We Don’t Need the Shadow Men: Joss Whedon’s Dishwater Feminism Can Sit Down Now

Serenity poster, Joss Whedon, Warner Bros

Even Joss Whedon, nice guy that he is, gets criticized by feminists. This is why: “It never occurred to me that championing equality for women was going to be controversial.” Naive or disingenuous? You can decide that for yourself. But Whedon’s brand of polite, liberal feminism is a problem.

Eliza Dushku for Dollhouse, Joss Whedon, DVD menu, WB
Whedon’s surely uncontroversial Dollhouse

In a recent interview with Badass Digest’s Devin Faraci, Whedon talked (again) about why he’s a Hollywood feminist who’s driven to speak up about sexism, and what’s wrong with the movement. What troubles him: access, volume, fire.

“The problem is… I’m not saying the problem is Twitter, but let us use that as an arena. Everybody has access to everybody, everybody has the chance to boil down the most simplistic version of what it is they have to say and reach whoever they’re saying it about. I think in some ways there are crazy, rabid, angry misogynist people out there…”

Whedon is talking about GamerGate there, but also “everybody” on “both sides” including the “crazy people,” and he goes on to express befuddlement at having been criticized by feminists for what were, in his eyes, minor infractions.

The problem isn’t Twitter, he says, but social media as a whole—that “ease of communication, increase in access, democratization of discourse” deal. For good and ill, social media platforms like Twitter and Tumblr compress distance and eliminate boundaries through speed, structural limits on form, and free accounts, fostering the rapid growth and transformation of mass sensations and movements.

  1. Speed: people just talking to each other on the internet move faster than corporate spin machines.
  2. Structural limits: the “rules” of Twitter and Tumblr are simple, but mastered more often by bored teens and oppressed peoples.
  3. Free: platform, platform, platform. What social media does is facilitate discourse that doesn’t pay homage, and that’s quicksand for the comfortably in power. What it doesn’t do is turn nice people into shitheads.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, WB, 1998, Joss Whedon, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Scooby Gang
Remember how who you were as a human informs who you are as a vampire? Bit like that

Social media, mediated human-to-human communication via the internet, doesn’t make you a worse person and it doesn’t reduce discourse. Repeat after me: you are who you are, homie. Nice people, when confronted with the wilds of social media, do rash things. They harass. They bully. They lead targeted hate campaigns and laugh at visceral pain of others. OH WAIT. They don’t. The science is in, friends. Trolls may be ordinary people, but not all ordinary people are good: if you’re a terrible person on the internet, you’re a terrible person off the internet too. Because, and hold on to this one, doubters, the internet is real life. The internet is merely technologically mediated human-to-human communication. Via The Atlantic:

As far as the depth and breadth of conversation goes, the opposite of Whedon’s conventional wisdom is true: personal media platforms for activists, artists, and everyone else mean that more people are talking about more things more of the time. Social media expands discourse. It powers social movements and fringe voices alike. It hears the unhearable. And most importantly, it helps us come to each other’s aid: we would not have #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen without it. “Everybody has the chance to boil down the most simplistic version of what it is they have to say and reach whoever they’re saying it about.” Yeah, and that’s magic.

Trolls may be ordinary people but not all ordinary people are good.

I don’t care that Joss Whedon is still friends with Adam Baldwin, but I do care that he employs broadly flattening, de-historicizing rhetoric to defend their relationship. Baldwin, who coined the hashtag GamerGate and who harasses people on the internet for goodtime jollies, is a longtime colleague and friend of Joss Whedon. He’s a nice guy, Whedon says later in the interview, who cares about his friends and family. About that other side of Baldwin, the harassing, misogynist side, he cannot speak. Remember: “everybody” on “both sides” who has strong feelings has the chance—act now!—to transform into Uruk-Hai, thanks to Twitter.

We don’t need the middle of the road, let’s-just-be-equalists, dishwater feminism that Joss Whedon espouses in Badass Digest and elsewhere. His comments about “everybody” being to blame for rough times in the land of social media come in the context of white, cis feminists crying about how the women of colour and trans women of “toxic Twitter” can and do clapback on them. In the context of hashtag-to-street activism like #BlackLivesMatter being derided variously as slacktivism, reverse racism, and violent. In the undeniable context of cyberbullying, brigading, and harassment campaigns that use the power of social media to cause real and and lasting harm. In the context of feminism—intersectional, substantive, fiery feminism—still being controversial, difficult, and dangerous.

“It never occurred to me that championing equality for women was going to be controversial.”

It should have.

Megan Purdy

Megan Purdy

Publisher of all this. Megan was born in Toronto. She's still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.

18 thoughts on “We Don’t Need the Shadow Men: Joss Whedon’s Dishwater Feminism Can Sit Down Now

  1. Yes. So tired of fauxminists (who, let’s face it, typically tend to be men) trying to control the discourse around feminism and then say we’re turning on our own/eating our own tails when we’re critical of their defanged, oppressor friendly rhetoric.

    My love of horror films excuses “Cabin in the Woods” from this, but Whedon’s cannon isn’t particularly feminist, just female. I’m really glad to see that he’s outing himself as a “dishwater” flavoured feminist and more people are taking a stand against that brand of social justice.

    1. By your measure, all men shouldn’t bother attempting being feminist. They’ll never be feminist enough, will always be “fauxminists,” or whatever neologism you come up with on a particular day. You are creating your own enemies.

