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?


  1. I agree with you. I've been a fan of Jian's since the late 1990s, when he was the front-man for one of my favorite rock bands of all time. I think he's a great guy who seems in general to share my values. But I definitely am bothered by this discrepancy and disagree with him on the "find something else to worry about" front. If a good female equivalent of "sir" can't be found, I say he should abandon "sir" and stick with names for everyone.

    I'm a woman in my late 30s and I'll admit that I find it jarring when someone calls me "ma'am," which doesn't happen all that often here in the northeastern USA. It does kind of make me feel like I'm being called elderly ;) but, as you say, it's more common in other parts of the country. I can't say I love the idea of Jian starting to use "ma'am" on his show; I personally would prefer him to use first names across the board; but regardless, it would be great to see him find an egalitarian solution of any stripe.

    1. Thanks, Joan! I think we should start a campaign to find that egalitarian solution!

    2. I'll have to listen more closely to his interviews, but I'm with mamajoan. In my 40s, I'm rarely ever mistaken for a "miss" and "ma'am" reminds me that I'm getting up in years. That said, if it were part of an important title, I could accept it.

    3. So Kim, how *would* you like to be addressed?

  2. I have not had the opportunity to hear Jian, but if he addresses his male guests as Sir, he must be a fine, well mannered gentleman.

    As for why there is no suitable female equivalent for Sir, I am afraid you (not you personally but the more strident members of your gender) upset the equilibrium of polite and respectful address, with the introduction of the title "Ms".

    For hundreds of years prior to the latter part of the last century, women were addressed as Mrs. or Miss depending on their marital status Ladies in positions of authority or, perversely, in charge of disreputable establishments were addressed as Madam.

    Every one, male and female, young and old, married or single knew the correct form of address for everyone else.

    Now I know and agree with the argument that a woman's marital status is of no concern to anyone but her. However with the abandonment of Mrs. and Miss the whole system has been thrown into disarray.

    While the immediate use of first names is generally accepted in North America, even without a formal introduction, this is not the case in many other parts of the world.

    With my strict upbringing preventing me from addressing an unknown woman by her first name until invited to do so, I am left floundering for a polite form of address as I do not know how to pronounce "Ms"

    So the solution has to be either in the interests of equality, to use Sir for both genders, or Sir and Madam as they used to be.

    1. Oh, Peter, I do love you ;-). But unfortunately, you are wrong.

      First of all, using Mrs. or Miss rather than Ms. would not solve the problem. While Shakespearean ladies are addressed as Mistress, I don't think even a courtly Zimbabwean gentleman would ever have addressed a lady as Missus unless he was holding her horse. Addressing an adult woman as Miss is insulting. The issue here is not whether he should use the first name or honorific + last name. He is greeting an interviewee and says "Hello, sir" or "Hello, Jill." He could say "Hello Ms. Hennessey", but that doesn't take away the fact that he has no simple, respectful form of address for a female guest. I was very pleased that he greeted Seth Godin the other day with "Hello, Seth" and that brought about the whole conversation ;-).

      As to how to pronounce Ms., it's very easy. It's pronounced Miz. There, now you know ;-).


  3. I found your post on the internet only because I was bothered by this exact issue. It has been bothering me that both Jian and my former co-worker so liberally use the title "Sir" and have no equally respectful address for women. They have camaraderie, friendliness, and respect in their voices when they say "Sir": "Good afternoon, Sir!", over and over again. Since I cannot be addressed in the same manner (or can I?!) I feel left out of an old boys' club. Jian, nor my former co-worker have any way to tell me in one word that I am part of the team, I'm their friend, and I am respected so I feel like I must be none of those things. I feel left out and in the end, marginalized. It's time Jian set the example for his listeners and started addressing women as "Madam". Call me Madam.



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