Joss Whedon’s trouble with “feminist”: the dangerous rhetoric of a male celebrity

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      Joss Whedon was recently honoured at event called Make Equality Reality for his work in promoting gender equality. The sci-fi writer and director extraordinaire has long been an advocate for the cause and he gave an excellent speech in 2006 that addressed his distaste towards being asked why he writes strong female characters—namely, that nobody is asking other directors why they aren’t. Many are familiar with that speech because, as we all know, pithy and poignant speeches have the opportunity to reach millions when they go viral, which is exactly why it is important for us to look at who gets these platforms and what their contributions to the larger discourse surrounding these issues have the power to do.

      Whedon’s more recent speech was well intentioned but strongly missed the mark, transforming him from a feminist ally into a nescient spokesperson. While it’s laudable that someone in his position addresses the lack of admirable feminine heroines in the movie industry, speaking to the history of the word feminist revealed Whedon as someone thrown into the public sphere discussing an issue out of their range. Although he is a seemingly humble and personable guy—in an industry notoriously fraught with egotism—I can’t help but be perplexed by his decision to critique the cacophony of the word feminist itself, never mind its historical place in the movement towards equality.

      The overarching theme of Whedon’s troubles with the word feminist stems from his idea that equality is a natural state of the human condition that we must have simply been perverting for thousands of years. Those of us who are “intelligent, evolved, and compassionate” apparently have the capacity to reveal this "natural" condition of things, and well—this is exactly the kind of rhetoric that feminists take issue with. The question of what is natural and what isn’t ignores the oppressive quality of the question itself, especially since we know that for most of us equality isn't any kind of natural state but something we actively work towards. Second- and third-wave feminists have worked diligently to move beyond questioning what is a natural state of being, which work is natural for whom, whose bodies are natural, and whose relationships arenatural—a common rhetorical tool of the right and those who work to uphold hierarchical systems of power. Whedon is operating under the assumption that natural equals good, whereas feminists question the assumptions themselves.

      Stating that the word feminist itself fails us trivializes and disavows the history of the work that feminists have done. To suggest that we are now at a state that is beyond the necessity of this specific word is to dismiss the everyday reification of misogyny that self-identified women still face, whether Whedon intends to say this or not.

      The pertinent question of our time has become whether feminism needs to be re-branded so that more people hop aboard the equality bandwagon. This is precisely where Joss Whedon and his oblivious critique matter. He failed to recognize his privilege as a white, heterosexual, middle-to-upper class male as he proposed the use of the term genderist in place of feminist—a re-branding that ignores current feminist activism, and therefore a complete lack of engagement with its ongoing work. He prescribes this reclassification because it would better contextualize the current problems of gender disparity, but had Whedon done his homework, he would know that much of present-day feminist work is all about contextualizing these issues—it’s called intersectionality and it is a major tenet of third-wave feminism.

      Why does it matter that Joss Whedon said some ignorant things about feminism at some gala? When those who inhabit the dominant place in society become the spokespeople for those in marginalized positions, it silences the voices they purport to represent. His own demographics are seen as the standard (maybe even, natural?), so there is more at stake when he ignores his own relation to power and criticizes the word feminist without actually engaging with its discourse. Whedon’s opinions matter because they are being given a platform where they can be widely disseminated, contributing to a political arena already oversaturated with his demographics’ voice. Statistics from the World Economic Forum reinforce this fact: the annual release of their Global Gender Gap Report has seen Canada’s rankings decline in recent years and, notably, Canadian women’s political empowerment ranking fell from 38th to 42nd between 2012 and 2013. This isn’t to say that a cis male cannot be a publicly outspoken ally to feminists but we should implore them to do the work feminists purposefully do all the time: educate yourself and recognize your privilege. It’s a problem when Joss Whedon’s uninformed genderist voice is louder than our feminist ones.

      Jessica Knowler is a gender, sexuality, and women’s studies student at Simon Fraser University and a committee member of the youth activist group Young Women Civic Leaders that promotes and encourages full participation of young women at all levels of civic, political, and community life.

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      16 Comments

      Alan Layton

      Nov 22, 2013 at 12:09pm

      So when he says what you want to hear, then he's a hero, but when his ideas don't agree with yours he's dangerous?

      Jessica Knowler

      Nov 22, 2013 at 3:19pm

      The idea that he is a hero is what I'm trying to call into question. While Whedon has made some positive contributions to the larger conversation, his recent comments use problematic language that should be addressed because it undermines the movement towards equality that he's participating in.

      Tim

      Nov 22, 2013 at 3:48pm

      Even allies may not be perfect. But that's not a good reason to kick them aside. You use some lofty words, yet your grammar is incorrect at times. I think that you have done more harm to your cause than Whedon.

      C

      Nov 22, 2013 at 10:52pm

      Jessica, I have to say - reading your piece reminds me why people generally paint "feminist" in a negative connotation in recent times.

