Are good intentions enough?

Madona’s adoptions (of both children and an entire country) certainly seem to be the result of a desire to save children. Everybody likes saving children, right? Likewise, Kanye West’s documentary on “blood diamonds” seems to be based on the desire to promote peace and prevent people from being permanently maimed. That’s good, too. Moving away from the readings, dumping pre-printed t-shirts displaying the logo of the losing superbowl team on fragile economies might seem like a good idea, too- some people don’t have enough clothes, and other people need to dispose of exactly half of their stock of t-shirts in a quick and cost-efficient fashion! Shortly before Christmas break, World Vision “buy things for poor kids to make yourself feel better about giving your kids things built by poor kids” catalogues circulated around the office that I worked. One page featured children from some far away nation apparently dressed in a traditional manner, apparently by World Vision. “Because of our corporate partners,” the copy read, “your gift will multiply by [insert some number here, something like FIVE! or TEN!] times to ensure even more children have the clothing they need to [insert some action here, something like go to school and become doctors, not freeze to death, etc.]!” One could flip to the back of the booklet to learn more about their corporate partners, where they would learn that “responsible” and “generous” Western corporations had already donated huge amounts of clothing to World Vision. One’s “Christmas gift” wouldn’t, therefore, actually be used to purchase clothing, just to ship and distribute it to the adorable children that the print was superimposed on. One can’t help but wonder why the children were dressed in what appeared to be handmade leather jackets with intricate bead work if they were actually being given excess stock from “generous” Western corporations, and what effect this might have on local clothing and textile industries.

Likewise, celebrity activism starts with an idea that most people can get behind- “children who are cold should be dressed properly,” “children should have the opportunity to get an education,” or “starving children is bad,” and then tries to find a solution that can be understood in the context of a magazine article, a 30 second news clip, or even a single photo. This solution not only has to be efficiently communicated, it needs to be engaging and not too difficult. The “blood diamond” scenario fit this description nicely, once simplified into a feature film with a famous actor, it was then accessible enough to be something people could care about. Mentions of colonialism could be described as something unfortunate but in the past, and the focus could be on “black people brutaliz[ing] one another,” and the need for white people to make sure that they didn’t have to feel like they’d played a part in it.

While I really didn’t want to blog about Kony 2012, something interesting happened to me this weekend. I chaired a youth parliament for high school students, and also served as a clerk and their deputy speaker. Some time earlier I had (apparently in a moment of inattention) accepted their 15-year-old Premier as a Facebook friend. I was typing up amendments to their legislation in the clerking room when one of the other clerks entered the room. “They want you,” he said to me, “you’re being called to the bar.” I shrugged this off, assuming it was going to be something ridiculous like when they asked one of the other clerks to clean the bathroom. (“Is that a racist question?” asked the clerk jokingly, whose family is from India. The Member looked appalled and had apparently not considered it from that perspective.) But I soon discovered that what the House was considering was a Private Members Resolution on Joseph Kony. The PMR read “In Support of the Canadian Armed Forces helping the Invisible Children Foundation Capture Joseph Kony.” I was being called to the bar because of a comment I’d made on Facebook a couple of weeks earlier. The comment itself read

“I haven’t finished forming an opinion on this whole Joseph Kony thing yet. I’m not sure it would be proper to when I only started seriously looking at the information an hour ago.
In general though, I think a video which suggests people take political action involving the life and death of a significant number of people based on under 30 minutes of (questionably accurate) information is dangerous and it would take a lot of evidence that this is the best course of action to get me off the defensive.”

and then included a link to a critical blog post that I’d thought was interesting. It was posted in a moment of frustration with how my newsfeed looked at the time. This post was apparently enough to get the entire house to call me to the bar as an “expert.” The Premier clarified to the house that I was “someone who knew a lot more about the Kony situation than they did.” I spent my time at the bar awkwardly explaining that I didn’t really know very much about the situation and that chances are they didn’t either, and that they should take that into consideration when voting. I didn’t go any further than that, and they carried the PMR after striking “Invisible Children Foundation” and replacing it with “the Ugandan Government.”

