Rob Ford and Toxic Masculinity

I initially published the following post on the Women in Toronto Politics blog. It was subsequently re-printed at Rabble.ca, the Huffington Post and iVillage Canada.

Violent temper. Refusal to admit wrongdoing. Penchant for expressing every feeling as anger. Penchant for expressing anger through physical intimidation. Homophobia and transphobia. Impulsive, risky behaviour with no consideration of potential consequences. Obsession with the competitive parts of politics (campaigning) and disdain for the collaborative parts. ”Boys will be boys” brand excuses for egregious behaviour. Yup. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford sure is winning at Toxic Masculinity Bingo.

This isn’t the first time I’ve thought about Rob Ford’s embodiment of the socially-constructed norms that shape and constrain our culture’s understanding of what it means to Be A Man. I thought about it a lot after the Mayor violently confronted journalist Daniel Dale on the property adjacent to his home, fist cocked and charging at full speed.

I thought about it after reports quoted him calling Liberal Party of Canada leader Justin Trudeau a homophobic slur. And when he asked if a transgender person was “a guy dressed up like a girl or a girl dressed up like a guy.” And when he made homophobic comments about who really contracts HIV/AIDS and whose life is really worth something at the end of the day.

I thought about it when he voted (on every occasion possible) to cut all kinds of community programs that help all kinds of children and youth, believing instead that personal support of a football program exclusively for boys was sufficient to help at-risk youth in Toronto. Boy-only football programs are great for boys who like football, but not all boys do – and there’s a whole lot of other kids out there who aren’t boys, besides.

I thought about it a lot when I launched my personal blog with a post about my suspicion that Rob Ford is a woman abuser – based on the consistent history of domestic calls to his home (including one charge that was later dropped) – which I later deleted because a handful of male non-libel lawyers said it left me vulnerable to libel suits.

But it was hard not to think about it extra-hard when a video surfaced of an inebriated Rob Ford ranting in disturbingly graphic terms about his desire to “first-degree murder” someone. He was blind with anger and the evidence poured out of his erratic movements and rhetorical violence. His explosive anger appeared to be a result of things a third party had said about him; in other words, he craved physical violence as a response to some ostensible verbal wrongdoing.

The nail in the coffin came later on when his mother sneered at a television reporter that she wouldn’t want her son, who clearly has a debilitating issue with substance abuse, “off in some rehab” – she’d prefer to focus on the size and shape of his body as the real problem. It hurt to watch. It was a painful reminder of how men are socialized to never show weakness or softness; how often a man caring for himself is perceived as unmanly, how men must be strong at all times. It said a lot about why he may have ended up in the sorry state he has.

There has been a lot of talk in Toronto this last week about enabling in the context of Rob Ford’s substance abuse, which is good, but the public writ large seems to enable his toxic masculinity. People who called Daniel Dale a wuss on Twitter for being afraid of a much-larger man approaching him violently? Enablers. People who said Ford’s “murder rant” was just the kind of murderously violent speech we all engage in when we’re a little angry? Enablers.

But then, when it comes to the replication of gender norms, most of us are enablers. Toxic masculinity is not “men being awful”; rather, it is people of all genders holding, performing and perpetuating rigid ideas of who we are allowed to be. Rob Ford, in particular, has spent a lifetime striving to perform what a Rich, Powerful White Man should be (a whole other level of toxicity beyond the merely masculine). His pursuit of idealized masculinity seems unmistakably modelled after that of his simultaneous bully and protector brother, who has often been framed by the media as “the smart one” and seems to have always been perceived as more competent, more likeable, more of A Man.

Articles imploring Rob Ford to step up to some ill-defined code of manhood do not help matters. It is not useful or accurate to frame honesty, accountability and “honour” as masculine traits, nor is it ever helpful to implore someone to “be a man.” Why not just “be a decent, trustworthy human being”? Why gender that? This kind of macho posturing only serves to validate idealized masculinity and reductive, binary understandings of how gender can and should influence identity.

