|Posted by Joanna Chiu|
May 26th, 2011
As a journalist who writes about feminism, gender and sexuality, I have been keenly interested in SlutWalk, a protest against victim-blaming which first took place in Toronto on April 3, after a local police officer said at a safety seminar that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”
I wasn’t surprised to see that photographs from the protest in The Toronto Star primarily featured images of young, white women. It seemed consistent with the typical underrepresentation of people of color and the overrepresentation of young, attractive white women in the mainstream media.
Even though I had only done a bit of reading on SlutWalk Toronto’s website at that point, I wasn’t convinced that SlutWalk was really only about young white women marching around in “provocative” clothing. When I watched the CTV video footage of SlutWalk Toronto, I was relieved to see that the broadcast focused on the message that no one deserves to be sexually assaulted and depicted SlutWalk participants of different ages, genders and ethnicities and in all manners of dress. The very first words uttered by the reporter from the scene? “Leading the charge against blaming the victim.” CTV quoted a police spokesperson denouncing the Toronto cop’s comments as completely contrary to official policy, after which the reporter noted that “the protesters say his remarks indicate a more systemic problem.”
The Toronto Sun, on the other hand, spent as many words describing the participants’ outfits as on the topic of victim-blaming itself: “Leading the march, Sierra ‘Chevy’ Harris danced in knee-high black boots, with Magdalena ‘Maggie’ Ivasecko sporting see-through, waist-high net stockings over white panties.”
The media coverage of SlutWalk Toronto definitely ranged in depth and quality, and as I tried to make sense of this emerging activism from afar, I ended up with more questions than answers. For example: Does SlutWalk identify itself as a feminist initiative? I certainly didn’t see the dreaded “f” word in the immediate media coverage of SlutWalk Toronto.
A week later, when I learned that SlutWalk was coming to my neck of the woods (Vancouver, British Columbia), I didn’t want to leave it to Canada’s corporate media networks to tell me what SlutWalk Vancouver was about. Instead, I decided to go right to the source. I contacted the SlutWalk Vancouver organizers and this led to an opportunity for me to write the first article on SlutWalk Vancouver for The Georgia Straight: a widely-read independent newspaper in Vancouver.
My editor, a male feminist ally, wanted to publish the first article on SlutWalk Vancouver in order to provide adequate space for the organizers to explain their event in their own words. We also hoped to set a precedent against the sensationalization or over-simplification of the protest.
The organizers I interviewed for the article expressed their gratitude for the opportunity to clear up misunderstandings about SlutWalk and to share under-reported information, such as the critical role of male involvement in SlutWalk, and that participants needn’t come to the walk dressed in special attire:
“Because there is no such thing as dressing for sexual assault, we encourage participants to wear whatever they would normally wear,” said SWV organizer Katie Raso.
As I followed the development of SlutWalk Vancouver over the course of a month of fervent planning, I started to think that getting thousands of people to show up at SlutWalk seemed easy compared to the Vancouver organizers’ struggles to prevent media outlets from misrepresenting their event.
Toronto is the media capital of Canada, so it may have been harder for organizers there to control the messaging. Vancouver is a much smaller city, and SlutWalk Vancouver’s media team made sure to speak to every media organization that requested interviews. They even took the time to respond to the hundreds of questions from Facebook users on their Facebook event page.
Following the publication of my introduction to SlutWalk in The Georgia Straight, the SWV organizers were satisfied with much of the nuanced, in-depth coverage in other media outlets, which relayed an accurate accounting of their goals, as in this Vancouver Observer article:
“‘There is a popular misconception that we are asking people to ‘dress like sluts’ which is completely contrary to our mission,’ Raso argues. She notes the point of the walk is to challenge how the label is used. ‘We recognize that ’slut” is most commonly used in our culture to denote a woman who is assumed to be sexually promiscuous because of how she is dressed, or because of her mannerisms, and that as a ’slut’ she is worth less and deserves less protection.”