I can’t help but wonder how much Nicolas Cage or Angelina Jolie or any other celebrity actually needs to know about the political situation of another country to be declared an authority or a “messenger of peace.” I became an “expert” with a single blog post, likely at least in part because I was the Clerk who’d spent the most time with the members in my various supervisory and organizational roles- a ‘celebrity’ of sorts for the weekend, if you will. I likely could have swayed the vote if I’d taken a stronger stance against the PMR, but influencing debate wasn’t my role in their debate. But why should Madonna have any more authority in Malawi than I do in Victoria City Hall?

How does one define a real person?… Would a web-design employee that chooses to use a different name online (which some people seem to do these days) be considered a real person? -R. Justin Matthews, Lawyer for RackNine

The internet has redefined a lot of things- probably most notably the definition of “friends” and what it means to “follow” someone. One of those things is apparently whether or not one’s alias can be considered a “real person,” and whether or not one can employ a person who may or may not exist. This has come up as an issue for the automatic calling company RackNine who find themselves part of the ongoing investigation of electoral fraud during the last federal election. RackNine was hired by yet another fictional person- “Pierre Poutine,” who called from a disposable cellphone- to call households who were not associated with the Conservative party to tell them that their polling stations had changed to non-existent alternative locations. (1) According to the National Post, RackNine is “operated by Edmonton businessman Matt Meier with the help of Rick McKnight, who is identified variously as head of marketing and web developer.”

However, evidence has been uncovered that suggests that despite McKnight’s LinkedIn and Facebook presence (including 551 Facebook Friends), he might not even exist. His only other listed employer on LinkedIn denied having ever employed anyone with that name (particularly not as Head of Marketing, his listed position) and when contacted by the media, many of his facebook friends admitted that they had no idea who he was and had perhaps accepted his friend request despite not knowing his identity. Among his list of facebook friends are several notable Conservative party staffers and MPs, as well as the opposition MP who has led the accusations of electoral fraud against the government in the house. Matt Mier refused to confirm or deny that McKnight was a real person, and his lawyer gave only the response quoted above. One of the interesting things about not being a real person is that it is very easy to disappear- as of March 19th, McKnight’s LinkedIn and Facebook accounts had either been deleted or made invisible. (Although I would imagine that Elections Canada will have their own questions for Mier about his apparent business partner’s social networking habits, particularly his ties to the Conservative party.)

While Rick McKnight’s 551 Facebook friends might not have really known who he was, other Facebook users friend, “like” and follow pretend individuals daily. One of the most ubiquitous places for social media fakery is the “fan” page, where users “like” their idols in order to gain access to their status updates. These are similar to the Twitter handles discussed in Kevin Gray’s “$5 million in 140 characters,” where pro athletes sell space on their Twitter accounts to big marketing companies, who pay them large sums of money to mention their products.(2) While these posts can sometimes seem natural and organic, where athletes are “sharing genuine information about their lives,” they more often seem desperate and awkward. However, fans continue to “like” and follow the accounts in exchange for the opportunity to feel that tiny bit closer to their favourite media personality. This is the case even when it seems clear that the account we have liked is not being updated by the star itself- even when the updates and tweets are clearly the work of an advertising firm such as Adly. The identity of the actual person or media team on the other side of the computer is not so important as the identity of the fictional person who we are able to be “friends” with.

However, even the desire to be friends with celebrities and a part of social movements  is not always strong enough to allow full buy-in to corporate social media. For example, there was a recent strange and unfortunate attempt to create something called #shamrocking, which was apparently having a terrible picture taken of yourself standing in a particular pose while holding a McDonalds Shamrock Shake and then posting it on twitter with the appropriate hashtag. McDonalds invented this hashtag themselves and then promoted it with a post on BuzzFeed. (3) Although they at least had the integrity to identify the post as their own creation, it is clearly designed to look amateurish and organic, featuring poor lighting and blurry photos. This tactic quickly backfired, with tweets using the hashtag reading “You mean #corporateshilling — @mashable #Shamrocking = photo of yourself doing an Irish jig while holding a @McDonald’s Shamrock Shake” and “You know what’s not #shamrocking? @McDonalds scalding baby chicks alive for nuggets! Take action & RT: t.co/hHtCB2Uz#BoycottMcDs” leading CBC to declare that the hashtag has become a bashtag. Similar marketing campaigns gone wrong include a Wal-mart sponsored blog entitled “Wal-marting across America” which involved a “typical American couple” driving across America in an RV, discussing how much they enjoyed visiting Wal-marts along the way. (4) Sometimes an online ‘identity’ created with corporate cash isn’t a helpful identity for corporations at all.

