Reviews > Culture

Feminist imperialism

Culture | A UN program is using a cartoon character to change Third World culture's attitudes about women

Issue: "Midterm elections 1998," Nov. 14, 1998

Children used to "trick or treat for UNICEF," collecting dimes and nickels to buy milk and vaccines for the destitute children of the world. Today, the UN children's fund is being used to teach the benighted Third World nations the virtues of feminism. These cultures will supposedly be changed by means of a cartoon character.

Meena is drawn as a 10-year-old South Asian girl who stands up to bullies, teaches her father that she needs to go to school too, and raises the consciousness of her gender-biased brother.

She is featured on Asian TV, shown to villagers on portable projectors, and broadcast over the radio. One million Meena comic books were distributed in Bangladesh.

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Executive producer Christian Clark of Canada, who once wrote for Sesame Street, calls the character "a historic breakthrough for using media and popular culture for children's rights." Funded mainly by the Norwegian government, the Meena Communication Initiative has a budget of $6 million and is eyeing the possibility of merchandising deals to extend her reach even further. A similar series is in the works for Africa and South America.

Western experts worked hard to ensure that Meena would change attitudes, without being too offensive to local sensibilities. Developers actually test-marketed episodes in tribal villages. One villain had to be redrawn because his lean and hungry look made the villagers feel sorry for him. He got fattened up. Meena's grandmother looked too cruel, offending local grandmothers, so she was redrawn accordingly.

To keep her from being too culture-specific, Meena's home was drawn so that it could pass for a village in a jungle, a desert, or the Himalayan mountains. Female characters are positioned behind hedges or children so their clothing won't give them away as representing any particular tribe.

In one episode, Meena and her brother switch jobs: She gets to watch the cow, which is pretty easy, while the brother has to do the women's work of carrying water, sweeping the yard, and caring for their baby sister. That evening, all worn out, he says that Meena deserves to get as much food as the men-folk, since she works harder.

In another episode, Meena's parents take her out of school because they do not have enough money. With the help of her parrot, Meena, in effect, homeschools herself. Then one day, she uses her smarts to catch the evil moneylender trying to swindle her father. This teaches the father how useful it is for a girl to be educated, so he lets her go back to school.

There is nothing wrong with teaching what used to be called "primitive" societies to treat their little girls better. Missionaries have been doing this for years.

What is remarkable about the Meena project is the way it demonstrates the hidden agendas and the contradictions of the globalist ideology.

Whatever happened to multiculturalism? We have been told by supporters of the UN that all cultures are equally valid. Different cultures have different values. A human-rights violation may seem wrong to us, but that's just our culture. Multiculturalists say that criticizing other societies is nothing more than ethnocentrism. We have no right to impose our cultural views on anyone else. After all, there are no absolutes, just cultural values. Therefore, we should tolerate other people's customs and learn to celebrate cultural diversity.

But if we believe in cultural relativism, how can we criticize the men-folk in Meena's village? In their culture, girls get less food than boys. If that seems wrong to us, isn't that just our culture? Isn't their culture just as valid? Shouldn't we tolerate different values and celebrate the cultural diversity? Or are there are moral absolutes after all?

What happened to worries about Western imperialism? We have been told that the world's problems are due to the arrogance and oppression of the West. We exploit Third World nations by destroying the harmonious native cultures through our capitalism, technology, and racist Western ideologies.

Surely if there is an ideology that is exclusively Western, it is feminism. No other culture has an egalitarian view of the sexes like that of Western civilization at the end of the 20th century. If it is wrong to impose Western values and ideology, why is it not wrong to impose feminism, or even a milder view of how we think women should be treated? Certainly social roles are at the essence of a culture. Challenging them-with the potent Western media technology employed by the Meena project-could undermine and even unravel native cultures. Isn't the whole idea that we First Worlders should lecture people in India, Pakistan, and Nepal condescending, if not racist? Or are there universal, culture-transcending truths?

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