      You speak rather brashly about Whedon's "assumptions", but you make many unsubstantiated assumptions of your own - mostly about his character. You assume, that since he is a white, upper-class (he's earned his money through his talent btw, he's not some old-money aristocrat), cis MALE, that he could not *possibly* be able to understand or even be able to take part in "feminism". This is where you start to lose most of your readers.

      Feminism isn't some exclusive club, as many of your cut seem to think it is. You miss his point entirely as you seem to be *uninformed* about what feminism has grown into.

      Whedon wants egalitarianism. Feminism has grown larger than just gender-based issues, as many third-wave feminists claim. This holding true, then why not rebrand it with a more fitting name, nay, a more *inclusive* name? Genderism is as good as any, albeit egalitarianism is really what he means; however, it's not a word that rolls off the tongue quite well enough.

      Man-hating is so second-wave, get with the times.

      Matt

      Nov 23, 2013 at 1:54am

      Hmm. I’ve got a different take. I identify as straight, white, man. While I consider myself an ally to the movements of marginalized groups and show my support when I can, I will never understand exactly what it is to be a woman, queer, or aboriginal… and while I sympathize with their struggles, I would think it arrogant to try to redefine their oppression.

      The push for a universalistic struggle is nice, but it can dilute the potency of dedicated and directed activism for social change and robs the oppressed of their already too quiet voices. Far from “man-hating,” I think it’s certainly legitimate to critique a man’s attempt to redefine a women’s movement that he demonstrated he knows little about… You’re right, 3rd Wave feminism has expanded its scope of concern, it’s a movement defined by its critique of all hegemonic forces in society—an example of which may be the attempt to subsume the struggles of an oppressed group into a mainstream egalitarian project.

      RUK

      Nov 23, 2013 at 10:41am

      Are you kidding me? I see no evidence that Whedon has offered himself to society as its definitive, acclaimed, lifetime spokesperson on all things feminist.

      Rather, Whedon was offering his observations on gender at a gender studies conference that had invited him. What else was he supposed to talk about? Who else's perspective was he supposed to present?

      I do understand that Whedon has a certain mass market appeal that may make his thoughts relatively widely disseminated (no pun intended) into the culture, and therefore missed an opportunity to raise awareness of intersectionality. Instead he went on a rant about the word "feminist." He finds it unwelcoming.

      And for many people, it *is* an unwelcoming word - exclusionary. I have been told that I cannot possibly be a "feminist" because I have testicles. It is fraught with cultural baggage, in part because the term has become elastic, malleable.

      So as a writer, it seems to me, he attempts to discuss his problem with that lack of specificity and to argue that the understanding of gender has generally advanced beyond the concept of a weaker sex.

      Now, as an academic, I think it is appropriate for you to go after an actual ally of the movement, because what is university without a fanatical ideological purity that demands the unmasking of even inadvertent dissidence from your cant. Otherwise, what's the point of spending 8-12 years learning these terms.

      But in the broader culture, it is (unfortunately given that it is already 2013) kind of awesome) that a very popular male creator puts women in central positions in his entertainments.

      So if you prefer actions to words, or more precisely to an exacting nuance of a word, then I think Whedon is still rather hero-ish.

      William Sutton

      Nov 23, 2013 at 11:58am

      Well said Matt. Yesterday I set straight some comment contributors on the Fukushima Ticking Time Bomb article. Today it appears the same needs doing here.

      Jessica, the article is well written and on point. Thank you for writing it, and Straight editors for publishing it. The article provides real feminist criticism and discourse which, in our society, is often scarce, or incorrect (Alan, Whedon), or misses the point (Tim, Whedon).

      Fellas (save for Matt), thank you for demonstrating precisely how males unknowingly internalise patriarchal views and entitlements, readily eat them up and defend them. This is the hegemony that perpetuates the established system.

      But don't think twice, it's alright.

      It's odd that Whedon thinks...

      Nov 23, 2013 at 3:10pm

      It's odd that Whedon thinks that equality "is a natural state of the human condition," when history shows that every oppressed group has had to fight for equality. Perhaps he means end-state but let's face it, human beings are dragged kicking and screaming from their prejudices and hatreds to consciousness.

      out at night

      Nov 23, 2013 at 3:27pm

      In all of this it should be remembered that Whedon is now a main driver in mega-global-media and in that role has made films that reinforce the largest power imbalances of all. I saw The Avengers, enjoyed it in a guilty pleasure way; but came out of it utterly convinced that it was made by people who mean to teach the world that the military industrial complex is our only true friend and that a bunch of powerful men (slightly aided by Scarlet Johannsen in a catsuit) our best bet for salvation. He's a new generation iteration of the same old thing. He can tell a good story though, thank goodness, because most of the other Hollow-wood hokum I've been brain-washed/programmed into watching isn't half as good as his shit.

      tvandreao

      Nov 23, 2013 at 6:23pm

      He was using genderist as a corollary to racist, not as a way to undermine feminism. And yes - natural is a tough term, but saying that equality is natural is about the best way for one to assert that inequality is constructed. Isn't that the main focus of feminist thought?