Compassion & Commitment to Change: The Value of a Life (Part 2)


The June 2016 post, “The Value of a Life”, was an examination of expressions of sympathy and outrage following events resulting in the loss of life, contrasted with actions taken by individuals, companies and governments who prioritise their own gains over the lives of others. Examples of deadly disregard for life in that piece included international support for the devastating war in Yemen, the concealment of scientific evidence of harm by the tobacco and fossil fuel industries, and the lack of action to prevent the deaths of asylum seekers in the Mediterranean. Countless more examples of callous policy and behaviour have occurred since the original piece: government policies resulting in deaths and suicide attempts at Australian-run offshore immigration centres and the separation of migrant children from their families detained at the southern US border; the total disregard for the residents of low-lying and vulnerable nations in the face of the climate emergency, with nations and industries unwilling to change their practices or endanger their own profits; weapon manufacturers lobbying against any form of gun regulation against a backdrop of frequent mass shootings and terror attacks.

Following high-profile cases of tragic loss of life, there are public outpourings of grief and calls for change, expressions of sympathy flood social media, flowers and money are donated, candle-lit vigils are held and politicians promise to take action. However, in today’s constantly moving news cycle, the initial shock and outrage quickly blunt as time passes and other issues come to the fore. While ‘thoughts and prayers’ may be plentiful, without constant public pressure the political will to deal with the underlying problems is limited and real efforts to bring about positive change have been lacking.

A white supremacist terrorist attacked two mosques in Christchurch, Aoteroa-New Zealand this March, killing 51 people. The immediate aftermath saw a huge outpouring of public grief and solidarity with the country’s Muslim population, including donations to victim-support funds and multi-denominational vigils held around the country. Images of Prime Minister Jacinda Adern comforting the families of victims flashed around the world. The Prime Minister’s message to the Muslim community, “You are us”, became a rallying cry and many other New Zealanders took comfort in the assertion that, “This is not us”, firm in the conviction that the country is a welcoming beacon of equality. This raised questions about this utopian vision of the nation, with a conversation being initiated, asking for a deeper examination of the country’s colonial past and treatment of the Maori people and current outcomes for the indigenous community, as well as its history of racist attacks against Pacific Island, Asian and Muslim citizens and residents. There were also  calls for the government to review its immigration policy , to end discrimination against those from African and Middle Eastern nations in the quota system. Meanwhile, rugby, for many the heart of New Zealand’s cultural life, also came under scrutiny. The Christchurch-based team in the Super Rugby competition, established in 1996, is called the Crusaders and boasts a logo with a sword-wielding knight and precedes home matches with horse-riding armed knights galloping around the stadium. The name and imagery had been questioned by some in the past but, in the light of a terrorist attack specifically targeting Muslims, the view that the branding was not appropriate gained some momentum. While the club were reluctant to make any immediate changes, they agreed to conduct a full review, including gathering public feedback. Their club statement read; What we stand for is the opposite of what happened in Christchurch on Friday; our crusade is one for peace, unity, inclusiveness and community spirit. In our view, this is a conversation that we should have and we are taking on board all the feedback that we are receiving, however, we also believe that the time for that is not right now.”


Six months after the attack and the issues of racism, discrimination and the country’s immigration policies have already slipped down the news and out of many’s view. For a while, a spotlight was placed on white supremacy in the country, with charges brought against those who shared the Christchurch attacker’s video and screed, and other racist messages, and the government initiated a gun buy-back scheme to remove semi-automatic firearms from the streets. However, already the political consensus on further gun control is breaking down and many of the questions surrounding systemic racial inequality, discriminatory immigration quotas and the reporting of hate crimes remain unaddressed. Over at the rugby stadium, small changes were promised for the logo, removing the sword by 2020, but the horses returned to the ground after a few weeks (without weapons). Submissions from the public were collected, including many from fans citing the ‘long history’ of the club and a resistance to caving in to politically-correct do-gooders, and in June, the club announced that there would be no name change until at least 2021, if at all. NZ Rugby Chairman Brent Impey explained that, The reality is that Adidas have got to make jerseys, there’s merchandising and that sort of stuff,” As well as this blatantly financial motivation, Leanne Ross, from the University of Otago’s department of marketing, explained another factor that may have contributed to the decision: “[fans] have extremely sentimental connections to the identity of a team. They feel that identity as themselves, as part of a community and a group.”   So it seems that, in spite of the sentiment that “You are us”, expressing solidarity and inclusiveness between communities, individuals’ own sense of identity and belonging can make it difficult for some to bridge divides. Many white New Zealanders’ national identity is built upon their perception of the country as a fully-integrated, totally accepting nation, and any suggestion that there are deep-seated issues of racial discrimination and violence is just too uncomfortable for some to contemplate. There is no doubt that people were genuinely upset by the horrendous events in Christchurch and really do want a better, safer place for everyone, but when it really comes down to it, many are not actually willing to make any alterations or take any action they see as impacting on their own lives and identities in order to relieve the pain of others.

