Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Guns, germs, steel and really poor casting decisions

Last week was the start of a new term* for me, and with the start of a new term comes that most wonderful event, the first classes. An entire week of unusually high attendance, earnest professors, self-introductions and my personal favourite, the mystical marking schemes and course outlines that appear once embedded in a PowerPoint and then are never referred to again. The sense of ennui that this whole process inspires was exacerbated by the fact that most of the people in most of my classes are people whose self-introductions (and more…) I have been subjected to for over a year now, so whilst we all continue to find each other fascinating in oh so many ways, hearing for the eighteenth time where somebody was born or went to university is not one of them.

Fortunately, to counter this, many of my professors have apparently decided to be “hip” this term and punctuate their teaching with multimedia experiences! And so it was that at 4.00 on a Friday afternoon, after sitting through a couple of hours of questions about our lives and preferences which nobody should be asked an hour before the weekend, we all got to watch the first part of Jared Diamond’s “Guns,Germs and Steel”. The documentary is all online, so here's a link in case you have an hour to kill watching National Geographic adaptations of development classics.

This isn’t a development blog, so I won’t go into too much detail about Diamond’s theories**, but the basic premise is that all of human inequality can be explained by recourse to- yes, you guessed it- guns, germs and “steel”, i.e. technology. The part of it we were watching concerned the initial development of humankind, and how the development of wheat and barley farming and the domestication of goats in the Middle East, technologies which then spread across Eurasia, led to Europeans becoming colonising douchebags thousands of years later and screwing every other continent over despite only being superior by geographical accident. In other continents, where there weren’t good animals to domesticate or nutritionally balanced crops to exploit, communities didn’t have the people to spare to become technological specialists rather than food producers and technology therefore went nowhere.

It’s an interesting theory which makes good intuitive sense right up until one asks oneself why, if both Europe and Asia benefited from the same favourable conditions, it was specifically Europe who became the colonising douchebags and not East Asia. China was, after all, technologically superior for most of human history!*** I honestly don’t know if Diamond has an answer to this or not in the rest of the TV show or the book (although it’s a pretty glaring oversight if he’s not thought about it at all), but it does seem to me the book ought to be called “Guns, Germs, Steel and Poor Life Choices Made By Western Europe”, for accuracy’s sake. Although, to be fair, Jared Diamond is a published author and I am writing feminist tirades on Blogspot, so perhaps I should defer to him on the subject of book titles. He seems to know what he’s doing.

I’m getting severely sidetracked here. The point is, I watched the video with my classmates, and it was very interesting, even though it is narrated by an American and therefore very hard to take seriously. But it also made me extremely mad, in a way that has nothing to do with half-baked oversimplified approaches to history and development. In order to help us understand global inequalities, the movie regularly juxtaposed scenes from modern Papua New Guinea, where being asked a question about inequality by an angry man one day provided the inspiration for Diamond’s search for truth, and acted-out scenes from Back In The Day, when mankind was first learning to farm and building settlements in the Fertile Crescent. And yes, I used mankind deliberately just then, because the makers of this video (or, at least, their casting directors!) seemed pretty clear on the fact that it was mankind who made these great initial leaps in human history.

To make my point, I decided to take a foray into the world of screencaps. I learned two things from this little endeavour: the first is that taking screencaps is quite hard, and everything seems to be blurry; but unfortunately we’ll all just have to live with that. The second thing is that National Geographic needs to have a serious think about its casting directors, because these things do not line up.

So the video starts off with hunter-gatherers doing hunting and gathering, both in modern Papua New Guinea and in Cinematic Prehistory. These dudes are all men, which makes sense because I suspect it’s quite hard to be a hunter whilst pregnant (though having never tried either, I would welcome evidence to the contrary). Then we’re told that hunting doesn’t really provide enough food, so pre-agricultural communities also had to rely a lot on gathering! Here are the modern gatherers of Papua New Guinea, felling and processing a sago tree:

Women and axes!
Women carrying stuff!
Women and a stick!
            This all looks very difficult and time consuming, and we therefore get a shot of Diamond sitting in a swamp pontificating on the scarcity of these trees and their nutritional inadequacy. Whilst he is doing this, he is surrounded by hard-working New Guinean women, because as the voice over explicitly points out, it is women who do this work.

Meanwhile, in Cinematic Prehistory, the gatherers of the Fertile Crescent had easier and better things to gather, namely wheat and barley. Here are the people of Cinematic Prehistory gathering wheat and barley.

Hey guys, I lost my wedding ring!
Face shots are for posers.
Prehistoric silhouette dude
The video is more coy than I remember about actually showing these people clearly, but it's my contention that over 50% of the actors, and all of the prominently featured ones, are men. Which is interesting, because it was also the men of Cinematic Prehistory who were chasing that deer through the forest earlier. Our cinematic male antecedents must have been extraordinarily resourceful people if they were able to find more than twice the necessary calories for their individual survival, just so they could keep their women and children alive whilst said women sat around looking photogenic on a rock somewhere.

(I’m joking, of course, because standing around looking photogenic on a rock was a non gender-specific activity in Cinematic Prehistory.)

