SexMoneyMedia: Feminist Aftershocks

October 18, 2010

I had the honor to give a keynote address at this international symposium, sponsored by Women in View, an association of  Canadian media professionals. An astoundingly diverse and powerful group of women–with high-ranking representatives from industry, finance, unions, the national government, technology, academia, the arts, and non-profits–joined for two days, with the primary goal of making sense of (and providing action items towards changing) the shockingly regressive rates of women’s participation in, and representation through, media. While it would be too long for this venue to cover everything of value that occurred in these jam packed days, I wanted to highlight three key points, and end by looking at the work of three women from whom I learned greatly.

1) O Canada!

It was dismaying to realize how profoundly neo-liberalism has soaked our consciousness and practices in the US by watching the Canadians unselfconsciously (if angrily) engage together via discourses of justice, equity, and a government and society (still a tiny bit) responsible for such claims. The fact that women were in the room from the agencies that fund, show, make, and legislate around a (still a tiny bit) state-supported system, and that they were listening and actually a part of the dialogue, is something I can not imagine in the US where we have become complacent to the idea that market trends trump all conversations around real-world legislation and practices within dominant systems of representation.

2) Stereotypes and Statistics:

As a media artist and humanities scholar, my work has not largely focused upon stereotypes or statistics, and I wanted to learn from intelligent women who were using these questions and methods to drive their work: the emphasis of this conference. The several studies that were shared were shocking: women’s participation in the media as marked by numbers of workers, dollars spent, or images of women on screen have fallen precipitously, and are in ratios that display an illegitimate reflection of women’s power in both other fields and daily life. While this data is deeply compelling, it fails to recognize women and girls’ equally compelling presence on the internet (thus my invited talk), the fact and real power of the hundred-plus female professionals in the room, and at least thirty years of feminist theoretical work in media and cultural studies that has built upon an analysis of how many, to try to understand the systems, structures, and conditions of representation that under-gird numbers. This is to say that while seeing more women on and behind the screen is certainly an admirable and understandable beginning, and an ongoing necessity, what women do when they get there is even more complicated, given that they are bound by corporate, narrative, psychoanalytic, aesthetic, social, and labor codes (to name a few) that must also be understood and changed to make any representation truly meaningful and empowering. Another way to say this is that “negative images” or even low numbers (especially those made by critical, angry women attempting to understand and give thought to their own imperfection, criticism, contradictions and oppression within a daunting and complicated world) are often more illuminating and empowering than “positive” or popular ones.

3) The Personal is the Political:

A brief anecdote: I ate lunch with four or five women, all, it turned out with their own children who are teenagers (I have pre-teens), some of whom made video games, one of whom worked on privacy legislation regarding digital content, and of course, me, I work on YouTube. Off-line, over lunch, we talked like very literate, even expert Moms who nevertheless worry and self-criticize about how to monitor, talk to, and empower our very active media girls (one scholar monitors Facebook with an alter-ego, another never looks). I can not emphasize how moving, and important it was for me to be in a room with women who wanted to let their personal problems and experience add to, nuance, and even contradict the professional and even political work we also do. It is my experience that this sustaining, productive magic happens when feminists are in rooms together, which they are most often not in our post-feminist world. The personal feeds my analysis, power, and anger and joins me with others, so experiencing; it is not a place I want to be at all times (thus I go to work), but it is one from which I move and think and grow. As women get more and more ensconced in the professions, we must self-consciously create and insist upon places from which we can also be fed by our personal experiences which are always productive towards our actions, analyses, demands, and work. This is our unique legacy and gift.

4) Three Women Who Moved Me (of course I learned from them all)

The first day’s keynote speaker, Rosalind Gill, from the London School of Economics, elegantly and flawlessly mobilized statistical and ethnographic analysis to fuel her cultural critical project on “retro-sexism,” one bent upon understanding the paradox of women’s achievement and same time worsening employment and representational conditions, in particular, the unspeakability of sexism in the cool, bohemian environments of new media. Bonnie Klein, and others from Canada’s National Film Board’s feminist Studio D, reminded us of the pros of a government mandated space, rooted in a living social movement, and its ideas, arts, and actions, and moored to the constant discovery engendered by a feminist inflected, actively supported, and highly participatory, self-critical, voice-inspiring system.

Finally, Jutta Treviranus, from OCAD University, inspired me to think about how innovation occurs at and for the margins, that “disability” happens to everyone when environments don’t match their needs, and that technology allows us to imagine a better world of “mass personalization” where “one size fits one.” Her work on the unpopular gave me intellectual and design ammunition in relation to my more experiential and intuitive analyses of popularity on YouTube.

My current work seeks to theorize, imagine, and construct on-line feminist spaces that are as feeding as was SexMoneyMedia in its artful and intentional corralling of expertise, power, affect, politics, art, diversity, and goal-driven world-changing.


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