While it’s easy to express condolences and sympathy following tragic events, how ready are we to actually make changes to our lifestyles in order to help others? Are we willing to really have those difficult conversations about our own positions of privilege and the racism and discrimination in society that we may prefer to discount? How much do organisations and governments rely on the fact that we will forget our outrage and demands for change in a packed news cycle; that we will reach saturation point and lose compassion for others? Do we just accept that those in positions of privilege and power are able to avoid addressing the problems that disadvantage others in order to continue benefiting themselves? The difficulty is sustaining that feeling of injustice we experience on hearing about the loss of life, maintaining that commitment to change, progressing the conversations about injustice and inequity, and keeping pressure on organisations and governments to make the structural changes required; to not forget and move on to the next grim news, while allowing callous disregard for life to continue.

4th September 2019, Jacqueline MacDonald


Reimagining the Canon: Edmonia Lewis

Talented artists whose lives and works may not be as familiar and lauded as those in the canon because, well, you know…

Edmonia Lewis (c.1844-1907)

An artist’s studio in 19th century Rome. High-profile visitors admiring the artist at work. Pieces of high quality Italian marble chiselled down to reveal figures from history, literature, biblical stories and myths; sculptures that sell for thousands of dollars. This picture is not difficult to imagine, but focus now on the artist themself; a 25-year-old woman of colour. Her name was Edmonia Lewis.


Edmonia Lewis’ biography has been muddied by her own propensity to tell a range of wild, conflicting stories about her own background and by allegations made against her that may have been accurate or driven by racial discrimination. She is thought to have been born in 1844 in New York state. Her father was Afro-Haitian and her mother was Chippewa, from the Mississauga Ojibwe First Nation in Ontario, Canada. She was orphaned at a young age and tells of living life in the wild, but also of producing Ojibwe crafts with her aunts and selling them to tourists at Niagara. What is known, is that her elder half-brother helped provide for her and she was educated at abolitionist schools and Oberlin College in Ohio. At Oberlin she was accused of poisoning two of her classmates and was lucky to survive a vigilante beating she was given.

In 1864, she moved to Boston and was introduced to established sculptors there. She was taken on by Edward Augustus Bracket, a specialist in marble busts, and she developed her skills under his tutelage. Her subjects included Civil War and abolitionist heroes, such as the renowned commander of the African American Civil War regiment, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. By selling reproductions of her works, including that of Shaw, she was able to raise money to travel to Europe. She visited London and Paris but finally settled in Rome. In 1878 she explained,

I was practically driven to Rome, in order to obtain the opportunities for art culture, and to find a social atmosphere where I was not constantly reminded of my color. The land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor.”

She spent most of the rest of her life in Europe, dying in London in 1907.


In her lifetime, Lewis’ work was recognised, both in Europe and the US. She represented African and Indigenous figures in the neoclassical style, and her sculptures were exhibited in Chicago in 1870, Rome in 1871 and the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. Visitors to her studio included Frederick Douglass and former President Ulysses S. Grant, who commissioned a portrait from her in 1877.

June 2019, Jacqueline MacDonald


New York Times – “Overlooked No More: Edmonia Lewis, Sculptor of Worldwide Acclaim”

Smithsonian American Art Museum – “Edmonia Lewis”

See also:

Reclaiming History: Mary Prince

Reimagining the Canon: Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Reclaiming History: The Mercury 13





Reclaiming History: The Mercury 13

Reclaiming history; inspiring historical figures whose names and deeds may not be as well-known as some of their contemporaries because, well, you know…

The Mercury 13 (1960-1962, USA)


They were charter pilots, commercial pilots, flight instructors, licensed helicopter pilots, air school owners, speed record holders, aerial acrobats, the first female air safety investigator and FAA inspector, the second female pilot to exceed Mach 1, World War 2 fliers with the Women’s Airforce Service Pilot service delivering warplanes to airbases. They had thousands of air hours between them. Thirteen women with notable achievements, but the one dream they shared, to be an astronaut, was to prove out of their grasp.

