On ‘Climate Barbie,’ and the plight of the Man Un-Laughed-With

Tabatha Southey pours one out for the men who relish cheap, crass jokes at the expense of women—which are now being met with silence

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Canada’s Environment Minister Catherine McKenna takes part in a news conference during the First Ministersí meeting in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, December 9, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie – RTSVGP4

Canada's Environment Minister Catherine McKenna takes part in a news conference during the First Ministersí meeting in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, December 9, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie - RTSVGP4
Canada’s Environment Minister Catherine McKenna takes part in a news conference during the First Ministersí meeting in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, December 9, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie – RTSVGP4

Last week, during a news conference, federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna responded to a question from Rebel Media journalist Christopher Wilson by asking if he, and Rebel Media in general, would commit to not using the #ClimateBarbie hashtag of which they are so fond, and stop calling her “Climate Barbie.”

Wilson said that he “personally” had not done this, but could not commit on behalf of Rebel Media as a whole.

To be fair, no single Rebel reporter, even its B.C. bureau chief, can make promises on behalf of all of Rebel Media. He certainly can’t reasonably commit to preventing Rebel Media from doing something utterly pointless that completely undermines their credibility as a news organization. As far as anyone can discern, that’s their mandate.

Requesting that someone stop Rebel Media from employing the same witless insult over and over again is some Jason-and-the-Argonauts-level tasking. The Rebelers get so excited when they find one of these insults, it’s like watching a new knock-knock joke tear through a class of very large and ungainly grade ones: “Orange you glad I’m not telling you my opinions on ‘Gypsies’ again?”

Asking Rebel Media staff to stop repeating the exact same demeaning insult ad nauseum—they’ve been using “Climate Barbie” since McKenna was named to her cabinet post, back in November 2015—is like asking them to stop saying things on camera that can be easily disproved; in fact, Wilson had called McKenna “Climate Barbie” in several tweets, which he later deleted when they were pointed out to him, and twice in a column that is still online.

McKenna made it clear why she was asking Wilson, The Rebel, and others to knock it off. She would like more women, including her own two daughters, to feel more welcome in politics. A climate where women are routinely condemned as too ugly to be seen or too pretty to be taken seriously—even when they are not in charge of the coveted “Hot or Not” portfolio—is one that should undergo some manmade change.

READ: Canadian politics are sexist. What are men going to do about it?

Still, critics were quick and predictable in saying that, while Rebel Media shouldn’t have called her that and it was misogynist, the real shame was her reaction—it’s just not dignified, they said, and if McKenna wants to be a minister, she has to have thicker skin.

“Thicker skin,” in this context, is that unique form of toughness expressed entirely by letting people walk all over you. Thicker skin is the thing that women are expected to grow at the same time they’re being told to “lighten up.”

Apparently, the ideal form of a woman politician is some kind of hydrogen-filled armadillo. Although, truth be told, Ms. Hindendillo would likely secure my vote.

This same level of epidermic fortitude is not, by and large, demanded of men who are mostly seen as reacting, not over-reacting, to affronts to their dignity. We validate male rage to the same degree we invalidate female rage, and the fact that I instinctively wanted to change that to “female anger” to make it less threatening, speaks to that.

McKenna, for the record, did not appear angry during the news conference, although she did look fed up. She was, after all, being asked to answer a question put to her by a man who has repeatedly referred to her as a plastic doll, asked on behalf of a news outlet that has repeatedly referred to her as a plastic doll, and that has also invited others to refer to her as a plastic doll. This invitation, some may recall, was eagerly taken up by one Gerry Ritz, a now-retired Conservative MP from Saskatchewan who this past September tweeted, “Has anyone told our climate Barbie!” in response to an article about countries meeting the Paris climate accord.

It’s “Member of Parliament” not “Member of Pageant,” and yes, “Barbie” is gendered, and yes, it’s an insult. There does seem to be a growing reluctance, or more likely a longstanding-like-a-mighty-sequoia-now-being-articulated reluctance, on the part of a good many women to accept that a certain amount of this nonsense is just their lot in life. They’re done being hazed.

WATCH: Monique Bégin’s powerful speech to MPs and senators about male power

I don’t think McKenna’s response to Wilson (B.C bureau chief!) was out of line. If you want your work as professional question-asker to be taken seriously—and Wilson, chief of the B.C bureau, did say woundedly, “I have a legitimate question”—it’s best not to refer to people you seek to engage in dialogue as children’s toys.

Most people know this. If they find themselves in need of affordable caffeine or some child-silencing donut holes, they will instinctively go with “Excuse me, do you know where I can find a Tim Hortons?” over “Hey, Navigation Polly Pocket! Where’s the nearest donut place?” Four out of five doctors of Not Looking Like a Really Weird Nine-Year-Old agree that this is a better method of getting to a coffee shop.

An exclusive interview with Professor Stephen Hawking, for instance, will likely go more smoothly if you’re not on record as having referred to him as “Black Hole Bratz Doll” for two years running.

In large part, cheap insults dramatically weaken the speaker’s authority and produce less than desirable outcomes, as anyone who’s ever shouted, “Get out of the building, In Imminent Mortal Danger Tamagotchi, there’s a gas leak!” can attest.

A scenario that involves the words “Okay, Desperate Hostage Taking Twilight Sparkle, let me get this straight, you want a fuelled plane and $5 million in unmarked bills? I’m going to have to talk to my boss Chief Troll Doll…” is unlikely to end with Little Hostage Timmy safe and smiling on the front page of the newspaper.

Yes, the question, “Can you offer assurances that your remarks regarding the purpose of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s visit to Iran will have no effect on the judicial process there, Boris Johnson, you big Foreign Affairs Weeble?” does rather roll off the tongue, but it has so far been wisely avoided.

McKenna is no more obliged to accept being referred to as a blonde plastic hyper-sexualized toy than the rest of us. She clearly doesn’t want to accept it for the rest of us, but what she did when she called Wilson out at that conference was more than ask not to be called a toy. Watching some of the response to her brief remarks, I realized that what she did was close to radical: refuse to laugh at a man’s joke.

That may be the sea change you’re feeling, and what some are responding to. At its heart, what we are watching unfold is the tragic story of The Man Un-Laughed-With.

He’s at a bar with his friend, this man, but the friend is named “Keith,” and you can only expect so much comfort from a Keith. Our man stares into the distance, then realizes an observer might mistake “the distance” in Keith’s eyes and so quickly looks at the TV, which is off.

“This blonde woman didn’t laugh at my blonde joke, Keith,” he says.

“Seriously?” Keith replies, obviously startled, a touch confused. “Maybe she didn’t hear you?”

“I think she did. I repeated it about 17 times. Maybe I should have stuck it out for 20.”

“She gave you a sardonic eye roll though, right?”


“A dry ‘LOL’?”


“What about that thing where she doesn’t actually smile but her mouth forms a perfectly straight line so it’s clear she’s not frowning?”

“Not even that. She didn’t even spare a huff that I could mistake for a chuckle if I were drunk, Keith.”

A long pause.

“It’s like I look out my window and what do I see? A crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me. Hand passes me a note, just says, ‘Dude, that’s not funny.’ All the nightmares came today, and it looks like they mostly consist of women giving me blank stares and impatient glances when I make terrible jokes at their expense.”

“Wow, giant sky is a real bitch,” Keith offers.

Later that night, our man sits alone and tries to put his pain into verse.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

Women aren’t laughing at my jokes