Why Joss Whedon’s Arrogant, Clueless, 14 Minute Long Speech Kinda Matters

Ugh, where to begin. As you may have guessed from the title of this post, I am not joining the parade of bloggers who seem to be lining up to pat Whedon on the back and endorse his message.

I know that I included the full video above, but Whedon’s rambling diatribe makes it really hard to watch more than a couple of minutes without tuning out (in my experience anyway). So that you readers don’t have to watch the whole thing, especially since you might not be physically able to, I’m going to include the transcribed version of which points I’m addressing specifically. I doubt you’re going to miss much, but if anyone feels like an important point is being overlooked or the context is not appropriately represented, let me know in the comments.

Whedon starts out by saying that he hates the word “feminist” because he finds it phonetically displeasing. Okay, that’s kind of a weird and irrelevant criticism to make in a speech about gender equality, but it’s definitely not the stupidest thing he will say in the course of the next 10+ minutes. It starts to get really bad right around here:

“My problem with feminist is not the word. It’s the question. It’s the question. ‘Are you now, or have you ever been, a feminist?’ The great Katy Perry once said – I’m paraphrasing – ‘I’m not a feminist but I like it when women are strong.’ That’s lovely Katy. Don’t know why she feels the need to say the first part, but listening to the word and thinking about it, I realize I do understand. This question that lies before us is one that should lie behind us. The word is problematic for me because there’s another word that we’re missing. That words have failed us. And I’d like to use as an example race.

In the public discourse, there’s one word to deal with race. Racism. That is the word. And it implies something very important. It implies something that we are past. When you say racist, you are saying that is a negative thing. That is a line that we have crossed. Anything on the side of that line is shameful. Is on the wrong side of history. And that is a line that we have crossed in terms of gender but we don’t have the word for it. People are confronted with the word feminist and it stops them; they think they have to deal with that. But I think we’re done with that as intelligent human beings. Being on the wrong side of history in terms of the oppression of women is being on the whole of history, all of recorded history, you’re on the wrong side. …
I start thinking about the fact that we have this word when we’re thinking about race that says we have evolved beyond something and we don’t really have this word for gender. Now you could argue sexism, but I’d say that’s a little specific. People feel removed from sexism. ‘I’m not a sexist, but I’m not a feminist.’ They think there’s this fuzzy middle ground. There’s no fuzzy middle ground. You either believe that women are people or you don’t. It’s that simple.”

On one hand, there are a few nice sentiments woven in there. Whedon wishes that patriarchy and racism were things of the past, and that’s certainly something I can appreciate. I have to admit that I was beyond annoyed by Whedon’s casual insistence that we’re “past” racism though, because the United States still has some truly serious race issues to work on. As a white dude, Whedon is not especially qualified to make that kind of claim. It’s also really troubling because it sounds like he’s acting like, as a society, we’ve made more progress in dismantling white supremacy than we have in dismantling patriarchy, which, as an intersectional feminist, is absolutely not a statement I feel comfortable with.

The theme of being unqualified is part of the reason why Whedon’s speech is so arrogant to start out with – Whedon is a man, stepping in to tell women why the framework of our movement is misguided (You should focus on people who aren’t feminist instead of people who are!) and how he has personally devised a foolproof plan to fix it for us. I absolutely believe that rights movements, including feminism, should be inclusive and should have space for all sorts of people to share their ideas about how we can achieve our goals together.

That being said, Whedon is being a totally sucky ally right now. I feel like, if you are a person of a privileged group and you want to be supportive and helpful to a marginalized group, the majority of your efforts should center around amplifying the message of those marginalized people. For example, when I discuss racial issues, to the greatest extent possible, I try to make sure that I am doing everything I can to direct attention to the arguments and concerns of people of color. I am a white person, which means I don’t have the lived experience of racial oppression. Not only am I unqualified to speak on the behalf of people of color, I also don’t want to further contribute to their under representation. I want to make their voices louder, not substitute my own voice instead.

In that same vein, Whedon is substituting his own voice for women’s voices. First, he’s using his own definition of feminism – not one that is particularly grounded in theory – and then criticizing its utility.

But here’s the part where he has accidentally come up with something that is useful and worth discussing: the idea that anyone who believes in women’s right to equality is automatically a feminist. Up until hearing this speech, I would have agreed with that idea. I was also annoyed when I heard someone say that they were not a feminist in one breath but that they do believe in gender equality in the next. “If you believe in gender equality,” I would think, “then that means you’re a feminist. You’re just being a coward by not wanting to label yourself with a controversial word.” 

But when I heard Whedon use that idea to attack the word “feminist” and argue that we should be identifying and labeling people who are anti-feminist instead, it gave me pause. Obviously, feminism is about a lot more than just believing in equality, so the term feminist should describe more than that, too. Feminism is an activist movement, aimed not just at changing the attitudes of individuals, but also at addressing and someday resolving institutional problems. Labeling oneself a feminist should coincide with beliefs, not just that women should have equality, but also that they don’t already have it and we need to do something to make it happen. 

At this point, everyone knows that you can’t openly discriminate against women for job hiring, raises, and promotions. But even companies like Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest employer of women, who have anti-discrimination policies on the books, were shown to  pay male employees more and promote them to salaried positions more often even though women, as a group, had more seniority, higher performance reviews, and made up a larger percentage of the pool of eligible applicants. Statistician Richard Drogin, consulted as an expert witness for the Dukes v. Wal-Mart class action suit, plugged in all the numbers and found that the probability of those things occurring by random chance was nearly impossible – the odds were one in a number so large I wouldn’t be able to express it without using scientific notation (seriously, we’re talking billions of billions). In spite of this, the Supreme Court of the United States decided that the anti-discrimination policy was enough and said as much in their ruling. When something like that happens, it’s not about one guy who doesn’t think “women are people”. It’s about a large scale, collective patterns of behavior that are allowed to continue without oversight or intervention.

