Cultural chasms

Some days, the news provides head-explodingly juxtaposed stories. August 16th was such a day. First, I read about the takeover of Kabul that day and all that would mean for the women and girls of Afghanistan. Then, my eye was caught by this CBC news headline:

“TikTok’s That Girl is meant to promote wellness, but some say it does the opposite”

I can’t say that TikTok, Tumblr, Instagram, Snapchat and countless other microblogging and social networking sites are places I know much about, and I am pretty such that few, if any of them, are intended to appeal to people of my age.

However, I wanted to know more about That Girl, partly because it made me nostalgic for the late 1960s Marlo Thomas TV series, in which she played a spirited and independent young woman, off to prove herself to the world. Perhaps, I thought to myself, it was a place of empowerment and political engagement for young women.

Picture perfect

So, I “joined” TikTok and spent an hour I will never get back watching, for the most part, vacuous, self-absorbed mini-videos of young women telling one another how to be the best version of themselves they can be.

Being the best you can be, at least according to That Girl, seems to mean, above all else, being slender and, generally, “beautiful” according to Hollywood-ized images of female beauty. A few young women of colour were visible, but not many. In my one-hour scan of the site, I saw no women who were not thin, none who associated themselves with Indigenous culture, who identified as queer, trans or non-binary or who appeared to be anything other than middle-class. I didn’t even see an image of a woman whose teeth were less than perfect. You get the picture.

It also seemed to me from my one-time perusal that being That Girl involves drinking a lot of foamy, frothy coffees, wearing beautiful clothes, and spending a lot of time on makeup and hair styles. There were many images of beautifully presented meals and snacks, as well as of young women working out in stylish attire, without a drop of sweat anywhere apparent. Product placement and promotion also seemed to be a big part of the game.

Curated lies

This is a popular site – #ThatGirl boasts more than 800 million views – but it has also attracted some criticism. As Sick Kids Hospital psychiatrist Dr. Elia Abi-Jaoude says:

“People aren’t usually posting random, representative snapshots of their day-to-day [life]. When you’re constantly looking at the most carefully curated videos, you may think ‘if that’s what everyone else is doing, I should be doing the same.’”

I checked out a video from “basicallyreese,” who said she had “problems” with That Girl. However, to hear her critique, I had to suffer through watching her apply makeup, and her comments, focused on the importance of self-love, were far from insightful.

I am all for self-love, but I think we could replace a bit of that with some global love, to the benefit of everyone. I know that I am an ageing and often grumpy feminist, but I would have left TikTok’s That Girl a happier woman had I found one single posting about how fighting the climate crisis or doing anti-racism work or working for women’s rights can make you feel better about yourself more than a frothy coffee, a good set of workout clothes and the right makeup can.

“Shame on you”

Feeling more than somewhat disgusted by yet another example of North American cultural pap, I turned my attention back to the situation facing women and girls in Afghanistan, many of whom, I suspect, would be very surprised to learn that happiness can be found in long, painted fingernails.

Of course, the violence that women and girls are subjected to in Afghanistan is not news. While the presence of international forces, which has kept the Taliban largely under control for almost two decades, put a halt to some of the worst gender-based abuses, it did not create a society in which women had equality, autonomy, dignity or safety.

However, the return to power of the Taliban puts women and girls at higher levels of risk than ever before.

As Afghan women’s rights leader Seraj Mahbouba said on August 15th:

“To those world leaders, I’m going to say, really, shame on you . . . I’m going to say to the whole world, shame on you. . . . I don’t even know what to tell you. The talking time is over.”

There have been promises by the Taliban to respect women’s rights but, as spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid said, there are limitations:

“There’s not going to be any discrimination against women, but of course within the framework that we have. Our women are Muslim. They will also be happy to be living within the framework of Sharia.”

There have been a number of reports that the Taliban has already told communities to turn over unmarried women as young as 14 to become wives for their fighters. So much for human rights for women and girls.

As the Canadian Council of Muslim Women wrote last week:

“Decades of war, conflict and political and economic instability have resulted in the continued and sustained dispossession of women and children in Afghanistan. The crisis now directly threatens their rights to a dignified life, liberty, education, employment and livelihood. 80% of Afghans who have been forced to flee their homes are women and children.”

Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, founded in 1998, works in partnership with Afghan women to improve human rights conditions, end women’s oppression and provide opportunities for Afghan women to live their lives with dignity, certainty and purpose.

Skip the enticements of That Girl in favour of some real engagement. Read and send the advocacy letter CW4WAfghan has prepared for Immigration Minister Mendicino. Go to an all-candidates meeting and tell the candidates you expect them to speak out about the rights of Afghan women and girls. Donate money to organizations supporting human rights work in Afghanistan.

We can all become better versions of ourselves by looking outward rather than inward.

2 thoughts on “Cultural chasms

  1. Useful information Pam. I can hardly let my mind contemplate the treatment of women and girls in Afghanistan. But I will commit to doing what I can support actions that will help. I will start by sending that letter to the Immigration Minister.

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