Tag Archives: feminism

Are podcasts a wasteland? (with a post script about Kurt Wagner)

This image of Rebecca Walker is from the Wikipedia entry for Third Wave Feminism (I can’t find an attribution for the image on this page or the one for Ms. Walker.)

(This post was originally published a couple of days ago on Medium. I’ve added a post script which does not appear there.)

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts the other day, and was shocked to hear the guests talk about their clothing brand as if it were very special and blindingly original.

They insisted that their brand spoke to young women with a feminist message of empowerment. I kept waiting for the host to gently point out that there were a couple of precedents here.

For starters: One hundred years of suffragette feminism, Gloria Steinem, and Rebecca Walker (pictured), to say nothing of the work of Dove and the brilliant “Throw Like a Girl” videos by Lauren Greenfield for Always.

But no. He sat by while his guests sang their own praises. The best he could muster were obliging prompts on the order of “so tell me, would you say you were totally awesome or merely utterly fantastic?”

The host is from the creative world, so he’s not trained as a journalist. And podcasts are, as we know, a planet still forming.

More’s the pity.

Edison Research found that 48 million people listened to podcasts last year. The number grows steadily. This universe expands steadily. But it’s not clear that it is maturing as a form of discourse. My fear: that it is expanding but a little witless, that it’s agreeable but a little toothless.

The world of journalism has taken this question on, and the podcast has something to learn from this precedent.

The Society of Professional Journalism has code of ethics. The code asks that members adhere to four principals:

1. Seek Truth and Report It.

2. Minimize Harm.

3. Act Independently.

4. Be Accountable and Transparent.

In the podcast world, this might be boiled down to a simple imperative:

cut out the shameless glad handing and ask real questions in the pursuit of real answers. Do not suffer fools.

Post Script

No sooner had I published to this post to Medium than I found myself listening to a Recode Media interview by Kurt Wagner of Nick Bell, Snap VP of Content. I was impressed by Wagner’s willingness to ask the difficult question. Several of them. How well was Bell’s company doing and what did he (really) think about the share price? Why does Bell use “sexy selfies” when we might expect “serious journalism?” Most devastatingly, Wagner asked Bell if he regrets having failed to engage the creator community. (This is a difficult question because it suggests a fundamental failure to grasp perhaps the biggest change ((and opportunity)) in the digital world.)  Bell took these questions in stride, but the interview was now richer and more illuminating. No glad handing here. (It occurred to me that one behavioral marker of the difficult question is the awkward silence. There were a couple. You could almost hear Bell thinking, “He did not just ask me that!”)

I looked Wagner up and was interested to see that he puts the “ethics question” at the center of of how he describes himself.

Kurt Wagner
Senior Editor, Social Media

Kurt Wagner has been a business and tech journalist since 2012 and was previously reporting for Mashable. He also covered general tech and Silicon Valley news in his first job as a tech reporter with Fortune magazine, based in San Francisco. Originally from the Seattle area, Kurt graduated from Santa Clara University with a B.S. in communication and political science. He served as Editor-in-Chief of The Santa Clara, the university newspaper, for two years.

Ethics Statement

Here is a statement of my ethics and coverage policies. It is more than most of you want to know, but, in the age of suspicion of the media, I am laying it all out.

In June 2016, my then-girlfriend, now-wife took a job as an administrative assistant with Instagram’s marketing and community team. She is now a member of Instagram’s brand marketing team. She does not share material information with me about specific company projects or plans. She has been awarded a small stock grant as part of her compensation package, in which I do not have any ownership or control.

I have various 401K and IRA accounts, as well as non-retirement mutual fund stock accounts that invest in a wide-ranging basket of stocks, over which I have no control. I do not own stock in any individual tech companies.

I do not consult for any companies, nor do I accept gifts or products of value from companies I cover. I do not accept travel or accommodations from companies I cover.

Recode is owned wholly by Vox Media, a company with an audience of 170 million worldwide. It has eight distinct media brands: The Verge (Technology and Culture), Vox.com (News), SB Nation (Sports), Polygon (Gaming), Eater (Food and Nightlife), Racked (Shopping, Beauty and Fashion), Curbed (Real Estate and Home), as well as Recode (Tech Business).

Vox Media has a number of investors, including, but not limited to, Comcast Ventures and NBCUniversal, both of which are owned by Comcast Corporation.

