think it’s a good one.