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One white male moderator, three white male “expert” commentators, and three out of four white male party leaders. The presence of the oft-shunned Green Party leader Elizabeth May presented the only instance of progress for female representation in the Maclean’s leaders debate on August 6.
May was finally ‘allowed’ to play with the Big Boys — a role that of course she is expertly versed in performing in the House of Commons. A singular but substantial victory among considerable moments of disappointment for the state of women’s representation.
In the post-debate analysis, all remains as it was. The all-white duderific panel of experts seems this day in age a bewildering, stubborn remnant of male privilege — in the whole of this country not a single qualified female journalist could be found? (Or two? Or an all-female panel? Could you imagine that? I can’t.)
So what is the consequence of upholding a male political and media culture? Back to May.
She was not the only party leader to have her appearance scrutinized by the so-called “body language expert” but the analysis she received was highly gendered and highly cringe-inducing.
The “expert” or as I’ll call him “enforcer of the gendered status quo” declared May’s outfit to be unfit for a political debate — the pins and jewelry a distraction from her being taken seriously.
It is actually striking how safe May played it in replicating the (male) uniform upheld as the standard of power and professionalism in society: White collared shirt, black blazer, an ‘appropriately modest-length’ black skirt the only gendered article of difference. The men wore similar pins adorning their lapels apparently without the shine “distracting” from their voice and credibility.
The critique was not an intentional act of sexist commentating, but a reflection of a political and media culture that remains incredibly male-centric, with real consequence to how we portray powerful women in our country’s political discourse.
Most significant was the lack of substantive policy discussion on topics of concern to women. Yes, women undoubtedly care about foreign policy, Canada’s economic performance, and a vast array of social issues. Of issues pertaining particular to women as a group, like a real discussion on child-care policy, how to deal with the atrocity of missing and murdered Indigenous women and gender and economic disparity, there was nary a mention.
The work of equality belongs to us all.
Is it time that men begin to ask “where are the women?” and inquire about gender ratios before agreeing to act as an “expert” voice on media panels? Yes. The Agenda with Steve Paikin‘s success at implementing near gender parity on panels demonstrates that equality is in reach — when the will is there.
Countless girls tuning in to their first federal debate were presented with the vision of a confident woman fiercely taking on male leaders on the tasks of governing this country. May’s performance was widely lauded by the media for raising the level of substance with skillful, well-evidenced challenges to her fellow party leaders. And she is after all a party leader.
It was, however, May’s impressive contribution to the democratic spirit that invoked in Canadians of all political stripes an acknowledgment of her rightful place in all upcoming debates.
Seeing is envisioning and the visibility of women in positions of power is an essential driver for increasing gender equality.
Forgetting for a moment (and only a moment) Maclean’s upholding of the duderific status quo, and setting aside all the parties’ post-debate pronouncements of political victory, May’s very presence was victory enough to cause a flutter of pride in the hearts of Canadian feminists. But we want and need more.
Cyndi Mayhew is a freelance writer, graduate of McGill University in Women’s Studies and Political Science, and Director of Equal Voice Carleton.