I have so many things to say about recent incidences of racism and misogyny in the mainstream media. COVID seems only to virulently spread this type of rhetoric: so many leaders doubling down on the worst of themselves and humanity. Many of them in the interest of maintaining petrocultural interests, even as oil trades today, at $0 a barrel (Englund 2020). As I write this I ask myself: “0 dollars Canadian or US?” HaHa!!

Invoking misogynistic, racist, ableist, patriarchal (you get the point) rhetorical strategies, builds on well established practices of power and control. While I’ve been writing about this for two decades (see Wilson 2017), I think about this as a dysfunctional genealogy that the underbelly of humanity rely on to maintain their own sense of importance.

In 2019, then sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg was leading millions around the world in coordinated climate strikes, putting pressure on the powers-that-be to act on climate change.

The year ended with her being declared TIME’s Person of the Year, but as her impact was becoming more than a quaint feel-good news story and really beginning to incite political dissent, those advocating for business as usual—particularly men in positions of political and financial power—expressed their misogyny openly, spouting their views to media and even posting derogatory remarks themselves on Twitter. American President Donald Trump (2019) tweeted that “Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend!” “Chill Greta, Chill!,” the president wrote, foregrounding her youth as a strategy to depoliticize her.

Russian president Vladimir Putin invoked similarly gendered critiques focused on age and intelligence, saying that she was “a kind and sincere girl” but “poorly informed” (“I’m Not Excited,” 2019).

In turn, in December 2019, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, called her pirralha, which was translated widely by the English press as “brat” (Bretton 2019), in response to Thunberg’s (2019) Twitter post saying, “Indigenous people are literally being murdered for trying to protect the forrest [sic] from illegal deforestation. Over and over again. It is shameful that the world remains silent about this.”

Refusing to stay silent about the fact that protectors of the planet – in this case Indigenous Peoples – are being targeted by those whose interests are threatened by the shifts required to act responsibly in the face of climate change, Thunberg presents a threat to the status quo, and these quotations show powerful male leaders’ attempts to remove her as a threat using sexist and ageist tropes, belittling her as non-normative, and inciting division between her and others in the movement.

In Canada, Maxime Bernier, the leader of the far-right People’s Party, invoked Ms. Thunberg’s Asperger’s diagnosis and struggles with depression,[1] proclaiming that she “is clearly mentally unstable. Not only autistic, but obsessive-compulsive, eating disorder, depression and lethargy, and she lives in a constant state of fear” (Zimonjic 2019). Later, he also claimed that Thunberg was being used “as a pawn and as a shield to prevent any criticism of the message. That’s the real scandal” (Zimonjic 2019). But, in fact, Thunberg has ongoingly refused to be a pawn.

When individualized critiques that mobilize gendered, racialized, heteronormative, ableist discourses have been paired with rhetorical strategies that narrate existing divisions or incite fractures within political movements as a means to both break down solidarities and to shift public focus away from the issues at stake to scandal that sells news,[2] Thunberg has responded with intersectional agility, taking up the call of climate justice by repeatedly attempting to refocus media attention on others in the movement.

Stepping aside both in Canada in October and then again at COP25 in Madrid in November, Thunberg uses her status as a spokesperson for taking action on climate change to cede the media stage to other activists articulating issues from the perspective of their communities around the world. In Madrid, she said, “It is people especially from the global south, especially from indigenous [sic] communities, who need to tell their stories” (Jordans & Parra 2019).

These ableist, sexist, ageist critiques weren’t really about Greta, which I hope is clear. They are about the maintenance of power: largely male power and privilege and the privilege of an elite number of me who control the majority of the planet’s market-wealth sustained by fossil capitalism. And currently, we see this type of strategy invoked all too often against all sort of people: indigenous women, whole indigenous communities and nations, public intellectuals and politicians and leaders from all walks of life advocating for intersectional environmental politics–particularly people in these communities of thought who are also vulnerable for not only their politics but for being women, people of colour LGBTQ2SIA. And, we see this particularly in defence of futures that claim to sustain a golden age (that in some cases may never have existed) imagined as synonymous with oil and fossil energy.

We see it everyday, not only in the news but in the types of legislations being voted into law, here in Alberta. We see it around the world as increasing numbers of countries elect far-right governments. We see it in COVID discourses being mobilized as a way to further alienate communities so that fascists of all ilk, can double down on their power.

Other futures are possible, but it isn’t just about disrupting business as usual. COVID is doing that and it isn’t changing everything. Capitalism and capitalist are reaping the benefits of COVID as millions hit the unemployment lines. It is about disrupting life as we know it. Life won’t be staying the same. It’ll be changing, for better or worse–quite literally.

If we want different futures, we must pay attention and be at attention when actions adequate to the current crisis are demanded of us all! While solidarity is hard, it is better than the alternative.


[1] Greta has referenced her Asperger’s and depression on numerous occasions. See, for example, her TED talk: Greta Thunberg, “School Strike for Climate – Save the World By Changing the Rules,” Tedx Talks, December 12, 2018, 11:10, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAmmUIEsN9A

[2] This is a strategy used regularly in the media. I’ve written about this, in particular, in regard to the ways that the political demands of Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike in December 2012–January 2013 were never clearly discussed in the mainstream media, which focused instead on her racialized gendered body (Wilson 2014).

Bretton, Bianca, “Greta Thunberg Labeled a ‘Brat’ by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro,” CNN, December 11, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/12/11/americas/bolsonaro-thunberg-brat-intl-scli/index.html

Englund, Will, “Oil Drops Below $0, Signaling Extreme Collapse in Demand. But You’re Still Going to Have to Pay for Gas,” Washington Post, April 20, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/04/20/oil-barrel-below-zero/

“I’m Not Excited By ‘Poorly Informed’ Greta Thunberg, Putin Says,” MSN, March 10, 2019, https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/world/im-not-excited-by-poorly-informed-greta-thunberg-putin-says/ar-AAIdy2x#image=1

Jordans, Frank and Aritz Parra, “Too Much of a Greta Thing? Activist Urges Focus on Others,” Associated Press, December 9, 2019, https://apnews.com/baa29614a79cbcd2edb83b9e3f7de90f

Thunberg, Greta (@GretaThunberg), “Indigenous people are literally being murdered for trying to protect the forrest [sic] from illegal deforestation. Over and over again. It is shameful that the world remains silent about this,” December 8, 2019, https://twitter.com/GretaThunberg/status/1203732257401380869?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

Trump, Donald, (@realDonaldTrump), “So ridiculous. Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!” Twitter, December 12, 2019, https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1205100602025545730

Wilson, Sheena, “Gender” in Fueling Culture: 101 Words for Energy and Environment, edited by Imre Szeman, Jennifer Wenzel, and Patricia Yaeger, 174–175, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017).

Zimonjic, Peter, “Bernier Walks Back ‘Mentally Unstable’ Attack on Greta Thunberg – Then Calls Activist a ‘Pawn,’” CBC News, September 4, 2019, https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/bernier-climate-greta-thuberg-1.5270902


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© 2020 Sheena Wilson, Associate Professor, University of Alberta
Principal Investigator: Feminist Energy Futures; Future Energy Systems’ Energy Humanities: Speculative Energy Futures and iDoc Projects
Co-founder and co-director of Petrocultures Research Group
Editor-in-chief, Imaginations Journal



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