Consider for a moment if a woman sharing Ford’s documented track record of physical aggression would ever have been elected Mayor of a major city. More likely she would have long ago been perceived as “unhinged” and cast out of the leadership pool in her chosen field. Yet we laud – or at least will grudgingly accept – this behaviour from a man, so much so that we elect him to a prime position of public trust. His impulsive expressions of anger are part of what endears him to so many as a ‘regular guy,’ one they could ‘have a few pops with.’ Boys will be boys, right?

If we want more gender diversity in politics, we need to understand that a) a good politician can come equipped with a wide variety of character traits, not all of them about cutthroat aggression and cold calculation, and b) there is immense diversity within genders and no trait is “naturally” masculine or feminine – we choose to understand and value traits in these binary ways, and if we want to, we can choose to change that.

(Web)making it better for girls in tech at MozFest

Me standing in front of the MozFest "To Make/Making/Made" scrum board. Photo by Sammy James Dodds.

The MozFest “To Make/Making/Made” board. Photo by Sammy James Dodds

My passion runs high for getting more girls into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), so I was thrilled to be invited to Mozilla’s annual festival in London, UK this October to facilitate the development of a Girls in Tech teaching kit. MozFest is a sprawling, buzzing, beeping, humming multi-floor combination of science fair, conference and hackathon. I knew from previous experience with Mozilla that MozFest would be colour-saturated, high-energy and hospitable for a variety of learners. What I didn’t know is how hospitable the space would be for a critical feminist perspective on girls in tech.

I’ve worked and volunteered in a wide variety of “women in tech” spaces and, in my experience, most of them serve up gallons of delicious status quo Kool-Aid. Everyone laments the lack of women’s representation in the field, but the solutions usually espoused are typically of the “Lean In” variety: “If we all just work hard!…” We foist the solutions onto women’s shoulders and refuse to do anything about the commonly accepted beliefs and behaviours that perpetuate the problem. Beliefs and behaviours like rampant objectification of women (Titstare, anyone?), industry worship of a faulty concept of meritocracy, and those pesky, deeply-held sexist cultural beliefs about gender (and what different genders are capable of).

There is an intimate and nuanced connection between how women are treated and represented as technology makers, users, and in the products themselves (e.g. video game characters). This means that, in the long game, changing how women are treated in one sphere will probably impact their representation in other spheres. But it also means that we can’t just focus on creating spaces for girls to become technology makers, without making changes elsewhere in the industry culture. Otherwise we’re helping girls build the skills and confidence they need to kick ass in tech, then sending them into an occupational community ill-equipped to understand and welcome women kicking ass.

Much like how our culture treats the problem of sexual assault, we are more comfortable prescribing ways that women can think or behave to improve their lot in tech than we are prescribing changes for men and the industry’s gendered normative behaviour. Perhaps that’s because, as Clementine Ford suggests in the context of sexual violence, it is easier to understand the women in our lives as potential victims than the men in our lives as potential aggressors (or Part Of The Problem).

That’s why, when I had the opportunity to build a Girls in Tech teaching kit at MozFest, I wanted it to touch on gender stereotypes and sexism – despite the fact that, in other “women in tech” spaces, I have been explicitly discouraged from describing myself as a feminist or addressing the industry’s problems with sexism. When I worked with Mozilla before, they heartily encouraged my feminist muckraking with their Webmaker suite (they even shared some of it on the main stage at MozFest!), so I was hopeful. I felt I was in the right space to make a gender-critical Girls in Tech kit happen, but was still pretty sure I’d come up against pushback from a prospective scrum participant.

Imagine my surprise when every single conversation I had at MozFest about the kit (or women in tech more generally) delved comfortably into critical and political territory. Imagine my surprise when, even if a few of the people at the table had a less critical understanding of the problem, there was always someone to back me up. Imagine my surprise when every. educator. I worked with. understood my need to combine positivity and encouragement with critical analysis of industry and cultural norms and the false premises on which they rest. Imagine my surprise when I sheepishly proposed a less political angle for one activity, and the scrum group I was facilitating unanimously disagreed with me. There just aren’t enough <3’s in the world.

