W Network re My Feminism

NATIONAL SPECIALTY SERVICES PANEL
(CBSC Decision 01/02-1120)
R. Cohen (Chair), S. Crawford (Vice-Chair), R. Deverell,E. Duffy-MacLean, M. Hogarth and C. Murray

THE FACTS

The specialty service called W Network broadcast a documentary entitled My Feminism on July 25, 2002 at 7:00 pm Pacific Time.  The documentary consists primarily of individual interviews with a number of prominent feminists of diverse national, cultural and religious backgrounds who discuss a range of issues related to the feminist movement, such as pornography, violence against women, division of household tasks, divorce, reproductive rights, women's health, religion, cultural differences and politics.

The segment of the documentary dealing with religion, which began about 43 minutes into the program, troubled a viewer who filed a complaint with the CBSC.  That part began with an interview with Urvashi Vaid, who stated:

Many of the most sexist notions held by societies are embedded in religious tradition.  There is Catholicism, Hinduism, Islam or Judaism, there are sexist traditions.  In many parts of the world where fundamentalism is growing you're seeing these religious movements transform those societies in ways that are bad for women, in ways that are setting back the gains that have been made by the feminist movement.

Information then appeared on-screen stating that a woman named Taslima Nasreen was “condemned to death by Islamic fundamentalists for her feminist writings.”  The segment continued with remarks from Irish feminist Ailbhe Smith who described her view of religion in the following terms:

I come obviously from a culture in which religion plays a very important part.  The Holy Roman Catholic Church has been responsible, ably aided and abetted and reinforced by the Holy Irish Catholic State to keep women in a state of submission, subordination, fear, to restrict and constrict and constrain us in every way that it can possibly think.  That means, of course, that men should have the power to actually make sure that women don't have any power and that we as women should stay in our places as mothers and man-servers.  No, of course I don't believe in a religion which can, which can actually mind-fuck people to that kind of extent.  No, and I won't subscribe to it, I won't support it in any way.

Mary Becker then provided her view of Catholicism and feminism:

I was raised Catholic, but I'm not religious now.  I think it's very hard, although not necessarily impossible, for women to stay within traditional mainstream religions and be feminist.  To stay Catholic and a feminist, which I know many women do and I really respect them and I think it's so important that women continue to do it, but it's beyond what I can do.

The final interview in the segment was with Urvashi Butalia who explained that she comes from a family with both Sikh and Hindu backgrounds, but that the only time religion played a large role in her childhood was when her grandmother would come to visit.  She mentioned that she enjoyed the music when she went to the Sikh temple, but that, as an adult, she was not particularly religious.  She suggested that

Still the ritual of religious practice enables women at least to get out of the house, have a space where they can sing and be together and talk in the temple.  It's not great, but it's something, it's more than they have.  So I think I wouldn't knock religion even though I don't subscribe to it myself.

The program did not contain any viewer advisories.

A viewer sent letters to both the CRTC and the CBSC on July 29 describing the segment that was of concern (the full text of all correspondence can be found in the Appendix):

[O]n a show called My Feminism a woman attacked the Christian faith and Roman Catholic Church – referring to them as “mind fuckers”.  This view was supported by another woman who also stated the church and feminism were incompatible.  I find the attack and the language used as offensive, hateful and totally inappropriate for this media [sic] and time of broadcast.  It was religiously intolerant and held one faith and church, in particular, up for ridicule.  Other faiths were not mentioned.  [.]  Broadcasting these views on public television gives them undeserved credibility, and should not be allowed without counterpoint.

The viewer also commented that the use of the f-word is not appropriate for broadcast at that time in the evening.

The Director of Programming for the W Network responded to the complainant's letter on September 3.  She explained that the documentary was broadcast as part of the service's “W Docs” series, which “offers the opportunity for viewers to examine several important issues and events through a variety of gutsy, poignant and thought provoking documentaries.”  With respect to the complainant's concerns about the segment on religion, the W Network pointed out that

While most of the women agreed to the difficulty of believing in a faith they felt went against their personal beliefs, there were several comments and opinions made in support of religion and several of the women expressed great respect for those women who were able to balance their feminist beliefs with their faith. The comments were not intended as a direct attack on religion [.].  The comments made were expressed as the personal opinions of the women speaking in the Documentary.