——
Works cited
1 Stephen Maher, “Who is Rick McKinght? No one seems to know who the mystery employee for robocall company RackNine really is,” National Post 19 March 2012 <http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/03/19/who-is-rick-mcknight-no-one-seems-to-know-who-the-mystery-employee-for-robocall-company-racknine-really-is&gt;
2  Kevin Grey, “5 million for 140 Characters,” Men’s Journal 10 November 2011 <http://www.mensjournal.com/5-million-in-140-characters&gt;
3  “McDonald’s #shamrocking hashtag becomes bashtag instead,” CBC News 17 March 2012 <http://www.cbc.ca/news/yourcommunity/2012/03/mcdonalds-shamrocking-hashtag-becomes-bashtag-instead.html&gt;
4 Pallavi Gogoi, “Wal-mart’s Jim and Laura: the Real Story,” Bloomberg Businessweek 9 October 2006 <http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/content/oct2006/db20061009_579137.htm&gt;

Girl Guides of Canada recently posted a link to a UK newspaper (1) on facebook and twitter.  The article in question had some journalistic issues (that were soon picked apart by Girl Guides of Canada’s “friends” and followers) but the factual, important content of the article was this: UK Girl Guide (aged 10-14) groups are focused on ‘girl-led’ programming and planning. The girls are given choices of several themed activities, called “Go For Its!” and over the course of four meetings, they follow the printed directions (with the help of adult leaders) to lead their own activities on their selected theme. Completing a particular number of “Go For Its!” is a requisite to obtaining badges and other awards. The controversial issue covered in the article, however, was two out of 26 “Go For Its!” that were deemed to be inappropriate: “Glamourama,” and “Passion 4 Fashion.” These “Go For Its!”, found  amidst others teaching survival skills, sports, and career awareness contain  activities that encourage the unit to learn to apply makeup and report on whether celebrity fashion is “hot or not.” Other sections of the “Go For Its!” in question encourage critical discussion on the media and gender identity and have girls investigate animal testing and other ethical concerns related to makeup production. In fact, the article quotes the UK Guiding website as describing “Glamourama” with  “From face masks to massage, and manicures to manic hair there’s loads for you to do,” but immediately following this line on the website is “But remember, beauty is more than just skin deep. Could you and your Patrol uncover the dirt on animal testing? Or why not look under the surface at the foundations of your own ideas of beauty?”

Part of the reason this issue is controversial is the age range with UK Guides. A Canadian Guider would probably discourage the idea of a ‘makeup night’ with Guides (aged 9-11) but if Pathfinders (aged 12-14) or Rangers (aged 14-18) were super into it, that might be a different issue. What’s appropriate for 14 year olds (who are able to have a more indepth, mature conversation about the impacts of gender stereotypes and the media) is quite different than what’s appropriate for a 10 or 11 year old whose critical filters aren’t fully developed yet. Even more concerning, depending on the way the content is presented, a message might be being sent in some cases that dressing up in a ‘feminine’ way with a dress and makeup is necessary to look nice, and that a girl who doesn’t want to wear blush and prefers dress pants and a tie is somehow less of a girl. While Jenni (one of my co-Guiders) and I agree with online comments that we would have skipped or even quit Guides if we’d had a ‘makeover’ night as kids, others argue that it might be engaging for some girls and might be a good way to package other content about ‘ethical purchasing’ and healthy lifestyles.

