What Joss Whedon Gets Wrong About the Word 'Feminist'

To claim that equality is the natural order is to forget the entire history of feminism.

AP / Dan Hallman; Koji Sasahara

Joss Whedon thinks feminism has a branding problem. He's hardly the first person to make that claim, though the tack he takes in his acclaimed speech at Equality Now is a little unusual. Rather than discussing the feminist movement per se, Whedon talks specifically about the word, "feminist" as a formal exercise in poetry. He likes the first syllable, is okay with the second … but he really dislikes "ist." It's "Germanic, but not in the romantic way; this terrible ending with a wonderful beginning." He repeats it over and over with a hiss. "Ist." It sounds bad.

As it turns out, Whedon's objection is not purely aesthetic. He dislikes "ist" he says, not just for its sound, but for its meaning. The problem, he says, is that "you can't be born an –ist. It's not natural." Therefore, he says, "feminist includes the idea that believing men and women to be equal ... is not a natural state." The word "feminist" suggests that "the idea of equality is just an idea that is imposed on us." But Whedon argues that equality is natural; that we're born with it, like the prelapsarian innocents Rousseau wrote about, and it's only when evil society gets its hands on us that we get rape culture and pay discrimination and whatnot.

Whedon doesn't mention Rousseau by name. In fact, except for a brief shout out to Katy Perry to note that she doesn't like the term "feminist" either, he doesn't mention anyone by name. This is a speech about the word "feminist," but there are no feminists in the speech.

Which, given Whedon's presuppositions, makes sense. If equality is something that is natural, if it's a thing that everyone understands innately, if it is the default, then it isn't something you have to learn from anyone. You don't need Betty Friedan to tell you that an enforced life as a homemaker can be stifling. You don't need Andrea Dworkin to tell you about systematic cultural violence against women. You don't need Patricia Hill Collins to explain that race and gender can intersect to create particularly vicious forms of discrimination and oppression. You don't, for that matter, need to think about, or engage with, the long feminist mistrust of arguments from "nature." You just know, naturally, what is right.

Feminists have been wary of the idea of naturalness because it is so often used against women. Sexism feels natural to lots of people. And, as Shulamith Firestone said at the beginning of The Dialectic of Sex, "This gut reaction—the assumption that even when they don't know it, feminists are talking about changing a fundamental biological condition—is an honest one." As far as most of what we know of history and culture goes, gender equality is the exception, not the rule.

This is why feminists are feminists—it's why there needs to be a name. Social, political, and economic equality is not the default. 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. "Feminist" is a movement, a history, a faith, and a hope for change—as Firestone says, "if there were another word more all-encompassing than revolution we would use it." Saying equality is natural sounds like a good thing, but Whedon uses it rhetorically to ignore the entire history of feminism. Instead of acknowledging his foremothers, he can just offer up standard-issue self-aggrandizing self-deprecation, spontaneously generating words that will (with appropriate caveats of course) perhaps change the face of feminism and make all those feminists he's not talking about anyway obsolete.

History's not that easy to avoid, though, as Whedon demonstrates by accidentally reproducing white feminism's often rightly maligned take on race. His argument hinges on insisting that there's no equivalent to the term "racist" for gender ("sexist" not being good enough basically because Whedon says so). The upshot is that racism is positioned as something everyone agrees exists, establishing a rhetorical baseline to work from. In the first place, this just isn't true; “racist” is an extremely fraught and contested term just like “sexism.” (See here for just one recent example.) And in the second place, if you're talking about racism and sexism in the same breath, it seems like it would be a good idea to acknowledge, however briefly, that women of color exist, and that for many of them the experiences of racism and sexism are not necessarily separable. It would perhaps be useful also to point out that the biggest problem with the term "feminist" is not formal but historical. It's become so associated with exclusively white, middle-class issues that many women of color feel it doesn't represent them—thus Alice Walker's effort to create a more inclusive term, womanism.

Whedon, then, delivers a speech on the term "feminist" without any reference to feminist history, without any apparent awareness of feminist theory, and without even any demonstrated knowledge of the most important objections or conflicts around the term "feminist," the use of which he is purportedly discussing. Instead, from his position as celebrity and writer, and, one fears, from his position as white man, he takes it upon himself to simply define feminism himself so that he can discard it. The result is what Tania Modleski acidly referred to as "feminism without women"—equality as erasure.