Joss Whedon, the word Feminist
Wednesday, December 4, 2013 :: Tagged under: culture essay. ⏰ 10 minutes.
Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄
[Disclaimer: I benefit from virtually every type of privilege society grants: namely, I'm White-presenting, cis, male, straight, thin, well-off, etc. Privileged people talking about movements aiming to equal the playing field are often fraught with peril and questions over to what degree I should involve myself in conversations like this are pretty open, so take the below with this in mind. I couldn't find the original, but remember this reproduction of this handy flowchart just to be clear.]
Some folks on my Facebook feed are angry that some feminists are angry that Joss Whedon said some silly things about feminism the other day. Here are some other criticisms if you missed it.
I predictably mostly agree with the more critical takes, but many Facebookers on my feed are responding negatively to the response, so I'll respond to their response to the response. That should fix it.
Some basic, basic reminders.
You can like problematic works or works created by people who've said or done problematic things, just don't be in denial if that work or creator is called out. It's totally fine to have loved Ender's Game, just don't be like "quit talking shit about Orson Scott Card," because Orson Scott Card has said some pretty heinous things, irrespective of Ender's Game as a novel.
Also remember that when media figures are criticized, they're not being called Unequivocally, Terrible, Horrible People, just people who have in this instance messed up. See the conversations over Lily Allen's latest video for a good example: her body of work suggests she's definitely on the right side, but that doesn't mean there aren't wrong ways of expressing it, and she flubbed. See this video by Jay Smooth that separates the idea of "being a racist" vs. "doing a racist thing" -- criticizing a person of their work is saying "they did a thing," not "they are awful people" (though in some cases, like Orson Scott Card, they might be).
Similarly, calling out one work doesn't render the creator's previous works useless. One Facebooker said something like "Heh, well Joss hasn't read feminist texts, sure, all he did was have strong female characters in all of his series for over a decade." Putting aside that "strong female characters" are themselves subject to criticism, saying Whedon said silly things doesn't mean that feminists don't appreciate or acknowledge things he's done in the past that they might like.
Finally, in life, just like in law, intentions don't matter, impacts matter. It doesn't matter if I don't mean to hurt anyone juggling machetes, if I mess up I can still go to jail for manslaughter, and any casualties remain dead. I know Joss Whedon and Lily Allen and Robin Thicke don't mean to participate in marginilizing people or to perpetuate regressive ideas, but that doesn't mean that they don't, and directing your criticism at people who are calling it out is killing the messenger, and demonstrates that you're worrying more about coddling your aversion to confronting potential prejudices than empathy for the experiences of others.
I bring all this up because people always forget these things when topics of inequality come up: some progressive will say things like "X by Y is regressive for Z totally observable reason," then fans of X or Y will get in a tizzy and feel personally insulted since they liked X, and Y didn't mean to, Y has a great history, &c. &c. but the closest they get to ever addressing Z is to tell you it's no big deal and you should just lighten up (see "gaslighting") or tell you that your tone is wrong. But Z is the issue!
So don't worry Whedonites -- nobody's calling him the bogeyman, or you a terrible person for loving The Avengers. Put down them pitchforks.
Lightening Rod: Joss Whedon is a white dude who hates the word "feminist"
Despite the incorrectness of his claims or rationale (see the responses I linked above), a sticking point, for me, is his issues with the word "feminist." At some point in all of these conversations, someone brings up that Joss Whedon is a Straight White Cis Man, and how utterly tiring it is to hear a Straight White Cis Man tell feminists that they need to fix their movement for this reason or that, one of the most common suggestions being "have you considered not using the word 'feminist'?" The conversation then goes to shit as most people (usually men) who are Straight, White, and/or Cis get defensive and accuse the feminists of being racists or sexists for docking points from him by pointing out his identity in the discussion.