One comment that Jenni made regarding “Glamourama” was that girls get enough glamour and pressure to wear make-up elsewhere in their lives and that Guides should be a glamour-free zone, even if that’s what the girls would choose on their own. Although our Guiding training tells us that it’s important to let girls make the wrong decisions so long as they are safe, we refused to even entertain the notion of “Shopping Camp” and we are ridiculously grateful that there is no longer a “Build-a-Bear Workshop” in Victoria for the girls to be bewilderingly set on visiting. (If you aren’t familiar with “Build-a-Bear,” children don’t do any actual building- the emphasis is on selecting the correct (and expensive) accessories for an animal that gets stuffed in front of them. We did have the girls learn to sew their own stuffed creatures this year.)

While we’ve never discussed Twilight in the context of a Girl Guide meeting, girls their age are certainly reading (and discussing) the books- as a Cabin Leader at a non-Guiding summer camp I saw one girl leave camp one year as a 10 year old whose only desire in life was to go on the under-the-stars sleep-out and return a year later as an 11 year old sporting New Moon under one arm and discussing Robert Pattinson with great enthusiasm.  This enthusiasm soon spread over the entire cabin and soon it was exceedingly difficult to get girls interested in games, crafts or even the usually-popular “cover your Cabin Leader with facepaint” activity- instead 10 and 11 year old girls enthusiastically debated the merits of Taylor Lautner versus Robert Pattinson versus Edward versus Jacob.

Perhaps the issue with supportive adults giving young girls free reign on making all of their own decisions is that the rest of the world isn’t interested in letting them make their own decisions. As discussed in Consumed by Twilight, (2) once the investment had been made in the first Twilight novel, it was important that the publishing company make a profit (something that wasn’t guaranteed with an unknown, inexperienced author)- so they used the power of marketing to make the novel appeal to tweens and teens as the “next big thing.” Likewise, girls are bombarded with messages from the media and repeated by their peers that make-up, fashion, glamour and shopping are important parts of their gendered identities. Even if some or even most girls might be naturally drawn to the idea of getting new things or making themselves look ‘pretty,’ the way they are given these messages has been so unnaturally refined and pushed on them in such an artificial way that allowing and encouraging them to embrace these messages without reservation would be similar to allowing girls to take endless servings of dessert just because they enjoy them- although human beings might have a natural propensity for the sweetness of fresh fruit, refined sugar is another situation all together. Likewise, the Glamourama and Passion 4 Fashion “Go For Its!” can be seen as problematic when viewed as bolstering the aims of marketing and commercialism for ten year olds, and furthering the hegemony of the storyline of the ‘typical girl’ whose value hinges on her appearance and whose interests extend no further than the latest tabloid.

——

Works Cited

1 Matthew Holehouse, “Girl Guides are taught massage, make up and manicures,” The Telegraph 12 March 2012 <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/9137646/Girl-Guides-are-taught-massage-make-up-and-manicures.html&gt;
2 Marianne Martens, “Consumed by Twilight: The Commodification of Young Adult Literature,” Bitten by Twilight, ed. Melissa A. Click, et al. (New York: Peter Lang, 2010) 243-260.

Edward Cullen and Bella Swan live in a world where, as the teenagers around them go about doing normal teenage things, they alone choose to do the right thing. They choose to keep their virtue- they decide to wait until after marriage to have sex. This is the “last virtue” that Cullen still has, after being turned into a vampire at a young age and forced to live for all eternity with the knowledge that he has committed such atrocities as drinking human blood. This “thirst” for virtue- along with a fear that he might accidentally hurt her with his super human strength- leads him to stop Bella from so much as kissing him until the night of their wedding.

Young people have become stricken with the “love” story told in Twilight, even as they acknowledge that many of the attitudes reflected in it are problematic. However, a segment of adults see the glorification of abstinence (and the vilification of sexuality) as a healthy message for youth. Abstinence as a choice, of course, isn’t an issue; however, “purity balls” continue to be a reality not only across North America but also imported across the world. At one particular ball in Illinois (1), girls as young as twelve are brought to dinner with their fathers (other “Godly male mentors”) who pledge to “protect their daughter’s purity.” While the words “virgin” and “sex” are conspicuously absent from the purity ball website, this video features a father next to his teenage daughter speaking awkwardly about just what sort of purity he is going to ensure for her- without ever coming right out and saying it.