The first iteration of my Girls in Tech teaching kit is the product of 10 people, many of them educators, who were drawn to the project because they are passionate about making the STEM fields more hospitable places for women. MozFest was a gigantic event practically exploding with awesome things to see, do and make (highlights in the MozFest blog, Flickr and Tumblr), yet most of these people spent the better part of Saturday building a component of the Girls in Tech kit. Many others stopped by to ask questions or show their support of the project. Within nine hours we completed the kit’s first iteration, from learning objectives to activities to examples to discussion questions. And then I slept for, oh, five minutes, and hopped on a plane back to Toronto to do a(n also very awesome) workshop with Long & McQuade department managers on how to not be this guy.

The pace of work, the support and independence afforded to facilitators, the level of talent and commitment, and the tone of MozFest in general left me feeling exhilarated and inspired. I can’t wait to workshop the kit with a few more educators, refine its content and hopefully encourage a few organizations to adopt it as a free teaching tool. Feel free to use and remix the Girls in Tech teaching kit yourself, or share it with a parent or educator in your life.

What about the menz?

A couple of weeks ago, I tweeted a picture from the Consenting Sexualities conference [pdf] organized by the Canadian Women’s Foundation and McGill University’s Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies. The picture clearly resonated with a lot of people (including myself, or I wouldn’t have tweeted it), and to date the tweet has been retweeted almost 1,500 times. That’s about five times more retweets than even my most popular previous tweets.

You might wonder what this tweet was about. If you follow me on WordPress or Twitter, you might expect that the tweet would be about rape culture, victim-blaming, revenge porn. Maybe a funny feminist comic or joke. Nope. It was this:

List of things 4th grade boys don't like about being boys, incl. "not able to be a mother," "not suppost to cry," and "suppost to like violence"

This photo captures some important and difficult truths about the toxicity of normative masculinity in our culture – truths that organizations like the White Ribbon Campaign (who delivered this workshop) are working hard to eradicate. Toxic masculinity is, without question, a feminist issue. My feminism is about gender justice, and men and boys are necessarily part of that equation. Furthermore, some of these features of normative masculinity (for example, “suppost to like vilence”) contribute directly to the oppression of women, girls and trans* people. Gender norms are bullshit all around, including the norms that pressure cis men and boys. We need to tackle this problem. HOWEVER…

The tweet’s popularity revealed a number of things to me, some of which are deeply perplexing. For one thing, the tweet may have been popular among feminists and trans* rights activists and anti-violence advocates and others doing great work that I respect. But it was also very popular with men’s rights activists. Many of them were not shy about replying to the tweet with a) ridicule for the “sissy” boys who wrote this list and are failing at being Real Men, or b) sympathy for the boys (great!) and indictments of feminism as the imposer of these unhealthy gender norms (sighhhhhhhh/LOL wut?). While I’m glad the tweet resonated with those in the b) category, it is yet another sad example of how men’s rights crusaders and feminists share some of the same frustrations and could be allies, if only the former would realize that the latter are not their true antagonists.

Indeed, the tweet drew an unusually high volume of overtly or subtly combative/hostile responses. Unusual even for me, a person whose Twitter feed is no stranger to heated discussion and unholy outrage. This is especially interesting because no value judgments or commentary from me accompanied the picture – my tweet just describes what the picture contains, pretty much at face value. People really wanted to argue with me about it though, despite the fact that I hadn’t even presented my opinion on the issue. I know this is part and parcel of being on Twitter, but it can be pretty distressing to have an Interactions feed filled to the brim with people directing anger at you for no good reason. This is still happening, nearly two weeks after I shared the tweet. It is exhausting.

