A feminist approach to democracy development must be more than a simple numbers game to increase the number of women and minority groups in democratic institutions that sustain existing power structures. A feminist approach must instead involve people of all genders working together to advance democratic institutions, processes and values that disrupt those patriarchal power structures and prioritize gender equality across diverse populations and partisan lines. It is measured by the extent to which those institutions and processes are transformed by feminist principles and feminist actors (male and female), not just by the percentage of seats held by each sex.
In past professional settings I’ve been critical of Global Affairs Canada’s modes of applying gendered lenses and feminism into foreign policy processes, not because I disagree with doing so conceptually, but because it has so routinely felt non-progressive by focusing less on feminism and more on sex. Bardall‘s framing, of needing to move towards a non-neoliberal concept of feminism, nicely captures my disquiet and does so far more elegantly that I’ve managed in the years I’ve been stewing on this issue. Until a model of feminism is adopted into Canada’s foreign affairs policies that is explicitly anti-patriarchal then any adopted feminist approach will serve to principally adjust who is at the table without striving to redistribute power itself in a more equitable manner.
In the wake of the Toronto attack any number of journalists are trying to become experts on the ‘incel’ community, which defines itself as a community of men who are involuntarily celibate and as deserving intercourse with women. It’s led to some suggestions that maybe it’s appropriate to think about policy solutions to the ‘problem’. At issue, of course, is that some persons have failed to recognize the problem itself. Consider Ross Douthat, who links Amia Srinivasan’s ruminations on the links between desire and politics with incels, effectively conjoining a misogynistic subculture with “the overweight and disabled, minority groups treated as unattractive by the majority, trans women unable to find partners and other victims … of a society that still makes us prisoners of patriarchal and also racist-sexist-homophobic rules of sexual desire.” Douthat continues to ultimately argue that a combination of commerce, technology, and efforts to destigmatize sex work will lead to “at a certain point, without anyone formally debating the idea of a right to sex, right-thinking people will simply come to agree that some such right exists, and that it makes sense to look to some combination of changed laws, new technologies and evolved mores to fulfill it.”
Douthat’s entire argumentative structure — that the ‘problem’ to solve in an inability to engage in sexual, if not romantic, relationships — is predicated on the notion that there is such a thing as a legitimate right to intercourse. There is not. There is a legitimate right to safe, respectful, and destigmatized sexual relationships and activities. There is a right to sexual education, to sexual health and wellbeing, but there is no right to intercourse: such a right would imply that the act of penetrating another person is necessary and appropriate. That is clearly not the case.
Instead, the problem with the incel community is linked with misogyny. Specifically, as Jessica Valenti writes, the problem is with misogynist terrorism, a situation where certain men’s disdain towards women drives mass murders. Part of solving this particular problem is linked with addressing the underlying culture in America, and the world more generally. Specifically, she writes:
Part of the problem is that American culture still largely sees men’s sexism as something innate rather than deviant. And in a world where sexism is deemed natural, the misogynist tendencies of mass shooters become afterthoughts rather than predictable and stark warnings.
The truth is that in addition to not protecting women, we are failing boys: failing to raise them to believe they can be men without inflicting pain on others, failing to teach them that they are not entitled to women’s sexual attention and failing to allow them an outlet for understandable human fear and foibles that will not label them “weak” or unworthy.
It’s essential that men, and boys, learn about how to engage with other humans in non-destructive ways. Such a process is borderline revolutionary because it entails reshaping how cultural, social, legal, and economic relationships are structured, and any such restructuring must be motivated by a rebalancing of power relationships across genders and races (and, ultimately, geographies). The outcome will be that the privilege that straight white men have enjoyed for centuries will be diminished and, correspondingly, restrict the social and economic opportunities that some men have enjoyed solely because of their gender and race. But those changes are essential if we’re to actually confront the misogyny and racism that underlies not just incel culture, but that of mainstream society and politics as well.
Inspiring Quotation of the Week
Writing—I can really only speak to writing here—always, always only starts out as shit: an infant of monstrous aspect; bawling, ugly, terrible, and it stays terrible for a long, long time (sometimes forever). Unlike cooking, for example, where largely edible, if raw, ingredients are assembled, cut, heated, and otherwise manipulated into something both digestible and palatable, writing is closer to having to reverse-engineer a meal out of rotten food.
So, I pointed to some of the issues with Steve Paikin’s comments a few days ago. Recap: he posted to his blog that he had significant problems getting women onto his program, and used some insensitive/poorly considered language in expressing why he thought TVO was facing challenges.
TVO’s put on a show that (more or less) takes Paikin to task. It’s worth a watch, and it reveals both how Paikin views the challenges of booking as well as a set of women who take him to task. More discussions like this need to happen, and at length, in more of our popular media venues.
In that “Binders Full of Women” program we did, we learned some of the reasons why it’s so hard to find female guests. For example, if we’re doing a debate on economics, 90% of economists are men. So already you’re fishing in a lake where the odds are stacked against you. And unfortunately, it’s the same for foreign affairs, politicians, the sciences, labour issues, and the list goes on. The vast majority of “experts” in the subjects we cover are men.