In 1958, NASA established the Mercury programme to find astronauts to beat the Russians in the race to space. NASA considered inviting people with experience of extreme conditions, such as submarines, Polar expeditions, deep diving and high altitude climbing. However, President Eisenhower favoured recruiting jet test pilots from the airforce and this became one of the selection requirements for entry to the programme, together with an engineering or science degree and a height of less than 5 foot 11 inches. A rigorous series of physical, psychological and aeromedical tests was developed by Dr. William Randolph Lovelace II to determine those candidates most capable of dealing with the stresses of space travel on the body and mind. The seven men who passed the tests and entered astronaut training were dubbed The Mercury 7.

Dr. Lovelace believed that women had a place in space too and was curious how they would perform in the tests. His good friend was Jacqueline Cochran, an aviation pioneer who held the speed record and had headed the Women’s Air Services in World War 2. Together with her husband, they funded Lovelace’s testing programme and recruited 25 women they knew from the flying community. The women underwent the same physical and psychological tests used on the Mercury men and 13 of them passed. The final phase of testing, the aeromedical tests in which the women would experience jet flight and the centrifuge, were scheduled for September 1961. However, these were cancelled at the last minute as the navy had not received an official request from NASA to use their facilities, so Lovelace and the women were unable to complete their testing.


The women returned to other aviation jobs but were not willing to let the matter rest. In July 1962, two of the 13, Jerrie Cobb and Janey Briggs Hart, testified at a House Committee Hearing on Sex Discrimination, challenging the “boys network” at NASA. Hart stated that,“it’s inconceivable to me that the world of outer space should be restricted to men only, like some sort of stag club.”

In response, it was argued that the inclusion of women would slow the programme due to their lack of jet training (which was unavailiable to women) and that speed was vital in the race against the Russians following Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon. Five months after his own historic Earth orbit, John Glenn, whose own failure to meet NASA’s eligibility requirements due to the lack of a degree had been ignored, testified against women being admitted into the astronaut programme;

“It’s just a fact. The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact the women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.”

Ultimately, NASA’s entry requirements stood and President Johnson closed all avenues for the women to further argue their case. The Mercury 13 finally had to concede, “I guess we did it well and they didn’t like that.”

The year following the Congressional hearing, in June 1963, the Mercury women watched as Russian Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space, orbiting the Earth 48 times. In the US, it wasn’t until the 1970s that airforce training was finally opened to women, and in 1978 Eileen Collins began pilot training. She loved flying but, like the Mercury 13, her dream was to be an astronaut, and now finally US women could meet NASA’s requirements. In 1995, 32 years after the Mercury testing and Tereshkova had shown that women were as capable as men of going to space, Collins piloted the space shuttle Discovery on a mission to the Russian space station Mir. She invited the Mercury 13 to the launch and credited them with being an inspiration. The women had front-row seats to proudly watch a woman achieve something they could only dream of. It must have been bitter-sweet, but Sarah Ratley explained, “We felt redeemed. Our mission was not in vain.”

The Mercury Thirteen were: Janey Briggs Hart, Myrtle Cagle, Jerrie Cobb, Janet Dietrich, Marion Dietrich, Wally Funk, Sarah Gorelick Ratley, Jean Hixson, Irene Leverton, Jerry Sloan Truhill, Berenice Steadman, Gene Nora Stumbough Jessen and Rhea Woltman,

June 2019, Jacqueline MacDonald


“Mercury 13” – Netflix documentary (2018)

“The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight” by Martha Ackmann (2004, Random House)

The Verge “We fact-checked Mercury 13, Netflix’s doc about NASA’s first women astronaut trainees”

See also:

Reclaiming History: Mary Prince

Reimagining the Canon: Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Reimagining the Canon: Edmonia Lewis


