Thanks But No Thanks, Joss Whedon; You Can Keep “Genderist” While We Tackle Sexism

In an acceptance speech at Make Equality Reality last week, Joss Whedon pitched an interesting alternative to the word “feminist”: “genderist.” The full 14-minute speech is really worth a watch, but if you can’t (or won’t, it’s cool), here’s the rundown:

  • Whedon hates the word “feminist,” though not the idea. His issue stems in part because he dislikes the sound of the syllables, and in part because he feels that “ist” implies a socially constructed idea, which gender equality should not be.
  • He brings up Katy Perry not identifying as a feminist while simultaneously embracing feminist ideals, and suggests that it is evidence of words failing her/us.
  • Whedon compares this to public discourse about race, pointing out that the word “racist” serves the purpose of shaming people “on the wrong side of history” as well as creating the illusion that the unmarked norm in civil society today is “past” the acceptance of racism.
  • Finally, he proposes that we use the term “genderist” as a pejorative (similar to “racist”), in the hopes that this will nudge society’s default position forward from “not a feminist” to “not a genderist.”
Via Huffington Post

Joss Whedon delivers his speech after being honored by Equality Now. Via Huffington Post.

Predictably, reactions to Whedon’s speech have been all over the map. (Which, for better or worse, is pretty much the way it always goes down when men voice public opinions on feminism.) On Thursday, Jezebel‘s Katie Dries gushingly characterized the speech as perfect; two days later, HermioneStranger responded on Jezebel Groupthink that Whedon is “actually totally full of crap.” Salon‘s Katie McDonough resolutely rejected Whedon’s proposal that gender equity is a “natural state,” while The Atlantic‘s Noah Berlatsky penned a polemical piece criticizing the speech’s lack of deference to feminist history. There were valid points all around, particularly in the critiques of how Whedon framed the issue.

From my perspective, I thought that what Whedon presented was interesting, well-intentioned, and way off the mark. For starters: I disagree with his conception of what a feminist is. So perhaps it is unsurprising that I also fundamentally disagree with him on why “feminist” is unnecessary and “genderist” is not.

photo grid of people holding up "I need feminism becauase [reason]" signs

A crowd of people who find feminism necessary. Via Sarah Salway.

To me, calling yourself “feminist” doesn’t just mean that you believe abstractly that men and women are equal. It means that you’re actively engaged with the idea of gender equality. You see the inequality in the world and are bothered by it enough to want to make it better. Feminism is a political philosophy necessitating action – even if the only action you’re able to take right now is to read about feminism online. This form of participation is actually a really important one because it effects change beginning with the person you’re most responsible for: yourself. It’s a beautiful thing. It makes the world a better place. (And yes, feminism has its problems, some quite serious. But from where I’m standing, I see a lot of people working hard to improve this, and there seems to be much more positive momentum than negative.)

“Genderist,” on the other hand, is a much more passive concept than “feminist,” because it’s a word that you apply to other people. It implies no personal ownership. You can give lip service to “genderist” all day long and sit back, feeling like you’ve already done your duty merely by saying the word aloud. There’s no responsibility on your part to follow up, or to effect any positive change in the world. It’s a minimum effort approach, and given the pervasive sexism throughout our society, I feel like this simply isn’t good enough.

Within Whedon’s original speech, he does address the idea of ongoing struggle. “We will never not be fighting,” he said emphatically. But, “[language] is how we understand society. The word racism didn’t end racism. It contextualized it in a way that we still haven’t done with this issue.”

Really, though – is comparing our language and thinking around gender inequity to language and thinking around racism really accurate? Although the effects of racism and sexism are intersecting and overlapping for many people, that doesn’t mean that their histories are the same, or that the same methodology will end both of them. Whedon’s own work, which often features strong female protagonists but often suffers from misguided “colorblindness” and rarely features people of color, is in fact an example of that. Whedon doesn’t seem like he knows enough about racism or the word ‘racist’ to necessarily be basing entirely new branches of feminism off of it.

