Thursday, 13 February 2014

Fourth Wave Feminism & Air NZ

Fourth Wave Feminism & Air NZ


This post is written for a new University of Canterbury FemSoc publication.  UC Femsoc itself is part of the rise of a new wave of feminist thinking on campuses and streets everywhere. 

Here I reflect on the current New Zealand debate about a "required to view" Sports Illustrated video on Air NZ and the Roast Busters and Odd future cases.

The Air New Zealand video is not an  issue that will go away. A "required to view" video repeated day after day on domestic flights by a state owned airline is a prospect that should trouble the NZ government in an election year where women's votes matter.

It is great that UC is launching a new FEMSOC newspaper. Feminist societies are blossoming on campuses world wide as part of a new "fourth wave" of feminist thinking and activism. The title of a new Oxford University feminist paper for example is, Cuntry Living a title which still makes me laugh every time I think about it.

Irreverent satire is one of the features of a so called Fourth Wave of feminism. This acerbic, often visual feminist comedy is also illustrated by the Suffra-jests a local student feminist group that recently started here in Christchurch, the home of Kate Sheppard and the White Ribbon publication (an early feminist newsletter published by women who also spearheaded NZ's world leading votes for women campaign in 1893). Today's suffra-jests group sprang up in protest against overbearing central government here in Christchurch and the loss of local democracy after the earthquakes. It is taping into the energy of new, global activist thinking and experimentation on streets everywhere,  from the Transition architecture movement, to contentious feminist debates in Occupy , gender solidarity in Indignados or the interface between urban planning and feminism for example in  Gezi park and diverse indigenous rights campaigns.

Other features of fourth wave feminism are its new focus on cultural life, social media, technology and  political connections between inequality, intersexuality, unemployment, online misogyny, workers conditions, and rape. The new and unexpected nature of this protest and voice is spilling over everywhere. If the first wave of feminism secured political rights to vote, the second wave in the mid 1960s and 70's aimed to secure social and economic rights. A subsequent third wave, (which has set the roots for what we see now today) began to react against a corporate feminist movement "too often about the glass ceiling, never about the floor" as late 1990's feminists gave voice to the diversity, of minority voices and the issues of civil rights in writers like bell hooks (lowercase) and post colonial feminism.

Just as earlier waves of feminism grew out of, and were reinforced by, previous actions and thinking, the so called third wave has now morphed into a cultural online revolution as women and men make connections between the battles against surveillance and misogyny on the internet, the freedom to determine our lives and the rights of women and girls, and LGBT communities to decent sustainable work, quality education, and self expression, typified in the twitter writing of @PennyRed and a constant self critical reflection that listens to the variety of women's everyday oppression experiences in a complex world.

New Issues 
The new issues for fourth wave feminism are different, and here in New Zealand some of this difference is shown in the focus of new campaigns and alliances. Often humour and consumer boycott typifies the most visible protests - and the target is public hypocrisy and everyday oppression. For example in New Zealand feminist commentators already highlight the tension between outrage and complaints about the online group of young men known as Roast Busters  and support for the banned, misogynistic hip hop group Odd Future. The latter was banned from travelling to New Zealand to perform not because of violent lyrics but because it was deemed 'likely to incite public disorder'. This suggests that a current conservative NZ government may have wished to respond to concerns about Odd Future but felt an outright ban was difficult given their conservative yet libertarian position. The alternative however was to ban the group on grounds of inciting disorder, is a far more troubling justification for excluding any group as Elle Hunt and Viki Anderson argue (1).

