Thursday, 13 February 2014

Fourth Wave Feminism & Air NZ

Fourth Wave Feminism & Air NZ

This post is written for a new University of Canterbury FemSoc publication.  UC Femsoc itself is part of the rise of a new wave of feminist thinking on campuses and streets everywhere. 

Here I reflect on the current New Zealand debate about a "required to view" Sports Illustrated video on Air NZ and the Roast Busters and Odd future cases.

The Air New Zealand video is not an  issue that will go away. A "required to view" video repeated day after day on domestic flights by a state owned airline is a prospect that should trouble the NZ government in an election year where women's votes matter.

Air New Zealand's "required to view" Sports Illustrated Safety Video

There are important tensions which need debating in the decision by Air NZ to 'celebrate' a 50 year anniversary of the US corporate, Sports Illustrated magazine by involving that company's bikini clad models in a safety video for Air NZ, a video that is compulsory to view for anyone on the plane.

 In the first instance, sexism aside, this decision runs up against the libertarian arguments of free choice. Claims that people's choice of dress is up to them, are undercut if all passengers are compelled to watch what amounts to an advertisement for Sports Illustrated even if it offends them. When I  raised my concern about the required to view implication of the video, it was a new conservative National politician, Paul Foster-Bell who first responded, agreeing and tweeting, "If safety videos are compulsory viewing they should cut down on the embarrassingly cringeworthy vids".

Then there is a very basic question- do such videos make us safer? Some commentators argue the message is distracting from safety, because it is now buried in visuals. And surely feeling annoyed is also distracting? Then there is the contentious research in human psychology that asks, if "sex sells", does it also inform, or do some 'sexualised contexts' actually distract us from performing important cognitive functions, like concentrating on key facts and detailed information?

One of the most significant critics of the content of the video itself from a feminist perspective however has been Massey academic and  NZ Labour Party candidate Deborah Russell who takes the issue up as a loss of sexual consent for passengers required to view the images, even if they object. Passengers are literally strapped in their seats just trying to get from destination A to B. News anchor Hilary Barry and columnist Pam Corkery have also spoken up strongly about their own anger, their voices are challenging dominant media narratives, and giving voice to public frustration and concern. The argument that Sport's Illustrated offers a new global market, misses the point that trapped audiences don't like the message.

Other critics go further and point out the hypocrisy of corporations mainstreaming very soft porn images while worrying about the rise of online sex industries 'grooming' young girls. If Air New Zealand was serious about celebrating the new woman's body, then why not make a video that celebrates Pussy Riot? Oh wait, that band  symbolises the new contradictions and challenges of fourth wave feminism but might also incite public disorder.....

Then there are the very strange tensions this video creates for Air New Zealand as an employer. On the one hand Air New Zealand has recently announced that all senior employees are banned from relationships, even if single, because there can be "no ambiguity" At the same time, they are presumably going to expect women in cabin crew to stand to attention in the aisles while sexualised images are played on screens around them. A very ambiguous situation I'd have thought?

Finally, there is the political-economy objection, in a global market why is a government owned airline promoting a multinational company and not locally owned New Zealand businesses in this "required to view" advertorial? (Time Warner is the parent firm of Sports Illustrated, it also backed the Hobbit films-would it be too cynical to ask if a required to view inflight advertorial for SI is well timed exposure for a US company in a struggling market sales environment, in which Sport Illustrated has also just tried to launch a connection to Barbie dolls?-see comment links below).

There is much irony and much to feel angry about, that just as young New Zealand women like Lorde, Eleanor Catton and Lydia Ko again lead the world in diverse areas, Air New Zealand ignores these outstanding role models and instead presents (I'd hesitate to go as far as to say 'grooms') New Zealand girls with American images of passive women in a colonial vision of island paradise which they aim to make 'required' viewing as a public safety message.