Besides, don’t we already have a similarly functioning word with “sexist?” Pithy jokes about ’70s-era powder blue suits aside, what is the actual objection to this word? (Haven’t the ’70s passed yet? Isn’t that what Whedon was going for, a word that evokes a sense of something whose acceptability is behind us?)

Actually, I'm kind of into this suit.

Actually, I’m kind of into David Bowie’s suit here. But I’m not into sexism! Via The Art Archive Project.

In truth, what Whedon is offering with “genderist” is a less loaded term; a softer, prettier descriptor for a really ugly thing. And while I’m sure he didn’t mean it this way (…right?), I feel like it’s a serious misstep for a man to suggest to a group of women that they might make more progress if they would just consider using a less aggressive tone.

“Genderist” is a rhetorical device that lets people off the hook too easily and further marginalizes feminism. Once you start describing things as “genderist” you don’t even need to say the word feminist anymore, much less process how it relates to your life. And that just isn’t a thing I can get behind.

So thanks but no thanks, Joss Whedon. You can keep “genderist” to yourself for now; I’m sticking with feminism.

Avatar of Laura Mandanas

Laura Mandanas is a Filipina American living in Brooklyn. By day, she works as an industrial engineer. By night, she is beautiful and terrible as the morn, treacherous as the seas, stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love her and despair.

Laura has written 65 articles for us.

34 Comments

  1. Thumb up 4

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    “I feel like it’s a serious misstep for a man to suggest to a group of women that they might make more progress if they would just consider using a less aggressive tone.”

    Joss Whedon is a feminist, so he is part of that group. (Implying that he isn’t or cannot be because he’s a guy would seem a little sexist. ;))

    Personally, I never got that whole colorblind thing and I have a lot of issues with it. To many to list them all. :)

    • Thumb up 16

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      It’s not sexist to distinguish between male (particularly cis) feminists and female feminists when talking about a given person’s right to participate or dictate direction. Joss Whedon’s role within the feminist movement is akin to that of a straight ally within the queer rights movement.

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        I don’t get it. That’s like saying only people who have really dark skin get a say when it comes to racism and people who could easily pass as white don’t.

        I simply don’t agree that you have to be female to be a “real” feminist. It doesn’t make sense.

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          you definitely don’t have to be female to be a real feminist, but i do think there is something to be said for allowing people who actually fall into a marginalized group take the lead in defining what the group’s goals are, how they want to be spoken about and if they want to be spoken for (they often do not), and leaving ample room for them to take charge and have agency over how they are represented, because the truth is unless you have a specific lived experience, it’s impossible to know what that life is like.

          i believe a man can be a feminist but i believe he must work doubly hard to listen, because if you’re trying to support women and equality and you end up speaking over women / ignoring some women entirely, you’re not doing a good job.

  2. Thumb up 16

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    “To me, calling yourself “feminist” doesn’t just mean that you believe abstractly that men and women are equal. It means that you’re actively engaged with the idea of gender equality.”

    I love this. And I think that’s partly why so many people have trouble calling themselves feminists. Because it requires taking ownership of ones own actions. Not just calling someone else out.

    Well done.

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      I don’t need to label myself a feminist in order to actively engage with the idea of gender equality or to take ownership of my actions. I found this quote quite condescending.

      There are a lot of perfectly valid reasons people may not choose to label themselves as feminists. The word carries a lot of baggage. If you feel that it suits you, great. But don’t force it on other people.

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        I think the quote is supposed to reflect personal agency rather than just believing in a nice framework of what “should” be done.

        Think of it more as being an activist (someone who is actively engaged in behaviour that works towards gender equality) rather than someone who just says “Yeah, men and women should be equal” with no personal investment.

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        I agree with you that a person doesn’t need to identify as “feminist” in order to be invested in gender equality! Feminism has a really problematic legacy of exclusion, and nobody should feel pressured to line up behind that particular label.