Further away from the girls getting their hair done and proclaiming that their fathers are the best dates ever, “Silver Ring Thing,” (2) is a group that markets their particular brand of virginity pledging as a cutting edge event, one more like a concert than a “ball” but with the same roots. Young people purchase silver rings to signify their promise to God that they will lose their virginity only on their wedding night. Silver Ring Thing suggests that young people should keep from kissing or even holding hands before marriage in order to keep temptation at bay. In keeping with family values, parents watch the entire event on video screens while members of the group sell them their very own rings as a reminder to pray for their children’s sexual abstinence.

Silver Ring Thing goes further than the walls of American churches, however. Their new initiative, “Wait 2 Live,” brings the Silver Ring Thing message to South Africa, where it is presumed that abstinence until marriage will prevent HIV infection and transmission among young people. (3) This program is advertised in the United States, where American Silver Ring Thing participants are encouraged to buy “Wait 2 Live” branded merchandise such as wristbands and t-shirts. The Wait 2 Live logo includes a number “2” superimposed over an image of the entire continent of Africa. American youth are then encouraged to view their purchase as a “sponsorship” of a young person in South Africa, where “only one in five young people can afford to buy a ring” as a symbol of their commitment to abstinence. (American youth are not expected to question why a $5 wristband purchase is able to cover both the cost of the wristband and the cost of a ring for which they would be charged $20 in the United States.)

Abstinence-only education is entirely problematic in a variety of ways. Not educating young people about condom use or other forms of contraception means that the statistically significant number of youth who end up breaking their pledge are more likely to do so unprotected and to have fewer adults they feel comfortable asking for advice. (4) Queer youth are faced with a double-whammy of shame, both for having same-sex attraction and also for having attraction at all, and are rendered invisible by the lack of discussion on their existence during the entire virginity pledge process which assumes that all pledgers will eventually end up in a church-acceptable marriage with a person of the opposite sex. The Wait 2 Live campaign, however, is particularly problematic for more reasons than can possibly quantified here. The entire campaign reinforces the view of the entire continent of Africa as a poverty-stricken nation where people are dying of AIDS all over the place- but where affluent, privileged youth can act as “saviour” through the spreading of their own faith-based beliefs. The colonial aspect of a campaign where young people spread their own religious teachings to “save” people in other countries is obvious. Most of all, spreading a faith-based rather than an evidence-based method of HIV prevention is deeply troubling.

Obviously, Twilight did not begin the push for abstinence only education or the shaming of youth who do not wait until marriage. However, Twilight is one piece of a culture that treats sex as an evil temptation that could quite easily kill someone if they let it. As discussed by Kathryn Kane and in last week’s reading by Natalie Wilson, while vampire novels have typically told stories that would otherwise have been stifled, Twilight deifies straight white men in a supernatural context. In terms of spreading the story told by the dominant (or perhaps just the most boisterous) religious view that sex is an awful, dangerous and deadly thing, Twilight goes above and beyond to help virginity pledge organisations spread the good word.

——-

Works Cited

1 “The Purity Ball,” March 6, 2012 <http://www.thepurityball.com&gt;

2 “Silver Ring Thing,” March 6, 2012 <http://silverringthing.com&gt;

3 “Wait 2 Live,” March 6, 2012 <http://www.wait2live.com&gt;

4 Advocates for Youth, “The Truth About Abstinence-Only Programs,” March 6, 2012 <http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/publications/409&gt;

5 Carrie Anne Platt, “Cullen Family Values: Gender and Sexual Politics in the Twilight Series,” Bitten by Twilight, ed. Melissa A. Click, et al. (New York: Peter Lang, 2010) 72-86.

6 Kathryn Kane, “A Very Queer Refusal: The Chilling Effect of the Cullens’ Heteronormative Embrace,” Bitten by Twilight, ed. Melissa A. Click, et al. (New York: Peter Lang, 2010) 103-118.

