Joss Whedon spoke about feminism at a benefit event for an organisation called Equality Now. More accurately, Joss Whedon spoke about the word “feminist”, because this incoherent self-satisfied trainwreck of a speech completely and utterly failed to engage with the substance of feminism for most of its fourteen minute duration.
Quite a few people sent me this video. Most of them were like, “Look! Yay! A famous nerdy dude said some stuff about feminism!” Sorry friends, but that literally could not have been further from my reaction. Jezebel called it perfect (lol and also facepalm). Lots of feminist organisations I follow on Facebook posted it with approving commentary. (Including The Y Factor, who appear to have deleted it since I left a mild comment suggesting it was a crock of shit. Bad form, Y Factor. If you thought it was good, own it and explain why.)
It’s possible that I would have been more on board with Whedon’s speech if I could actually follow it. He starts off describing – in indulgent syllable-by-syllable detail – how “feminist” as a word just does not do it for him personally. Then he changes track and for a while seems to be equating the word “feminist” to the word “racist”, even though those words have nothing in common besides the dreaded “-ist” at the end. After that, he abandons “feminist” altogether and suggests that we need an equivalent word to “racist” for when we’re talking about gender discrimination. Those words already exist, I hear you cry? Sexist? Misogynist? Nah, those words don’t do it for Whedon either because some people are resistant to them, but mainly because he’s too busy trying to introduce his new word which he came up with ALL BY HIMSELF, GUYS. Guess what it is? Wait until you hear this genius stroke! Genderist! People who discriminate based on gender can be called “genderist”! Inspired! And this will achieve… what exactly? I have no clue, and neither does Whedon by the sounds of things, but he really wants everyone to start using it right away.
This post is long, so if you’d prefer, you can just look at the accompanying diagram, which is probably the most succinct transmission of my thoughts on any subject ever to date. But if you want more, there is more.
In essence, this speech is a crash course on How Not To Be A Male Feminist in three easy-to-follow steps! Here are the three reasons Whedon needs to sit down, shut up and go back to Feminism 101.
1. He casually decrees that we have achieved post-sexist and post-racist society, from his position as a rich white man
Joss Whedon thinks we’re done with feminism. Joss Whedon thinks we’re all past sexism. Joss Whedon is super enlightened and therefore the rest of the world must be too, and we should all just be able to get on with being equal and stuff without icky words like “feminist” getting in the way. Because “you either believe women are people or you don’t, it’s that simple!” THANKS FOR SOLVING THAT FOR US, JOSS. You heard the man, ladies. Pack up all those years of rigorous research and political activism and go home. Pity you spent so much time grinding away at the patriarchy and exposing yourself to abuse and ridicule in the process, because it really was just “that simple” all along.
He also seems to think racism is over and that there’s some universal consensus that all racists are to be roundly condemned and punished for their bigotry. Also, that racism and sexism are totally separate things, and experiences of both are definitely not inextricably intertwined in the realities of millions of women of colour all over the world at all.
Maybe let the people who actually experience the brunt of inequality on a daily basis decide when it’s time to assign racism and sexism to the annals of history, yeah Joss?
2. He fails to use his platform to say anything that might actually be useful for forwarding gender equality
Joss Whedon is a famous white man with a lot of money and influence. People will listen to him talk about feminism, without tuning out or immediately firing back with reductive arguments that have been addressed and refuted approximately one million times by all the women who were thinking and talking about these things before Joss Whedon even knew how to spell “feminist”. As unfair as it is for all the feminists who have been fighting to have their voices heard over the decades, this is the reality of the word we live in. People listen to rich white dudes. Equality Now and similar organisations KNOW THIS; this is why they asked Whedon to speak at their benefit.
Whedon had an opportunity to say some important stuff. He could have talked about the work Equality Now do, about the women they are trying to help, about their lives and realities. If he didn’t feel comfortable with that, he could have talked about the representation of women in popular media (since that’s his field). He could have called for other men in positions of privilege to take a stand. He could have criticized companies, governments and organisations who continue to perpetuate, minimise and ignore sexism. He had fourteen minutes. He could have said any of these things and because he’s Joss Whedon, I’m sure he could have said them in an entertaining and accessible way that would have made his audience more open to the idea of feminism. That would have been useful.
But no. Instead, he chose to dedicate the majority of his speech to his highly personal interpretation of the word “feminist” while simultaneously patting himself on the back for being just so gosh-darned clever for coming up with “genderist”, all to the tune of “Oh little old me? I’m just a writer!” in the key of self-deprecating smugness. At the very end, he gives the briefest of nods to feminist activists and female victims of trafficking.
3. He ignores and erases feminists (you know, the real life human people behind this word he hates so much)
As Noah Berlatsky points out “[t]his is a speech about the word “feminist,” but there are no feminists in the speech.” The only woman he names or quotes is Katy Perry, and he does this solely for the purpose of disparaging her for not identifying as a feminist (even though he wants to get rid of the word? Confusing!) But despite the lack of names or quotes or acknowledgement of the existence of feminism outside of Joss Whedon’s Brain™, he does manage to paraphrase a feminist.