        What I meant here is exactly what Paper0Flowers described — that use of the term implies activism.

  3. Thumb up 9

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    I love this. I think you articulated a lot of the problems I had with his speech.

    But I think it comes down to the fact that I don’t think Joss is that great of a feminist. I’m not saying he isn’t one or that he doesn’t try to be one. But I’m not going to take advice about the future/direction of feminism from a man who fired an actress because she got pregnant.

    So, thanks but no thanks is exactly right.

  4. Thumb up 3

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    I disagree with the Bell Hooks quote: feminism isn’t just a Western concept nor is it solely an American one. How patronizing and self-centered (I know it has nothing to do with Joss Whedon but I don’t have a strong opinion on Whedon, one way or the other so).

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      I agree. I try to follow current debates in feminism and a variety of authors, but I get frustrated with how US-centric the points of view are. This is doubly true for discussions about race – occasionally people will bring in other cultures as a comparison, but nine times out of ten they start talking from an American perspective. It’s a little frustrating, particularly as a someone who comes from a Western society that is actually really dissimilar to the US, making it difficult to engage with discussions that presume shared experiences or social attitudes. (Feel free to hit me up with counter-examples, by the way. I’d love to read anything you want to recommend, particularly if it deals with New Zealand culture.)

  5. Thumb up 8

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    I feel like many of the points on both sides make good arguments. Even though I don’t like his idea of “genderist”, he did say some better things. My thoughts on this speech are basically my entire thoughts on Whedon himself: He’s trying, but off the mark on some things. (and he clearly doesn’t understand racism. I mean how can Firefly exist in a world that’s supposed to be heavily Chinese influenced, and have no Asian people? wtf Whedon)

  6. Thumb up 4

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    I think Whedon’s comments are naive more than anything. To replace “feminist” with “genderist” plays down the misogynistic dimensions of sexism that need to be addressed. While the term “feminist” has its unfortunate baggage today, I think it needs to be rehabilitated rather than done away with completely.

    “Genderist” might be useful when talking about gender issues (including non-binary) as a whole, but it fails to address specifically the sexism that women experience, which is what Whedon is talking about.

    I still love Whedon and his work, and I always appreciate what he has to say. I tend to believe that he has naive aspirations for how people talk about (in)equality and bring it to fruition. I wish I could be as idealistic as he seems, but alas – reality.

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    “To me, calling yourself “feminist” doesn’t just mean that you believe abstractly that men and women are equal. It means that you’re actively engaged with the idea of gender equality.”

    Everything you wrote, but especially this part

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    I’m getting a bit tired of this narrative that women who refuse to label themselves as feminists can’t be taken seriously.

    While I appreciated Joss Whedon’s basic premise that viewing men and women as equals should be considered the default state, and that not holding this view should be the “marked” state requiring an -ism label (although I don’t see why “sexism” doesn’t already fill that role quite nicely), I do agree that much of his rhetoric was clunky and naive.

    BUT. Only self-proclaimed feminists can “actively engage with the idea of gender equality”? What exactly does this engaging with the idea of gender equality look like? Do only sweeping gestures count, or is there room for the little day-to-day challenges every single woman on Earth faces? Can it include women from lower social classes, disadvantaged groups, or third-world countries? Women in abusive relationships? Women with little power or influence? Women whose voices are silenced by laws, cultural expectations or social pressures? Or do these grand acts of “engaging” only belong to middle-to-upper-class, mostly North American and European women who have the freedom to apply a historically contentious label to themselves with relative impunity?

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      ^ that a million times, Chandra. Maybe those women are autonomous sapient beings and have reasons. And *sigh* all this blind arrogance and the rose-tinted delusional optimism inherent in the assumption their reasons are merely strategic (such as living in an environment where they are unable to make a gesture in open without grave consequences). What if the reasons are genuine, autonomous, carefully considered and thought through? And more to the point – what if one remains fiercely loyal to the cause of equality, in deeds rather than words?

