When Joss Whedon deleted his Twitter account yesterday, he detonated a bomb smack in the middle of a raging social media war.
Warning: Minor spoilers for “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
The battle began between men who want to maintain the Boy”s Club status quo of video games and comic books and women who refuse to be marginalized anymore within their own hobby. Each side has their extremists and surprise supporters. On the one hand you have “Not Your Shield” arguing the status quo is fine and on the other you have “Militant Feminists” declaring that any man who supports a woman is actually marginalizing her by virtue of being a man. Throw all this festering rage into a semi-anonymous social media platform like Twitter and suddenly you have a recipe for escalating verbal violence.
Being a woman in an online space has always been a bit like painting a target on your back. There”s just something about a women having an opinion – or sometimes merely EXISTING – that brings out the slimy underbelly of the Internet. But it”s been a truly horrific few months for women on social media. Twitter harassment has spiraled out of control since this culture war began. Death threats, doxxing (where a person”s personal information is posted to the public), and hacking have become common enough that a non-profit organization called Crash Override now exists to help victims of online hate mobs. Everyone is on a knife”s edge, hyper-vigilant of anything that could be perceived as a slight or the opening salvo of another round of demoralizing attacks on women in geek spaces.
“What does that have to do with Joss Whedon?” you may ask. Well, Joss Whedon is a self-proclaimed feminist. But he”s not the mythical, monolithic Perfect Feminist™. For decades now – from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to “Firefly” to “Dollhouse” – Whedon has made a name for himself writing complex female characters. This makes him an easy target for both sides. The arbiters of the status quo have said he”s a “White Knight” looking to preen by bowing down before women; the feminist fringe says he”s a misogynist pig any time he slips up or anything bad happens to one of his female characters. Just Google “Joss Whedon sexist” if you want to see how divisive this man is among female geeks.
With the release of “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” Joss Whedon once again found himself in the tempest. His decision to have Black Widow admit to Bruce Banner that she”s barren and can never have children struck some as a retrograde side-plot that regulated a woman”s worth to whether or not she can procreate. It”s my opinion that Black Widow”s “monstrous” comment was more about ALL of her actions at the Red Room Academy; about how being brainwashed into becoming an emotionless killer with little agency over her life is something Natasha feels remorse over. It was not my takeaway at all that Whedon was saying a non-functioning uterus makes her a monster. As a mother, I also find it pretty insulting to say a woman who wants to bathe in the blood of her enemies AND have kids is “unfeminist.”
Of course, this wouldn”t be such a point of contention if Black Widow wasn”t the living embodiment of the Smurfette Principle. Marvel having only one woman on the Avengers team burdens Natasha with representing her entire gender instead of merely representing herself. Tony Stark is loyal but self-centered, Steve Rogers is patriotic but naive, Bruce Banner is sensitive but emotionally distant, and Clint Barton is competent but full of self-doubt. They get to show multiple facets of humanity because humans are complex. There have always been enough men in entertainment media to dilute the pressure lone female character”s face. When there is only one woman on screen, her personality becomes an archetype. If she”s sexy, she”s the Seductress and not just a woman who likes tight-fitting clothes. If she”s sweet, she”s the Girl Next Door and not just a nice person. And if she”s a fighter, she”s One Of The Guys™, all femininity surgically removed to make her Rambo with breasts.
Whether Joss Whedon made a miscalculation about Black Widow”s personality or was trying to infuse her character with depth, his haters took quickly to Twitter to voice their displeasure in a torrent of social media harassment. So it”s no wonder his sudden departure from the Twittersphere was blamed on this tsunami of hate. In the 24 hours between Whedon deleting his account and his clarification to BuzzFeed that he didn”t leave because of “militant feminists,” a necessary conversation was sparked about the need for harassment to stop and for people to start acting like civilized humans on the Internet.
But there”s another necessary conversation that no one is having. One touched on by Whedon himself in his interview with BuzzFeed:
“I”ve said before, when you declare yourself politically, you destroy yourself artistically. […] suddenly that”s the litmus test for everything you do – for example, in my case, feminism. If you don”t live up to the litmus test of feminism in this one instance, then you”re a misogynist. It circles directly back upon you.”
This is the No True Scotsman fallacy writ for feminism. It”s bologna and it”s got to stop.
Is Joss Whedon a perfect feminist? Nope. Has he made some questionable choices in the past? Yes. Will he make questionable choices in the future? Yep. But more importantly, is he actively engaged in acknowledging his privilege and trying to be a good feminist ally who is open to criticism and seems to learn from his mistakes?
We feminists talk derisively all the time about “moving goalposts.” Whenever women meet one of the arbitrary criteria set down by society, it seems society just kicks the acceptance can down the road. But now WE have to stop moving the ally goalposts. By all means, we should continue to dissect Joss Whedon”s work and encourage him to keep putting out more and better representations of women (and minorities). But there”s a difference between critique and building the pyre, gleefully awaiting any minor slip-up.
Joss Whedon isn”t a perfect ally, but he”s our
witch ally. So cut him the hell down.