Yet fourth wave feminism reminds us that there are a myriad of ways to address problems like this and Air New Zealand has picked a very bad moment in social history to push an advertising campaign that perpetuates sexism. Besides the obvious consumer protests in a neoliberal era (eg fly JetStar) and the new trends to creative, colourful protest, there is the wider debate, why fly at all? Why not save the carbon and make that next meeting by skype?

Where to next?
Despite initial protestations that the 'required to view video' is just good publicity -actually it is not new or innovative, having been tried in 2009 with the same magazine connecting with Southwest Airlines.

Nor is the issue going away any time soon, especially if the video is played day in and day out on domestic flights. The many voices of New Zealand's women will not be easily silenced in the Air New Zealand Safety video debate nor any other political debates despite a current cacophony of predominantly 'white men from Auckland' holding forth as media commentators, sternly telling citizens what to think (or how to vote).

But it is not just New Zealand media that struggles currently with lack of diversity of women's voices. All political parties are very conscious in an election year with tight voter margins, women's votes will matter, as will youth votes. Even if some passengers don't find the video offensive, an irritating video played day in and day out on the government owned national airline, will no doubt serve as a lightening rod for some tension.

Emancipation was hard fought. It is not about how to shop or limited ideas of free choice in a market. The fourth wave emancipation movement is also breathing new life into wider debates about economics (whose economy?), the environment, politics, and our capability to exercise more meaningful citizenship. It is heard in the challenging, irreverent voices of a diverse new feminist movement.

It matters that significant victory for first wave feminism was achieved in New Zealand, a ripple, with far reaching global consequences. It took 2000 years for a novel Greek idea that all free men should have the right to vote, before women won that right and it was first won through efforts of a small group of women largely based here in Christchurch. A phenomenal achievement of strategy, alliance building, and campaigning which is still routinely dismissed by 'experts' as if it were a mere accident or twist of fate and privilege, not an extraordinary political achievement. Where will this new fourth wave of creative witty, challenging protest and debate about everyday sexism and loss of democratic voice take us?  I look forward to finding out and I welcome the new Femsoc publication and thank the editors very sincerely for their vision.

Finally A note about FemSoc: a new feminist publication launched at the University of Canterbury

It is great that UC students are  launching a new FEMSOC newspaper. Feminist societies are blossoming on campuses world wide as part of a new "fourth wave" of feminist thinking and activism. The title of a new Oxford University feminist paper for example is, Cuntry Living a title which still makes me laugh every time I think about it.

Irreverent satire is one of the features of a so called Fourth Wave of feminism. This acerbic, often visual feminist comedy is also illustrated by the Suffra-jests a local student feminist group that recently started here in Christchurch, the home of Kate Sheppard and the White Ribbon publication (an early feminist newsletter published by women who also spearheaded NZ's world leading votes for women campaign in 1893). Today's suffra-jests group sprang up in protest against overbearing central government here in Christchurch and the loss of local democracy after the earthquakes. It is taping into the energy of new, global activist thinking and experimentation on streets everywhere,  from the Transition architecture movement, to contentious feminist debates in Occupy , gender solidarity in Indignados or the interface between urban planning and feminism for example in  Gezi park and diverse indigenous rights campaigns.

Other features of fourth wave feminism are its new focus on cultural life, social media, technology and  political connections between inequality, intersexuality, unemployment, online misogyny, workers conditions, and rape. The new and unexpected nature of this protest and voice is spilling over everywhere. If the first wave of feminism secured political rights to vote, the second wave in the mid 1960s and 70's aimed to secure social and economic rights. A subsequent third wave, (which has set the roots for what we see now today) began to react against a corporate feminist movement "too often about the glass ceiling, never about the floor" as late 1990's feminists gave voice to the diversity, of minority voices and the issues of civil rights in writers like bell hooks (lowercase) and post colonial feminism.