Air New Zealand's "required to view" Sports Illustrated Safety Video
Similarly there are also tensions which need debating in the decision by Air NZ to 'celebrate' a 50 year anniversary of the US corporate, Sports Illustrated magazine by involving that company's bikini clad models in a safety video for Air NZ, a video which will be compulsory to view. In the first instance, sexism aside, this decision runs up against the libertarian arguments of free choice. Claims that people's choice of dress is up to them, are undercut if all passengers are compelled to watch what amounts to an advertisement for Sports Illustrated even if it offends them. When I  raised my concern about the required to view implication of the video, it was a new conservative National politician, Paul Foster-Bell who first responded, agreeing and adding, "If safety videos are compulsory viewing they should cut down on the embarrassingly cringeworthy vids".

Then there is a very basic question- do such videos make us safer? Some commentators argue the message is distracting from safety, because it is now buried in visuals. And surely feeling annoyed is also distracting? Then there is the contentious research in human psychology that asks, if "sex sells", does it also inform, or do some 'sexualised contexts' actually distract us from performing important cognitive functions, like concentrating on key facts and detailed information?

One of the most significant critics of the content of the video itself from a feminist perspective however has been Massey academic and  NZ Labour Party candidate Deborah Russell who takes the issue up as a loss of sexual consent for passengers required to view the images, even if they object. Passengers are literally strapped in their seats just trying to get from destination A to B. News anchor Hilary Barry and columnist Pam Corkery have also spoken up strongly about their own anger, their voices are challenging dominant media narratives, and giving voice to public frustration and concern. The argument that Sport's Illustrated offers a new global market, misses the point that trapped audiences don't like the message.

Other critics go further and point out the hypocrisy of corporations mainstreaming very soft porn images while worrying about the rise of online sex industries 'grooming' young girls. If Air New Zealand was serious about celebrating the new woman's body, then why not make a video that celebrates Pussy Riot? Oh wait, that band  symbolises the new contradictions and challenges of fourth wave feminism but might also incite public disorder.....

Then there are the very strange tensions this video creates for Air New Zealand as an employer. On the one hand Air New Zealand has recently announced that all senior employees are banned from relationships, even if single, because there can be "no ambiguity" At the same time, they are presumably going to expect women in cabin crew to stand to attention in the aisles while sexualised images are played on screens around them. A very ambiguous situation I'd have thought?

Finally, there is the political-economy objection, in a global market why is a government owned airline promoting a multinational company and not locally owned New Zealand businesses in this "required to view" advertorial? (Time Warner is the parent firm of Sports Illustrated, it also backed the Hobbit films-would it be too cynical to ask if a required to view inflight advertorial for SI is well timed exposure for a US company in a struggling market sales environment, in which Sport Illustrated has also just tried to launch a connection to Barbie dolls?-see comment links below).

There is much irony and much to feel angry about, that just as young New Zealand women like Lorde, Eleanor Catton and Lydia Ko again lead the world in diverse areas, Air New Zealand ignores these outstanding role models and instead presents (I'd hesitate to go as far as to say 'grooms') New Zealand girls with American images of passive women in a colonial vision of island paradise which they aim to make 'required' viewing as a public safety message.

Yet fourth wave feminism reminds us that there are a myriad of ways to address problems like this and Air New Zealand has picked a very bad moment in social history to push an advertising campaign that perpetuates sexism. Besides the obvious consumer protests in a neoliberal era (eg fly JetStar) and the new trends to creative, colourful protest, there is the wider debate, why fly at all? Why not save the carbon and make that next meeting by skype?

Where to next?
Despite initial protestations that the 'required to view video' is just good publicity -actually it is not new or innovative, having been tried in 2009 with the same magazine connecting with Southwest Airlines.

Nor is the issue going away any time soon, especially if the video is played day in and day out on domestic flights. The many voices of New Zealand's women will not be easily silenced in the Air New Zealand Safety video debate nor any other political debates despite a current cacophony of predominantly 'white men from Auckland' holding forth as media commentators, sternly telling citizens what to think (or how to vote).

But it is not just New Zealand media that struggles currently with lack of diversity of women's voices. All political parties are very conscious in an election year with tight voter margins, women's votes will matter, as will youth votes. Even if some passengers don't find the video offensive, an irritating video played day in and day out on the government owned national airline, will no doubt serve as a lightening rod for some tension.

