There’s a lot of controversy surrounding Joss Whedon and his feminist credentials. Is he a feminist icon, or a horrid misogynistic racist masquerading as an ally? It’s usually safe to say the answer is probably somewhere in the middle, but I have a slightly more specific response.
When we talk about whether someone deserves a feminist cookie, what we’re asking is not so much whether they did a good thing or are a nice person as whether or not they deserve accolades for whatever they’ve done. No one deserves accolades for being a feminist, even if they’re really awesome at it – feminism is the belief that women and men are equal, and that belief should be a base requirement for human beings. People should get accolades for doing work that furthers the cause of equality, but is that what Whedon has done?
I don’t see the evidence that Whedon’s intent was to revolutionize film and break the inequality barriers. In fact, I’d argue that’s why his casting of people of color seems so backward next to his attempts to break some of the rules that hold women back. I think Whedon is basically a person who finds women as potentially interesting as men and has managed to make some stories about them, and some of these stories happen to break some rules that desperately need to be broken. I’m very glad he did this – it’s helped me make my arguments (“See? Shows featuring women can profit!”) and it’s provided various producers the evidence to convince studios to make Alias and to change Starbuck’s gender. Do any of these producers deserve accolades for doing something that should be the norm? Sure, in the context of an absurdly anti-feminist industry in which it’s generally much more lucrative to toe the party line. They deserve some credit for that, no matter how imperfect their work is.
But what no one deserves is insulation from criticism. No one is a perfect feminist. If we don’t analyze our mistakes, how can we improve? The instant a self-proclaimed feminist becomes unwilling to hear from those telling her she’s missed a spot, she loses her feminist credibility. Examining Whedon’s failures is so important because they reveal to industry feminists and anti-racists (yes, they exist, they’re just sorely outnumbered and underfunded) what their next steps should be. They provide examples of how unconscious privilege gets in the way of creating truly enlightened media, no matter your intent. This is a crucial lesson for filmmakers who want to bring about change but have privilege issues of their own to work through. Anyone who attempts to shut down discussions of Whedon’s (arguable) mistakes is fighting against the very feminism Whedon vocally embraces, and therefore is not a very good fan.
Naamen Gobert Tilahun of Naamenblog points out some very good examples of problematic themes in the Whedon shows he’s enjoyed:
The destruction of Angel’s life through Cordelia’s rampant sexuality and yes we find out she was possessed and it wasn’t really her but that whole excuse was way muddled and not thought out.
I would have loved for Gunn (the only recurring POC in his first two shows) to just be able to be smart without a mystical intervention.
The dead lesbian – Tara
The breakdown of women without a male partner or when the male partner leaves – Buffy, Anya, Willow and on and on – in a way where we rarely if ever saw the reverse with Xander and Giles.
There’s a way in which Joss likes to consistently pair physical strength in girls with emotional weakness or fucked-up-ness, almost as if they have to exist side by side and that’s what pissed me off more than anything.
And that’s just to name a few. We should be having spirited disagreements about these elements, and others. We shouldn’t expect to reach agreement anytime soon because there is no single right answer – in fact, there’s often more than two sides to each point. There’s so much more to be learned from filmmakers who try and sometimes fail than those who play it safe and don’t try at all, and no matter where you fall on the cookie issue, the most important thing is that the discussion keeps going.