      1. Is it that men “be feminist” so that women will publicly speak about how much they like them, then? Or is it that it’s possible for men to aim to do as little harm as they can–popular creator or everyday joe?

        Perhaps you should rethink, Reyna.

        1. By my measure men’s responsibility in feminism is to create space, not dominate space with their “good enough” support. I’m sorry you think so little of men that you don’t think they can learn and do better.

  2. Personally, I think he often takes a humanist view and all humans are complex, messy people.

  3. Bill Mahar was discussing this recently. Not feminism per se, but the liberal left eating its own tail. Does the author deny that Joss is a friend to women, and that he is trying to help address the very real issues he champions? Why demonize the people that we share more in common with than we do not. No man or woman has the perfect feminist position. Is there room for accepting positive reinforcement, without deriding how they did it wrong?

      1. I think it’s easy to sit on a high chair and say Whedon should end his friendship with Baldwin over Baldwins misogyny, but seriously…have you never had a dumb, misguided friend? Have you never been friends or family with someone you get along with, and all the sudden they say some outdated and misinformed?

        If you’re friends with someone for years you tend to just agree to disagree and let it slide. If you say you have never done this, then you are lying.

        1. There’s a difference maybe between agreeing to disagree and defending the guy on a national platform. You could say, “we are personal friends, but I really disagree with how he conducts himself on social media,” for example.

        2. There’s misguided, and then there’s purposely harassing or encouraging others to harass people – specifically women. If Whedon wants to be friends with Baldwin, that’s his choice, I won’t infringe upon that it’s not my place. But it does call into question his legitimacy as an apparent feminism voice within the overall sphere of discussion. Because he can simply say, “we’re friends, but I don’t agree with his politics at all nor do I endorse them,” instead of attempting to defending him and paint him as a good person.

        3. It is easy to sit on a high chair and say Whedon should end his friendship with Baldwin, only, that’s not what Megan said. As others point out in other responses to your comment, there’s nothing wrong with staying friends with someone who does something inappropriate, but there is a responsibility to address it, especially in a situation where Whedon is “championing” feminism, while his friend is actively encouraging misogyny. Is championing the cause only okay when it’s convenient? When other people brand you with the label? But when it gets close to home, it’s “no comment”?

          1. Let me tell you a story about my grandmother. She’s crazy racist, but growing up I had no idea. Growing up in Utah, there just aren’t many people who aren’t Caucasian so I never really saw her interact with African-Americans.

            My memories of her before I found out were entirely positive. She had a lot of money, but she gave a substantial portion of it away to charity and just lived in a one story rambler. She seemed to be the nicest person. She threw amazing Christmas, Halloween, and Easter parties for the family, which her whole life revolved around.

            Then one year one of my cousins brought home an African-American boyfriend, and I learned something new about my grandmother that I never knew. She said some wildly inappropriate things I won’t repeat, and it just threw me for a loop. When people ask me about my grandmother being racist, this is generally how I present the story.

            Now, am I defending my grandmother’s racism? No, I’m not. I tell the first part of the story, where I recall her as a nice person because it still surprises me. My instinct when relaying the story lies in talking about the logical disconnect, because it is what puzzles and interests me.

            When Whedon was talking about how “good a guy” Baldwin is I don’t think he was trying to defend him. I think he’s still just flabbergasted about what Baldwin did, and that’s why instinctually he talks about his impressions of Baldwin, and why he is puzzled.

          2. But Whedon is a professional communicator, and we are left with the dregs of a conversation that is weighted with this abusive man’s enjoyed qualities.

          3. I don’t believe you are defending her racism and I am sure your grandmother is a good person, but the comparison doesn’t quite stand. Why? Because Whedon is a public figure making a public statement about a very controversial topic. He’s “championing” a cause, but when it comes to his friend who is doing the exact opposite, *mumble mumble mumble he’s a really nice guy mumble*. Flabbergasted? No excuse. He’s not living in a closet. He knows Baldwin’s involvement in this situation and knows how that flies in the face of what Whedon apparently stands for. You don’t just get to stand up and say “BUT HE’S A REALLY GOOD GUY,” because he’s a friend and he doesn’t want to — what? Hurt Baldwin’s feelings? As a public figure, making a statement about these issues, he needs to make sure the all important second half of that statement is there, “BUT I DON’T CONDONE HIS ACTIONS.”

    1. I’m not sure I agree, because critique is important to overall development.

      Say a person draws a picture in a specific style of art, and someone who has been studying that style comes in and says, “well this is what you did wrong, this is what can be improved on,” is that wrong? Perhaps that’s not the best metaphor, but I have a problem with blind worship under the guise of protecting a privileged white straight man who has done and said a number of things that don’t support feminism nor racial equality.

      You can call yourself a friend of mine, but if you do things that hurt me, and then play the victim when I tell you they hurt me and why, you’re not a true friend. That’s a better metaphor. Whedon has repeatedly cast white actors in roles meant for people and women of color, he’s made at least one transphobic comment in my memory, he treated an actress in his employment horribly because he was mad she got pregnant, he makes comments about how a woman “looks asian enough” when critiqued over the lack of asian characters in his show that is a fusion of Western and specifically Chinese (because Asia is a hugely diverse culture not just China and Japan but Western artists like to festishize “exotic” cultures into one singular lump) cultures.

      Do I believe Whedon’s intentions are good? Sure, but intentions matter very little if the result is upholding a system of oppression as a result.

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