- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
Yes, those pesky giant pandas from Sichuan province are causing trouble again. Earlier this month, we noted that the media was hailing the arrival of Sweetie and Sunshine at the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland as the latest chapter in China’s grand tradition of "panda diplomacy," even though the arrangement more crassly involved a $1 million, 10-year lease and five years of painstaking negotiations.
Now, the BBC has gone and included Sweetie in its list of the 12 women who made headlines in 2011. The honor raises several questions. How, for example, should U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and Dominique Strauss-Kahn accuser Nafissatou Diallo feel appearing alongside a panda? How should the panda feel? And why did Sweetie’s male counterpart, Sunshine, not make the BBC’s list of the 12 men who made headlines in 2011? Why, for that matter, are the BBC’s top men all human?
The BBC’s list has sparked heated discussion on Twitter, giving rise, as all Twitter tempests do, to the obligatory hashtag (#pandagate) and fake Twitter account (@SweetiethePanda). Former Labour Party politician John Prescott notes that the inclusion of the panda comes shortly after the BBC failed to nominate a woman for its Sports Personality of the Year award. British researcher Paul Bernal carries the BBC’s reasoning to its logical extension, noting that the chimpanzee who starred in Tarzan films in the 1930s died today."Surely that means he should be on the BBC’s men [of] the year list," Bernal points out.
For a number of people, the BBC’s decision to include Sweetie smacks of sexism. "Here’s why #pandagate matters: 3 out of 4 people in the news are men," writes Time‘s Catherine Mayer. "Don’t give the 1 female slot to a panda." Some of these critics see the BBC’s entire list as flawed. As the Twitter user @stavvers succinctly puts it, "Newsworthy acts by women in 2011: getting raped, getting married, being a panda." The blog London Feminist points out that only four of the BBC’s 11 women (not counting Sweetie) made headlines for being "active participants in the news." The others, the blog maintains, were passive actors in world affairs:
Our passive women are: Gabrielle Giffords (got shot in the head and survived), Eman al-Obeidi (beaten and gang-raped by Gaddafi’s militia), Nafissatou Diallo (was allegedly subjected to a sexual attack by DSK), Jelena Lecic (her identity was stolen by a man pretending to be a Middle Eastern blogger), Charlene Wittstock (wept as she reluctantly married the Prince of Monaco – seriously, this woman’s fame is not something we as a society should be proud of), Rebecca Leighton (got falsely accused of murder) and Kelsey de Santis (got taken on a date by Justin Timberlake).
Over at the New Statesman, Laurie Penny argues that people should respond to the BBC’s ranking by thinking about "not just whether a given list conforms to our ideals of how and on what basis women should be celebrated, but also whether life conforms to our ideals." She also gets in a withering dig at pandas:
The thing about pandas is that they’re the most useless evolutionary dead end ever to be preserved, at great expense, in the name of sentiment and nationalist flim-flammery. They’re cowardly. They hate sex.
Not everyone is outraged about Pandagate, however. Some are finding humor in the controversy. "I’m rather torn over #pandagate," observes Twitter user Dan Fox. "These things are never just black or white." Media consultant Huw Marshall, meanwhile, feels sorry for Sweetie. "Finally a girl panda gets the recognition she deserves and she gets treated as a 2nd class citizen," he writes.
And others don’t see what all the fuss is about. The BBC is circulating a statement noting that Sweetie was a "light-hearted addition to the list," and that previous "Faces of the Year" lists have included Benson the Carp (male) and Peppa the Pig (female). "Surely #pandagate was intended as an amusing round-up, not a serious roll call of achievement," British journalist Helen Barrett tweets. "Struggling to be outraged."
Yet the outrage persists. The notion of "panda diplomacy" now seems even harder to stomach.