Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cultures of (il)Legality

This December will mark the 20th anniversary of the Ecole Polytechnique massacres that took place at the University of Montreal and resulted in the murder of fourteen women and injuries to fourteen women and men at the hands of a disturbed misogynist, Marc Lepine. A film was recently produced, simply called "Polytechnique" that recounts some of the narratives about and surrounding that day. One of the thematic narratives at play in the film is a culture of illegality out of which Lepine emerged.

The obvious epicenter of the illegality featured in the film is the actual murders and injuries inflicted - fueled by an unyielding hatred against women who Lepine deemed to be feminists unworthy to be studying engineering. Yet what the film seems to suggest is that the misogyny that prompted the killer's rampage was but an extreme manifestation of the discrimination experienced by women, particularly in a field of study and profession that looked negatively upon their presence (as has been the case in most traditionally male-dominated white and blue collar professions).

This was strikingly illustrated in one particular scene. Valerie, one of the central characters in the film (who was later shot by Lepine) attends an interview for a very lucrative internship position with an aeronautics firm. During the interview, her male interviewer overtly communicates his skepticism and surprise that Valerie, as a woman, is interested in pursuing her studies and a career in mechanical engineering, rather than a seemingly less demanding career as a civil engineer where she could more easily pursue a family life. The underlying assumption being that all or most women are driven by some primordial maternal instinct to have a family and raise children. Ultimately, we learn that Valerie is offered the internship position but only after affirming that she does not plan to have children, thus making her more acceptable. The hiring or refusal to hire someone on account of their potential decision to one day have children is patently illegal under today's legal norms (see for example - the Ontario Human Rights Code s.10(2)).

This scene, coupled with the more gruesome shooting sequences illustrates a larger culture of illegal discrimination that once existed (and arguably still exists on some level). While Lepine's shooting spree targetting women was exceptional (in the manner it was carried out), violence against women still substantially continues today in private spheres (as it did then). Furthermore, notwithstanding the legal system's formal intolerance of the type of treatment Valerie experienced during her interview, the attitudes that fostered that treatment still exist (in a variety of employment contexts) and become manifested in more subtle ways during interviews (and in other instances - not so subtly). More often than not, many interviewees will not pursue any action and thus such norms of discrimination and unlawful business actions can continue with impunity.

Interestingly, the interview scene also introduces (at least with respect to the time period of the late 1980s) the idea of an informal caste system where civil engineers appear to occupy a lower status in the engineering hierarchy, a caste which women are expected to occupy because of some presumed desire to have children. Further above is mechanical engineering, which appears to be less amenable and open to women and dominated by men. In order for Valerie to be accepted into this male-dominated caste, she must accept the (arbitrary and discriminatory) norms imposed, as enforced by the male interviewer/gatekeeper. The most blatant norm seems to be that in order to accepted, Valerie must diminish if not eliminate one of the markers that distinguishes her as a woman from her male counterparts, her ability to bear children.

Ultimately, the film attempts to demonstrate that such killings don't transpire in a vacuum. What existed was a(n) (il)legal culture of discrimination that tolerated a certain degree of discrimination against women that Lepine took to an extreme.

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