Just as earlier waves of feminism grew out of, and were reinforced by, previous actions and thinking, the so called third wave has now morphed into a cultural online revolution as women and men make connections between the battles against surveillance and misogyny on the internet, the freedom to determine our lives and the rights of women and girls, and LGBT communities to decent sustainable work, quality education, and self expression, typified in the twitter writing of @PennyRed and a constant self critical reflection that listens to the variety of women's everyday oppression experiences in a complex world.

New Issues 
The new issues for fourth wave feminism are different, and here in New Zealand some of this difference is shown in the focus of new campaigns and alliances. Often humour and consumer boycott typifies the most visible protests - and the target is public hypocrisy and everyday oppression. For example in New Zealand feminist commentators already highlight the tension between outrage and complaints about the online group of young men known as Roast Busters  and support for the banned, misogynistic hip hop group Odd Future. The latter was banned from travelling to New Zealand to perform not because of violent lyrics but because it was deemed 'likely to incite public disorder'. This suggests that a current conservative NZ government may have wished to respond to concerns about Odd Future but felt an outright ban was difficult given their conservative yet libertarian position. The alternative however was to ban the group on grounds of inciting disorder, is a far more troubling justification for excluding any group as Elle Hunt and Viki Anderson argue (1).

Fem Soc offers a terrific forum for new debate, I look forward to it.

(1) Elle Hunt however refers to laws of 'sedition'- actually, thanks for the reminder -the Law Commission recently abolished the charge of sedition, it was the provisions of the Immigration Act which was used instead to ban travel of the group Odd Future.
A disclaimer, people ask why this blog site is called growing greens-I perhaps should clarify I don't refer to any green political party per se. It was the draft title of a book on green thought- red, blue, deep, or feminist -long since replaced by Children, Citizenship and Democracy, however I've  stuck with the blog handle....


  1. As a post script- it is also fascinating but disconcerting to methat there has been so little public debate about the relationship between Time Warner (the parent owner of Sports Illustrated and the company behind the previous Hobbit compulsory view safety advertorial and the timing of this video as Time Warner struggles with a complex sale deal see and these questions should at least be debated- there may be no relation but it is troubling

  2. Many thanks for your link to my piece on the Air NZ video and consent. It's a point that doesn't seem to have made its way into mainstream comment yet.

    Deborah Russell

  3. Deborah thank you for your huge effort-yes it is surprising to me that some NZ media column writers were initially at least, more supportive of the video than the politicians themselves. Some MPs on both sides of the house have expressed serious concerns about this Air New Zealand decision (as a government owned airline)- and want it changed-I am also grateful to the CHCH Press editor (the first woman in that paper's history) as it was the CHCH Press who ran the story on the front page and covered the debate from the outset. This issue will be an on-going problem for a National government in the run up to the election unless it is addressed. It will be a daily reminder to women in business and who travel regularly by air, that the government failed to speak up for New Zealand women and a new generation of NZ girls-and that kind of irritant will distract from other policy messages.

  4. Last words in this strange little case of why Air NZ would feature such a sexist, confusing, US Sports Illustrated video:

    a) one redeeming feature is that this video reminds people you can avoid flying and still make an impact as Christie brinkley does, by using skype or other video links
    b) it was brought to my attention by several readers that the Cook Island's is NZ's own American tax haven, recently featuring in New York Times and international debate about tax avoidance- why on earth of all the many beautiful places in NZ, pick that one? It is still not clear- it is great that NZ gets reminded about the Cook Islands as an NZ territory but seriously-why is it featured in this US video -advert?

    c) Air NZ crew I have spoken to since writing this all say how uncomfortable the video makes them feel, and that it puts many passengers especially older passengers and women "on edge" or makes them "uncomfortable"-

    But I leave my last word a comedian- we are told the US Swimsuit illustrated opens new markets- but how many of these "dudes" viewing an Air NZ video on their laptops at home actually even own passports?!" asks Michele A'Court in a very clever piece in the Christchurch Press. (As I went to link this piece which was originally titled i "off the backs of foreign chicks" I notice the online national version has now been given a much softer, less critical title. Copy and paste the link from

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