Let's step back for a bit: in order to continue, you need to understand the context the former group is coming from with regards to the latter group. In any discussion of inequality, ever, there's always a contingent of people in the more privileged groups who sympathize, they really do, but wish the less privileged groups wouldn't be so disruptive or mean about they fact that they're playing the game at a harder difficulty setting, and they really need to be more mindful of the status quo, or like Nina Simone says in Mississippi Goddam, "go slow."
Understand that feminists get this all the time, and unsurprisingly, it usually comes from someone who doesn't understand what feminism looks like these days. A good example of this is the #sorryfeminists hashtag, wherein an interviewer said "sorry, feminists!" when speaking about how a critic of feminism was hot. Uhhh... feminists don't have any issues with people making choices to feel attractive? It was a silly snipe that attacked a strawman, and yet! sorry to ruin your party, feminists, watch your message!! After the hundredth time of someone telling you fix your movement when they are clearly ignorant of what it means, it gets mad tiring.
Said another way: mansplaining happens, and it's way more likely to come from segments of the population who due to their identity and privilege can't understand the topic first-hand, and are therefore less motivated to seek out the theory. And just like Joss can't help that he's a Straight White Cis Guy, he also can't help that when he slips and mansplains on a stage (which anybody, of any background, can do), it's in the context of most mansplains coming from people with his privilege who haven't read the critical theory, just saying "feminism" is a real icky word because he thought about it for a while, y'know?
To reiterate: even after you get over the weakness of his argument ("natural state" and all that), if you read what goes on in feminist circles, the very act of being a privileged person criticizing the term "feminist" is such a tired (and addressed!) cliché it can't help but elicit some eyerolls. So please, if you're seeing feminists bring up his privilege when disagreeing with him, it'd be a mistake to conclude that Feminists Hate All Men or All White Men or All Cis Men, and the Feminist Position is that these people Can Never Ever Say Anything Right. It's just that it's almost always those people who by construction can't understand what feminists fight against, and it's patronizing and lacking in empathy to tell them they're doing it wrong.
Popular issues with the word "feminist."
Like "Obamacare," feminism is funny in that virtually everybody loves what the the word stands for before entering a seething rage at the mention of it. Most people who complain about a "branding problem" misunderstand what feminism actually stands for, they just know I'm not supposed to like it and work back from that premise. If you ask them what Patriarchy is, or how it models so many of the observable gender-based inequalities, you'll usually get a blank stare in response.
Asking feminists to change their movement to match the ignorance or insecurities of their opponents (who again, will often agree with all the movement's core premises if you explain it to them without "feminism") is putting the burden on the wrong group. Even if it was replaced, opponents will see it worked and continue to spread FUD after whatever term they might choose to replace it.
Some people are clearly against any challenge to privilege and archaic power structures and attack the word with a dodge, demanding you tell them why they can't just call themselves "egalitarian" and be done with it. Others I know are kinder and identify as feminists, who are totally there with the cause and understand that fighting over terminology is counterproductive so don't make a big stink about it in public (good choice!), but privately feel that "feminism" is a less-than-ideal term because you have "fem" in the name of a movement that's supposed to be about gender equality generally, and even that the use of "fem" might suggest half of a gender binary, which most forward-thinking people would like to see dismantled.
These are more substantive challenges than the vanilla "it makes people who don't know it uncomfortable," so I'll say why I stick with "feminist." The biggest reason for me is idealogical: I'm not comfortable literally removing women from their own movement.
And yes, while there are examples of where the patriarchy hurts men, I agree with what bell hooks said:
“Men are not exploited or oppressed by sexism, but there are ways in which they suffer as a result of it”
The ways Patriarchy has historically hurt women have been more central to their liberty and autonomy -- a history of being treated as chattel and kept from voting or owning property, and a culture we've inherited from it -- it's ultimately more dehumanizing than the ways I see most men getting affected. More succinctly, as I see it, men's troubles from Patriarchy mostly stem from them having to fill in the spaces they've removed women from: the "disposable man" comes from keeping women out of dangerous jobs and war, because like any treasured and owned object, we didn't want to damage them. Men have to seen as worse at housekeeping or childrearing because their laws and their actions established a social dynamic and culture where that was "women's work" (really, one of the only ones). Repeat for most examples of where Patriarchy hurts men.
