What Joss Whedon Gets Wrong about the Word ‘Feminist’

The Atlantic’s Noah Berlatsky gives an astute analysis of Joss Whedon’s recent speech about the word “feminist”:

What Joss Whedon Gets Wrong about the Word ‘Feminist’

I found this quotation particularly interesting:

“This is a speech about the word “feminist,” but there are no feminists in the speech.

Which, given Whedon’s presuppositions, makes sense. If equality is something that is natural, if it’s a thing that everyone understands innately, if it is the default, then it isn’t something you have to learn from anyone. You don’t need Betty Friedan to tell you that an enforced life as a homemaker can be stifling. You don’t need Andrea Dworkin to tell you about systematic cultural violence against women. You don’t need Patricia Hill Collins to explain that race and gender can intersect to create particularly vicious forms of discrimination and oppression. You don’t, for that matter, need to think about, or engage with, the long feminist mistrust of arguments from “nature.” You just know, naturally, what is right.”

I wanted to post this because the discussion around Whedon’s speech, and the speech itself, shows how allies can often get things wrong out of the best of intentions. I think it also sheds some light on Katy Perry and Lady Gaga’s comments on feminism – note especially at the end where Berlatsky mentions Alice Walker’s own dismissal of “feminism” in favor of her own term “womanism” because of the entrenched, racists history of American feminism.

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2 thoughts on “What Joss Whedon Gets Wrong about the Word ‘Feminist’

  1. Here is a response from my colleague, Michelle Parinello-Cason (you can find more of her writing at her blog Balancing Jane: balancingjane.com):

    I. . . . found the part about needing a word that points out the negative impact of not being feminist rather than the positive assertion of being feminist (“the wrong side of history” bit) meaningful. However, when I listened to it and heard him say it needed to be a word “like racism” that made it so obvious to people how horrible their actions were that they’d change, I wondered how serious he could possibly be. The number of people who insist they are “not racist” while doing CLEARLY racist things is unbelievable. I suspect it would work the same way for “genderist.” “I’m not genderist, but women just make more nurturing parents.” “I’m not genderist but men are just better suited for manual labor.”

    I don’t think the Atlantic article is being quite fair to his position. I don’t think he ignored the history of feminism’s impact or suggested that we had the innate knowledge of equality in us all along. I think he was saying that, especially to people who have no experience or knowledge of the fight for equal rights themselves, “feminism” seems like a radical stance that they don’t need because it asserts a non-normative position while the language of a term like “genderist”–by making equality the standard–eliminates the “radical” perception that is hurting feminism among younger generations.

    I think “feminism” DOES have a connotation problem for many younger people, especially, and it’s something that many feminist writers I respect have tried to tackle. I think Whedon was trying to enter into that conversation, but did it a little too boldly and destructively (for rhetorical effect, I am sure) to be taken seriously among many of the people already having that conversation.

  2. I definitely agree with your colleague. I thought the article misinterpreted what Joss was saying. I don’t think that he was ignoring the work of feminists by any means I think he was trying to find a way to avoid the negative connotation that the word feminism has today. Its a shame but there are so many people who refuse to support feminism because of this negative connotation and in some cases just attributing a belief to that word will automatically result in people ignoring the point. With the comparison to racism with the use of the word genderist I think Joss was trying to make people see the harm they can cause. Along that point if you continue with the comparison, there is no equivalent word in the civil rights movement to the word feminist. There is not a word for a person who believes in racial equality but rather a word that marks the problem: racism. I think Joss was trying to make this point in his speech and I feel like the article misunderstood that or did not give a fair analysis.

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