My posts have total editorial independence from these investors, even when they touch on products and services these companies produce, compete with, or invest in. The same goes for all content on Recode and at our conferences. No one in this group has influence on or access to the posts we publish. We will also add a direct link to this disclosure when we write directly about the companies.

Blogger, heal thyself

It’s all very well to play the “J’accuse” card. In point of fact, I do not have a Wagnerian statement of ethics that lets the reader know what standards they can expect of this blog. And I should. (And it says something about the haze of self congratulation that surrounded blogging in the early days that it never occurred to me to criticize blogging in the way I am now criticizing podcasting. Bitter? Ok, a little.)

I will leave the full statement for another day. But I can say this much.

1) I have never expected, solicited, or extracted any sort of payment for a blog post.

2) I have never written in a laudatory manner about anyone for whom I have served as a consultant.

I have written a lot of laudatory pieces. My “beat” at this blog is contemporary American culture and I am especially interested when I see people (by which I mean creatives, writers, agencies, brands, journalists, bloggers) making interesting (witty, rich, powerful) contributions to that culture. My guiding assumption is that much of American culture comes from commerce and we have done a poor job looking at the intersection between culture and commerce. Inevitably this means I look at the work of branders and agencies in an approving way. How does they express culture, how does they improve culture? But in 1.5 million words, I have not got any sort of payment for these posts. Before or after the fact. I’ve never even got so much as a bottle of scotch or a note of acknowledgement. (Agencies like to think they exist sui generis. And this says a lot about why the creative and commercial world struggles so much these days. But it’s also a good thing. It keeps temptation at bay.)

3) It’s one thing never to write in a laudatory manner. If we are to follow the example of journalism in general and a journalist like Wagner in particular, we are obliged also to write negatively. This blog has lots of criticism. I have criticized Gillette, P&G, and Coca-Cola, to name just three. Bad work (i.e., lazy, stupid, craven work) deserves to be called out and scorned. I am sure this has cost me clients who supply the income that keeps my “self-funded anthropology” enterprise afloat. So this has been something more than a cosmetic gesture. It’s cost me.

There may be an official anthropology code here. (And it is almost certainly an exercise in the field’s solipsism, effectively discouraging all interactions with all parties. God forbid, the field should let in data that might disturb its orthodoxies.)  But certainly there is an unofficial “University of Chicago” ethics code. This says, “you are in this inquiry for the inquiry, and the moment you start to shill, you cease to inquire.”

“Don’t Peggy Olson me, mother f-ckers”

Peggy_Olson_Wiki

I have been doing ethnographies in London for a couple of weeks.  And the great thing about ethnographies is that things do pour in.

In one interview, the respondent told me about a phrase now poised to serve as a rallying cry in contemporary culture and the corporation.

Here’s the background.

Neko Case, the singer from the Pacific Northwest, was given an award recently.  Playboy congratulated her in a patronizing way and Case let fly.  Someone rebuffed her and Case rebuffed them.

Here it is play by play, tweet by tweet:

Ember

See the fuller context here.

My respondent says she hears the “Don’t Peggy Olson Me” phrase at work more and more.

What a thoroughly contemporary artifact.  A show appears called Mad Men.  It’s an old media contemplation of an age gone by.  It features a character who comes to stand for the status of women in the present day.  An artist used the character’s name as a verb to object to her treatment.  Hey presto, a new media meme is born, and spoken language is a phrase richer.  An issue (feminism) that has lost some of its standing in the public agenda is returned to visibility.  The heat of people’s anger is reregistered, reemphasized.

This is contemporary culture, and its various wheels within wheels spinning as usual ferociously, with meaning skipping from old media to new media and back into the public eye.

One anthropological, the chief culture officer, question is how far will this phrase spread?  At the moment, it is too small to show on Google Trends.  I have asked a couple of people in London to let me know if it reaches them.

But I think we can still use Google Trends as a diffusion monitor.  It is possible when searching a term to subscribe to a weekly report on the term.  In this case, there is no report, but subscribing will, I hope, alert to me if and when the numbers for this phrase get more robust.

Ember

I can’t find a way to draw on an image within WordPress, but see “Subscribe” in bold in the upper-right-hand corner of this clip.