This isn't to say these are minor issues or worth ignoring, just that if you look at the representations of men and women in any fiction, or their comparative presence in any history book, or their representation in power structures (CEO's, elected officials, religious authorities, casting directors/screenwriters/directors, newspaper columnists &c) -- look at anything, and it's pretty clear we've got a lot of ground to make up, and things still are much harder, from a social standpoint, for women than men on the respect and autonomy front.
So while I understand that Patriarchy hurts everybody, it still hurts women way, way more, and while that's the case I've still got no qualms calling the movement to correct things "feminism."
A second, pretty huge idealogical reason is elaborated in the last section of this blog post.
Non-idealogical-but-still-present third reason I hate "egalitarian" and similar terms that are often offered up as a potential replacement: it's almost always, with some exceptions, used by indignant guys who just hate the word feminist and are looking for an excuse to avoid it. While equivalent in theory, de facto it's been pretty spoiled for me.
From the other side
With all that said, there is one line of argument that I consider more seriously for issues with the word feminism: like "egalitarian" above, the term has been a bit tarred based on the context where it's frequently used, which is often in the context of white, cis, upper-middle class women, which may marginalize women who don't fit those categories.
Some great conversations have happened here, including the satirical Twitter account @WhiteFeminist, and the hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen. Also worth checking out are the conversations around and leading up to Hugo Schwyzer's burnout, and Lily Allen's latest video.
All this to say, just like the Atheism movement was looking (rightly) to clean up shop with the idea of Atheism+, many women are preferring the term "womanist." I confess I haven't read enough into these conversations to have a strong stance on it, but my leanings are for a more intersectional and inclusive movement, naturally.
Just listen more, goddammit
The second major idealogical reason why I stick with "feminism" instead of an alternative term is because it's not my place to have a particularly loud voice in this anyways, goddammit. The main issue I see with these conversations is that people like the Facebookers that motivated this post are just so keen on having their opinions expressed on a topic that, by construction, they simply can't understand.
If they listen and they study they can come to intellectual understandings of the issues, sure, but they won't properly get it since they will likely never experience it, and it's more than a little patronizing to tell people who are fighting battles you can't ever put yourself in a position to fight that they're fighting them wrong, or that they're fighting them without enough regard for your feelings. So if you want to really be a good member of a privileged group, just shut up, listen to what is being said, and make a super-serious double-special effort to understand where the people making the criticisms are coming from, remembering it probably won't line up with your initial reaction based on your life experiences, because, by construction, it can't.
Here's Michael Fogus' post on Women in Tech. Better than 99% of all such articles, because he notably excuses himself from it.
I know I'm saying this after writing a pretty large blog post full of my Pablo voice, but these ideas are just intended to be reflections of what I've been hearing from the brilliant involved women in my life, and what I've been reading from others (follow the links!).
I'll end with a little family anecdote. My dad is White, and my mom is a Guatemalan woman who speaks with a light accent. For a bit of time when they were beginning, when she was feeling like people were treating her differently, my dad told her it was probably not a big deal, and she was probably seeing things where they weren't. Then he grew up a little, and stopped questioning her stories, giving her the benefit of the doubt.
But in the last few years, he got old. White hair, slower moving, and hard of hearing, he noticed people making comments and treating him differently in stores, at work, and at his tennis matches. It was extremely moving to hear him say to my mom (paraphrasing): "I've always been sorry I gave you trouble for the first few years, but then I thought I understood. I didn't. I really, really, didn't. People treat me differently! They're impatient with me! This sucks, my dear."
So yeah, not feeling people defending Joss. He said a silly thing, as most criticisms of the word "feminism" are.
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