The letter from the Director of Programming went on to cite past CBSC decisions dealing with abusively or unduly discriminatory material against identifiable groups and suggested that the broadcast did not fall afoul of the Code in this respect.

The complainant wrote back to both the W Network and the CBSC on September 9.  In the e-mail to the W Network, the complainant expressed the view that the Director of Programming had not dealt with the use of the coarse language and he reiterated his concerns about the hateful comments made by the Irish feminist:

The anger and hate in her voice and on her face were unmistakable.  Clearly she did not want to debate religious issues, improve the Catholic institution, or deal in facts.  She wanted simply to destroy what she viewed as in her way, get rid of the symbol of opposition.  [.]  As far as other women following up on her comments, yes, one of them said she “admired other women who could stay in the church” (read:  “the poor misguided dears”) but she, the speaker, could not (read:  “being so much more wise and sophisticated”).  The clear, unmistakable message was “do not believe in nor support the Catholic Church.”  [.]  Name calling, crudity and ad hominem attacks have no place in an informative program.

In the e-mail sent to the CBSC, the complainant simply stated that the response from the Director of Programming was “unsatisfactory, as she merely minimized my 'narrow' interests with no indication of remorse, error, apology, or indication not to repeat such insult in future.”

The complainant later sent a newspaper article about a French author who had been reprimanded by the French courts for calling Islam a “stupid” religion.  The complainant pointed out that, although that case occurred in a different country, calling a religion “mind-fuckers” was considerably worse.

THE DECISION

The National Specialty Services Panel considered the complaint under the following provisions of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters' (CAB) Code of Ethics and Voluntary Code Regarding Violence in Television Programming:

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 2 (Human Rights)

Recognizing that every person has a right to full and equal recognition and to enjoy certain fundamental rights and freedoms, broadcasters shall endeavour to ensure, to the best of their ability, that their programming contains no abusive or discriminatory material or comment which is based on matters of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, [sexual orientation], marital status or physical or mental handicap.

CAB Violence Code, Article 3.1.1 (Program Scheduling):

Programming which contains scenes of violence intended for adult audiences shall not be telecast before the late evening viewing period, defined as 9 pm to 6 am.

CAB Violence Code, Article 5.0 (Viewer Advisories):

        To assist consumers in making their viewing choices, broadcasters shall provide a viewer advisory, at the beginning of, and during the first hour of programming telecast in late evening hours which contains scenes of violence intended for adult audiences.

Broadcasters shall provide a viewer advisory at the beginning of, and during programming telecast outside of late evening hours, which contains scenes of violence not suitable for children.

The National Specialty Services Panel read all of the correspondence and viewed a tape of the documentary.  It concludes that there is no breach of any of the foregoing provisions.

The Use of the F-Word

After dealing with the issue of the use of the f-word in CJOH-TV re “White Men Can't Jump” (CBSC Decision 94/95-0060, March 12, 1996) a number of years ago (under the provisions of Clause 6, paragraph 3 of the CAB Code of Ethics), the CBSC was not again called upon to consider its use in television programming until relatively recently, a year or two ago.  In the CJOH decision, the Ontario Panel was dealing with the post-Watershed broadcast of a feature film, of which it said that ” the language used is that of the streets of California portrayed in the motion picture [and that] it cannot interfere with the broadcaster's choice to air the film.”  More recently, in Showcase Television re the movie Destiny to Order (CBSC Decision 00/01-0715, January 16, 2002), this Panel was called upon to deal with a considerable quantity of coarse language in general and the f-word and derivatives in particular in a feature film aired at 2:00 pm.  Applying, as it now does, the above-quoted provisions of the CAB Violence Code to all broadcasts including any type of material intended for adult audiences (for the background, see, among others, TQS re the movie L'Inconnu (Never Talk to Strangers) (CBSC Decision 98/99-0176, June 23, 1999)), It found

