A few weeks ago, Joss Whedon gave an acceptance speech for an award presented to him by Equality Now in which he claimed he hated the word feminist. Now, I really want to stress that I have immense respect for Joss Whedon, who created such kick-ass characters as Buffy, Willow and yes, even Cordelia (I’ve yet to venture outside of the Buffy universe yet, but can’t wait to explore his other shows as soon as I finish the series!) So, I don’t want to seem like I don’t appreciate everything he has DONE for women and their representations in the media. However, his argument against the term “feminist” is problematic for many reasons.
I have to admit, my first reaction to his speech was a bit personal, as I self identify as a feminist. When he stated:
So feminist includes the idea that believing men and women to be equal, believing all people to be people, is not a natural state. That we don’t emerge assuming that everybody in the human race is a human, that the idea of equality is just an idea that’s imposed on us
I had to disagree with that. Of course we are all born equal, which I guess means equality is our “natural” state (whatever natural really means). But not everyone thinks like we do, Joss. Ideally, there would be no need for feminists, because equality would be assumed. But the artificiality of the established patriarchy is real, and we need a real movement, the feminist movement, to combat it. Having to be a feminist may not be “natural”, but it’s a reaction to an unnatural order of an unfair gender hierarchy that needs to change. And as long as the patriarchy exists, feminists need to exist.
And like I said, that was my personal response to his argument. But I also recognize that it is easier for me to identify as a feminist than it is for others. My background as a white, heteronormative woman growing up in the middle class suburbs of Long Island connects me to a feminism that many cannot identify with. To a woman of color or to someone who identifies as queer, calling themself a feminist-or even wanting to-may not be an option. Not to mention, the organization that Joss Whedon is accepting the award from-Equality Now-takes some problematic stances about helping women around the world. Although I commend Equality Now for doing great work in regards to combating sexual violence and other forms on discrimination, their stance on trafficking and female circumcision represent a Westernized take on problems in Eastern nations. For example, Equality Now fails to recognize that there are many women who optionally choose to go into the sex industry, because it provides them with the economic and social freedom they would otherwise have been unable to obtain. The same goes for their advocacy in eradicating all forms of female circumcision when there are many women across the globe who choose to partake in such practices as an important cultural identifier.
All of these women, who do not fit into the feminism defined by the greats Mary Wollstonecraft and Betty Friedan, could easily not identify as a feminist for important reasons that Joss Whedon fails to mention. Which is why we should take back the word feminist to include women and men and womyn and hir and grrrl and every person who is advocating for gender equality. To take from the great Simone de Beauvoir, one is not born a feminist, but becomes one.