The argumentative people were not, by and large, arguing against the plight of these boys (or arguing that the problems girls, women and trans* people face are more pressing, which is certainly valid). Nope. They were arguing that the plight is indeed real, but as a feminist, what would I know about it? How dare I insert my feminist nose into this discussion? What was I really up to? A veil of suspicion about my real intentions shrouded even the less overtly hostile responses, which was both befuddling and painful to behold.

Finally (and most deeply perplexing to me), there seems to be a much larger swath of the population interested in the plight of boys and men than in the plights of other genders. I know, I know – what, am I new to this patriarchy thing or something? Of course a larger swath of the population is more concerned about boys and men than other genders – even those members of the population who are interested in gender issues, apparently. But this was a vivid illustration of that problem and it produced a kind of visceral, emotional response in me that I wasn’t expecting. Consider this tweet, which is perhaps my second most popular of all time:

Tweet about rape threats as proof that rape is typically about power rather than sex & self-controlNotice how this one generated only about 1/5 of the interest that the tweet about boys’ struggles did? And notice how it’s about a physically, sexually and psychologically violent problem that is a daily destroyer of lives and crusher of spirits the world over (mostly for women, girls and trans* people, though of course men and boys are affected as well)? I know that other factors influence the popularity of a tweet, such as topicality, novelty, compelling multimedia (like, say, a picture) or even timing. But I still feel the disparity is also illustrative of how our society prioritizes the problems of men and boys.

It’s especially frustrating because, when it comes to the problems faced by men and boys, many feminists are highly engaged in pushing for social change. A lot of the people who retweeted my picture had the word “feminist” in their Twitter bios. We care. It seems that folks who are perhaps more apathetic about gender issues have a propensity to get teary and “we’ve gotta DO something”-y about the pressure boys live under. That’s good. We should do something. It’d just be nice to have those people on our side when we talk about the pressure, pain and ambient threat many women and trans* people live with daily.

I do not think this is a “boys vs. girls” issue, which at least one commenter will probably argue. First of all, that’s a binary understanding of the problem, and second, the issues all genders face are intertwined – they’re part of the same violent system of power. So let’s get incensed, let’s feel pain, and let’s do something about the challenges we all face.

Making Popcorn with Rob Ford

You may have heard of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s embarrassingly tone-deaf utterance earlier this week.

Oh, which one? I know, it’s hard to keep them all straight. This time I’m referring to “It’s no one’s business what happens in my office.” May I remind you he is THE FUCKING MAYOR OF A MAJOR CITY. I’m pretty sure it’s literally every Torontonian’s business what happens in his office.

Unfortunately, this statement is very much in the spirit of the way Rob Ford has governed city affairs since he was elected Mayor. It’s sort of ironic, considering his history as a councillor of slamming the Miller administration that preceded him for a lack of transparency.

With that in mind, I thought I’d use Mozilla’s Popcorn tool to create a round-up of all the times in his mayoral tenure that Rob Ford has made good on the statement that “It’s no one’s business what happens in [his] office,” set to the tune of Yackety Sax (the only song capable of truly capturing the spirit of his mayoralty).

Popcorn lets you grab bits of video, sound, images, and other web content to create a layered timeline (with due cred to the original creator). Since I screencapped all the headlines I used, I made sure to capture the source, date and author (where applicable) directly in the image. Try using Popcorn to make your own round-up of times that a terrible politician has embarrassed their constituents, evaded accountability, or pushed through decisions harmful to residents.

Mozilla helps me re-imagine “REAL Women of Canada”

REAL Women of Canada's website

REAL Women of Canada’s website

REAL Women of Canada website w/ LGBTQ2SGQ* couples

What REAL Women of Canada’s website would look like if I had my way

I’m excited to announce that I’m working with amazing open-web organization Mozilla to user-test some of their webmaking tools. A big part of Mozilla’s mandate is to give web users to the tools to not just consume web content, but create it themselves. They have a whole suite of tools you can use to create and remix content on the web, and today I took my first crack at it with X-Ray Goggles. X-Ray Goggles is essentially a browser plug-in that lets you see and fiddle around with the source code for any website you visit. You can apply any changes you want to the source code of an existing website, and publish your finished product. The tool doesn’t actually hack the website itself, but produces a duplicate of it on a Mozilla server with whatever changes you apply.

