Thursday, August 15, 2013

When do we get to be the stars of our own stories?

I gave a similar talk to this at a Bluestocking event this week and have decided to write it up.

In my line of work it is not an uncommon occurrence to be sent invites or advertising stuff to various conferences and events centred around Indigenous knowledge and politics.  I try to get to what I can when it is relevant but there are a lot of events and it can be tough.

Recently though, I received information regarding a conference that attracted my attention for all the wrong reasons. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a big supporter of men and women having separate spaces to share information and organise. As Indigenous people, I think we have always seen the value in this and therefore I was happy to see a conference that offered that option. So I checked out the information to see how these streams were being framed. Firstly, this is a slightly edited version of the information for the men's stream:

"This conference presents a unique opportunity for men to participate in an event which is devoted to the sharing of information and the empowering of men.  In our everyday working environment, the day to day stress of our positions tends to limit us in expanding our knowledge and network whether you work at a community level or at government level, the opportunity to network and gain contacts outside your local region tends to be limited."

All good. Next I read the information for the women's stream: 

"This conference presents a unique opportunity for women to participate in an event which is devoted to the sharing of information and the empowering of women.  In today’s society, Indigenous women are developing careers while maintaining a home and family life. Indigenous women are empowered to determine their future nowadays. It is said that women can multitasking(sic) far more easily than men. However when it comes to equal rights for Indigenous issues, women tend to walk together with Indigenous men to fight against social injustice for indigenous people. Indigenous women play vital roles on community boards from grassroots level through to national levels"

I was a fair bit gobsmacked. Whilst the men were referred to as autonomous human beings engaged in their career, women were defined by their relationship to the home, to the family and to men (underlined for emphasis).  To rub some further salt into the wound, men "work" whereas women play "vital roles". Men have "positions" whereas women are "developing careers". And then there was the incredibly biological deterministic comment about women's alleged ability to multi-task. I may have given this a pass (okay, probably not) if this were just a small, grass-roots event but it's not. It's a large-scale conference for health workers in a number of different fields.

How on earth is seeing black women in this way even remotely empowering for us? Further: why, with a description like that, would I want to sign on up for this event? I've been relegated to the roles of "home maintainer", "family maintainer" and "man supporter" when my actual life includes none of this. Nor does it for a bunch of other black women I know. What's more, even if my life did involve all of those roles, do I not have the right to be defined as an individual and not as someone who exists to support everyone else? Do I also not have the right to have my qualifications, contributions, achievements and experiences seen as valid and equal and not just as a work-in-progress?

It seems to come back to an old adage I have been hit with over the years. I have lost count of the amount of times I have heard "our women are the backbones of our community". People say it reverentially as if it is a compliment regarding the role black women play in our society. The problem is, I've never actually wanted to be a "backbone". I've never wanted to be the supporting part that is in the background providing structure and strength and holding everything else together. If I could pick a body part to be, it would be the brain or the entire nervous system; the bits that create thought and action. And I should have the right to be that. Additionally, some women may actually want to be a backbone and may revel in their ability to provide strength and support to those around them. They should, however, be allowed to choose this path and not have it thrust upon them by social expectation. And they should also be seen as people in their own right rather than by the role they play.

The truth of the matter is that our women have been accessing tertiary education at a rate of nearly twice that of our men and have been for quite a while. We work in the higher education sector again at a rate twice that of our men. We tend to have more qualifications and we also apparently earn more than non-Indigenous women when we graduate from University. We're not "empowered to determine (our) future nowadays"; we've been setting the pace! These achievements by our women need more recognition in their own right because they are amazing.

It does make me wonder when black women will get to be the stars of our own stories. Whether it's stuff like this that comes from within our community or whether it's a DVD cover where we've been relegated to the tinted background because a white male being in a film is considered a greater achievement even when the story is actually a true one about us. We seem to be relegated all the time by both white and black patriarchy and it diminishes us, our contributions and our achievements. If we're continually relegated no matter what we do then what is the point of us striving for more? 