Sporting Pride: Not for Everyone

The feet planted firmly on the ground, head held high in confidence, the outstretched arms welcoming the adoration of the crowd; it’s the unadulterated, unapologetic pride and joy that makes the image iconic. A lilac-haired, lesbian sportswoman in complete comfort with who she is and unashamed of the unparalleled skill and ability she possesses. Prior to this moment, Megan Rapinoe was already renowned for her confident and eloquent representation of women in sport and the participation of the LBGTQI community. While the women’s US team blazed their way through the football World Cup, they were also progressing their legal challenge against their association for pay equity with the far less successful men’s team. Rapinoe had also been active in her wider advocacy for equal rights, for women and LGBTQI, as well as helping to raise awareness of racial inequality in the US, joining Colin Kaepernick in kneeling for the national anthem. But it was the viral sharing of an earlier video in which she asserted that she wouldn’t “be going to the fucking White House” if the team won this year’s World Cup that thrust her onto the radar of a wider sector of society, including the White House’s resident himself. Trump grumpily Tweeted at her, while, undistracted and unrepentant, she went out and scored two goals to take her team into the World Cup semi-final, giving the world her epochal celebration and ultimately helping to bring the trophy back to US soil. While the team’s achievements were widely celebrated, some social commentators, particularly those in the Trump orbit, branded Rapinoe as “arrogant” and admonished her, suggesting she stick to sport and to stay out of politics. And of course, as she predicted, she didn’t go to the White House; Trump never extended the invitation he had said he would.

For many years now, professional sports have presented opportunities for people to reach social and economic positions that would generally be unavailable to them in other fields. Sports owners and managers have been happy to fill their teams with people of colour and other minorities, and to reap the rewards they bring. Generally, this all ticks along unquestioned until occasionally someone pokes their head above the parapet, attracting the ire of pundits, commentators and even politicians. Colin Kaepernick’s protests highlighting police brutality towards black civilians led to him not being selected for the NFL and saw him branded ‘unpatriotic’. Trump stirred up division, stating that, “if a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect … our Great American Flag (or Country)”, and asking his baying crowds, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired! He’s fired!” This is a common racist trope; expecting black people to remain quiet and uncritical while showing gratitude for the opportunities they have been given. Many sports fans are comfortable watching people of colour or women put their bodies on the line for the success of the team, but less so in listening to what they may have to say about their own life experiences. There is a fear of the expression of emotions, particularly if it is dissent or anger. People were happy for Serena Williams to blast her way through tournament after tournament, but were less supportive when she started to question female players’ pay, and especially when she challenged an umpire’s decision during a match and displayed anger.


In Australia, the case of Aboriginal Australian Football player Adam Goodes has returned to the public eye, with the broadcasting of a new documentary, “The Final Quarter”. The film details the final 3 years of his AFL career, and the racist commentary and booing that eventually contributed to his decision to retire from the game. Goodes was an award-winning player whose career had spanned over 10 years, and was also active in his advocacy for Indigenous People’s rights and youth development. During a match in 2013, he called out a spectator on the sidelines for calling him an “ape”, and the 13-year old girl was swiftly removed from the stadium. In spite of Goodes public statements about the girl that, “It’s not her fault, please don’t go after her”, several high-profile columnists and commentators condemned Goodes’ actions. Their message was amplified by right wing media outlets and social media, and stadium crowds began booing Goodes. In 2014, Goodes was presented with the Australian of the Year award but the same media figures continued to vilify him. During Indigenous Week in the 2015 AFL, in which Aboriginal culture was celebrated and Goodes’ team wore shirts designed by his mother, Goodes celebrated a goal with a war dance. The celebration had been created by The Flying Boomerangs, a youth football development programme for Indigenous teenagers, to celebrate Aboriginal culture. They had shown it to Goodes in 2011 and he performed it in recognition of them. As any sports fan would know, teams from across the Pacific celebrate sporting achievements and recognise their Indigenous cultures in a similar way, most famously with New Zealand teams performing the Maori Haka, but this doesn’t happen with Australian teams. So the same critics used this as another opportunity to whip up ire against Goodes, accusing him of being confrontational and threatening towards opposition fans. Their comments demonstrated that, while a superficial recognition of Aboriginal culture in sporting events was acceptable to them, a vibrant expression of cultural pride and calls for genuine recognition was a step too far and needed to be smothered. Afterwards, the continual booing of Goodes intensified and he eventually took indefinite leave from his team. In spite of a campaign of support, organised by his fans, he retired from the sport at the end of the 2015 season, effectively driven out by the ceaseless harassment.