“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”
This widely-quoted definition of feminism has been variously attributed to suffragist and journalist Rebecca West, theorist Cheris Kramarae and feminist writer and editor Marie Shear. The actual source of the quote seems to be a review written by Marie Shear, of a book by Kramarae and Paula Treichler, hence the confusion.
In any case, the quote is startingly close to the “You either believe women are people or you don’t!” line that earns Whedon applause from the crowd. So let’s be clear here: Whedon is paraphrasing a definition of feminism originally coined by a feminist who was writing a review of a feminist work, and he is using that definition to explain why he wants to get rid of the word “feminist”. Obviously he selectively forgets the bit that refers to feminism – because that would be inconvenient – so instead of an oft-cited definition of feminism, this sentiment is now a definition of Joss Whedon’s Personal Thoughts On Why We No Longer Need The Word Feminist. I can only assume that the crowd are clapping for the remarkable feat of cognitive dissonance that just happened.
And also, guys, we’ve been over this again and again with all the Rebranding Feminism bullshit going around recently, but one more time with aplomb: the suggestion that we get rid of the word “feminist” and replace it with something more palatable (like “equalist”) is, in itself, an act of erasure. It simultaneously erases:
- The origins of the movement and the women who dedicated their lives to getting us where we are today
- The fact that feminism is specifically, overtly and primarily concerned with women, because not all oppression is created equal.
- The fact that feminism is more than just abstract ideals about equality.
Please read Lindy West on this topic, because she is very funny and also right and I am tired of explaining it:
Unfortunately, the reason that “fem” is a part of the word “feminism” is that the world is not, currently, an equal, safe, and just place for women (and other groups as well—in its idealized form, intersectional feminism seeks to correct all those imbalances). To remove the gendered implications of the term is to deny that those imbalances exist, and you can’t make problems disappear just by changing “feminism” to “humanism” and declaring the world healed. That won’t work.
And to sum up, the thing is this: I actually agree with Whedon’s basic point. I believe that language is indeed “how we understand society.” I believe the words we use and the contexts in which we use them are incredibly important, and questioning them is a key instrument for driving social change.
Words mean things. Words have power. Feminism means a huge and complex amount of things. It is a political philosophy. It is a school of cultural theory and an academic discipline. It is a critical lens we can turn on the world around us. It can be as abstract as a PhD on manifestations of motherhood in the early work of Samuel Beckett. It can be a real as sitting on crisis line at 2am telling a teenage girl that it wasn’t her fault. It is confrontational, it is challenging and it is certainly not free from internal conflict. Over the years, feminism has evolved, rising on waves of new thinkers and activists, intersecting with other disciplines, honing and interrogating its own methods and messages. You can’t just chuck it out because you don’t like the “fem-” or the “-ist” or whatever other banal nitpick you’ve pulled out of your arse. You certainly can’t replace it with an empty word that doesn’t mean anything at all.
That is what Whedon is proposing. He wants feminists to throw out the word we use to identify ourselves – along with all these layers and facets and connotations – and shift our focus onto an empty word that is in no way functionally different from “sexist” except that Whedon invented it and therefore it’s better. He’s also not just idly speculating about language; he is actively calling for his audience to start using this word. For someone who claims to care so much about language, he really has not thought about the implications of what he’s saying.
This is why I am angry at Whedon: I am angry at him for throwing out yet another facile call for the erasure of feminism in the name of gender equality. Because when someone like Whedon declares that feminism is over, that it’s done, that it’s irrelevant – but it’s totally ok, because he’s invented new word we can use! – that’s not just idiotic. It’s dangerous and it’s irresponsible. Because there are lots of people who are actually going to listen.
There are certainly some people who are already on board with “genderist”. To quote YouTube commenter, okonh0wp, on the speech:
“I like the idea of genderist better than feminist because I don’t specifically see how women are at a disadvantage.”
Yup. Definitely ushering in a new era of equality. I can hear the people sing.
Since there are so many issues that I haven’t even touched on here, have some further reading:
- Foz Meadows at Shattersnipe: Malcontent and Rainbows: Dear Joss Whedon: STFU
- Flavia Dzodan at Red Lights Politics: Yay! Permission from a white cis dude not to identify as a feminist!
- Noah Berlatsky at The Atlantic: What Joss Whedon Gets Wrong About The Word ‘Feminist’
- Katie McDonough at Salon: No, Joss Whedon, “feminist” is not a dirty word
- Danielle Paradis at Policy Mic : Joss Whedon Redefines Feminism In The Same Way Feminists Have For Years
- Laura Mandanas at Autostraddle: You Can Keep “Genderist” While We Tackle Sexism
- Hadley Freeman at The Guardian: Why feminism doesn’t need a makeover