Emancipation was hard fought. It is not about how to shop or limited ideas of free choice in a market. The fourth wave emancipation movement is also breathing new life into wider debates about economics (whose economy?), the environment, politics, and our capability to exercise more meaningful citizenship. It is heard in the challenging, irreverent voices of a diverse new feminist movement.

It matters that significant victory for first wave feminism was achieved in New Zealand, a ripple, with far reaching global consequences. It took 2000 years for a novel Greek idea that all free men should have the right to vote, before women won that right and it was first won through efforts of a small group of women largely based here in Christchurch. A phenomenal achievement of strategy, alliance building, and campaigning which is still routinely dismissed by 'experts' as if it were a mere accident or twist of fate and privilege, not an extraordinary political achievement. Where will this new fourth wave of creative witty, challenging protest and debate about everyday sexism and loss of democratic voice take us?  I look forward to finding out and I welcome the new Femsoc publication and thank the editors very sincerely for their vision.

(1) Elle Hunt however refers to laws of 'sedition'- actually, thanks for the reminder -the Law Commission recently abolished the charge of sedition, it was the provisions of the Immigration Act which was used instead to ban travel of the group Odd Future.
A disclaimer, people ask why this blog site is called growing greens-I perhaps should clarify I don't refer to any green political party per se. It was the draft title of a book on green thought- red, blue, deep, or feminist -long since replaced by Children, Citizenship and Democracy, however I'm now stuck with the blog handle....

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Making Our Experience Count

Making Our Experience Count


Climate change, flooding, bushfires, poverty, inequality, youth unemployment...The complex, interconnected problems of a changing world can seem quite overwhelming for citizens of any age, fueling a sense of helplessness and apathy. How can everyday democracy help counter a sense of powerlessness in the face of such complex problems?

Yesterday  I drove a group of kids to a club activity. The news was playing on the car radio, with reports of more flooding, along with an account of the latest child poverty study by the NZ Salvation Army- saying what we know: how serious the issue of child poverty is, and that NZ's current approach to "Work you way out of poverty", isn't working as a solution for many of the complex situations that families with children currently face.
 
There was a long pause in the conversation after I'd turned off such dismal news.
 
In the silence one of the kids in the car said quietly,   'The world is so messed up."
 
My heart sank, and my reply was too quick, I said too brightly, "I know but that's why so many colleagues, in fact everyone we know is working really hard to tackle tackle this".
 
Even as I said it, I knew how inadequate it sounded as a response.
 
At the time we were driving through the maze of road cones, gravel and demolished buildings that is the down town of Christchurch city after the quakes, and a bus pulled out in front of us. The bus had  a picture on the back of it of the Christchurch student volunteer army leader Sam Johnson who had networked with 24,000 people on facebook and arranged up to 10,000 youth to work in groups of between 10- 100 each day to help clear silt after the earthquakes here
The advertisement just said "make our experience count". It is a standard public service warning to remind people to secure heavy furniture etc to avoid more deaths/injury from any future quakes.
But what was also interesting was the empowering impact the advertisement had. The child glanced at the advertisement, and then said thoughtfully..."The world is really screwed up but not that messed up..."

I understood what he meant, and not for the first time I was grateful to the New Zealand mental health experts who argued very strongly that any public service disaster messages for Christchurch should be empowering and not more images of doom or disaster.

More than that I again felt especially grateful to the students of Christchurch for their collective response to the earthquake disaster- because it has had a profound and far reaching positive role modelling effect for a new generation of young people, demonstrating the power of  collective "efficacy" in the face of what can be quite overwhelming events.

The power of collective action was demonstrated by the students and other community groups after the disaster in Christchurch, and it continues today often in student led experiments with new transition buildings, new art projects, new community gardens, and new local economic ideas, in the face of often strong central government resistance.