Then one Saturday we went to his village to visit, and his mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket made of dyed raffia that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. 

Chimamanda Adichie

Can you pick me out?

When I was six years old, I was rich.

My teacher’s name was Mrs. Bartch, and she read to us from Beverley Cleary novels in the afternoon (if we were good). My parents would take me and my friend Millika (second row, second from right) to K’san beach and we’d dig for clay in the Skeena River and practice lighting fires. My father would take us looking for pine mushrooms in the forest and sometimes I’d even make five or even ten dollars after he got his gas money back. We ate fresh salmon or halibut at least five nights a week, and on weekends we’d drive to Prince Rupert and pull fresh prawns and crab out of the ocean for dinner.  We had a school newspaper that my mother volunteered to edit, and to this day she still talks about the amazing picture that Blaine (top row, far right) drew of a whale for publication, captioned “Free Willy is aswimmin and aswimmin.” I went to “Cultural Awareness” class twice a week where we acted out stories about Raven and Bear. The communal colouring supply buckets always ran out of red and black pencil crayons first.

In 2001, the sawmill that employed my father and the parents of most of the children in this photo shut down.  Some small sawmills remained for a few years, but the reality of the forest industry (particularly a lift on the ban on raw log exports) meant that most forestry jobs disappeared quickly. My parents eventually sold the house they’d been so proud of paying off when I was young for a fraction of its original value and moved us to the Kootenays. Many of the children in this photograph left Hazelton with their families before they turned 18, but the half-or-so kids in my age cohort who lived on reserve tended to be in a more difficult situation.

Six years later, this story was on the front page of the Vancouver Sun. It was followed by stories like this one– the CTV coverage particularly interesting because it focuses on drug and alcohol use in both example stories without mentioning that the youth drug and alcohol treatment facility in nearby Terrace had been closed due to government cutbacks shortly before the story was recorded (leaving the next nearest facility in Prince George). It also ends by mentioning the FAST intervention team, without noting that the Ministry of Health specifically intends this kind of action to come in tandem with individual counseling- something much more difficult to find. Perhaps the most well-rounded story is this one, from the Tyee, which takes the time to mention that most in the community once had work and some of the many nuanced policy issues that surround reserves in Northern BC.

Unfortunately, part 1 of the Tyee article also ends by implying that band leadership could create jobs by agreeing to support the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, which would not run through Gitxsan territory but would affect the watershed that includes Babine Lake, which is included in Gitxsan territory. Hazelton made the news more recently when one of 65 hereditary chiefs (each Gitxsan House has its own hereditary chief and all must be consulted in decision making) came out in support of the pipeline (without the support of the other 64 chiefs). This led to protests of his band office and an official statement that the treaty society was not in support of the pipeline- and who could blame them when the project is scheduled to create only 217 permanent jobs, none of them in the Hazelton area? Leaving these parts of the story out supports comments like this one from user “reallife”:

“economic proposals for the area including… drilling for coal bed methane… and the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline… response from locals was a resounding “no” to both”

“area’s unemployment rate… is as high as 85 to 90 per cent”

Anyone else see a possible connection here?

Since the Vancouver Sun article in 2007, media coverage of the Hazeltons has focused almost exclusively on the area as one of poverty, death, and substance abuse. While most coverage does vaguely hint at the idea that government could provide an upgrade to the level of social services currently offered, it almost exclusively fails to take the time to mention the impact that the separation of powers at confederation has had, leading the Federal Government to provide services on reserve that are far below the services provided almost universally by provincial governments elsewhere (as at least one article mentions and my own experience confirms, the only way to know when you’ve entered the reserve areas of Hazelton is that the paved roads end). This is then combined with vague notions that opening up to coal-bed methane drilling in the area where all life began or supporting a nearby pipeline proposal with no permanent economic gains but plenty of economic and environmental risk would solve the economic problems that were originally exasperated by poor forestry policy.

