If you do a quick sweep of some of my previous entries, you might tell that I’m something of a feminist. I’m not scared of the word and feel no need to apologize or soften it with an explanation. Most people in a supposedly enlightened culture will have already come to the conclusion that there is disparity between males and females and that this disparity is unacceptable. Whether these people are willing to admit it is another story. Not long ago, one particular writer and filmmaker came under fire for what some people thought was discriminatory language.
Joss Whedon has gained a lot of popularity in recent years after the mystifying cancellation of successful TV series Firefly, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog, and The Avengers, which is probably the worst thing he has ever written despite being popular (explained eloquently here and here). I never picked up on any sign that Whedon was a feminist other than the fact that his female characters are usually not boobalicious automatons. On the other hand, I’ve never gotten the sense that he was a misogynist or particularly exclusionist either. While I refuse to regale anyone for not completely failing at their jobs, I also tend to be skeptical of mass outrage over attempted jokes.
So, a couple of weeks ago when he came under fire for making a not-funny joke, I thought that the world must have gone insane. Basically, he was asked by a follower for advice on writing female superheros. Whedon responded with a half-serious answer and threw in a stupid joke to round it out: “Must value strength but also community & not have peeny/balls”. Some people were outraged by this because they apparently took his comment literally and to the extreme conclusion of “he must hate transgendered people”. It’s such an abstract conclusion that I had to really think about how anyone could possibly have made that leap without spraining an ankle.
Here’s why that conclusion or opinion is just incorrect –
- Whedon was obviously making the haw-haw joke that if someone has a penis, they aren’t technically “female”. That’s why qualifiers are used by pre-op transgendered people like “MTF”, as in “Male to Female”. This acknowledges that the person had or has a penis that will soon or ideally not be there in the future.
- He said “peeny”, which is obviously not to be taken seriously.
- He didn’t say “and be a REAL woman”, “have curves”, “big titties”, “bangable”, “NO SHEMALES” or anything equally as gross.
- The question he was asked didn’t open the possibility of transgendered superheros existing in the asker’s universe. Since Whedon works in fiction and fiction is made-up, his response can appropriately be understood as lending itself to helping an aspiring writer come up with underlying blocks upon which to develop characters. While transgendered people exist in real life, they don’t always exist in fictional worlds. The issue of fair representation in media wasn’t the issue at hand. Heck, if you want more representation, you can write your own characters to show your support.
This isn’t to say that transgendered people don’t face a lot of difficulty and an almost total lack of representation in popular media. It’s isolating and dehumanizing to have your identity and needs completely ignored by an entire society. I think that people would benefit from understanding what it means to be androgynous or not feel as though you belong in your body. It doesn’t distract from the goal of a feminist to provide positive role models for young women nor does it hinder progress toward a more egalitarian society that accepts people as they are. It make even be easier for some people to make the leap to feminism by first understanding the people who are stuck in the middle of the male/female spectrum.
I can understand having sore feelings and even being reactionary to anything perceived as a possible insult to something you’re already sensitive about and I don’t feel that you need to be punished for your feelings or be restricted in any sense. However, if you’re serious about your goal of spreading understanding and acceptance, stop jumping on every stupid thing that you have the knee-jerk reaction of being angry about. Not only does it make you look foolish, it makes you look unreasonable and overly demanding. The only way to encourage people to broaden their horizons is to give them reason to do so. By winding yourself up about a really dumb joke, all you do is lose the people you’re trying to convince.
Whedon doesn’t need to apologize for making a really bad joke. I can tell you why he refuses to apologize – he’s probably angry that people misconstrued what he said in a way that just does not sound at all genuine. This criticism of his dumb joke sounds forced and over the top, so it’s hard to really take it seriously. You can either pursue the equality you want to see society achieve by helping to build it or you can waste all of your time and further alienate your cause by hounding people for things they didn’t say, imply, or mean.