Joss Whedon speaks onstage at Equality Now presents "Make Equality Reality" at Montage Hotel on November 4, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.Photo: Jonathan Leibson
It really must be fantastic to be a Noted Male Feminist in the 21st century. All you need to do to join the ranks, it seems, is have a loose grasp of basic human decency, a shaky understanding of your own privilege, and a willingness to sound off about feminism at the drop of a hat.
So it is with Joss Whedon, best known as the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and one of pop culture’s most beloved “feminists”, who this past weekend went on what the internet deemed “the most perfect rant” about feminism.
Whedon is on the board of Equality Now (a non-government human rights organisation), and took an opportunity to issue a typically “Whedonesque” speech at on of their events. He unpacked his ideas about feminism. To wit, that he doesn’t like the word “feminist”:
“Ist in its meaning is also a problem for me. Because you can't be born an ist. It's not natural..." he said.
"So feminist includes the idea that believing men and women to be equal, believing all people to be people, is not a natural state. That we don't emerge assuming that everybody in the human race is a human, that the idea of equality is just an idea that's imposed on us. That we are indoctrinated with it, that it's an agenda,” he continued.
Well gee, Joss, I hate to break it to you, but if the last hundred or so years of the women’s liberation movement (to say nothing of civil rights activism, freedom of religious expression campaigning, the gay rights movement…) have demonstrated anything, it’s that equality is not a natural state for many people. An oppressed person strives for equality, while the oppressor believes it shouldn’t exist, neither of which demonstrate much of a “natural state” of equality.
Not that Whedon would understand much about oppression: as a powerful heterosexual white man in Hollywood, he’s not only floating in the upper echelons of privilege, he’s also part of the machine that dictates the representation (or lack thereof) we see on our screens, both big and small.
When he says things like admitting he’s “pissed off” about the lack of female superheroes on the big screen, I think, well Joss, what are you going to do about it? How are you going to use that big ol’ wad of privilege you have? The immense irony of Whedon, in the same breath, saying “I read a beautiful thing Junot Diaz wrote: ‘If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves’” is not lost on me, nor should it be lost on those who champion him as a righteous dude, since the bulk of his work offers a whole lot of reflection of white people, who are most recently (via The Avengers and Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D) also predominantly male. And lest we forget the Orientalism of Firefly and Serenity.
It is, of course, entirely possible for filmmakers of Whedon's ilk - that is, white men with immense Hollywood bargaining power - to make films that are more representative: look at James Cameron's almost entirely female- and mother-centric narratives, from Avatar all the way back through Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Aliens (New York Times film critic A. O. Scott is not alone in calling Cameron a feminist filmmaker), or Robert Zemeckis' sublime Contact, featuring Jodie Foster - aided by Angela Bassett - triumphing over the ultimate villain of institutionalised sexism, Tom Skerritt. Whedon has the power, so why doesn't he practise what he preaches? (Indeed, can you imagine someone telling the notoriously determined Cameron - who doesn't feel the need to showboat about his gender politics - "no, you can't make a movie about a woman"? If anyone ever tried, it must have been a very long time ago.)
So why are so many feminists losing their collective minds over Whedon’s speech? Why do we applaud Whedon for having some loose thoughts on the failings of feminism and/or “feminist” when queer feminists and women of colour have been expressing how they feel excluded by the movement for years only to be met by a collective shrug by mainstream white feminists? If we’re more likely to listen to white straight rich men before we listen to our actual sisters, something is rotten in the state of feminism.
As The Atlantic’s Noah Berlatsky astutely observes, Whedon’s “rant” is typical of many male feminists, in that it doesn’t mention or draw from any actual feminists - which weakens his argument about feminism (not to mention his feminist cred) considerably:
“The reason Whedon can stand up at the podium and say that equality is natural is because all these feminists he doesn't talk about, from Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth on up, have fought exhausting battle after exhausting, grinding battle to get to this point.”
Numerous times, I have found myself in discussion with self-confessed male feminists and asked them, genuinely curious, which feminist texts they’d read and enjoyed or found enlightening. In nearly every instance, the response has been, “Oh, I haven’t read any”. Whedon’s “rant” is this problem writ large.
If men are to join the ranks in the fight for equality, we need to expect - nay, demand - more from them than what high profile Male Feminists like Whedon keep offering; additionally, the culture of celebrating the merest hint of feminist thought from Whedon et al while ignoring the (often considerable) failings of their work is unhelpful in the extreme.
“From his position as celebrity and writer, and, one fears, from his position as white man, he takes it upon himself to simply define feminism himself so that he can discard it,” Berlatsky’s Atlantic piece continues. “The result is what Tania Modleski acidly referred to as ‘feminism without women’—equality as erasure.”
Whedon’s speech contained this gem (which was his lead-in to dismantling the etymology of “feminist”): “I have the privilege living my life inside of words and part of being a writer is creating entire universes, and that's beautiful, but part of being a writer is also living in the very smallest part of every word.”
Next time, Joss, just put a full stop after “privilege”, stop living in the very smallest part of every word, and instead read some words written by the very women you are silencing.
Nominate your Woman of the Year and win an iPhone 5 for your trouble.