November 12, 2013
First, some context: I love Joss Whedon. LOVE HIM. Like swoony, wobbly-kneed preteen-at-a-One-Direction-concert kind of love. I believe that Joss Whedon should be at the top of the short list for the Nobel Prize in Television Awesomeness, if such a thing existed, which it totally should. As far as I’m concerned, based on Buffy and Firefly alone he could have retired in 2003, secure in the knowledge that he had served humanity well. I tell you this because you need to grasp the level of my fandom in order to understand how it pains me to disagree with Whedon publicly, especially on a topic on which we’re usually in perfect accord: feminism, or in this case, the word “feminist.”
By now you’ve probably seen at least one of the two Whedon videos making the Internet rounds, clips of speeches he gave about gender equality. The videos are quite similar in that both talks were given at Equality Now events (he sits on their advisory board), and in both he tries to drill down into some of the most widely-held misconceptions about feminism and women’s advocacy. Like I said, they look pretty similar. But you can easily tell the two videos apart because after you watch the first speech, given in 2006, you’ll probably want to marry Joss Whedon, and rightly so. But after you watch his November 4th speech about why he hates the word “feminist,” you’ll probably be left wondering how your brilliant imaginary husband could be capable of such sloppy thinking.
At least that’s what I wondered, though this was not the universal response in the blogosphere. A self-identified feminist on Crushable called last week’s talk “awesome,” and somebody at Jezebel actually called it “the perfect speech.” I have to assume those writers were still riding the wave of goodwill the ‘06 video generated, because last week’s speech was a hot mess, full of conceptual errors and ahistorical assumptions. That’s really a shame, because what Whedon’s trying to grapple with—people’s aversion to the word “feminist”—is something the movement needs to address head-on. But his explanation for why he personally dislikes the word and thinks we should abandon it really doesn’t hold water.
Whedon lodges two major complaints against the f-word (I’m leaving aside his quibble with the aesthetics of its sound because off-topic, Joss). The first complaint is that the existence of the word implies that gender equality is not a “natural state,” which he believes it is. The second is that when we label ourselves “feminists” we put the emphasis on us and our behavior, rather than on the behavior of sexists—or “genderists,” as he’d have it—which is where it rightly belongs.
Let’s start with the idea of equality as a natural state. I hear a slightly different version of this argument from feminists all the time—I call it the Feminism is Humanism Fallacy. On the one hand, of course it is! Feminism in its most astute and compassionate form is concerned with how gender roles and sex-based hierarchies are damaging to everyone, not just cisgender women, and how everyone’s quality of life can be improved by feminist change. But I draw the line at saying we should jettison the word feminist and replace it with the more inclusive “humanist.” The reason we coined the word feminist in the first place is because, contrary to what Whedon humanistically believes, equality is emphatically not our “natural state.” In fact, it’s the opposite, because we’re all socialized by a deeply sexist culture, and are taught from birth to believe in, and derive our identities from, a system of sex-based inequality. So humanism is great, but if you don’t account for the differential treatment of women it’s only going to get you so far toward improving humanity’s lot. The crucial distinction between feminism and humanism is that feminism implies the belief that society treats men and women differently, and that women are by and large getting the worse end of the deal.
I assume Whedon subscribes to this belief, since he’s always outspoken about gender equality and aligns himself with feminist groups. Yet his insistence that equality is natural, instead of something we have to teach people to practice, runs counter to pretty much everything we know about humans and gender (not to mention humans and race, humans and social class, humans and age, etc.). In Whedon’s estimation we’re all born believing in fundamental human equality, and if we would just leave those magic gender equity babies alone they’d all grow up to be ideal feminists, though of course we wouldn’t call them that. No need to bring up unpleasant concepts like feminism, because in an ideal world equality just is.
But the world is far from ideal, and the word “feminist” exists precisely because we need a way to describe the type of work we undertake in our efforts to make it better. This brings us to Whedon’s second point, which is that people going around calling themselves feminist distracts us from what should be the real focus, which is sexism and “genderists,” those purveyors of unnatural inequality. But, and this is critical, sexism only has a negative value in the context of feminist analysis. Sexism only really exists or makes sense as a post hoc artifact of feminist thought. In refusing to use the word “feminist” you’re not ridding yourself of the concept of feminism; it remains the alpha and omega of any coherent discussion of sexism. All you get when you water down or elide such foundational concepts is less precise thinking, which in turn will yield less useful analyses.
So I pledge my continued allegiance to the f-word, not out of sentiment but out of pragmatism. We need the word feminist to help us describe the work we’re doing, which is trying to rid the world of sex-based hierarchies. More importantly, we need the word feminist to clear the conceptual space to do that work, to distinguish ourselves from the world-as-it-is, to say that we stand not for this, but for that. Not for our default “natural state,” but for a better, more enlightened alternative.