Joss Whedon is currently being hailed as a great feminist theorist,* because he said that “feminist” implies that equality is not our natural state, and we should instead simply call not-equal things “genderist.” This is somehow an improvement upon “sexist”, “anti-feminist”, and “misogynistic”, because, well, he said so. But Joss Whedon is actually totally full of crap.
Whedon spends his speech picking on the “-ist” part of “feminist”, though he does pick on the other syllables as well. But there is no reason the spelling of feminist implies that equality is not our natural state that the rest of feminism doesn’t also imply. Most feminist theory does come from the standpoint that equality is something we have to teach. Why does “–ist” imply this imposition, but “we don’t need to teach our girls how to protect themselves from rape, we need to teach our boys how to not rape” does not? Whedon’s argument, if taken to its logical conclusion, does not mean changing the spelling of feminism or even slightly changing some of the rhetoric. It means drastically changing huge amounts of feminist theory and tactics on a basic level.
I’m not really sure Whedon’s strategy is any better. For starters, it’s based on an understanding of the mind where equality is the natural state, and it is only oppressive structures which corrupt the mind and thus we have oppressive societies. (This gets into a bit of a chicken-vs-egg situation, but whatever.) As Noah Berlatsky pointed out, if this is so natural, why does anyone then have to read actual feminist theorists to understand what oppression is like and looks like and how it hurts people? There’s no reason for Robin Thicke to go read bell hooks if he can just “wake up” and know all this.
Lots of feminist theory is actually based upon this very concept, that oppression corrupts the mind, and the solution is simply for people to “wake up” and “get it” and then we can have the revolution. The problem is, I don’t agree with this understanding of how oppression happens, of the mind works. I think equality is an idea imposed on people; I also think equality is no more imposed than all the other viewpoints. But I don’t think equality is the natural state of humanity. It seems like if it was the natural state of humanity, it wouldn't be the exception for virtually all of history.
The other thing that bothers me about his framing is the way he tries to set sexism (oh, excuse me, “genderism”) in the historical past. Now, this is certainly a powerful way to discredit one’s opponents. “Ahahahaha, you still think rape victims shouldn’t have been wearing skirts and that gay people shouldn’t ‘flaunt their sexuality in public’? Aren’t you just adhorible! You’re like straight out of the fifties!” But this idea of progress, where things are always improving and getting more equal, and once you’ve reached a certain level of equality you can’t go back, it has problems. This framing is a decent part of why so many millennials (like, say, Katy Perry) think things like sexism are artifacts of the fifties. They were told that sexism was backwards so that they’d feel like they could be anything and would thus try to become president, but now that they actually believed that we’re pissed that they don’t understand how current our oppression is. It’s an unfortunately mixed message.
But also? It has been used to justify colonialism. It is one of the primary ways in which colonialism, imperialism, and slavery have been justified. It is one of the primary ways in which colonialism is still justified, why it is ok for white male Americans to invade "backwards" nations filled with brown people so that they can save the brown women from the brown men. When Whedon says that “every evolved human being, who is intelligent and educated and compassionate is past [genderism/sexism]”, guess who’s going to be the first group of people to be accused of not being evolved, of being uneducated and uncompassionate? And there’s something really fucked up about deciding that it’s ok for brown women to not want to use the label that has been used to justify their oppression in order to signal their commitment to their liberation, and then doubling-down on the framework that justified their oppression.
*If this is the first time you have heard an argument that made you realize it was ok for people to not call themselves feminists, unless you have been a feminist for all of a week, please consider the structures in place in mainstream feminism and in your own mind where this is the first time you really hear this argument, where you get it, where it clicks and you have an “ah-ha!” moment.
Crossposted from my blog.