Feminism is about recognizing the subtle, insidious problems of patriarchy in every day life. It’s about women going on maternity leave and coming back to their jobs to find that their career path has been stunted or that the company no longer has any use for them at all (gosh, where have I heard that before? Oh, right, that’s exactly what Whedon did to Charisma Carpenter when she was a new mom: sorry for the video quality, Carpenter addresses this around 5:50 or so). It’s not just about a husband making stupid jokes to his wife about making sandwiches – it’s also about that wife coming home and working what Arlie Hochschild calls the “second shift” where she gets home from her full-time job and finds herself responsible for a disproportionate amount of the child-care, cooking, and housework. There are so many reasons why we need feminism that I couldn’t possibly list all of them in this blog post.

So if Katy Perry believes that women are people and that it’s cool when women are strong but she doesn’t think patriarchy is a problem in today’s society and she doesn’t want to do anything about it – I’m fine with her saying that she isn’t a feminist. I hope that someday she will be a feminist, but right now, it’s totally probable that she isn’t one. When people say “I’m not a feminist but…”, maybe we should take the statement at face value. They care about women but are comfortable with the status quo. They want equality but are not activists. Does it really serve anyone to pretend that everyone who believes that “women are people” are automatically feminists? I don’t think that it does, just like it doesn’t serve anyone when people insist they aren’t racist even though they have obviously problematic racial attitudes.

Now we need to spend a minute addressing Whedon’s “solution”:

“So clearly I gotta come up with this word. We need this word so that we can change the public discourse a little bit. And I came up with a lot of good ideas. I’m not going to lie. Good stuff, good stuff.

Obviously number one, I like the rhythm and intent of ‘pathetic prehistoric rage-filled inbred assclown,’ but that’s a lot to ask of a hashtag. I’m mean, lets just be honest.

Second in line: genderist. I’m alone in my room and I come up with genderist and I think ‘Oh! I’ve cracked it. This is amazing.’ This is it…I think about it for a long time. It really resonates with me, and so for two days, I live with it, and I don’t go anywhere near the internet because I’m sure somebody’s already thought of it. And then I finally do…Stupid Urban Dictionary.

Of course other people had thought of it, many people had thought of it, but I had never heard it. And I still haven’t heard it. And so unless somebody comes up with a better one – and please do – my pitch is this word. Genderist. I would like this word to become the new racist. I would like a word that says there was a shameful past before we realized that all people were created equal. And we are past that. And every evolved human being who is intelligent and educated and compassionate and to say I don’t believe that is unacceptable. And Katy Perry won’t say, ‘I’m not a feminist but I like strong women,’ she’ll say, ‘I’m not a genderist but sometimes I like to dress up pretty.’ And that’ll be fine.”

First of all, we already have an equivalent word for this – sexist. Earlier in the speech, Whedon dismissed the word outright because he thinks that people won’t admit to being sexist when they are. That’s awfully silly grounds for dismissal since people generally won’t admit to being racist either. We could get into a discussion about whether or not “sexist” is a less than ideal term on the grounds that it might make transwomen feel excluded (any trans ladies reading, please feel free to weigh in on this one) but that’s not Whedon’s argument so maybe that’s something to take on another day in another post.

It’s sort of surprising that Whedon is admitting to checking the internet to see if anyone else had come up with his new miracle word. Whedon is being accurate when he says that there is one lonely entry on Urban Dictionary that defines “genderist” the same way he does. However, the top hit if you type in “genderist” is the Wikipedia article about genderism. If you don’t want to click the link, here’s a quick summary: genderism is prejudice on the basis of a person’s failure to comply with the gender binary. Or in other words, negative beliefs about people who are transgender or genderqueer. Since obviously it’s super important to talk about the awful way that trans and genderqueer folks are treated in our society, I’m pretty happy that this term exists, and it seems like the term is well-suited to what it is describing. I find it extremely difficult to believe that Whedon saw that Urban Dictionary entry and somehow didn’t notice the Wikipedia article. So not only is Whedon telling us that our movement’s words are wrong, he thinks we should fix it by stealing a term that already exists from another movement and redefining it. Wildly uncool.

At the end of the day, I guess it works out that Whedon hates the word “feminist”, because I don’t think that’s a word that I’d use to describe this speech anyway. Congrats, Joss Whedon. You don’t have to worry about me calling you a feminist any time in the near future.

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2 comments on “Why Joss Whedon’s Arrogant, Clueless, 14 Minute Long Speech Kinda Matters

  1. Natalie O says:

    I think that eliminating a term that is specific to fighting for women’s rights in society is insanely optimistic on Whedon’s part. Women are the oppressed minority in this case, and having a word that describes our resistance to that norm is the right thing. Even if some guy sitting alone at his hotel with the internet doesn’t think the phonetics ring as pleasantly as “taliban”.

    • Absolutely. I think that Whedon is just imagining how he wants things to be and forgetting that there is an active process involved. Resistance is the perfect word to describe it. I think that without having the experience of fighting oppression, it is easy for someone like him to imagine that just thinking the right thoughts will fix everything. He almost reminds me of Marx’s criticisms of the Young Hegelians in that respect. And yeah, the Taliban thing was so egregious I didn’t even know how to address it. I can’t even begin to speculate what he was thinking there – it was just a stupid thing to say that didn’t really have anything to do with his main points.

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