      In short – it is far too cheap a cop-out to deny the dissenting women agency. The whole male supremacist old boys establishment has been doing precisely that for ages.

      Whichever way i will always stand for equality but for your academia wordsmith heroes i have only contempt and for the history it’s equal degree of repulsion(the consolidation through scapegoating of just about every variety of underprivileged women) and indifference (the whole academia grand ball of class display). Guess what, some women don’t like their sexuality colonised for politics – nor do they like being told whom they should have sex with and how often.

    • Thumb up 9

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      i really appreciate your perspective on this, because it’s not how i viewed the issue at all, and it’s given me a lot of info to mull over and consider. i don’t think the issue should be about women who don’t take on the label “feminist” but who do “actively engage with the idea of gender equality.” as laura mentions above, there are plenty of very valid reasons not to take on the (rightfully) baggage-laden term feminist, and if someone finds it a good fit and can practice their feminism in an intersectional way (as i hope i do) then i think that’s rad. but also if someone does not find it a good fit and can still exist in the world and try to smash the patriarchy and fight sexism and racism and homophobia and classism and doesn’t want to take on the label, that’s a-okay too, of course. i think the narrative you’re talking about comes from women who speak out against the positive ideas feminism hopes to move forward — i don’t actually care if a celebrity or a person of interest identifies with the word feminist or not, but i do care if they make claims that sexism no longer exists or insist that they are not a feminist because they “love men” or make other damaging statements that confuse the general population (young women in particular) about what still needs to be done to achieve a just and equal society for all humans. does that make sense? i’m feeling a little incoherent this morning, so i apologize if any of these ideas aren’t fully formed or confusing, and if you want to keep discussing this i would welcome the conversation!

      i think, tl;dr — people who have given serious thought about whether or not they would like to take on the word feminist have every right to be taken seriously when they work to end gender inequality, no matter what choice they make. women who make a point to say “omg i’m not a feminist i lovvvvve men and makeup!” are honestly doing us all a disservice (specifically because a feminist can love men, makeup, and a multitude of other things…that’s the point).

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      I think you can totally be dedicated to ending gender inequality without identifying as a feminist. And if anything, I think it gives you more credibility (at least outside of feminist circles), because the word feminist has so many negative connotations within mainstream American discourse (I can only speak for American perspectives on feminism).

      It’s totally reasonable to not consider onself a feminist, while still believing in principles of gender equality and actively working toward ending these forms of systematic oppression. The feminist movement has been very problematic, and it’s understandable why some people would not be interested in taking that label for themselves.

      That being said, I don’t think that Laura was saying that you have to be a feminist to be working towards those goals. I think the point was more that, for those of us who do choose to identify as feminists, there is an implied activism; we are doing something more to end these oppressions than your average Joe off the street who believes in equality, but isn’t actively challenging inequality. That doesn’t mean that you are not also challenging inequality, but the labels that you may choose to apply to yourself may not have the same connotations of activism.

      TL;DR You have to be doing something to be a feminist, but you do not have to be a feminist to be doing something.

  9. Thumb up 1

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    The current mass definition of feminist is negative. Sometimes words evolve. When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People began the word ‘colored’ was not the pejorative that it is today. A little bit of historical reading will give you lots of old african american newspaper articles that talk of a “colorful evening” or similar positive uses of the word. Jim Crow laws with “whites only” labels on anything of value and “colored” being placed the garbage that was left changed how everyone looked at that word. Today that word is considered racist. The word evolved. The word ‘guy’ evolved from an ethnic slur into a generalized reference of males. I’m sure everyone is familiar with ‘gay’ going from happy or festive to homosexual. And the list goes on. Language is fluid.
    I have a mans job. So much so that my job title is Journeyman Wireman, and I am a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. I work hard every day and demonstrate the ability of a woman to do a mans job and do it well. I face sexism repeatedly but always overcome. I may not completely change a mans attitude about all women, but I do convince them about some women, which I believe is a first step. I will work for gender equality but I would never label myself a feminist.