This difference continues into the discussion of agriculture. You see, the real reason that the people of Cinematic Prehistory were on that rock was to survey the terrible effects of Cinematic Prehistoric Climate Change. It turns out that existing so temporally close to an ice age really wreaks havoc on one’s Cinematic Prehistoric life plans! But we must remember that Cinematic Prehistory is very full of resourceful people men, and these men are about to do something amazing, i.e. farm those grasses from earlier! Here is Cinematic Prehistoric Man learning to farm.

Important men doing important manly activities. Like progress.
Manly man sowing. Not sewing, that's for girls.
... Women? Is that you?
Someday, son, you too will have an awesome Cinematic Prehistory beard.
Yes, I accept those people at the back of a couple of shots might be women, and that child with the goats may in fact be Arya Stark. I spent a long time looking at these scenes and I played a lot of “spot the female”, and I accept that they probably do exist in these shots. But they are not foreground in any of them. Sure, Prehistoric Cinematic Woman helped out a bit in the most revolutionary lifestyle change in human history, but there’s no way she was the main event!

For comparison, here’s modern Papua New Guineans farming.

Women! There you are!
A man is helping here. Good on you, man.
A man in a tree. Yep.
Pigs are not helpful livestock, alas.
            The roles are literally reversed. Apart from the man in the banana tree, who I will admit is pretty prominent, these are “spot the male” photos. Women are getting this stuff done in this society which is supposed to be parallel to Cinematic Prehistory in every way but the type of plants and animals being used.

            What does this say about how we think about human development? I’m sure that when National Geographic were thinking about how to present Cinematic Prehistory, they weren’t sitting in a board room going “well we all know women didn’t do anything, so we don’t need to show any of them prominently”. But, apparently, despite probably knowing how things were done in Papua New Guinea, it made perfect intuitive sense that the people to depict as innovators of the human race should all be male. Because Papua New Guinea is, the video takes pains to tell us, stagnant.  It produces no “cargo” (the New Guinean word for “cool stuff from abroad”, apparently). And maybe, on some level, it makes sense to us that this stagnant society is one that relies so heavily on womanpower, and that this aspect of its agriculture could not possibly be one of the hallmarks of a society that innovates. I mean, we live in a society where it is apparently not insane to believe that the entire of human civilisation was built by men so thatsexy women could sit around looking pretty and getting adored***! How could a society where women were playing these roles have the same level of progress?

            I sincerely hope that to most of my readers, the above looks like bullshit- if you’ll pardon my French. Certainly the little I know about prehistoric innovation (which basically comes from this one article that doesn’t cite its sources) suggests that this view of prehistoric human history is bullshit. But I also suspect that to a lot of people, this also looks like a total non-issue. Cinematic Prehistory is not real prehistory, after all, so does it really matter what gender the actors in it are?

            Perhaps not, as an individual case. But one of the strangest things about being A Feminist is how regularly things start to look this way- designed by people who almost certainly had the best intentions, but for some reason just couldn’t avoid unconsciously making these incredibly stupid decisions. Doctor Who is like that, these days, and for all it is still my favourite television show ever and I will love it, and Amy Pond, until the day I die, it still hurts that it’s apparently being helmed by people who just won’t think. My previously mentioned Favourite Writer Ever, Caitlin Moran, has a chapter in which she mentions how women have never ever done anything of artistic or technological worth, complete with a “feminists will try to tell you this isn’t true but think about it ladies, you know it is”, which just goes to show how I couldn’t even cover half the nonsense that got through the editing process in that book. We live in a world now where most of us know beyond a shadow of a doubt that women are supercool awesome powerful terrifying people capable of moving mountains (and, most importantly, for reasons other than babies), and yet when we retreat into culture, or start making culture of our own, we come up against all of these odd tropes and prejudices that too often have nothing to do with reality or how we experience it.

Like Diamond, I carry my own set of “statements made by [sometimes] angry men” which spur me on to figuring out what the truth about our human world and the people in it actually is. One of them is the assertion by a classmate, R., that he will never be a feminist because “feminism is a reaction, and women deserve better”. He is right on both counts, though obviously I don’t agree with his implied causality or his conclusion. I would love to live in a world where I can watch a stupid development video on Friday afternoon without going into a blinding feminist rage; my feminism will be pretty much useless when these unconsciously depressing gendered decisions stop being made. I very much look forward to that moment. Until then, annoying people like me are going to keep reacting to and pointing out these things, hoping that someday we might not have anything left to react to.

"History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind. With the bucket."

*They’re technically “semesters” but as I am British (and so are the vast majority of my readership), I refuse to bastardise my language any more than is necessary in a world which mostly doesn’t know what a “chip” is. So let’s stick with “terms”.

**I also haven’t read the book or seen the rest of the TV show. So please direct all your sophisticated Jared Diamond-related questions elsewhere.

*** There are loads of fascinating theories about why this pre-modern superiority didn’t lead to an Asian industrial revolution which might have at least prevented China from its own nasty experiences with colonisation. Unfortunately they’re completely off-topic for this blog, so I’ll keep myself in check.