Add women and stir!

Ruth Michaelson reflects on the Rebellious Media Conference.

October 17, 2011
5 min read

Preface any question put to a room full of people with the words “let’s have a question from a woman now, shall we?” and you can watch the collective feminine blood pressure of the room rise by about 100 points. Add another 50 if that room is filled with lefty participants in a conference whose purpose is to showcase alternative methods not just of communication but of organisation; every time this sentence was uttered, my heart sunk and my blood pressure started to do an impression of a Nasa rocket launch. It’s not that women don’t want to have their delicate feminine sensibilities offended by anything as impertinent as a question, it’s that none of us want to hear this kind of accompanying song-and-dance to show that (sound the alarm, comrades): female inclusion is happening. It also puts an inordinate amount of pressure on whoever the poor unfortunate is who then asks a question, meaning that their question has to be twice as interesting, witty and inspiring as the one that preceded it, all because they don’t own a penis. When the lucky lady in the room happened to be me, the heady cocktail of my anger at hearing those dreaded words plus said pressure meant that my previously beautifully formulated question on media attention in Bahrain turned into something so stupid that people turned around to glare at me for wasting the room’s time.

The thing is, that sentence was something of a motif of the Rebellious Media Conference, its inception following the keynote address by Noam Chomsky. If the all-male nature of the panel necessitates the syrupy words “as there are no women on the panel, why don’t we take the next three questions from women,” it’s time to reconsider the nature of the panel, not try and palm us off with the equivalent of crumbs from the high table. Even the most eagle-eyed representation-obsessed feminists in the room didn’t seem bothered until we were all suddenly asked to make our presence known by asking the man of the hour something so riveting that it would have knocked his glasses off.

Given that feminists are often chided for being too quick to jump to the moan, this seems the right point to clarify something: this isn’t a gripe about straight-up representation. Female attendees were there in what seemed like force, and the conference featured a fair range of female speakers, including the chance to see what Amira Hass’s face looks like as she vents her frustration at Skype malfunctioning projected onto an entire wall. That alone was worth the entrance fee. The conference also featured a discussion on feminist media and the 21st century, which did provide some worthy talking points but felt rather like a lefty version of a Women’s Institute meeting. Aside from the rather vital inclusion of Laurie Penny and a speaker from Black Feminists UK, it lacked the riot-grrl-style verve and spark needed to keep it feeling fresh and inspiring and safely out of the tea-cosy-zone.

Yet overall the conference had the feel that its pointed moments of representation had been tacked on as an afterthought; the “add women and stir” vibe. This also seemed to be true of some other factors- the unintentional irony of a discussion on “voices from the Global South” was entitled “We are Everywhere”, which is precisely where they weren’t. Inclusivity isn’t just about having workshops whose titles could make a Benetton campaign spontaneously orgasm, it’s about providing a real opportunity for both participants and organisers to reconsider the traditional structure of the conference and how this affects inclusion and participation. We could have spent four hours discussing how to make feminist media more relevant to men, but given that the room was almost entirely female this seemed somewhat futile. Rather than attempting to draw men to the workshop with the scary f-word in the title, it would have been of more benefit to reconsider how women and men were included in the conference, rather than ring-fencing “women’s issues” in order to make a point about female inclusion.

Simply put: if it’s understood that women are really part of the conference because they are a vital part of the anti-corporate media, there is no need to tap dance around their inclusion each time it comes up. Taking women’s inclusion for granted, provided that there is adequate female representation, is the bulls’ eye in the centre of the feminist dartboard. Feminists don’t need a parade each time a woman is allowed to ask a question, it shouldn’t be considered special. Had the conference taken place in Saudi Arabia, the act of a woman asking a question in a crowded lecture theatre would be worthy of praise. But this being London in 2011, it’s about as special as a Che Guevara badge.

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