Writer/director/television-and-movie-maker Joss Whedon has spoken before at Equality Now functions, an organization dedicated to ending violence and discrimination against women. You have likely have heard his “Why do you create such strong women characters?” rant somewhere on the internet, and more elsewhere about his choices in developing complicated female protagonists in popular media.
Whedon spoke again at an Equality Now benefit dinner just days ago, and he has a new beef with a certain word. That word is “feminist.”
So let’s talk about that.
Before we begin, here is a video of the speech in question, which can be referred back to whenever needed:
Whatever personal opinions on Whedon anyone may have, his desire to work toward equality for women is clearly a genuine effort on his part, and something that he cares about deeply. That does not make his work critique-proof, or make every female character he creates into a prime example of how writing women should be done. It does not mean that everything he has to say on these issues is automatically correct. It does not mean that he is unaware of his own trope traps either; on the Avengers DVD commentary, he talks at length about how one of the few scenes that didn’t have to be rewritten was Black Widow’s introduction because it involves his tried and true scenario—a small, seemingly helpless woman getting the drop on a slew of strong men who have underestimated her.
With that said, we can turn our focus on what Whedon is talking about when he says he has come to dislike the term “feminist.” He begins by comically breaking down the sound of it, but ends by pointing out that the ending of the word echoes other terms—atheist, communist, horticulturalist—that are not innate states of being. They are things that human beings learn to be. Why is this a problem?
“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…
An excellent point, because the rhetoric is geared that way: how often do people begin conversations about gender equality with the words “I became a feminist in [insert specific point in life] because…”? It is viewed as a discipline, something that you acquire, because even if you understand inherently that men and women are not equal, recognizing the ways in which society has stacked the deck takes time, and demands attention and analysis.
Except being a feminist does not actually require a background in academic study and specific terminologies. All it demands is your personal desire for men and women to be treated equally in all aspects of life. That’s it. You don’t have to “become” anything—if you believe that men and women should be treated exactly the same, you already believe in feminism.
Which is why it makes sense for Whedon to bring up Katy Perry, and her acceptance speech on winning Billboard’s 2012 Woman of the Year award: the one where she explicitly stated, “I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women.” Whedon is attacking the problem sideways; not only does he point out that the term feminist might implicate an unnatural state of being, but it’s gone so far now that people consider it to be some kind of “dirty word.” Being a feminist means you have a specific stance on these issues, and more importantly, that you will be identified alongside anyone else who calls themselves a feminist.
It’s for this reason that so many people have become reticent to associate themselves with the word and with other feminists, but what they don’t realize is by denying it, they are literally saying, “Hey, I don’t think people should be equal. Because some of the other people who like this word seem strange or loud or discomfiting to me. No, I have never looked up the word in a dictionary.”
Joss Whedon’s solution is to bring a new term to the table. He likens this word to “racism,” in that human beings understand and use that term to acknowledge the horrific mistakes and unenlightened attitudes of the past that still exist and inform the present. Racism still exists, clearly, but it is not socially acceptable: there are very few people today who will admit to being racist (at least, if they want to be taken seriously), even if they happen to actually be racist—it’s not a concept people want to be associated with. We need a word that captures similar connotations when it comes to gender inequality—that drives home the sense that discriminating against people on the basis of sex is fundamentally a negative position that is no longer socially acceptable. His suggestion is the word “genderist”:
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…
To make it clear, Whedon is in no way suggesting that we live in a post-racial, post-gender society. He is trying to draw a line in the mud, to say that people who believe gender inequality is okay are clearly wrong and we can all agree on that. He finishes up his speech by reminding the audience that, of course, these fights will never truly be over. His recommendation is that by adjusting our terminology to make something clearly taboo, we can get there faster. We can make more progress right now.
Is that true? I’m not certain. As a rule, language is forever changing, and words come to mean different things over time. Is it better to create new words rather than alter the definitions (or perceptions) of old ones? As an example, the change in discourse between the emergence of the terms “global warming” and then “climate change” indicate it can help under the correct circumstances. And with so many people adamantly opposed to the word feminist—without even knowing what it means—offering up an alternate term could be useful in breaking down some barriers.
Still, I’d like to believe that we’re smart enough as a species to overcome our preconceptions. Can we reclaim “feminist”? Does it need reclaiming? Will the ignorance of others force us to abandon the term for words with no history behind them, new words that we can engrave our own meaning onto? Is that better?
I have no answers. But I do share Joss Whedon’s frustration that so many people would prefer to be called anything… but a feminist.