It’s never occurred to me before to treat people as detectors, as trip wires, and ask them to report when they first hear a phrase.  That plus a Google Trend, should help a little to show us how fast this social innovation is traveling.

I would be grateful if readers who’ve heard the phrase would let us know when and where they did.  If you haven’t heard the phrase, it would be great if you could report back when you do.

Feminism, how far?

LittleSnapperOver the weekend, I gave a talk at the Royal Ontario Museum, my old stomping grounds.

My task: to cover some of the changes that have happened in culture since I left the ROM in the early 80s.

How our culture defines women, that has changed immensely.  But how immensely?  How far have we got.  I presented the following images as a way of suggesting that we have actually stopped defining women as women.

I ended this part of my talk with this slide:

Ember

 

And as I ended with this conclusion, a little voice in my head said “but is this true?”

It sounds plausible.  Even as it is riddled with problems.

Someone is sure to object that gender is defined by nature.  They are obliged to explain how many variations there are on the “women” theme in the world.

“Exactly!” others will say.  “There is no single way of being female, but there are 12 (or 120) variations.  So when you tell me someone is a woman, I can assume that she is defined by one of the 12 (120) variations.  So gender still defines identity.”  This might work.  It might be a better argument.

But I think if we look at the trajectory, it probably fair to say that we are at least moving towards a time when knowing that someone is a woman won’t tell us very much about her.

Here are the slides with which I set up the slide above.

charlies-angels-colors

I started  with Charlie’s Angels.  Remember.  These characters all came with an “identity.”  One was the sexy one.  One was the sporty one.  One was the classy one.  As if a woman had to choose.  (Or viewers were so dim, you didn’t dare confuse them with anything more complicated.)

Satc-sex-and-the-city-1282776-1280-1024

The next slide was this one: Sex and the City.  This characters are still defined by a kind of character genre.  (One is the sexy one.  One is the classy one.)  But the characters are more full blooded, more individuated.

Charlie-s-Angels-charlie-27s-angels-217248_1024_768

 

Next up, I used this slide.  When Charlie’s Angels was recast and presented as a movie, we got characters who were less defined by character (and gender) and still more individuated.

bachelorette07

Perfect.  These characters are not standing on ceremony.  They are not constrained by gender expectation.  They are not constrained by much of anything.

0101_HBO_Girls_S1_615x335

I ended with Girls.  These women are wrestling with gender issues to be sure.  But they are not much constrained by them.  As Mary Waters says of ethnicity in America: it’s a matter of choice, not biology, history or community.  These women have chosen who they are.  And they are largely and increasingly free to choose who they are.

And today we end with a new feature.  A poll to see what you think.  Please vote!

 

 

Who killed Prime Suspect?

The cancellation of the NBC show Prime Suspect is a puzzle worth working on.

There are three good reasons why the show should have succeeded.

1) It was really good television, with writing, acting and work so good that Pam and I just looked at one another after one episode, and said, “Wow.”

2) It had a British precedent, starring Helen Mirren no less.  This served as a kind of trans-Atlantic proof of concept.  These British shows are not always reliable but they help suggest that a show can work…because it has worked. 

3) It had an American precedent.  The cable show The Closer worked roughly the same territory (female officer endures hostility of male colleagues before solidarity is established) and it won a large and devoted audience.

So why did Prime Suspect not flourish.  Who or what killed it?

There is some suspicion that the problem has to do with our sexism, and more specifically our reluctance to embrace the lead character (as played by Maria Bello).  

One internet observer said that the entire show was killed by Bello’s choice of headgear. In his opinion, the thing that killed Prime Suspect was the hat.  

But I think we have moved beyond this.  Hats may be “unfeminine.”  They be “unflattering.” But they are not a deal breaker.  Viewers, and critics, are larger, less sexist, than this.  

In a nice essay, Melissa Silverstein suggests another reason.  She wonders whether American viewers are not yet ready for “a female character that is not 100% likeable. No matter how far we have come on TV with female characters we still are not there with having women who are not likeable.”

This could be right.  Refusing to be entirely likeable is an act of self authorship.  The sexist model says that women should conform to social expectation whatever that expectation is. To refuse this is to exercise a self determination some viewers might find threatening.  

