Joss Whedon Rebranding Feminism

Joss Whedon’s proposal to rebrand feminism, at the November 14th Equality Now dinner coincides with an earlier class discussion about America’s cultural desire to redefine feminism. Whedon is a widely acclaimed director praised for his portrayal of strong female protagonists, however, Whedon’s feminist reputation is frequently doubted and has been continually critiqued. The previous post Buffy and the Strong Female Character preformed just that in reference to Reconsidering the Feminism of Joss Whedon, which also argued the portrayal of a woman beating up men does not compose a strong female character if she constantly depends on them. Both pieces legitimately challenge Whedon’s feminist reputation. Now, I agree with the critiques of Whedon, and I acknowledge the constant negotiation of redefining feminism as directionless, however Joss Whedon’s speech severs as an interesting, and possibly promising, proposal to rebrand feminism.

Joss spoke for over 14 minutes, beginning his speech with, “I hate feminist. Is this a good time to bring that up? “I didn’t say I hate feminists; I said I hate feminist. I’m talking about the word.” Whedon takes the perspective of a writer, an occupation that lives inside words, and lives inside “the very smallest part of every word.” He breaks down the word feminist, and frames “ist” as the source of the problem, “its just this terrible ending with this wonderful beginning,” and ultimately deems the word feminist as inextricably unbalanced.

He also locates the meaning of the word as problematic:

Ist in it’s meaning is also a problem for me. Because you can’t be born an ist. It’s not natural.  You can’t be born an atheist or a communist or horticulturalist. You have to have these things brought to you.

Thus, the word feminist suggests the idea that believing men and women to be equal, and believing all people are equal, is not a natural state. Whedon argues that because feminist is framed as not a natural state questions like “Are you now, or have you been, a feminist?” are promoted. In class and on our blog, we’ve seen countless female celebrities answer this question with hesitation, one example being Katy Perry, “I’m not a feminist but I like it when women are strong.” Whedon uses this example to demonstrate the notion that this question that lies before us, is one that should lie behind us.

Whedon proceeds to use race and racism as comparison, which serves as a weak aspect of his argument. He argues racism as a term represents a line that we have crossed, and that anything beyond that line is shameful. He argues we have crossed that line in terms of gender, but we don’t have a word for it. Although I don’ t agree this a line we have crossed, I do agree additional language will benefit the discourse, which is seemingly Whedon’s ultimate goal.

He proposes “genderist,” as 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.

This would change Katy Perry’s response to “I’m not a genderist but sometimes I like to dress up pretty.”

There are a few drawbacks in Whedon’s article, most notably his comparison to race and notion of what is natural has been noted as a source of conflict. During this section of his speech Whedon rhetorically ignores the entire history of feminism. He also neglects to talk about racism and sexism in the same breath, it seems like it would be a good idea to acknowledge, however briefly, that women of color exist, and that for many of them the experiences of racism and sexism are not necessarily separable. Noah Berklastky also points out, in What Joss Whedon Gets Wrong About the Word Feminist , that

It would perhaps be useful also to point out that the biggest problem with the term “feminist” is not formal but historical. It’s become so associated with exclusively white, middle-class issues that many women of color feel it doesn’t represent them—thus Alice Walker’s effort to create a more inclusive term, womanism.

Although Whedon is not the first to establish feminism’s branding problem, his articulation is excellent, and arguably the word genderist allows us to conceptualize gender issues in a way we have not yet done. For example, in the context of pop culture the pressure would be lessened for female figures to identify their stance on feminism, meaning the introduction of genderist would allow “I’m not a genderist,” to become a new response. This language diminishes the polar consequences female figures receive when they announce their stance on feminism.

We have often talked about the consequences of having a lack of language around a topic such as sex diversity, but too much language can also be overbearing. Does more vocabulary blur the goal of feminism? Does it make it harder for people to support it or identify their beliefs? What happens when history is taken out of feminism? 

What the full speech below

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One thought on “Joss Whedon Rebranding Feminism

  1. Great post. But I can’t agree with Berklastky that ahistoricity re: feminism is Whedon’s “biggest” problem, when what he’s tackling here is a question of identity politics via all the -isms and declarations of “I am ___” as legitimate claims on subjectivity. Or at least, that’s where one can see his thought heading if allowed to proceed.

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