On representations of diversity at Studio D
To celebrate 2013’s International Women’s Day, the National Film Board of Canada presented a week-long line up of NFB films about women in March. The online event, Know Your History, featured a series of blog posts on women’s contributions to NFB films and free access to new NFB films by women, including Karen Cho’s award winning documentary Status Quo? The Unfinished Business of Feminism in Canada. Status Quo? documents some of the limitations women in Canada continue to struggle against, such as access to and resources for abortion clinics, childcare, rape crisis centres and women’s shelters. Touching upon the divergent struggles of Canadian women, Cho surveys the status of feminist communities in a nation with diminishing sympathy for women’s issues. Cho’s film thus functions as an important reminder to Canadians that our country has failed to overcome gender inequality in fundamental ways. Status Quo? does not, however, pretend to overcome the depoliticizing patriarchal forces it rallies against. Similar to the feminist advocacy and research groups Cho’s film features—which are dependent upon federal funding and support—Status Quo? has also been influenced and promoted by a publicly funded institution, the NFB. The inextricable mediation of Cho’s feminist critique of Canada by a federal cultural producer is hardly an anomaly; rather, it is representative of both the disregard of and need for feminism in Canada today.
Since its inauguration in 1939, the NFB’s mandate has proclaimed film to be a nation-building vehicle that finds community through the respectful and objective representation of diversity. For nearly as long, women working at the NFB have pointed to the failure of the institution to adequately integrate this vision both within its workforce and in the content of its films. Similar to certain feminist documentaries previously produced by the NFB—most notably, for my purposes, the films produced by women’s unit Studio D—Status Quo? interrogates the obvious barriers women face when attempting to exercise their constitutional rights and successfully participate in Canadian workforces and social institutions. The film’s interviewees are highly critical of Canada’s failure to address and act upon gendered, racial, and social inequalities that persist regardless of the proclaimed advancements of our multicultural society. In the words of interviewee and pro-choice activist Peggy Cook, Status Quo? concludes that:
The oppression of women is so systemic and so ubiquitous that it is everywhere in our lives, so we don’t think of it as oppression anymore. There are a lot of stories that need to be heard that aren’t being heard right now. And if they were being heard, people would be a lot more aware of how much we need feminism.
Stories of struggle, defeat and resistance, Cook asserts, have a mobilizing power. This same feminist logic once encouraged Canadian women to lobby for the increased representation of women’s perspectives in the late 1960s and 1970s. The 1967 Royal Commission on the Status of Women (RCSW) officially recognized women’s struggles and made recommendations to overcome gender inequality in Canada (a primary recommendation being that federal institutions should better represent women’s stories and struggles). Like the RCSW, women’s unit Studio D was launched in the mid-1970s in an attempt to better educate Canadians about women’s issues. And yet, despite these efforts made, many of the limitations and injustices addressed by Studio D and the RCSW remain unresolved and are arguably more deeply rooted today than they were over forty years ago.
Studio D was dissolved in 1996 in an attempt to reintegrate diversity into a less compartmentalized—and, needless to say, less well funded—NFB. Ironically, it was this prospect of diversifying the norms of representation that led to the incorporation of Studio D into the NFB’s revised organizational structure. The dissolution of the NFB’s women’s unit was justified as a step toward achieving equality for women working within a federally funded cultural institution. However, the closure of Studio D marked a significant change for the unit’s filmmakers, audiences, critics and supporters alike: Studio D’s main objective—to represent women’s stories and create professional opportunities for women working in cultural production—was no longer a cause deserving of federal resources. Although the NFB intended to reintegrate Studio D’s objective and vision into its larger structure, the closure of the women’s unit demonstrates how a federal cultural institution is able to incorporate stories of resistance and struggle into a national narrative of progress without actually initiating substantial change. The increased representation of previously neglected perspectives counteractively helps to conceal the forces of patriarchy still influencing our politics, social institutions, workplaces and daily lives. The history of Studio D thus demonstrates how the unit’s founding desire for greater representation actually further silenced women’s testimonies of struggle and discrimination. Through the recognition of such stagnancy and regression, we can perhaps begin to identify and resist the forces that have depoliticized and domesticated women’s issues in Canada today.