This video is from the United States, but it captures the feeling of having one’s community reduced to hopelessness through the definitions of well-meaning journalists. Since we ignore the other facets of life in the Hazeltons and in communities like it, it is unsurprising that the general public has learned only a single story of first nations communities as desperate, poverty stricken areas where people make the decision to stay but refuse to develop.

Like most young people, I spent plenty of time engaging with pop culture as I grew into my sexuality.  MTV was usually on if my little brother or I was home during early high school, and although actual music videos were only played during off-peak hours, the hours of scantily clad women were certainly a big draw for both of us. Every once in a while my mother would come downstairs and tell us to turn off that “smut” and turn the channel to some quality programming (say, Survivor or The Apprentice). Eventually she would go to bed and as soon as her footsteps disappeared from the stairs I’d wrestle my brother for the remote and put on The L Word. He would groan and retreat over to the computer, put headphones in and turn the sound way up. I don’t think this narrative of illicitly exploring sexuality through pop culture is unique to queer youth, but I do think it is particularly common for us. From my own experience speaking with other queer young adults, most of us remember at least one TV show or book from our past which opened our eyes to the idea that difference was possible.

Stephen Kerry’s There’s Genderqueers on the Starboard Bow reflects on the handful of characters that can be viewed as genderqueer over the many, many years of Star Trek. Kerry has quite a selection to write about- as a show centred on “strange new worlds,” Star Trek takes advantage of the ability to use science fiction to introduce characters that would be considered controversial as human beings but who are simply seen as ‘alien’ when introduced as members of other species. Kerry notes that in 1991, Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry intended to introduce gay characters to Star Fleet, a normal part of “day-to-day circumstances.” While this promise was never fulfilled (arguably due to Roddenberry’s death), Kerry argues that Star Trek remains “queer as fuck,” thanks to the ubiquity of alien species available to fill the ‘queer’ roles- androgyny and gender-shifting are dealt with explicitly. However, these themes are only dealt with in the context of strange, otherworldly beings, most of which are conveniently left behind after a single episode. Human characters on the show remain almost exclusively heteronormative- including Trip Tucker, who is seen as the victim during “Unexpected,” an episode which focuses on his accidental pregnancy after he takes part in a mind-reading session with an alien whose ship he was sent to repair. Without any predominantly queer human characters, the argument that Star Trek is “queer as fuck” falls down. Kerry seems to acknowledge these shortcomings near the end of his article, at which point he fails to address the implications for his original argument.

Another science fiction show which I enjoy but which awkwardly handles the integration of queer characters is the 2004 remake of Battlestar Galactica. Battlestar’s Starbuck is, in many ways, a Tomboy. As discussed in Kristin Hatch’s Little Butches, the typical tomboy narrative involves a girl who eventually outgrows her childhood ways to embrace femininity, usually as she discovers (heterosexual) love. Hatch discusses the extent of which various Hollywood films stray from or embrace this particular narrative. Starbuck, on the other hand, begins the series as a short-haired, cigar-smoking viper pilot, keeping many of the traits that the original series had assigned to a male Starbuck. As the series progresses, Starbuck does spend a time being more feminine. She gets married (and mostly gives up the identity she had as the heterosexual-female equivalent of a ‘womanizer’), grows her hair long, and generally becomes more settled. However, this does not last long- in a moment of emotion she cuts her hair with a knife which signals that the time has come for her to more or less successfully go back to being the hero. Battlestar does have some explicitly queer characters- sort of. Helena Cain, who leads the Battlestar Pegasus , is generally portrayed as a non-sexual character during the show’s television episodes. However, during the film Razor, it is revealed that Cain is actually sexually involved with a (female) Cylon Six. When the Six’s identity as a Cylon is revealed, Cain has her tortured (including being sexually assaulted by male officers). Felix Gaeta is also briefly seen to be sexually involved with a minor male character during a “webisode” which was never aired on television; their relationship conveniently ends before the next television series begins.

It would be great to see all of these characters on Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica as “wins” for increasing the visibility of queer characters. Unfortunately, the refusal of both of these shows to deal explicitly (as in, on television) with humans of alternate sexualities or gender identities means they continue to disappoint and to reinforce science fiction and television in general as a heteronormative means of communication.