My shit-disturbing tendencies led me to instantly imagine how I could use X-Ray Goggles to stick it to bigoted organizations, using their websites as my canvas. The first one that came to mind was thinly-veiled hate group REAL Women of Canada, which advocates for a Canada where only straight, cis people have rights, where the only “real” families are heteronormative ones, where abortion is not legally accessible, you get my drift. The kind of organization that relentlessly wields the phrase “family values” as a weapon to oppress others. To give you a sense of how extreme REAL Women of Canada’s view are, they recently spoke out against Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird’s condemnation of anti-gay laws and practices in Russia (here’s a quick primer).

News coverage of their jaw-dropping position on this issue kept referring to REAL Women of Canada as a “women’s organization”, which I suppose is technically true in the sense that the organization is made up of (a narrow subset of) women. However, the designation “women’s organization” kind of glosses over their atrocious support of practices that fly in the face of basic human rights and freedoms. So I used X-Ray Goggles to fill their website with images of LGBTQ2SGQ* couples and families, and replace their ridiculous bigot links with links to news stories and organizations that highlight the importance of human rights for ALL Canadians (and all people). Take a peek at my handiwork! You can compare it to their real website here, but don’t give them too many clicks, ‘kay? And why not try your own X-Ray Goggle project to tackle an issue that matters to you?

Today is the International Day of Protest for LGBTQ rights. If you’re in Toronto, bring your voice to the movement by attending tonight’s #TOwithRussia rally!

Is this justice for Rehtaeh?

Last week we saw major developments in Canada’s ongoing response to the death of Halifax teenager Rehtaeh Parsons: two men were charged with making and/or distributing child pornography (of Rehtaeh), and a new piece of civil legislation was introduced to address “cyber-bullying”. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about either one of these developments.

Firstly, I despise the term “cyber-bullying” and would like to kill it with fire. It is so conceptually broad as to be meaningless, it infantilizes behaviour that adults are just as prone to as kids are, and it depoliticizes social aggressions that are often quite political indeed (think sexist harassment like slut-shaming, harassment of gay or gender non-conforming people, or harassment of low-income kids for things like wearing hand-me-downs). I agree with Jesse Brown, who would “rather have laws against specific crimes, rather than against vast swaths of vaguely defined human behaviour”.

Secondly, I have a very basic problem with civil legislation as a response to revenge porn or online harassment: it costs money to sue someone. Sure, you might find a lawyer who’ll take your case pro-bono, but the likelihood of incurring high costs means that only those who can afford justice really have access to it. Our criminal justice system is already deplorably selective about who can access justice (see, for example, the astronomical overrepresentation of indigenous and Black people in Canadian prisons), but at least if you’ve been the victim of a crime, you don’t pay money for your legal representation. This is one reason why I’m a bigger fan of a potential Criminal Code amendment (proposed by Dartmouth NDP Member of Parliament Robert Chisholm) than I am of dealing with the problem in civil court.

This proposed legislation would make it a crime to share intimate images without the subject’s consent. The legislation needs some work (in my humble, non-legal-expert opinion), as it currently places the burden of proof on the accused. If the accused cannot furnish evidence that they obtained consent from the subject, their intent is automatically deemed malicious and guilt is assumed. In past posts I have argued for just this kind of legislation, and there is a certain beauty to its open-and-shut-ness, in that it would circumvent all of the gendered character judgments and “he said, she said” (emphasis on the “he said”) that influence court decisions about sexually-charged crimes. But at the end of the day, I can’t advocate for legislation that merely circumvents the biases and bigotry of our criminal justice system (you know, the same ones that pervade our broader culture) at the expense of the rights of the accused. We need to tackle those biases themselves, not find ways to sidestep them.