The Observer piece also contextualized the initial protest within a larger culture of institutional bias that hinders violence prevention efforts. The article drew important connections: “the attitude of victim-blaming expressed by the Toronto Police officer wasn’t isolated,” they reported, referencing a Saanich police rep who encouraged women to watch their behavior and drinking, which some saw as “putting the onus on women to avoid being raped, rather than on attackers to stop assaulting women.”
However, not all Vancouver media got it right. 24 Hours, a free commuter daily newspaper, ran a sensational article that opened with the lede:
“Women around the globe have joined their “Canadian sisters” to dress provocatively in protest of a Toronto cop’s controversial comments.”
SlutWalk Vancouver organizers swiftly issued an open letter responding to 24 Hours:
“We do not appreciate your paper running a sensational and misinformed article….We would like you to consider mitigating the PR disaster your article could create for our event….[SlutWalk] is not some sensational act focused on dressing provocatively.”
To me, the 24 Hours article sounded positively benign compared to some critiques of SlutWalk swirling around the Internet, such as this blog post by Aura Blogando, which suggested that the protests represent “A Stroll Through White Supremacy.” While I commend Blogando for looking at SlutWalk with a critical race analysis, she didn’t appear to have based her judgment on attending an actual SlutWalk event. Which makes me wonder: what if the first depiction of SlutWalk she had come across was the Toronto Star’s white women-centered photo gallery?
Margaret Wente, a columnist based in Toronto, who also did not attend any SlutWalk event, wrote derisively in the Globe and Mail that SlutWalk is “what you get when graduate students in feminist studies run out of things to do.” Wente did not interview any of the SlutWalk organizers for her article. Again, I wonder what media sources Wente looked at before she decided to condemn this movement.
I’m not saying that everyone who disagrees with SlutWalk was duped by inaccurate media portrayals of the marches, the protesters, and their goals. More than 60 SlutWalk events have happened or will happen in cities around the world, and each of those events are grassroots efforts unique to each city. I suspect that even the most media-savvy among us would not be able to make an accurate judgment of each and every SlutWalk from consulting media coverage alone.
That is why I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to attend a SlutWalk event to just go. Even if you end up concluding that the event was trivial or exclusionary, your opinion will have greater credibility and impact if you can draw from your own observations.
In my first-hand report on SlutWalk Vancouver for the Georgia Straight, I noted that almost half of the walk participants were men, that the organizers used the word “feminist” with pride, and that the speakers addressed complex issues, such as the intersectionality of oppression and impacts of the word slut with nuance and careful consideration.
But don’t take my young, starry-eyed liberal feminist word for it.
Harsha Walia, a prominent anti-racist and migrant justice activist, arrived at SlutWalk Vancouver on May 15th with many concerns, including about whether SlutWalk excludes low-income women or women of color. Walia attended anyways, and this is what she observed in her piece for rabble.ca:
“I expected to see only a handful of women of color, mothers and children, older women. I was surprised at the actual diversity on the streets, not captured by photographers seeking sensationalist images of bras and fish nets. There was no attempt to recruit everyone into one uniform vision of femininity, nor was there an overarching romanticizing of “sluttiness”; sexual autonomy was being self-determined by each participant — as one placard read “Whether scantily dressed or fully dressed, clothing does not equal consent.” Most heartening was the significant number of teenagers, who are perhaps most pressured against affirming consent and are most impacted by self-shame and victim-blaming, and supporting their voices on the street was a critical gesture of solidarity.”
Lastly, compare the Georgia Straight’s photo gallery of SlutWalk Vancouver with the previously mentioned Toronto Star photo gallery. Media coverage can make a huge difference in the success or failure of organic, grassroots movements like SlutWalk, and I hope more feminist writers will attend SlutWalks with an open mind and report back on the positives and negatives alike, in a nuanced way, so that we can better understand how SlutWalk is taking shape in cities around the globe.