Tuesday, April 10, 2012

On Jian Ghomeshi and Feminism

OK, I will admit it. I'm a groupie. This cutie here is Jian Ghomeshi, host of the CBC show Q (which you USAmericans can hear on PRI and Sirius Radio! Check out the website). He's an impeccable interviewer and his velvety tones are really sexy. If I miss hearing him in the morning, more often than not I'll download the podcast so I can catch him later. Hearing him flirt with Dr. Ruth should make you an addict, too.

He's also an avid Twitter user, and unlike many people in his position, he reads fan responses and sometimes even engages in conversation. Not too many thrills compare to that, even though his tone in our latest exchange was distinctly irritated. Can't say I blame him too much - I do keep coming back to the same thing, and here it is.

Jian likes to address male interviewees as "Sir". Nothing wrong with that - courtly and old-fashioned is extremely charming, especially when combined with above-mentioned velvety tones. The problem is that he has not yet found an appropriate female equivalent, and tends to address his female interviewees by their names. I have been bugging him on Twitter for a couple of years now to find an equally respectful mode of address for women (or girls, or gals, or ladies - see the problem?). In our latest Twitter exchange, Jian suggested that I should find a larger issue to concern myself with. But actually, I think that is a pretty darned large issue, and it comes down to the question of how, and why, women earn respect in our society, and more importantly, from themselves.

The "official" or formal equivalent of Sir is Madam, as in Dear Sir or Madam. I did suggest to Jian that he should experiment with using Ma'am, as is so prevalent in the American South. He responded that many women are not comfortable with that form of address. When I queried whether anybody knows or cares whether men are comfortable with the term Sir, he said that he'd been using it for five years and no man has ever complained.

So, why would a young woman squirm at being addressed as Madam (or perhaps My Lady, as the medieval equivalent of Sir?) or Ma'am, while a young man is fine with being addressed as Sir? We use Madam for women in formal positions of power - Madam Justice, Madam Speaker. I can't imagine the Speaker of the House (any house) feeling uncomfortable with that form of address. So why is it not appropriate for a female actor or activist, regardless of age? Does it imply an old woman to you, more than Sir would for a man? Or is it an enhancement in status for a man to be addressed with that form of respect, while it detracts from a woman's status? Why would it be a detraction for a woman to be addressed as being mature and worthy of respect? This is coming from the women themselves - but the internalisation of the patriarchy is no new phenomenon for us. See Ashley Judd's fabulous essay on the subject. 

Am I crazy to be hearing echoes of the old Madonna/Whore dichotomy here? A mature, powerful man is sexually attractive, whereas a mature, powerful woman is a cougar, unless she abandons all claim to sex altogether. A Madam is a woman who runs brothels, where young, low-status but attractive women cater to the desires of men who are addressed as Sir. The waters become successively murkier the deeper we delve into this.

Jian himself is a strong feminist - just this morning his opening essay was a stirring indictment of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for their neglect of women musicians. But even he is stuck on this thorny issue of address. Yes, it seems a small thing, but I think it is a canary in the coal mine - if we can find a satisfactory mode of expressing respect to women, it will indicate that there is more true respect for women in the bedrock of our society. Call me a dreamer.

What do you think?