But we’ve also discovered there also seems to be something in women’s DNA that makes them harder to book. No man will ever say, “Sorry, can’t do your show tonight, I’m taking care of my kids.” The man will find someone to take care of his kids so he can appear on a TV show. Women use that excuse on us all the time.
No man will say, “Sorry, can’t do your show tonight, my roots are showing.” I’m serious. We get that as an excuse for not coming on. But only from women.
No man will say, “Sorry can’t do your show tonight, I’m not an expert in that particular aspect of the story.” They’ll get up to speed on the issue and come on. Women beg off. And worse, they often recommend a male colleague in their place.
People are (fairly) critiquing Paikin’s language in his blog post. In particular, his comment that “we’ve also discovered there also seems to be something in women’s DNA that makes them harder to book” is drawing significant ire.
At this point I’ve given hundreds of interviews to journalists from all mediums, and from all over the world. What I’ve learned is that it is critical to simply be direct with a producer (who is often who you’ll be initially speaking with) to suggest how you could contribute to a given piece. A significant element of the interview process is the producer ascertaining if you’re a good ‘fit’ for the medium, if you have something interesting to contribute, and how to shape the story in question. Sometimes you’ll run into a producer who is very explicit about what they want: the narrative has been arranged before to speaking with you and you’re unlikely to change what’s in place very much. Other times you can shape the story as an expert.
I don’t know precisely how TVO tends to generally develop their stories, but in my very anecdotal experiences producers have tended to come with pretty specific stories or narratives in mind and are unable to significantly re-structure the discussion based on my input. The result has been that despite my willingness to do what Paikin suggests – do some side research to get caught up on the specifics of a topic that’s in my field of study – it’s often the case that I cannot ‘fit’. It may just be that I’ve always been a tertiary possible guest (as opposed to the headliner person(s) who might be more successful in shaping the story), or something common with how TVO conducts their operations. I don’t know.
In general, people are sometimes reluctant to deal with the media because the production timelines tend to be compact (e.g. get called in the morning, to appear on live television a few hours later and often with the guest incurring travel or child-care expenses) and people who aren’t used to – or don’t want to accommodate – this kind of chaos and expense might justifiably refuse to participate. Given that women in the workforce are routinely underpaid and expected to engage in equivalent or greater degrees of ‘productive’ work than their male counterparts, there is very practical workplace (to say nothing of home care duty) rationales for waiving off media interviews that have little to no clear benefit, and piles of possible downsides.
If TVO really wants to improve their female guest selection they should simply refuse to run shows where they cannot book at least X% female guests. And then do aggressive outreach with the employers of the women whom they want to have on the show: prove to employers that being on the show matters so that employers free up their female employees to speak on a given topic. It’s not enough to just target high-qualified women, you also have to ensure that the structures limiting their participation are also actively engaged and alleviated. Expecting women to just behave like men both ignores the contributions women can provide (i.e. they’re not men!) and the challenges that women have to overcome on a daily basis as compared to their male counterparts. Paikin should know that, and I suspect he does, but the tone of the post almost entirely devoid of such sensitivities.
In the interests of disclosure: I’ve been interviewed as a possible person to appear on The Agenda a few times, though never ultimately been selected to appear. The Agenda is one of the very few show’s I’ve actively watched for years, and I really really like it and generally respect Paikin and the entire crew. And I routinely suggest female colleagues that TVO (and other journalistic mediums) should speak with. I don’t know the ‘success’ rate of booking those colleagues.
If the going metaphor of the startup is that male hackers are stars whose physical characteristics are a source of status and power, the role of women in startups often becomes tinged by differently sexualized and submissive ‘groupie’ expectations. Because even though employers might imagine that startup slogans like “who’s your data” are denatured of their original sexual meanings, they aren’t. Deploying terms for engineers that invoke sexual dominance signals that the startup at some subconscious level wants to emulate a model of power where men perform while others watch and wait, intent on servicing their needs. Some startups even make the desired correlation between women workers and selfless service explicit, as in the app “Geisha” which served links to web designers in the guise of a red-cheeked, submissive female product mascot. The Geisha app deploys fetishized racial stereotypes towards an all-too-common model of tech culture in which men are centered and powerful while women serve them from the position of exotic ‘other.’ The Geisha app’s deployment of racial and gender stereotypes was so blatant that it even received criticism on Hacker News, which prompted the app to change its name.
Kate Losse, once again, doing a terrific job critiquing the masculine and sexist working conditions in Silicon Valley. You should really read her book The Boy Kingsto understand what it was like working at Facebook; it’s an absolute eye-opener.
It’s a remarkable book that details – with precision – how labour changes combined with new understandings of what ‘goes into’ computer work led to the defeminization of not just the people working on computers but the very tropes and language associated with the same kind(s) of work. Highly, highly recommended.