These activies provide a way to test new ideas, and thinking, but the collaborative effort also reminds us that it is not what we can do as individuals that really counts, although individuals taking a stand for example on moral principles or offering new ideas, matters enormously in a democracy, but it is the power of what we can do together, that really makes the long term difference.

When we interviewed Christchurch children aged 8-12 years before the earthquakes, a number of children revealed how years of neoliberal market economics has also impacted on their ideas about what makes a "good citizen". Some thought it was very important that citizens were 'self helpers', able to stand on their own two feet, others through good citizens were citizens who could effect change in the market, as social entrepreneurs or ethical shoppers. Still others thought good citizenship required a sponsor, a philanthropist or charity to support them to fund the school library, or playground

There is nothing wrong with this view of citizenship but it is a very thin response, in two ways. First, it leaves the causes of everyday injustice unchallenged, even if we tackle the symptoms of inequality and injustice , we don't think wider about what systemic actions are causing this situation. Second,  the thin citizenship of self help individualism undermines the capacity of collective effort as democratic community.  As Christchurch residents know, in the scale of an earthquake or natural disaster, there are real limits to what even the most determined individual can do. We also need the power of collective effort and the support of others to sustain our individual capability to take action.


In a changing world, young children can feel like "eco-worriers" who care very much about the changing climate or poverty, yet feel disempowered, by the situation, burdened by a sense of responsibility that they have to solve these issues themselves. Others  growing up in inequality may struggle with a sense of isolation.  It is only a very small step from feeling overwhelmed by a problem, to disengagement and cynicism, as Clive Hamilton reminds us in Requiem for a Species, apathy, that "why bother" attitude, is a rational response to a sense of powerlessness.

Given the scale and the complexity of many social and environmental problems we now face, it understandable that citizens, young and old can feel disempowered. Overwhelming apocalyptic imagery about a changing climate or constant statistics about poverty often doesn't help, if the problem is so big, why think about it? Why not carry on business as usual? What good will worrying about these issues let alone taking action, do? Far easier to justify our disengagement, "I have enough to worry about, its their fault they are poor", "I work hard", "I  saved for a house built on high ground, why can't they...?"

Yet it is not all bad news. Even after three decades of emphasis on the values of economic individualism in New Zealand, many New Zealand children we interviewed still expressed a confidence that they could also take collective action and significant empathy for others. When we asked children where they felt they were listened to and when they felt they could make a difference, the answers came out thick and fast: they felt listened to in team sports with a caring coach, in mid decile community schools where children met people unlike themselves, yet also felt  respected and safe. Other children felt proud of taking part in culture groups like kapa haka, community gardens, on school camps or combined school musical and theatre performances and felt they mattered. Some children commented on taking part in everyday community action or protest, about real issues with more experienced citizens and peers.

Each of these activities might not sound like the lessons in citizenship, and they are a very long way from civics tests and facts about politics, but the best way to learn about democracy is by  doing democracy. The opportunity to engage in respectful,  collective discussion and to take action with others, is an important seedbed of a different, richer kind of citizenship.

 Opportunities to learn about citizenship by taking action and collaborating with others are  important for any age group. It is easy to overlook for example the way the roots of the Student Volunteer army itself grew out of a group of students from a theatre club and a student hostel.

I have written previously about the sea change that is represented in the rise of a new generation of collective action and is now visible in new feminist thinking and new student union activity in solidarity with other groups , challenging traditional economics textbooks and experiments with  networked action to resist unfair global tax or business practice or to encourage a variety of new cooperative ideas.

It is part of a wider rediscovery of collective citizen power after financial disaster and in the face of a changing climate, and growing inequality. But it is collective action that challenges 'group think', and rediscovers new ways to create meaningful democratic citizenship in everyday life.

It is in this everyday collaboration with others that we as citizens begin to appreciate the extra-ordinary power of ordinary people acting together to achieve a more just and sustainable world.