It was a perfect storm: After a summer when TMZ-driven American sexual harassment and violence scandals bled north, reminding us how deeply the collective conscience has taken the second-class and abused status of women utterly for granted, a tipping point occurred. A beloved, culturally literate, charismatic, sure-footed and egomaniacal host was brought down by his own hubris in a sex, violence and harassment scandal. We learned how the toxicity of Q and its host Jian Ghomeshi were mishandled by a timorous CBC that paid lip service to equity on air and in the workplace, while ignoring and enabling at various management levels the warning signs of trouble.
In less than a week, the CBC went from “we had no idea Ghomeshi was so difficult to work with” to said star being “tyrannical” and “egomaniacal.” Hard to stomach they’d be that out of touch after years of Q producers suffering in an unsustainable environment. In any case, while the firing and its cause struck us as sudden and shocking, the fallout was major, with sudden consequences driven by a critical threshold of pissed-off women mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
The press calls it the JG Effect: abuse and bad behaviour gave way to a viral eight-million-strong #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag; demands rose up (again) for justice for the nearly 2,000 Aboriginal murdered and missing women; MPs accused of sexual harassment faced exile; sanctimonious support from male writers and stars spewed forth, some of them complicit, others hypocritical (Carl Wilson, George Stroumboulopoulos); a right-wing fear of a “witch-hunt” erupted; young women bloggers gave voice to street harassment; heads of governments scrambled to inspect their own policies—all to the discordant tune of CBC hand-wringing and a real sense of collective loss and betrayal.
I think the betrayal takes on a few features, beyond that of a star who ironically helmed a cultural radio show that did more to feature powerful women than anything else on the CBC. To its own disastrous detriment and ours, the loss is sharper because the corporation has committed, among other things, two large and largely unacknowledged sins. One, it does not nurture talent in genres beyond news. The vacuum is appalling. The few stars who do bubble up are life rafts that float endlessly: Strombo, the Republic of Doyle’s Allan Hawco, JG before his fall, Rick Mercer. The second sin? None are women. Apart from Sook-Yin Lee, radio and TV are parched fields for younger women.
What does this have to do with culture policy? Well, nothing and everything. Nothing because big policy instruments rarely reach down to engineer the quotidian day-to-day bad behaviour often so rife in free-wheeling and not always financially stable environments like independent media companies. Oh, the tyranny! The tantrums! The toxic freeze-outs and public shaming! Not to mention the sexual harassment and intimidations. Who amongst us hasn’t suffered any or all of this? And usually, it is at the hands of men in positions of superior power—not always (I know those stories too), but usually. Screw labour or human rights laws, we have all normalized it for fear of losing that coveted job. CBC managers themselves did not want to rock the boat when Q staff went to great lengths to report the show’s culture of fear (in part I suspect because the syndication of their golden goose was doing so very well in U.S. markets).
But it is policy-relevant at the same time, when you consider that in spite of withering statistics about women creators, there is still no quota system at, for instance, Telefilm Canada to encourage more women directors, no out-front policy in the still hopelessly male-dominated Directors Guild of Canada, no rigorous push by Women in Film and Television to see women in better positions of creative power. And it has everything to do with policy when we also consider that the Broadcasting Act contains references to equity and representation, with the CBC even having an office of Inclusion and Diversity, good Lord.
The two problems of representational power and harassment are intertwined. When women are absent from the cultural stage in general as creators, critics, intellectuals, on-air hosts and experts, their otherness is entrenched, their voice and credibility suspect, their vulnerability enabled. Whether this so-called ‘pivotal moment’ is a true shift or not will depend on all of us calling out enabled bad behaviour and the pandemic false norm that women—dead or alive—don’t matter.