Joss Whedon on feminism, sexism and popular culture


Maybe you’re a Buffy fan; maybe you’re not. Maybe you’re a Joss Whedon fan; maybe you’re not. But I think we can agree that we’re all — unequivocally — fans of women. Period. End of discussion.

Since I am a big fan of all three of those, I stopped by Whedonesque this weekend to check up on the latest happenings in the world that Joss built. What I read there both broke and mended my heart.

This well-managed and lovingly-tended community weblog is a depository for any and all news on projects by the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and Angel and Firefly and I could go on) and the actors, writers and other creative folks who logged time in the Whedonverse. Every now and then those actors, writers and Joss himself pop in to say hi and interact with readers.

On Friday, Joss stopped by and — with the eloquence and anger, the wit and wisdom he has displayed throughout his career — laid out one of the most moving and articulate defenses of women’s equality that I have ever read.

His post was prompted by the horrific video of the “honor killing” of 17-year-old Dua Khalil, a Kurdish teenager who was stoned, kicked and beaten to death by a mob of angry men (some of whom were relatives) last month. The murder was captured on camera phones and posted for all the world to see. As if we needed more proof that better living through technology is an illusion.

But Joss’ aim wasn’t to tsk-tsk from afar at the cultural mores of a people half a world away. Instead, he attacked the underlying attitude that led to both the brutal killing in Iraq and the creation of the upcoming “torture-porn” horror film Captivity in the U.S. The attitude that there is something inherently inferior about women and that we are therefore somehow expendable. The idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with us.

His post, in part (but, please, do yourself a big favor and read the whole thing here):

“I try to think how we got here. The theory I developed in college (shared by many I’m sure) is one I have yet to beat: Womb Envy. Biology: women are generally smaller and weaker than men. But they’re also much tougher. Put simply, men are strong enough to overpower a woman and propagate. Women are tough enough to have and nurture children, with or without the aid of a man. Oh, and they’ve also got the equipment to do that, to be part of the life cycle, to create and bond in a way no man ever really will. Somewhere a long time ago a bunch of men got together and said, ‘If all we do is hunt and gather, let’s make hunting and gathering the awesomest achievement, and let’s make childbirth kinda weak and shameful.’ It’s a rather silly simplification, but I believe on a mass, unconscious level, it’s entirely true. How else to explain the fact that cultures who would die to eradicate each other have always agreed on one issue? That every popular religion puts restrictions on women’s behavior that are practically untenable? That the act of being a free, attractive, self-assertive woman is punishable by torture and death? In the case of this upcoming torture-porn, fictional. In the case of Dua Khalil, mundanely, unthinkably real. And both available for your viewing pleasure.”

I’m sure the irony of a man writing a feminist essay is not lost on some of you. But then, if you believe in a world that is truly equal, it shouldn’t be a surprise that a man could be a feminist or that a woman could be a sexist. If anything deserves to be beaten and buried, it is the man-hating lesbian myth. It’s not doing us any favors.

Those familiar with Joss’ work will know that he has a long history of writing strong female characters and for injecting sly feminist statements into his zippy dialogue. Last year he was honored by Equality Now (the group linked in his post title — don’t worry, the link doesn’t take you to that terrible video). His speech then, like his post, was emphatic.

Is he perfect? Of course not. None of us is. (Let’s not reopen the old wound that is Tara’s untimely death.) But what Joss’ post does —besides put a catch in my throat with each repeated reading — is remind us that our popular culture need not be expendable. Just because it’s popular, doesn’t mean it can’t have substance. It can also inform and educate and, with brilliant flashes of grace, move us to action.

“Because it’s no longer enough to be a decent person. It’s no longer enough to shake our heads and make concerned grimaces at the news. True enlightened activism is the only thing that can save humanity from itself. I’ve always had a bent towards apocalyptic fiction, and I’m beginning to understand why. I look and I see the earth in flames. Her face was nothing but red.”

Dammit. Now I really wish Joss were still directing the new Wonder Woman film. In a world where Anna Nicole Smith’s baby daddy drama and Britney Spears’ bald head get the same “breaking news” treatment as a car bombing in Fallujah or the politically-based firing of federal prosecutors, our sense of outrage is in dire need if a tune-up. Now more than ever, we need men and women who think like Joss informing our popular culture. So the question then becomes, just like in Buffy’s final speech to the potential slayers, are we ready to heed their battle cry? Are you ready to be strong?

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