This use of harassment to make environments prohibitively unpleasant for certain members of society is not confined to sport and the sporting media. Online, Gamergate and the Ghostbusters backlash exposed the ability of a handful of men to stir up discontent and encourage co-ordinated attacks on female actors and gamers in order to try and drive them out of realms which the men feel belong exclusively to them. Often, when sporting or entertainment figures express opinions on social or political issues, they are harangued and told to ‘stay in their lane’, very often by Twitter users with no observable specialist knowledge or expertise themselves. So while black, Indigenous, female and lesbian sports players are tolerated so long as they focus on the sport, any hint of attaining a position of social influence or unapologetic displays of pride are slapped down. But they are essential in highlighting the inequities of society to a wider audience, and until there is a diversity of representation in commentary, punditry and reporting, and in the media which disseminates them, we will continue to turn to the proud and powerful voices of the Rapinoes, Kaepernicks, Williams and Goodes, who are willing to face the slings and arrows in order to represent us all.

25th July 2019

Jacqueline MacDonald

Reimagining the Canon: Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Talented artists whose lives and works may not be as familiar and lauded as those in the canon because, well, you know…

Emily Kame Kngwarreye (c.1910-1996, Alhalkere, NT, Australia)


Alhalkere (also known as Utopia), located more than 200km north-east of Alice Springs in the Northern Territories of Australia, is home to an Aboriginal community. In 1977, women in the community attended an adult education workshop on the technique of batik, producing art using silks, dyes and wax. One of the attendees was 67-year-old Emily Kame Kngwarreye and she soon helped set up the Utopia Women’s Batik Group. Kngwarreye was an elder of the Anmatyerre people, whose ancestral lands made up Alhalkere. In the 1920s, when lands were annexed for pastoral leases by the colonists, she had been forced to work for the Europeans, looking after domestic animals on a cattle station, leading a camel train and even working in a mine. However, she was also active in the indigenous land rights movement and, in 1979, after the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission brought about the Northern Territory Act, the 2000 square kilometre Utopia cattle station was returned to her people. As an elder, Kngwarreye was a custodian of the women’s Dreaming sites of her people and she performed roles in many of the traditional ceremonies. The Dreaming explains the creation of land formations, the earth, animals, people and plants, with customs, knowledge and codes of conduct passed on in songs, dances, designs and rituals. Kngwarreye’s role included the painting of bodies for rituals, with designs reflecting the natural world around them, and it was many of these themes that she carried into her batik work.

In the 1980s, she had the opportunity to learn how to use acrylics on canvas and thereafter she worked prolifically. In the eight years prior to her death in 1996, aged 86, she produced around 3000 works. Her abstract pieces reflect her homeland, inspired by the physical features, weather, animals, grasses, seeds and tracks of Alhalkere. After her work was displayed in an exhibition in Sydney in 1989, she gained attention and a growing demand from collectors. Various art critics compared her work to that of Jackson Pollock, Wassily Kandinsky, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko. Today, her name may not be as familiar as those, but her paintings can still be found in galleries across Australia, as well as in New Zealand, the US, the Netherlands and Italy. In 1997, her work was posthumously exhibited at the Venice Biennale.

June 2019

Jacqueline MacDonald


University of Canberra – “Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Untitled, Awelye”,-untitled,-awelye

National Gallery of Australia – “Emily Kam Kngwarray, Alhalkere, Paintings from Utopia”

National Museum of Australia – “Emily Kame Kngwarreye”

See also:

Reclaiming History: Mary Prince

Reclaiming History: The Mercury 13

Reimagining the Canon: Edmonia Lewis

Reclaiming History: Mary Prince

Reclaiming history; inspiring historical figures whose names and deeds may not be as well-known as some of their contemporaries because, well, you know…

Mary Prince (b. 1788 , Bermuda)

“Oh the horrors of slavery!—How the thought of it pains my heart! But the truth ought to be told of it; and what my eyes have seen I think it is my duty to relate; for few people in England know what slavery is. I have been a slave—I have felt what a slave feels, and I know what a slave knows; and I would have all the good people in England to know it too, that they may break our chains, and set us free.” – Mary Prince, 1831

