Last week Joss Whedon, nerd icon and purveyor of Strong Female Characters, gave a speech for human rights organisation Equality Now in which he performed the essential public service of demonstrating why he shouldn’t ever be taken seriously on matters of gender justice. Whedon, whose self-congratulatory celebration of sexually appealing female violence has long been a point of frustration for me and many other feminists, seemed to be reading directly from The Progressive Nerd Bro Playbook. I have been unable, thus far, to prove that this book exists, but Whedon’s speech provides essential clues that may enable us to reverse-engineer it under laboratory conditions.
Whedon’s speech rests on the premise that there is something wrong with the way feminism is perceived in the public sphere, a popular belief that has spawned dozens of identical thinkpieces titled ‘Why Feminism Is A Dirty Word’. This view often seeks to rebrand the movement for gender justice as though it were the same as an underperforming range of potato chips. Apart from the arrogant implication that doing what Joss Whedon tells us is the way to ‘fix feminism’s image problem’, the argument doesn’t make sense. Feminism doesn’t have an image problem because there’s something wrong with the word ‘feminism’, it has an image problem because its fundamental ideologies present an affront to the status quo. Backlash against feminism is enacted for the specific purpose of repressing the legitimacy of these ideologies, and resistance to social reform won’t be quieted by changing our labels to appease the establishment.
Whedon contrasts ‘feminist’ with ‘racist’, suggesting that ‘racist’ works because it labels the perpetrators and beneficiaries of racial prejudice as deviant, rather than the positive movement working to end structural injustice. This sounds good for about five seconds – until you ask how well this approach has worked to end racism. Surely if this is a better way, we’d be able to see an obvious difference in the effectiveness of movements to end racism and movements to end sexism. Instead what we see is a messy series of victories and losses for both, a million ways racism and sexism interact and overlap in a picture so complex that asking which is worse doesn’t make sense as a question. Feminism and anti-racism have their own interconnected but distinct struggles. Of course they must work together and learn from one another, but comparing them in this blunt, ahistorical way does violence to the complex histories and methodologies of both.
Erasing the word ‘feminism’ removes an important site of solidarity for women seeking support from each other in a world that doesn’t respect or represent how sexism affects our lives. Whedon, a man, has no immediate knowledge or experience of this, so it doesn’t occur to him that this is what the word ‘sisterhood’ is supposed to mean. Feminism has its own deeply rooted issues with privileging the experiences of women who are white, middle class, heterosexual, non-disabled, et cetera, and we certainly don’t need an eternal amateur with a massive media platform to chime in and suggest we do away with it entirely. When non-white women disassociate themselves from feminism because of its issues with racism, they’re often denigrated as irrational traitors, and the difference between this reaction and the praise Whedon has received should give feminists serious pause to consider whose voices we really value.
To Whedon, ‘equality’ – which he never defines – is the pre-discursive default state, and all that’s required to end sexism is to make people aware of this simple fact. Women and men are equal! Equal, by god! Again, he erases decades’ worth of feminist thought that questions the value and meaning of this battle cry, and instead posits a sort of naive human nature where people are born into egalitarianism and perverted by a sexist society.
On one level, this is a comforting thought. We’re all born perfect, and it’s the evil, artificial patriarchy that brainwashes us into misogyny. When Whedon says that ‘feminist’ is a bad word, he argues that the -ist suffix makes the pursuit of equality sound unnatural, as if it’s an agenda we are indoctrinated into, an implication he doesn’t like.
A more nuanced and courageous analysis might suggest that there is no natural way humans relate to each other, and demonising the concept of ideology, like Whedon does here, only contributes to our acceptance of mealy-mouthed pragmatism. Of course feminism is an ideology, and of course it has an agenda. The reason we stand behind it is that we think its ideology is the right one, that it is superior to other ways of thinking and doing. A less malevolent-sounding word for ‘indoctrination’ would be ‘learning’, which is exactly what is required of us to recognise and fix the world around us. We hear the same denigration of named belief systems from cowardly politicians, who would have us believe that pragmatism isn’t its own ideology. This rhetoric circumscribes honest and productive ethical conversations by placing some ideological positions beyond interrogation. It’s just common sense!
It’s especially galling to hear gender equality described as ‘natural’ when there are reams of gender theory dedicated to deconstructing this very concept of nature, undercutting it as a lazy method of justification. Joss Whedon badly needs to get with the program here, and realise that ‘socially constructed’ doesn’t mean ‘not real’ or ‘arbitrary’.
Whedon goes on to say that when it comes to feminism, ‘there is no middle ground’: that you either believe women are people, or you don’t. You’re either with us or against us, pal. This flourish sounds uncompromising. Joss Whedon: tough on sexism, tough on the causes of sexism.
But dig a little deeper and the ultimatum hits all the wrong notes. One of the most important tasks of feminism is getting people to think about their own complicity in unjust systems, and about the privileges they receive from these systems whether or not they personally believe women are inferior. This is structural analysis, and should be at the forefront of anyone’s, and especially any man’s, involvement in efforts to end gender injustice.
When Whedon invites his audience to think, ‘Yeah, I do believe woman are people!’, he’s inviting them to position themselves outside of these systems, and feel good about their psychological conquering of society’s sexist brainwashing. This isn’t the kind of individual approach feminism needs, particularly not from men. We should be thinking about our lives, at least partially, as effects of unjust systems. No matter how much of a gender warrior Whedon thinks he is, he still benefits from the structural disadvantages women experience. The big self-esteem moment doesn’t mean anything unless it’s followed up with analysis and action against sexism in society – and ideally the process of picking apart your own attitudes and prejudices is slow and careful.
Whedon is a nerd icon, not a feminist scholar, and his badly conceptualised efforts at movement reform do nobody any favours. What he should be doing, if he really wants to help, is getting up in front of big rooms of his fans and attempting a bit of top-down de-broification. Nerd culture is mainstream, and it has a well-documented history of pushing out minorities and persecuting the few who stick around and complain about the way they’re treated. It’s not that there’s no role for Joss Whedon in the struggle for gender justice, it’s that he’s performing the wrong one. His star power could be used as relateable packaging to spread feminist messages, but that would require him to actually read about and engage with feminism rather than crapping on about his own thought bubbles.
At this point, it looks like he’s too busy lecturing us about what’s wrong with feminism to let feminists tell him a bit about what’s wrong with Joss Whedon.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!