Midway through a conversation that had taken an unexpected turn into the mechanics of New York's expropriation laws, I mention that this was not the direction I'd expected this interview to take. Micaela Birmingham, on the other end of the phone, laughs amiabl y.
"Did you expect to be talking to the bimbo of Canada?"
In truth, I replied, I didn't know know what to expect.
I was on the phone with her in an attempt to suss out the story of "Lena Sutherland," one of the co-hosts of While The Men Watch, a controversial new offering from the CBC. Offered online, the show is an alternative commentary to Hockey Night In Canada, a long-ad libbed conversation between Sutherland and her best friend Jules Mancuso as they chat through the game. The banter is heavy on boyfriends-and-shopping schtick, and light on, well, sports.
"Here comes Rupp!" said Sutherland, giving some sample commentary during an appearance on CBC News Now. "He looks like a woman who's caught sight of a 50-per-cent off sale! He's not letting anyone near his size in his shoes!"
When the CBC picked up this act and put it in the Hockey Night in Canada stable as an offering for women, it unleashed a firestorm of criticism about the stereotypes it was perpetuating: Women as shopaholics, men as sports nuts; men as the ones who understand what's going on on the ice, women as uninterested in the technicalities of sports.
"The show is essentially the traditional four Fs of pink ghetto journalism – food, family, fashion, and furniture – tangentially tied into hockey," noted Ellen Etchinham, a Toronto sportswriter, in a critical blog post that was widely circulated. Sutherland and Mancuso responded that it was all in fun, and never meant to be a political statement.
Which brings us to the interesting thing about "Lena Sutherland:" She doesn't actually exist.
Lena Sutherland is actually a pseudonym for Birmingham, a real entrepreneur who's got a lot more on her résumé than her alter ego. Search the web for Lena, and you'll find news reports and promotional material for a controversial girl-talk sportscaster. Search for Micaela, however, and you'll discover an enterprising urban planner who fought the construction of the new Yankee Stadium, an entrepreneur who manufactures baby-carriage shades, and a community activist on a mission to promote sports for low-income youth.
Birmingham says the pseudonym is no secret, despite the fact there's virtually no connection between the two names anywhere online, nor does the CBC mention it. She says she kept the nickname for consistency as her Internet show, formerly self-produced, became more and more popular.
"Eventually, it just got to the point where everyone was knowing me as Lena, so I just had to accept it and go with it," she told me. (The name was originally an in-joke between herself and Mancuso.)
The host's muddled identity gets to the heart of a show that's seems deeply conflicted about what it's about. On one hand, the CBC is advertising it as a fun take on hockey that's aimed at women, a way of getting an ostensibly disconnected audience into the show. However, during the broadcasts themselves, the hosts seem to be deeply ambivalent about whether they're interested in hockey at all.
On Monday night, the pair broadcast their second playoff game live from an ad-hoc set in the CBC's lunchroom. True to their title, they left the heavy-duty watching to a man, co-host/headset wearing off-camera type named Sonny, who had to explain basic rules, and occasionally cue the hosts when something significant happened in the game, just to get their attention. Scripted bits added some liveliness, but the commentary was more often a series of listless statements and questions.
"Six minutes left. This period is flying by. For some of us."
"Broken stick lying around."
"I feel like they're all over each other. Is that the correct body-checking?"
It felt like two friends trying at length to kill the penalty of having to watch sports. Since this is the very premise of the broadcast, you could say its problems are baked in: People who are excited about something are compelling; people who are ambivalent aren't.
On the phone last week, Birmingham spoke enthusiastically about her life's work, lapsing almost immediately into urban-planner speak. A Brampton native who went to school at McGill, Birmingham started a career in planning in New York City, while nurturing a zeal for side projects. She sparked the production of a post-9/11 public service announcement featuring celebrities from Yoko Ono to Kevin Bacon. (The production netted her a New York Emmy.)
Later, working for a planning advocacy group, she led the charge against the construction of a new Yankee Stadium across the road from the original in the Bronx, a project that destroyed parkland and community playing fields. Affidavits she wrote in the process wound up in the Supreme Court. After the birth of her two children, she launched CityMum, a line of stroller sun-shades she has manufactured at a small New York factory.
Birmingham is emphatic that While The Men Watch isn't an act.
"I may use an alias, but I'm totally being myself when we're doing this," she says, and I believe her. For its part, a CBC spokesperson says its policy on anonymity "allows for pseudonyms to be used when someone is at risk or it's editorially irrelevant to the story, as was the case with interviews pertaining to While The Men Watch."
I'm not convinced it's totally irrelevant, and not just because I like the idea of newscasters not naming people arbitrarily. The alias that shields Lena Sutherland from Micaela Birmingham's career, and vice-versa, reflects the disengagement that dogs the show. That's the spirit beneath the banter about not understanding the technicalities of hockey's rules: Evidently, it's not that they can't, it's just that they can't be bothered. A dash of real-life enthusiasm could go a long way.