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.
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.
- Speed: people just talking to each other on the internet move faster than corporate spin machines.
- Structural limits: the “rules” of Twitter and Tumblr are simple, but mastered more often by bored teens and oppressed peoples.
- 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.
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:
I love how we talk about the internet like it isn’t us
— Trei Brundrett (@clockwerks) December 20, 2014
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.
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.