From 1791, anti-slavery activists petitioned the British parliament to bring the slave trade to an end. In 1792 alone, 519 petitions were presented, driven in many cases by the stories coming out of the colonies from the slaves themselves. Political progress was slow however, and when the Abolition Act passed in 1807, banning the slave trade in the UK, the use of slaves in the colonies remained legal. Parliamentary petitions continued and, for the first time ever in 1829, one was presented by a woman, arguing for basic human rights for slaves. That woman was a Bermudan slave named Mary Prince.

Mary (also Molly) Prince, was born into slavery in Bermuda in 1788. She remained with her family for 12 years before being separated from them, sold to a different master. After 5 years of brutal treatment, including regular whippings, she was sent to another master on Turks Island where she worked in the salt ponds there for the next 10 years, resulting in the rheumatism that pained her for the rest of her life. In 1815, she was sold to yet another new master in Antigua. Mr John Wood, together with his wife, subjected her to more beatings and floggings, which had become a repeated feature of her life. During this time, she began attending the Moravian Church, where she learned to read, and she married a free man, Daniel James, in 1826. Her husband offered to buy her freedom, but the Woods refused, seemingly for no other reason than to punish her further.

In 1828, Mary was taken by the Woods to London as a servant, as slavery was illegal in Britain, but their hostile treatment of her continued. She was able to leave their service but she had no means, and returning to the West Indies would have resulted in a return to her status as a slave. She gained the assistance of the Moravian Church in London and obtained paid work with the family of Thomas Pringle, secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society. Several attempts were made by these organisations to buy or negotiate her manumission from John Wood, but he stubbornly and repeatedly refused to do so while questioning her character and honesty.

Mary’s attempts to gain her freedom from the Woods and her petition to parliament did not succeed, but in 1831 she published her story for the world to see. Her vivid, brutal descriptions of the physical and mental horrors of slavery caught the attention of the public and the book was reprinted twice in the first year. She forced the British population to examine their own complicity in slavery, asking;

“Did one of the many by-standers, who were looking at us so carelessly, think of the pain that wrung the hearts of the negro woman and her young ones? No, no! They were not all bad, I dare say; but slavery hardens white people’s hearts towards the blacks; and many of them were not slow to make their remarks upon us aloud, without regard to our grief—though their light words fell like cayenne on the fresh wounds of our hearts.”

Some thought Mary’s experiences were too brutal to be true, and two libel actions were taken against the book, including one by her master Mr Wood. However, Mary defended herself and her history, testifying twice in court to its veracity.

In 1831, Mary wrote,

“I still live in the hope that God will find a way to give me my liberty, and give me back to my husband. I endeavour to keep down my fretting, and to leave all to Him, for he knows what is good for me better than I know myself. Yet, I must confess, I find it a hard and heavy task to do so.”

Two years later, the British Parliament finally placed a total ban on slavery. Mary’s testimony in the libel cases that year is the last record we have of her and it is not known if she died in the UK or was able to return home to her husband as a free woman. However, it is clear that her contribution to the fight against slavery eventually enabled others to experience the freedom that she was cruelly denied for so many years.

June 2019, Jacqueline MacDonald


“The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave” by Mary Prince, Edited by Sara Salih (1831)

The Abolition Project – Petitioning and Lobbying Parliament

The Guardian – “They bought me as a butcher would a calf or a lamb’”

See also:

Reimagining the Canon: Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Reclaiming History: The Mercury 13

