Narrow focus made CBC 'feminist' documentary inaccurate, unhelpful and defeatist

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There are things to be grateful for about CBC's documentary The F-Word: Who Wants to Be a Feminist?, aired last Thursday, March 3.

For one thing, the filmmakers didn't interview Gwen Landolt or anyone else from the misnamed REAL Women of Canada, nor anyone who could be called a "conservative" feminist a la Sarah Palin.

They didn't interview David Frum whose faux concern for Muslim women flows from his racist anxieties about the ambitions of Islam and leads him to accuse feminists of abandoning Muslim sisters to unrelieved patriarchal disaster.

They didn't dig up anyone from a Men's Rights Organization to tell us that feminists have taken over the world and feminized men, politics, the legal system, and public conversations about men and women.

But they did talk to three Canadian feminists whom I admire: Kathleen Lahey, Peggy Nash and Jessica Yee.

And I am grateful for getting the right information: the ways in which the movement for women's equality has fallen far short of hopes and expectations were delineated with data that showed women still own only one per cent of property in the world and fall far short in earning wages that compare to those of men.

Yes, for all that, I am grateful. But it took me quite a while to locate that gratitude because there was so much else that was wrong with The F-Word. It's taken me the whole weekend and many conversations to air and hear the grievances.

One of the framing questions asked by the film is "where did feminism go wrong?" In getting to the answer the film outlined some of the goals and objectives of "second wave" feminism. But if this means the status quo is represented as the answer to the question of where feminism went wrong, the answer will focus only on the shortcomings of the second wave.

There would be something to be grateful for here, too, if the documentary makers had focussed on those "failures" in their socio-economic and political context. The pressures of neoliberalism over the last two decades have led to the marginalization of many liberation movements, feminism is just one of them. The critical issue for contemporary movements is to understand how that happened and, of course, that means critical analysis of the goals and strategies of the movements themselves.

But the exclusion of this type of context in the documentary rendered it inaccurate, unhelpful and defeatist.

Did the doc at least get its history of the Canadian second wave right? Absolutely not.

Before a background of flashing still images of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, the filmmakers focussed on internationally well-known feminists such as Susan Faludi, Naomi Wolf, Germaine Greer and Christina Hoff-Sommers.

It matters who you choose as representatives to speak for Canadian feminism and even if these feminists themselves object to being considered in the role of spokeswomen they were undoubtedly placed in that position in the documentary. Because of this, it's not possible to escape from the conclusion that feminism is overwhelmingly composed of white, middle-class, and relatively privileged American women and one Australian.

When the focus of the film moved to the problems of contemporary women we did see the faces of younger women and women who were not white but they were seen as individuals, not as members of any category other than "woman" -- and they weren't spokeswomen for the movement. The problem identified was almost exclusively the issue of how to deal with a woman's traditional role of wife and mother within the heterosexual family unit while juggling the demands of an outside working life or, indeed, a woman's ambition to participate at all in a world outside the home.

Jessica Yee was the sole young woman invited to speak at any length. I can only think that the filmmakers were so bemused by her description of herself as a multiracial, hip-hop, Two Spirit, feminist reproductive freedom-fighter that they forgot to ask her what it all meant. I'm grateful that Jessica is out there and I wanted to hear more about what she does and how she works. But what I got was three minutes.

That's just not my feminism. It wasn't my feminism during the second wave and it's not my feminism now. Like many women activists of the 60s and 70s, my involvement in the women's liberation movement flowed directly out of anti-war, anti-poverty, and civil rights action. While we might have left behind some of our brothers (and sisters) when we branched out into feminist analysis and organizing, we didn't leave them all behind and we certainly didn't jettison all of those goals.

The call to arms at the time was "the personal is political." You wouldn't think I'd have to point out that it included the liberation political movements of the time but apparently I do. My first feminist mentor was Madeleine Parent, a Quebecois union organizer whose work was dedicated to full political rights for women, reproductive choice and equal pay -- the direct forbearer of Peggy Nash

Then there is Patricia Monture, Françoise David, Sunera Thobani, Mary O'Brien, Shelagh Day, Sharon McIvor, Michele Landsberg, Judy Rebick... and those other feminists I lived and worked with on a daily basis whose names are legion and who come from a wide range of racial, ethnic, national and class backgrounds and experiences.

No doubt my list intersects and diverges with those that others would build. That's because we had different experiences and our work and energies were focussed on a wide range of issues. I hope that we have something to pass on to contemporary feminists -- something more than our critique of their contributions, though our clashes and divisions are what is of most interest to the mainstream media.

We were and are more than our mistakes, although a deep understanding of our mistakes is critical to any map of the way forward. We were challenged by feminists of colour and immigrant women and women living in poverty. We responded well or not so well. Surely we don't want to buy back in to the middle-class, white representation of feminism that the documentary makers, Michael McNamara and Judy Holm, stick us with in their film? Both of them expressed shock upon finding that women weren't yet equal in interviews discussing their documentary process. Ah, give me a break!

I wish it hadn't been McNamara and Holm whose pitch to CBC to make this kind of documentary was successful, particularly McNamara, who admits that his awareness of feminism ended back in the 60s and was limited even then. But since it was them and they had to start from scratch, I thought I'd try to put myself in that position. I Googled "Canadian Feminism" and was directed to a Wikipedia page that contains shockingly few entries and misses most of the women I've named here entirely. Feminists may have extremely limited access to the mainstream media and the public representation of our movement. But social media and information sites like Wikipedia are ours for the taking.

Several weeks ago, debaters hosted by The New York Times addressed the question of how few women contribute to Wikipedia. We could ask, why so few feminists? We know the answer is that we are busy doing the work. But we also know that if we identify our own contributions to the creation of a public face of feminism as a problem, we will do that work. Just for starters.

Elizabeth Pickett is an internet-based feminist freedom fighter, a mother, a grandmother, a blogger, and a poet, seething in Whitby, Ont.

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