This brings me to my ambivalence about the arrests. While Rehtaeh was still alive, she and her family sought justice by attempting to press charges against Rehtaeh’s alleged rapists for sexual assault and child pornography. The RCMP’s re-opened investigation did not result in sexual assault charges. They did, however, charge the alleged rapists with making and distributing sexually explicit images of Rehtaeh during the incident. The RCMP’s decision to press charges on one crime and not the other suggests that they felt the evidence was too murky to conclude that Rehtaeh did not consent. Meanwhile, Rehtaeh was allegedly vomiting out a window while one of her attackers raped her, and our current laws indicate that a person cannot legally provide consent while extremely intoxicated.

That is rage-inducing, but it is also indicative of the culture in which our criminal justice system is embedded and serves to uphold. We have national columnists (to whom I refuse to link) slut-shaming her in death, if that’s any indication of how our culture tends to understand consent when a survivor was intoxicated at the time of the attack. Why would our justice system be any different, even if our laws explicitly spell things out differently (*sob*)?

So I can, quite frankly, understand why the Parsons family wanted to use any tool available to them in our broken system to try and find their own version of justice – including charging the attackers with child pornography, despite the fact that her non-consent (not her nudity or sexuality writ large) was the crux of the violation. That said, I think it sets a precedent that may create problems down the road. For example, imagine a minor’s consensual sexting is discovered by a horrified parent, who sees child pornography charges as a way to punish the kids involved and clamp down on youth sexuality in general. Also, what if Rehtaeh had been 18? Capturing and distributing that photo would have been just as morally abhorrent, just as damaging. This is why I think the legislation proposed by Robert Chisholm fills a necessary gap.

Realtalk though: this legislation wouldn’t be necessary if our culture learned to understand sexually-charged violations in a more equitable and just way. If law enforcement officers, lawyers and judges didn’t build their careers in a culture steeped in sexism, they might quite easily interpret revenge porn as a form of criminal harassment (a law already on the books in Canada). As we saw recently in the case of an appropriately-named former MP’s assistant, Cody Boast, some law enforcement officers and judges already do draw those conclusions. But too many people inside and outside our criminal justice system are quick to blame the subjects of the images for consenting to their capture in the first place. It is this underlying mentality that needs to change. Otherwise we’ll just have another new selectively enforced law on the books.

That’s why I’m glad to see that, despite its shortcomings, the civil legislation in Nova Scotia also includes interventions at the level of the public education system. While those have their own problems (Jesse Brown has some great analysis therein), I appreciate the marriage of legal and educational interventions. To introduce the former without the latter would be putting the cart before the horse. What our education systems really need, though, isn’t a “Cyber SCAN investigation unit” – it’s frank discussion about consent, respect and privacy in sex and relationships (online and offline), and how societal systems of power impact these dynamics on an individual level.

#sheparty is the best party

Sometimes feminists on Twitter use the #sheparty hashtag to host live-chats about a wide variety of topics. Yesterday, @jarrahpenguin (Vancouver) and @OpinionessWorld (Boston) co-hosted a two-hour #sheparty and invited me to be a special guest for the first hour. From 3pm-4pm ET we discussed revenge porn, which anyone who follows my blog knows is an issue of major importance to me. I mean I’ve only written about it, like, 30% of the time.

Our discussion about revenge porn covered legislative responses to the problem (in Nova Scotia and nationally, as well as in New Jersey and Florida), as well as steps that parents and teachers can take to address it with youth. If you’re new to the topic, this discussion was a fantastic introduction. Don’t fret if you missed it, because you can always count on me to Storify these kinds of things for future reference! Here’s a recap of the #sheparty revenge porn discussion. I also encourage you to check out @tootwistedtv‘s Storify of the 4-5pm #sheparty discussion, which focused on feminism and (dis)ability.