Month: June 2017

The Ethics of women-only screenings of Wonder Woman

I’ve read that some cinemas in America have been offering ‘women-only’ screenings of Wonder Woman.  Predictably, there have been cries of outrage at the discriminatory nature of this.

I have no idea how the restriction is enforced, since the criteria seems to be that it’s restricted to those who self-identify as a woman.  If, hypothetically, a cis-male wanted to go, but claimed he identified as a woman at the ticket booth, I don’t know how he could be rejected without his then being able to claim that they were discriminating against his decision to dress and act in traditionally male ways whilst self-identifying as a woman.  It also poses problems for queer and intersex people or those who don’t identify with binary gender tropes.

But all those practical issues aside, I’m trying to work out whether it’s a good thing, or not, in principle.  As a general rule I’m against gender division or any kind of discrimination on the basis of gender.  I can see the value in enforcing gender distinctions in certain sporting contexts (eg. most Olympic events).  I can see the obvious value in prohibiting men from, say, a women’s safe house, or even in having ‘women only’ (or ‘men only’) gyms.  But is having men prohibited from a film screening like these examples?  Or is it more akin to prohibiting women from a gentleman’s club?

For a ‘one-off’, it seems to fall under the banner of a simple ‘promotional activity’ or gimmick, and certainly doesn’t cause any real harm.  But the principle is still one I’m uncomfortable with, for reasons I can’t quite articulate.

Perhaps it’s that the danger is that it will weaken the ability to object if, say, someone was to offer “muslim-only” screenings, or “non-religious-only” screenings, or “heterosexual-only” screenings.  Or if this was to extend to all-screenings for a given cinema (or film), or to (let’s say) a “white-only” taxi company.  My question, I suppose, is when is it reasonable to refuse to serve a demographic segment without basing this on reasons of safety or equity?

I’ve never been a particular fan of “slippery-slope” arguments or argumentum ad absurdum.  There are all sorts of things which are perfectly appropriate which, if pushed to their logical conclusion, become absurd.  The paradox of thrift is a nice, non-political example.  It is good for individuals to save as much as possible, but disastrous for a society to do so collectively.  Argument by absurdity is not a very rigorous way to refute something, so I don’t want to say that “this is exactly the same principle as saying that women should be prohibited from public office (or the priesthood) and if you don’t object to one you can’t object to the other”.  But why might someone say that a “women only” screening is perfectly appropriate ethically but that a “cis-gender only” screening is abhorrent.  I feel it has something to do with balancing power relationships, but I’m not especially adept at ethical reasoning in this milieu.

I think it’s similar to my ambivalence about having ‘minimum quotas’ on female politicians.  I’m all for fairer representation and for strategies to support getting more women into politics and positions of leadership.  I just also feel that merit should be the over-riding criterion and feel there must somehow be a better way.  I have no idea what that ‘better way’ might be.

I realise this is an area in which I’m still a novice in my thinking, so if someone could point me to places that help to untangle the ethical issues that would be much appreciated.

Is this purely my white, male privilege that’s being made uncomfortable, or is there something else at work?