  10. Thumb up 2

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    Since I had no idea what people were referring to when they said Whedon fired a woman for getting pregnant I googled it. http://www.cordychase.com/whedonint.htm Appears to be his side (spin) where he says her availability became limited at the same time that he had to change the series. But he the door was open for her return as she was available.
    http://jamesjupiter.tumblr.com/post/1036099581/charisma-carpenter-talks-about-getting-fired-from
    Is an interview with Charisma Carpenter. A little before 5 minutes she begins her side (spin). She says there were issues before she was pregnant. She felt that she was written out because Joss was angry. And that upon being written out she initially refused to return as a recurring character for fear of being killed off. She did return and was killed off but felt that the characters death was a great and cool story line.
    There was another part that she says she had a moment with Joss during the DVD commentary and they both wondered if the other would be willing to work with them again. And they both said they would.
    Since this is the first I’ve heard of it and researched it, it seems a bit less like a smoking gun proof of his hidden sexism and hatred of pregnant women. (Or at least women who get pregnant when he wants to use them otherwise.) And more like proof that there were issues between a boss and a worker. Boss resolved it initially by reducing workers hours. Workers response was to refuse to return. Then when worker did return boss fired her. Petty? Yes. Sexist? Not from what I found. There were lots of sites slamming him for firing her but those are the only two interviews with the actual people involved that I found. I admittedly am not a puter guru.
    I had no real opinion on Joss Whedon going into reading this article. (I didn’t know all the shows he has created. I thought he only did Buffy and Angel.) It seems that any time someone speaks out publicly against something, the press is more than happy to find examples of that person behaving in a manner that makes them a hypocrite. And when that person is someone who wants to empower women well stand back. Because that can simply not be allowed. I have no doubt that if I were under the scrutiny that famous people are I’d look a fool. I’m not convinced he’s an angel or a devil but I am convinced that Twilight and sparkly vampires are a direct result of his vampires with a soul. And that makes me dislike him a bit.

  11. Thumb up 1

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    I actually feel is just a big joke.

    If we tried switching over to “genderist” it would probably be commandeered by MRAs who would accuse every girl who friendzoned him of being a “genderist.” The word “genderist” implies that all acts of “genderism,” regardless of who is on the receiving end, are equal, which is absurd, because PATRIARCHY, duh.

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    I fully agree with this article. It’s kind of a bummer to know that Whedon doesn’t like the word “feminist”, because I used to refer to his work on Buffy a lot when I mentionned feminist characters. Tara and Willow certainly were the first lesbian couple I could look up to (if you forget Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus… which was a confusing pair due to the fact that the English dub made Uranus a “male” when she was a civilian. But I’m getting lost, here…). And I liked how his female characters had depth, flaws, weaknesses, strenghts… it was overall exciting. And they (OMG) interracted together a lot, as in, girls talking to girls. About things other than boys. Gee!

    Where I like your article the most is when you say that “feminism” comes with an ownership of the concept and a responsibility towards it. When I started educating myself about feminism, I started out by figuring out where *I* had been doin’ it wrong (slut shaming other girls, refering to myself as “one of the boys” because I desperately didn’t want to be just another girly girls, judging other women by their sexual pasts…) I decided to take the steps to correct my attitude.

    Becoming a feminist made ME a better person, and I have become accountable for the way I view/treat other women. If I had been accusing other people of beind genderists all this time, chances are I’d only be concerned with stuff like the pay gap, the sexualisation of women through medias and the saint/slut dichotomy.

    But teaching myself about feminism made me aware of gender roles and how they shape our mentalities, and of the impact that the gender binary has on our conception of ourselves. This is something I am glad I have acquired.

    I won’t just stand there and call people genderists if I can do something about myself and ensure that I make an actual CHANGE, even if it is just in me!

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