I think it is completely probable that the content writers for this conference were trying to be inclusive and respectful, and I do believe that they were trying to highlight that there are additional difficulties faced at times. By defining black women in such ways though that explicitly tie their roles to others when men are not defined like this, they have instead managed to be reductive and offensive. Aboriginal women are diverse people and we deserve recognition on our own merits.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Why I love Donna Noble

There has been an awful lot of Whovian banter over the last few days. Most, I note, were excited when it was announced that the wonderful Peter Capaldi would be taking on the role of The Doctor next. Yes, I do admit that I would have loved to see a woman, who was preferably black and possibly a lesbian in the role (Norma from Shameless springs to mind) as having a female Doctor is well overdue. I was, however, glad that Capaldi, who is a great actor and who is an older Doctor, was up next. Plus, I do quite like the idea of this guy being The Doctor (NSFW!):

I just wish that they would put as much thought into the role of the Companion as they do the Doctor. I admit here my far better knowledge of the later series than the earlier ones as the earlier ones are fuzzy memories from my childhood which I need to revisit. In these later series though, I have pretty much loathed all companions bar one.

Donna Noble. Doctor Donna Noble. The one companion who, for me, shines above all others. I have watched and rewatched Season 4 more than I have any other season for the sole reason that it's Donna's season. It's not just about the fact that Donna was portrayed by the wonderful Catherine Tate either. No, there are so many reasons.

For starters, she was so bursting to go traipsing around on adventures with the Doctor that she had her suitcases packed and shoved in the boot of her car for ages before she met him again. As someone who drives around constantly with a sleeping bag in her boot ready to roll if adventure strikes me, I could relate too well. Then she was loud and bossy, but with an amazing amount of compassion that could effectively counteract the Doctor's darker side and convince him to act in kindness (like when he saved Peter Capaldi's life, for instance ;) ). The middle-aged directionless bit did it for me as well, as did her wonderful relationship with the world's coolest granddad. There are many many more reasons.

If I had to put the top reason though why Donna Noble is "my" companion, it would be that out of all of the companions she is the only one that seems to have not been put in to act as a romantic foil to The Doctor. For one whole season we got to watch a strong woman hanging out with her male friend and going on amazing adventures. It was brilliant, and SO DAMN REFRESHING after series full of moon-eyed companions to have this be the case. The fact that they returned to the moon-eyed companion formula the following series just made me groan. Let's be honest here: Rose's story was all about loving the Doctor and getting him in the end. Then Captain Jack came in and he too was smitten. Martha Jones came next, and I had such high hopes because she was a medical student AND black (that's like "double points" in black feminist world!). But alas, she had to leave because her unrequited love for the Doctor made it unbearable for her to continue. FFS! Then following Donna, we had Amy Pond who skipped out on her wedding day to gallivant with the Doctor, attempted to seduce him and then has this whole conflicted Rory/Doctor/Doctor/Rory love storyline which went on until she and Rory departed. Of course, during her time as companion Amy also gave birth to River Song, the Doctor's future wife. Cue the "hello sweetie!"s. Finally Clara Oswald who, whilst having a fascinating backstory, has also not been allowed to just be a companion without having moments of flirtation and awe directed toward the Doctor.

Why? Was it because it was too tough to continue to write a female companion who was situated almost as an equal? Was it that the romance of the whole time and space travel idea is made more apparent when romance is emanating from the sidekick? Is it almost impossible to see a female as anything other than a woman with a crush? Was it that the show needed to stay young and sexy and therefore the older female friend character just did not have longevity? I don't know what their logic was but I'd hazard a guess of "all the above". It's a real shame because, as I mentioned, Donna Noble is the only companion out of the new episodes that has resonated with me in a real way. I have met so many other Whovians that have said the same. There are bits and pieces they liked about other companions, sure. But as a package deal it seems a good many of my peers reckon Donna wins, hands down.

I loved it when Donna rocked up to tell the Doctor that she was going travelling with him and that she was not going to be "mating" with him. I loved it when she said "Oi! Watch it, Spaceman!". I loved it when she talked him into saving the family in Pompeii. When she was kind to the rather slow woman in the library, my heart warmed. Hell, I even like that she chose to sit by a pool sunning herself rather than hop on a train ride from hell. If you asked me to pick a favourite moment from the other companions I would actually be hard-pressed, not because they were not brilliant in their own ways, but rather because I would blank when they started going all lovey-dovey.

Here's the thing, Doctor Who writers: men and women can be friends and do become friends all of the time. A man who offers a woman time and space travel does not become automatically sexy to her. They can just have excellent adventures and enjoy eachother's company. Yes, they really can. And older women really can resonate with viewers as much as younger women can, and perhaps even more. So consider diversifying the formula a bit more. Please? For this dedicated feminist Whovian?

I look forward to the next Donna-Noble-like character.