Thoughts on Joss Whedon

Is this what they mean by “mansplaining?”

The other day, Joss Whedon tried a little verbal jujutsu in his dissection of the word, “feminist.”

Included is an excerpt:

Ist in it’s meaning is also a problem for me. Because you can’t be born an ist. It’s not natural… 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……My problem with feminist is not the word. 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.”…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…

…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…

…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…

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.

This is how we understand society. The word racism didn’t end racism, it contextualized it in a way that we still haven’t done with this issue. Does that mean that this will end the problem? Yes, definitely, we’ve done it.

So while I think I see what he’s getting at… okay, I actually don’t. Did he just 1) make up his own word to take the place of “sexist?” And 2) did he just say that we’re “past” it?

Joss Whedon’s always occupied a peculiar place in pop culture–a white, heterosexual cis-male who has been closely aligned with feminism over the years. A lot has been said about whether or not the title “feminist” really fits for him.

He writes swashbuckling stories with larger than life characters and I’m glad he gives women a space to be larger than life and swashbuckling. Some of his stuff can get pretty problematic though. First and foremost, most of his “strong” women are exceptional. What you won’t see in a lot of in his stories are women who are… well… ordinary. And I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. I mean it in a “Free to Be You and Me” kind of way. You don’t see a lot of women who are not the Chosen One. Not science experiments. Not following male ideals of heroism. Traditionally feminine in a way that doesn’t hyper-emphasize their sexuality. Cracked has a great, albeit tongue in cheek, breakdown of Joss Whedon’s female archetypes.

What you don’t see are a lot of female lawyers and judges and doctors and police officers and politicians and… you get the idea. In fact, his worlds tend to be depressingly patriarchal. Runaways is one of my favorite Marvel Comics. During his run on the series, the characters travel back in time to 1907 Manhattan where they meet 12-year-old Klara Prast: a physically and sexually abused child bride. A mutant, she travels back to the future with them, becoming a regular (and emotionally stunted) character and Whedon’s contribution to the series. It was hard not to feel crawly reading that arc. Whedon writes a lot of “powerful women,” but not a lot of women with real power.

Others have written more nuanced critiques of his remarks on sexism. Excuse me. “genderism.” I’m not trying to condemn the man and his creations. Any work of fiction’s going to be problematic to someone, sometime, somehow. In fact, I quite liked Buffy and Firefly. His works tend to be pulpy and entertaining. But are they feminist? Joss Whedon himself seems to be saying we should stop calling them that from now on.

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Joss Whedon

  1. Isabelle Ostrich says:

    I usually like a lot of what Joss Whedon has to say, and I’m a fan of his work. But I’ve never considered that many of his strong female roles are, as you say, “exceptional”. I guess it’s kind of ironic that out of the ‘scooby gang’ in Buffy Xander is the only one without any special powers – something that, as Joss makes clear in the final series, is Xander’s USP in the vampire slaying world. I enjoyed reading what you had to say about this

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