But there’s another possibility, and that’s that Prime Suspect didn’t work because the Bello’s character didn’t care what we thought of her.  Detective Jane Timoney gives off what I now think of a very New York quality: as if to say, I am who I am and if you don’t like it, too bad. This is sometimes offered belligerently by New Yorkers, but more often it comes across as the sober understanding that not everyone is going to like you, and while you wish that were otherwise, hey.  (“Hey” is the New Yorkers all-purpose word, and here it means, roughly, there are things in the world I can change, and things in the world I can’t, and this is just one of the things I can’t change.  It’s a kind of resignation.)  This is unexceptional claim when made by a male New Yorker.  In a sexist culture, it is something else when made by a woman.

To be sure, this is a little like the likeable problem but it’s a more radical proposition.  Not being entirely likable means that I harbor a quality or two you don’t like.  Not caring what you think means that I don’t care if none of my qualities appeal to you.  This self position is, for the purposes of this show, radically feminist to the extent that it says “social expectations and the sexist model are a matter of indifference to me.  I’ve moved on.”

This is even more radical than the image of femaleness we are going to get in the forthcoming movie, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  This woman presents herself in a post-sexist language (tattoos and studs and haircuts) but she is engaging sexism by resisting it. The Bello/Timoney performance cuts itself away from the old regime.  It leaves the debate. And this is a more radical gesture, a more damning, refusal that any tattoo or stud. And this is to say that Bello/Timoney took up just about the most radical feminist one can take. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Americans were taken aback.  All of us are post-sexist to some degree.  Only a some of us are post-sexist to this degree.

We have a series of experiments at work in our culture, as our best actresses take on roles and use them as laboratories of a kind.  ”Can I be like this?” the actress asks. “Can/should/will women be like this?” everyone wonders.  And Prime Suspect gives us an answer.  Eventually our culture will catch up to Bello/Timoney.  At the moment she is ahead of the curve.   

I’d have to marry an *sshole like him (feminism in Japan)

Japan’s birthrate is falling.  It stands at 1.4 child per women.

This gives Japan the second lowest birthrate in the first world.

And it makes Japan a little like China.  Both have a one-child “policy.”

But of course it isn’t in the Japanese case a policy.  Because not having babies in Japan is self imposed.

In effect, Japanese wombs are on strike.

One of the factors here is that marriage rates are falling.  Fewer people get married and, according to The Economist, “women wait ever longer and increasingly do not bother at all.”

According to the NIPSSR [Japan’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research] six out of ten women in their mid-to late 20s…are still unwed.  In 1970 the figure was two out of ten.

The Economist contemplates the several things that might cause this fall in the marriage rate and it’s corresponding “dearth of births.”  It may be a matter of wages that they will be paid as part time workers.  It may be a matter of finding a husband who makes enough or saves enough to support a family.  It quotes Masahiro Yamada, sociologist at Chuo University, who calls young women who refuse to marry “parasite singles.”  It quotes Florian Coulmas of the German Institute for Japanese Studies in Tokyo who says there are “no easy explanations” for what is happening here.

This is really very sad.  The Economist, Professor Yamada and Mr. Coulmas are just not trying hard enough.  There is a simpler answer.  It is not the whole answer, but not to include it as a contributing factor is, well, as I say it is really very sad…and proof of another kind.

Several years ago, (I will be vague on timing to protect privacy), I was doing ethnographic research in Tokyo.  (Happily, I’ve done several trips so I think anonymity is relatively protected.)

Before one interview, I found my translator in a spirited conversation with the man I was supposed to interview.  As we were leaving this man’s home, I asked my translator what the conversation had been about and she explained that she actually knew this man and he was teasing her for not being married.  She was was thirty something, attractive, professional, and in this case unamused.  She finished her account of the conversation by saying, under her breath, just loudly enough for me to hear,

And the reason I’m not married is that I would have to live with an asshole like him.

To be sure, this is one data point.  But what a data point.  There was nothing exceptional about this women.  Nothing out of the ordinary, that is to say.  That she should harbor this feminist sentiment and deliver it, first to him and then to me, so matter of factly, told me that there are lots of women in Japan who have removed themselves from the marriage market and child bearing for a simple reason: they don’t like the men they would have to marry.

That this factor didn’t make it into The Economist article or into the learned observation of Yamada and Coulmas tells us, perhaps, just how deep the problem goes.  Women get it. Men, not so much.

References

Anonymous.  2010.  The dearth of births.  The Economist. November 20, pp. 14-15.