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Feminism and Canoes

There is a sticker that has been popping up in my facebook feed a lot lately. I can’t tell if it’s a monument to genius, or hubris. Sometimes, the line is so fine, a thing can actually exist in both worlds, simultaneously.

At first glance you may understand the sticker is designed to imply depth and respect to women. So presumably, someone who is trying to get women to notice how pro-women they are is going to buy this and put it somewhere it will get noticed. And the intent is audiences will respond posivitively: “Oh wow, that’s so awesome! You are deep and brave! You realize women must be allowed to be free and wild and make decisions and go places they want to go!”

And then, if you’ve ever paddled canoes before, you realize the woman pictured is in the front of the canoe.

The steering in a canoe is done in the back. The person in the front just 1) paddles to provide motion, 2) listens to and obeys commands of the person in the back, and 3) absorbs the splashes / rock collisions / etc… first that are caused by the poor judgement of the person in the back.

The woman, as pictured, is not “wild,” or “left” to do anything. She’s a pack animal, who is controlled and subject to exploitation. What we see is not her wild adventure that she is left to. What we see is her as an object of someone else’s adventure, there to be enjoyed within the trapped and confined state. The finishing touch is that this image does not just exist, it is commodified and sold.

I wonder who works in the sticker factory where this sticker is made. Is it a predominently male or female workforce? What does he or she think about the message of the sticker they are making?

Presumably people (including, presumably men) are so eager to demonstrate their trustworthiness that they will buy this thing to show off their depth and lack of sexism. And yet, in so doing they may be actually showing you that they are in fact both presumptuous and ignorant.

That is the first level of understanding. And you may conclude the maker of the sticker is a sexist moron.

The second level of understanding is that you recognize the sticker is a work of subversive genius art. The sticker provokes the thoughtful. It challenges them to stand up and point out these contradictions. It can be purchased by real, actual, serious feminists, to be prominently displayed around unfamiliar crowds, just to see how it goes over. Do slimey men in search of quickly gained trust put forth effort to comment upon the sticker, and explain how much they support its spirit? What does that reveal to us about their true nature? Is the actual condition of the woman in the picture the focus of the conversation as they develop it? Or is the woman in the picture merely an object, trapped, immobile, within the image of a gaze a man has invented for her? She is spoken for, and about. But never, is she allowed to speak herself.

Rather than just exclaiming a slogan, the genuis of the sticker is its function as an interpretive device. It allows you to judge how people react to it. Perhaps, it can even help facilitate a deeper conversation than an actually well and respectfully designed sticker could have.

Likewise, on the Colorado River, there is today at least one very real, and very wild, female river guide who loves to casually mention around new coworkers and guests her despleasure with being “man-explained” things. This bait, always, is taken by a man, who steps forth to correct her, “Oh, you mean, ‘mansplained,’ right?”

The indirect approach of the strategem, when successfully applied, always leaves a better result. This is for many reasons, but prominent among them is the fact that it creates a conversation, and not just an utterance.

The sticker can be purchased here.

This ephipany, I am certain, must at least be partially inspired by the incredible new film, Promising Young Woman, whose premier at last year’s Sundance I had the good fortune to attend.

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