it useful to observe that, were it called upon to characterize the severity and frequency of the coarse words and expressions in White Men Can't Jump and The Sopranos, it would find that, in both cases, the language would be “intended for adult audiences” and entirely inappropriate for broadcast in a pre-Watershed context.  Similarly, in Destiny to Order the Panel finds that the coarse language was “intended for adult audiences” and equally inappropriate for broadcast in a pre-Watershed context.
decided that the “ use of 'fuck' and 'motherfucker' in a dramatic film renders it programming 'intended for adult audiences'.”  The logical result of those rulings in the present file is that this episode of Gutterball Alley is intended for adult audiences, which would necessitate the application of the 18+ rating in circumstances in which a rating would be required.  In other words, the use of “fuck” and derivatives qualifies as “graphic language” in the Content Guidelines of the AGVOT classification system.

The question for the Panel in the matter at hand is whether the use of derivatives of the f-word ought to be dealt with as in the previously cited matters or not.  Its answer is that documentary films are, as a general rule, of a different genre.  My Feminism, which is a current-affairs essay documentary, is a serious, strong and credible point-of-view film.  Such an interview-based documentary is not, by its nature, scripted.  Without diminishing in any way the contributory role of behind-the-camera directing, editing and other creative components, for present purposes it is fair to say that the documentary's success depends on the power, articulation and credibility of its on-camera contributors.  In the case of this documentary in particular, it must be appreciated that its subject matter is not merely feminism, it is my feminism.  The film is not merely dependent on the interviewees, it is the interviewees.  And their choice of words is theirs, not that of a screenwriter looking for a dramatic jolt or an effect.  The words spoken represent the reaction of each individual to the questions put to her.  The intensity and emotion of each response is reflected in the words used and the tone of their delivery.  The seriousness of the broadcast vehicle, the non-gratuitous use of coarse language, its infrequent presence, the contextual relevance and importance of such words, and the likely lack of appeal to a younger audience will all be factors taken into consideration by a CBSC Panel assessing offensive words in a documentary film.

In the context of the program at hand, the challenged term was used by Irish feminist Ailbhe Smith in a very visceral context, namely, to describe her perception of what the combination of the Church and the State had done to place women “in a state of submission, subordination, fear, to restrict and constrict and constrain us in every way that it can possibly think.”  That was the issue for Smith.  Establishment gender oppression.  She was angry.  She was bitter.  She used the word as a strong, particular and meaningful verb rather than as a casual, flippant and unnecessary term.  It was solitary and emphatic.  It underscored her massive discontent at what she had lived in her native land.  It arose 43 minutes into the program, after her views on many of the other feminist subjects had been digested and understood by the viewer.  Given its context and the likely lack of appeal of My Feminism to a younger audience, the Panel does not find that the use of the term in the context of this broadcast exceeds the bounds of acceptability.

Given the Panel's view of the contextual justification of the isolated use of coarse language, it does not consider that there is any reason to force My Feminism into a post-Watershed broadcast time.

Viewer Advisories

Similarly, while the Panel understands that some of the important themes may be mature, in the sense that younger family members might benefit from the elucidation of parents, this alone is not a reason to mandate viewer advisories.  Nor, for the reasons given above, does the Panel consider that the isolated but contextually justifiable use of the f-word require such treatment.  That being said, CBSC Panels have been aware of circumstances in which broadcasters, out of consideration for sensitive members of their audiences, have provided such warnings to help them make informed viewing choices.

Unduly Discriminatory Effect of Coarse Language?

The complainant's concerns were twofold: first, the “offensive” nature of the language; and second, the “hateful” usage of the word, which “was religiously intolerant and held one faith and church, in particular, up for ridicule.”  Having dealt above with the usage issue, the Panel now turns its attention to the documentary's treatment of the Roman Catholic Church.