THE STATUS OF WOMEN
Status Quo? employs footage from the 1967 Royal Commission into the Status of Women (RCSW) as a touchstone throughout the film. The RCSW helps Cho contextualize women’s ongoing struggle against gender discrimination and effectively counter any assumptions that feminism is no longer a relevant cause in Canada. Overlaying RCSW archival footage with the 2011 Pan-Canadian Young Feminist Gathering in Winnipeg, Cho’s sparsely written narration explains early on that: “The Royal Commission set out a blueprint that legitimized the struggle for women’s equality in Canada. Decades later it serves as a reminder of the work that remains to be done.”
The 1967 RCSW hearings provided a space for women with diverse interests to voice their concerns in a forum that received an overwhelming amount of media attention. Mandated by the Canadian Liberal government, the RCSW set out “to recommend what steps might be taken by the Federal Government to ensure for women equal opportunities with men in all aspects of Canadian society.” The commission, Canadian scholar Joan Sangster writes, was the result of ongoing lobbying by the Committee for Women’s equality, “a coalition of women’s organizations, led by white, professional, educated women.” Over the course of a 10-month period, the RCSW held hearings in 14 Canadian cities, “inquir[ing] into and report[ing] upon the status of women in Canada.” The RCSW, according to the Status of Women Canada website, “valued and gave a platform to women’s voices,” resulting in “a groundswell in awareness about the situation of women.”
There were, of course, certain limitations to this federal investigation into the status of women. An elected board of commissioners evaluated each woman’s written or oral story according to the ‘usefulness’ of her testimony. The commissioners then selected briefs from letters and testimonies, Sangster writes, that “provided ‘hard evidence’” and “concrete, pragmatic, realistic policy suggestions” for publication. Letters that “appeared to describe individual ‘grievances’” were rejected. Given this evaluation process, the letters that were judged to be ‘legitimate’ testimonies about the status of women were objective, specific and devoid of any criticism of larger economic, political and legal ideologies or institutions. Similarly, women’s testimonies about domestic abuse gave rise to the question of authority. Cho includes various excerpts from the RCSW hearings to address this issue of legitimacy. For example, in response to a charge against a man for threatening bodily harm to a woman, an unnamed commissioner states that there needs to be evidence provided by an authority before removing a man from his home: “we cannot take a person into custody unless we have a good reason.” Looking back at the RCSW, it is clear that the commissioners’ ‘good reason’ failed to address pressing issues including the issue of violence against women—a blind spot in Canada’s legal and political system at the time.
The RCSW did, however, make recommendations for providing broader access to and recourses for childcare and birth control, and also encouraged Canada’s educational and cultural institutions to better represent women’s stories. And while the commissioners’ recommendations neglected substantial problems such as domestic abuse and disregarded women’s criticisms of systemic issues in the workforce, women continued to gain employment, fight for equality and discuss the injustices they faced both at work and at home.
The NFB was not exempt from this pressure for change, both from within and beyond its institutional walls. Film editor Kathleen Shannon, along with a number of other women directors and editors employed by the film board at the time, were producing and directing films by the late 1960s with the primary goal of sharing the unrepresented stories of women’s lives. The success of these documentaries, such as Shannon’s own series Working Mothers and Anne-Claire Poirier’s En tant que femmes, motivated women filmmakers to lobby for a segregated women’s studio. In light of the RCSW’s recommendations to better represent women’s stories, Canada’s decision to participate in the UN’s International Women’s Year (1975), as well as the demands of women filmmakers working within the institution, the NFB launched women’s unit Studio D in 1974.
THE PROMISE OF REPRESENTATION
Studio D’s founding objectives were to project women’s perspectives through documentary film and to create filmmaking opportunities for women in Canada. In the years prior to its launch, the women who would eventually become Studio D’s first producers argued that a segregated unit for women would ensure that women were able to represent their “different approach to society,” different, that is, from the traditionally masculine approach of the NFB. The unit took up the prominent feminist/social realist practice of documentary filmmaking, employing film as a tool to develop meaningful relationships with mass audiences and foster discussion around neglected critical issues. In her article “Studio D’s Imagined Community,” scholar Elizabeth Anderson explains that by “valorizing the experiential, feminist documentarians, who were often feminists activists, hoped to persuade female audiences, through identification with the protagonists in their film, of the necessity for collective political action.” Feminist documentary filmmaking allowed for women to step beyond the traditional position of being the consumers and subjects of films, and to become the producers, directors and editors of films focused on women’s experiences. These practices were thus understood to help empower women and thereby inspire action toward change.