Reimagining the Canon: Edmonia Lewis

Boys’ Toys: Tech and Sexual Objectification


It’s a lucrative business model; a gallery owner makes millions selling art and can keep all the proceeds because he doesn’t have to pay the artist. At a time when creators are already struggling for fair remuneration for their work, is this the future? Meet Ai-Da, an AI robot developed by UK company Engineered Arts for gallery owner Aidan Meller. Using cameras in her eyes, Ai-Da is able to interact with her surroundings and produce original line drawings, and Meller has already made over $1 million selling her work. Yes, her work. Under her paint-smattered smock, Ai-Da’s body is all metallic parts, but her face is that of an attractive female (thanks to the team behind the ‘Westworld’ cyborgs) and she has a gentle, breathy voice to match. Named after 19th century mathematician and computing pioneer Ada Lovelace, the decision to make this technology female was deliberate. Meller says,“What we’re about today is really having everybody’s voice heard because that has not been traditional, especially in the art world. A female voice is needed more now than ever and we’re excited and proud of that.” There are so many questions raised by Ai-Da’s existence: Is it just a coincidence that Meller’s choice of name, supposedly honouring Ada Lovelace, is only one ‘n’ away from his own name, or is the self-aggrandisement deliberate?; Was Meller concerned about the optics of a successful, male gallery owner profiting from the work of an upcoming ‘female’ artist, or is exploitation the point?; Did Meller consider giving voice to a human female artist rather than to a robot, or did that never even cross his mind?

Which leads to the more general question of why so many of these, predominantly male-run, tech companies create ‘female’ robots. Putting aside the issue of specifically designed sexbots, there is an interesting discrepancy around which types of technology are presented as obvious robotics, such as Boston Dynamics’ dog-shaped and humanoid machines shown opening doors, climbing stairs and doing backflips, and those which are designed to look as human as possible, with skin and hair. The latter seem to frequently be female, with one such example being Sophia, who was developed by David Hansen of Hansen Robotics and modelled on Audrey Hepburn. Sophia was famously, and unironically, given citizenship in Saudi Arabia, a country where human women can’t work, study or travel without the permission of a male guardian. Hansen himself displayed an equally traditionalist view of the role of women in society when he explained that his aim is for Sophia to be of use in the healthcare, customer service, therapy and education sectors. It seems gender stereotypes are alive and well in the robot world, with ‘females’ performing the nurturing roles and the gentle arts best ‘suited’ to them.

We don’t need to dig deep into the psyches of such tech developers to find the sexual objectification of the female form together with a desire to create a breed of ‘women’ who can satisfy the need for attractive, sexy companions without the baggage of autonomy, opinions and the ability to say no. This seems to run parallel with a prudish distaste for anything that suggests female sexual desire and gratification. Last year’s case at CES (Consumer Electronics Show) highlighted the hypocrisy in this area, where sex tech to induce male pleasure had never been an issue but a female-targeted sex aid was deemed, immoral, obscene, indecent, profane or not in keeping with CTA’s image by the Consumer Technology Association. This highlighted the misogynistic view that women are a means to male sexual pleasure, but that active female desire is unseemly and must be censored. The CTA have since reviewed what happened, explaining, We just identified some inconsistency is in our handling and our policies that we needed to go back in and address, The prize for the Osé Robotic Massager, which was revoked at the time, has now been reinstated, but the damage has been done and the image of tech as a protected male domain has been reinforced.

The sexual objectification of the female body is also the source of Facebook’s ongoing nipple issue. The company’s nudity moderation had resulted in works of art, historic photographs, content on breastfeeding and campaigns to raise awareness about breast cancer being removed from the platform. Users were also quick to point out the hypocrisy that female nipples were being banned but male nipples were deemed acceptable. Years on and Facebook are still trying to find a fix for their nipple problem, with their policies remaining opaque and questions being raised around how the company responds to images of trans-women and women after mastectomies. What it all points to is an inherent problem with their moderation, and with the algorithms being used to run it. These have been developed by men who see female breasts as merely sexual objects and who had not considered them in any other context. Their almost puritanical concealment of the female body shows that outdated but deep-seated, discriminatory ideas about the role of women in society are being transposed into the online world by powerful companies who are supposed to be at the forefront of the modern age.

Examples abound in the tech world of inequalities, sexual objectification and outright misogyny, from the low hiring rates of women and minorities to coordinated harassment by men who see tech as a male space and try to make it so uncomfortable and dangerous for women that they are forced out. All of this raises concerns over a general lack of diversity in the tech companies responsible for creating the world we increasingly live in. The algorithms which dictate so much of our online interactions today, from the recommendations and news we see to the moderation of content deemed inappropriate, are still predominantly written by white men, and the AI machine learning is based on content produced by even more white men. The danger is that the environment they create will share their views that women are nothing more than receptacles for their desires and not autonomous beings with an equal right to play an active role in that world.

18th June 2019

Jacqueline MacDonald