First, the effect of the Panel's conclusion regarding the term itself is inescapable.  If the usage of the admittedly colloquial verb “mind-fuck” has been found by the Panel to be serious, non-gratuitous, emotionally comprehensible, and thus acceptable, the question is what might render it unacceptable under this rubric?  For a start, the broadcaster could not even have been accused of a lack of balance on this issue.  It should first be noted that Ailbhe Smith referred only to her own culture.  She spoke of her own experience.  Despite the fact that she dealt angrily and critically with the male-domination in the Church, her comments were juxtaposed with those of Mary Becker, who said:

I was raised Catholic, but I'm not religious now.  I think it's very hard, although not necessarily impossible, for women to stay within traditional mainstream religions and be feminist.  To stay Catholic and a feminist, which I know many women do and I really respect them and I think it's so important that women continue to do it, but it's beyond what I can do.

Becker's comments were clearly far gentler vis-à-vis the Church although the purport of her comments was still that “it's very hard [.] for women to stay with traditional mainstream religions and be feminist.  To stay Catholic and a feminist [. is] beyond what I can do.”  In any event, the complainant's perspective was uni-directional.  He stated unequivocally, “Other faiths were not mentioned.”  This was simply not correct.  Consider the interview with Urvashi Vaid:

Many of the most sexist notions held by societies are embedded in religious tradition.  There is Catholicism, Hinduism, Islam or Judaism, there are sexist traditions.  In many parts of the world where fundamentalism is growing you're seeing these religious movements transform those societies in ways that are bad for women, in ways that are setting back the gains that have been made by the feminist movement.  [Emphasis added.]

Following the interview, there was an on-screen super, which read:

Taslima Nasreen

Condemned to death by Islamic fundamentalists for her feminist writings

This could hardly be understood as a pro-Islamic observation.  Thereafter, in reference to Sikh and Hindu religions, there was the interview with Urvashi Butalia, in which she concluded that, although religion did not work for her, she saw positive aspects of it, including that

the ritual of religious practice enables women at least to get out of the house, have a space where they can sing and be together and talk in the temple.  It's not great, but it's something, it's more than they have.  So I think I wouldn't knock religion even though I don't subscribe to it myself.

The point is that there were at least five other religions than Catholicism discussed, commented on or criticized in My Feminism and the alleged uniqueness of the focus targeted by the complainant is simply not justified by the review of the documentary program.  Moreover, the Panel is duty-bound to point out that there is no obligation for a filmmaker or his or her broadcaster to be uncritical of the subject treated.  Criticism is not alone the equivalent of unduly discriminatory comment.  It is unjustified, unsupportable criticism that fails the test.  It is casual, gratuitous, foundation-less criticism that cannot stand the bright light of the private broadcasters' codified standards.  There is none of that here.  It is not the critical but thoughtful view of the single Irish Catholic speaker, which can fairly be considered in isolation, but the presentation of the entire documentary which must be assessed collectively.  As to the religious issue, it is reasonably balanced, fair and credible.  There is no breach of the Human Rights Clause of the CAB Code of Ethics.

Broadcaster Responsiveness

In addition to assessing the relevance of the Codes to the complaint, the CBSC always assesses the responsiveness of the broadcaster to the substance of the complaint.  While the complainant was responsible for the bulk of the correspondence in this matter, the Director of Programming of W Network sent a long and thoughtful reply to the complainant.  It did not satisfy him.  This is, of course, the case with all matters that arrive at an adjudication stage.  The responsibility of the broadcaster is to be responsive and thoughtful, so that the complainant is left with a sense of dialogue.  Complainants cannot always be satisfied by the broadcaster's dialogue, although it does frequently appear to be successful.  That might have been the case here.  Although it failed, the broadcaster has fulfilled its responsibilities in this instance.

This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.  It may be reported, announced or read by the station against which the complaint had originally been made; however, in the case of a favourable decision, the station is under no obligation to announce the result.