I’m torn on where to begin with this blog post. As I was reading Jennifer Pozner’s Reality Bites Back, I was feeling a bit bothered by the almost unwavering attention given to women in the first four chapters of her book. I haven’t watched reality TV in years (I don’t have cable, and my occasional online-TV-watching is pretty exclusively devoted to sci fi and the odd sitcom) but my mother does get a somewhat bewildering amount of ‘guilty pleasure’ out of it, so in high school I would watch the occasional episode (usually Survivor or The Apprentice, but I’ve seen America’s Next Top Model and Wife Swap once or twice as well) under the auspices of ‘mother daughter bonding.’

It seems to me that, as with most prime time TV, the men get their fair share of damaging stereotypes as well. I see endlessly portraying men as sexist pigs and poor fathers as dehumanizing and ridiculous as the ‘dumb blonde’ or ‘bitch’ stereotypes. Men too are put under a heteronormative magnifying glass, their masculinity scrutinized as indicative of their ability to provide for their families and responsibly parent their children. As examined by Deanna Sellnow in the first chapter of The Rhetorical Power of Popular Culture, when men are shown as primary caregivers in television, the plot (even in ‘unscripted’ television) tends to revolve around their “inability to do it well.” From what I can remember of Wife Swap, regardless of which stereotyped family is being shown in a given episode, the men are almost exclusively portrayed as unappreciative, selfish and emotionally stunted shells of human beings, who have no interest at all in the wellbeing of their partners or children so long as they are able to win arguments and set the house rules.

All of this leads me to question whether we need to pay more attention to what this is doing to the expectations of children of both genders. Even if boys are more likely to believe that they are going to work outside the home and less likely to be concerned about their looks than their female counterparts, do we still think that seeing a characterization of their gender as stupid, inconsiderate and often violent is harmless?

And yet on further reflection, perhaps the reason that Pozner spends considerably more time considering the impact of reality TV portrayals of women is that when six o’ clock rolls around and (well, some channels anyways) stop airing Wife Swap and instead broadcast the evening news, boys are almost always given an alternate view of their future. Men are suddenly everywhere, particularly when it comes to political news, which makes sense when you consider that men make up the majority of elected politicians (particularly of politicians deemed ‘newsworthy). The guest “experts” on economics and science also tend to be men. Men have the opportunity each night to rebut the idea of themselves as buffoons, while women are thrown in as the occasional token or reported on because the fact that they’ve done something fantastic is particularly fantastic when we consider how few women are in their field.

And even when we see strong women on the news, gender stereotypes continue- right down to Susana da Silva (host of CBC’s late night news)’s headshot on the CBC website. In this forum, we see da Silva with long, straight hair and plenty of lipstick. I had the opportunity to spend a week with Susie (her usual name in ‘real life’) volunteering with a youth parliament which she serves on the board of directors for as well as at an associated children’s summer camp, and can assure you that the amount of makeup left on her face is directly proportional to the number of days since she’s been on television.

The emphasis on male accomplishments on the evening news is further complicated by what Richard Poulin and Melanie Claude call the “pornification” of society, and particularly of women and girls’ style of dress. As we see females of all ages (both in real life and on TV of all kinds) showing more and more skin, it becomes difficult to rebut the idea that we are embracing our own objectification. The idea of little girls as sexual objects is disturbing to say the least. As major chain stores sell mini-skirts and knee boots for preschoolers, we can see a major stumbling block for getting more women “experts” on the news. How are these girls going to become scientists, politicians, lawyers, professors, when the outfits they wear on their first day of kindergarten put them in a position that other children and adults first notice their appearance rather than their actions? Besides, how much learning (and even playing) can go on in an uncomfortable and impractical outfit during the years when children are meant to be running around in the dirt?

So, despite my initial misgivings, perhaps Pozner is justified in her focus on women in reality TV. While I would continue to take issue with the idea that men are portrayed with much more respect in this particular arena, when considered in combination with much of the other television programming (and even children’s playwear), women and girls are given a particularly unfair portrayal in the media.