“If I can make teenage boys comfortable with a girl who takes charge of a situation without their knowing that’s what’s happening, it’s better than sitting down and selling them on feminism.” So said Joss Whedon to Time way back in 1997, the year “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” premiered.
While, tonally, “Buffy” never worked for me, I essentially agree with that sentiment. Stories that do a lot of “telling” about different types of people being, well, full people are a lot less powerful than stories that just assume it without comment.
Some of Whedon’s creations are dear indeed to my heart (Serenity and “Firefly,” anyone? Then there’s his uncredited work on Speed and easily the most I’ve ever enjoyed Shakespeare…), but even in some of those there were elements that felt leering and creepy. Other stories were meant to rely almost exclusively on such elements. (The theme of “Dollhouse” was supposed to be erasing people’s minds to do weird sex stuff, before Fox chickened out and asked for more of an emphasis on mystery/action plots.)
And now, after a number of complaints against Whedon, that place in pop culture where cult classics and classic liberalism are supposed to collide is scratching its head going “Were we wrong to constantly praise Whedon by calling him a feminist?”
It’s probably ill-advised to so gushingly celebrate anyone for something so basic as considering women full human beings… But if we take the allegations at face value then the question of whether Whedon qualifies as “a feminist” hinges on what one considers feminism. Can a man who cheats on his wife be a feminist? Can a man who victimizes an underling for being pregnant (and for not having an abortion)?
Having spent decades surrounded by a culture that makes feminism necessary as an “ism,” I consider the most crystalline form of feminism to be the belief that women are not inherently inferior to men, and that being female does not place limits on anyone’s basic human rights. I suspect Whedon, intellectually at least, would agree with those statements.
So, yeah, I guess I think Whedon is a feminist. But I don’t think that counts for much because I also think Whedon is a jerk. Jerks with power are bullies. And naturally enough, bullies inflict more harm on the more vulnerable. Given that the whole reason we need “feminism” is that women in our world tend to be in more vulnerable positions than men… Well, you can figure out the rest.
By my narrow view of “feminism,” being a jerk doesn’t mean you can’t be a feminist. It just means that, in practice, you probably won’t be a good feminist. Aside from purely technical performance, it’s difficult to be a jerk and be a good much of anything.