S/He Says
Charl Laubscher and Rebecca Kamm bring their 2- cents' worth to the table.

S/He Says: What's wrong with the word 'feminism'?

From the way it sounds, to the baggage it carries and the way we use it, director/writer Joss Whedon hates the word “feminist.” He recently shared his thoughts (check out the video below) Unsurprisingly, the internet’s offered a few thoughts back.

Only a wealthy, white, straight man could suggest that equality is our natural state. Photo / Thinkstock
Only a wealthy, white, straight man could suggest that equality is our natural state. Photo / Thinkstock

Rebecca says:

I like Joss Whedon, and I think he's an ally. But I also think he's wrong.

Like a lot of white, straight, liberal men who try their very hardest to tackle the term "feminism", he has unwittingly shone a spotlight on his own privilege instead. Not to mention his lack of deeper knowledge.

Here is what bugged me about his Equality Now speech:

Lack of deference to actual feminist theory or icons. Or women.

I'm not the first to point out that Whedon's 15-minute speech about feminism has no actual women in it (minus Katy Perry, briefly). It's what author Tania Modleski calls "feminism without women", and the rest of us less scholarly types call mansplaining.

Newsflash: Women, whether they self-identify as "feminists" or not, have insider knowledge when it comes to the female experience. Newsflash 2: feminism is about the female experience.

So yeah, to speak or write about feminism as a man - and exclude women from that discussion altogether - is an obvious oversight (at best).

Not to say there aren't glaring issues within the feminist movement (which Whedon fails to mention in his quest to deconstruct the term). But the missing link when it comes to the movement's many complexities is not, and never has been, a male voice. Least of all, one that excludes the voice of women.

Whedon's world: it sure seems like a nice place.

Only a wealthy, white, straight man could suggest that equality is our natural state. That feminist ideals are something we are all born with, so therefore the term itself is dispensable.

The problem, he reasons, is that "you can't be born an -ist. It's not natural."
Therefore, "[the word] 'feminist' includes the idea that believing men and women to be equal ... is not a natural state." It implies that "the idea of equality is just an idea that is imposed on us."

Newsflash 3: Treating women like people is something we need to teach. The most cursory glance over eras past will confirm that mankind has no innate proclivity towards equality. Quite the opposite, in fact. And women are on the receiving end of this lack, not men, which is why we need a special term to describe their efforts to overcome inequality.

Here's an example: do the Roast Busters boys need to be taught that women are people, or will they "wake up" and find this fact has been released from their cellular structure, where it lay dormant all along?

Pseudo-scientific theory: no thanks.

As Whedon would know if he'd done his reading, theories around biological imperatives has been used by conservatives to argue against gender equality since the invention of motherhood.

Suggesting women bypass real world experience and history, and embrace unproven socio-scientific rationale - when it's been used as a tool against them since forever - is misguided. Good intentions notwithstanding.

Feminism doesn't need a re-brand.

People-pleasing attempts to re-brand feminism always fall flat, because they pander to those who don't care to really inform themselves about feminism in the first place.

Instead of any substantial educative measures, we're left with wondrous triumphs of style over substance.

Here's an idea: spend 15 minutes enlightening your average schlump about sexual and domestic violence, or worldwide female poverty, or child marriage, or women in film, or [insert actual issue here]. Not whether the syllables in "feminist" tickle your sonic fancy. Yawn.

Follow Rebecca Kamm on Twitter.

Charl says:

I was lucky enough to grow up in a time and environment where I wasn't taught to think that women weren't equal.

My mother, my hero, is the strongest person I've ever met in my life. It's not that she shows me that a woman can be strong, or brave, or patient, or thoughtful; these traits are neither limited to, nor informed by, her gender. She set the bar for me, and for everyone else in my life. The fact she is a woman is inconsequential.

I grew up believing that women and men were equal.

Joss Whedon's speech has had more than its fair share of feminist detractors. And most, if not all, cite who he is as a "straight, rich, white man" (rather than "one of our actual sisters") as being at the core of his wrong-ness. Says one:

"The reason Whedon can stand up at the podium and say that equality is natural is because all these feminists he doesn't talk about, from Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth on up, have fought exhausting battle after exhausting, grinding battle to get to this point."

Which reads to me as:

"You, as a man, could never understand how I, as a woman, am just the same as you."

If I believe, and always have at my core, that women and men are equal, and are partners, why am I required to learn this information purely so I can understand how important it is to unlearn it?

Yes, difficult, crucial work needed to be done to get us where we are today, and we as an evolved society, are indebted to the brave women (and men) who taught us better and allowed us to shift the status quo. But we need to allow that status quo to genuinely shift. And in order to do that, we need to appreciate the progress we've made.

And that's the problem both Whedon and I share. For the Feminist, the fight's not over. It says that there is imbalance, and that it needs to be fought. And not just sometimes, but constantly.

The Oxford defines Feminism (and I hate to be one of those people that refers to dictionary definitions, but it seems warranted here) as "The advocacy of women's rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes." Which seems paradoxical to me. Only championing the rights of one in order to assure equality of both is a bias in and of itself.

Furthermore, it burdens its subject with a task-a charge-rather than allowing them to be in a natural state. Equality, it says, is at least a battle away. Why, if she wants to align herself with the ideal of equality, of her strength, does a woman need to sound like she's provoking somebody? Why's she gotta use em fightin' words?

Will feminism ever be uncontroversial? No. Never. Not while it's labeled feminism, at least. Whether we like it or not, the word has connotations. A past. It's dirty.

Should gender equality be controversial? Of course it shouldn't. It should be natural. Kids should be allowed to grow up as I did, free in the knowledge that a strong woman isn't amazing because she's a woman, but because she has strength.

So I guess the real question he's asking us is, are feminism and gender equality really the same thing?

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