"I hate feminist. Is this a good time to bring that up? Is this the right forum for that?" Joss Whedon said at the beginning of his speech at an Equality Now dinner Monday where he'd been asked to speak because of his work on gender equality. "I hope I'm being clear," he added. "I didn't say I hate feminists; I said I hate feminist. I'm talking about the word." And so began one of the best articulated explanations on the power of words to shape our understanding of a movement in recent history.
Whedon spoke for 14 minutes in depth on the word feminist, and bear with me, most of it is necessary, so almost all of what he said is excerpted here (though his delivery is really great too, so I would suggest watching the video):
I have the privilege living my life inside of words and part of being a writer is creating entire universes, and that's beautiful, but part of being a writer is also living in the very smallest part of every word.
But the word feminist, it doesn't sit with me, it doesn't add up. I want to talk about my problem that I have with it. First of all, on a very base level, just to listen to it. We start with fem. That's good, that's promising, you know, fem, it's nice but it's strong, f is a very porous letter, very inclusive. You're ready to grow there. It's not too whimpy. It's not like some girl from Lord of the Rings whose name is like Akhelkthkle. There's some meat there. We can work with this.
We go to in. Fem-in. Okay, not as impressive, but they can't all be roses terms sometimes you gotta get from A to B.
Ist. I hate it. I hate it. Fail on ist. It's just this little dark, black, it must be hissed. Ist! It's Germanic but not in the romantic way. It's just this terrible ending with this wonderful beginning. This word for me is so unbalanced. It's like just tonally, it's like watching a time-lapse video of fresh bread that you put in the oven and burnt. And I think that's universal. We were all having the video bread thing right?
And it bugs me that I don't love the word more, because there are other words that sound so welcoming and lovely. Taliban. Ahh. That's so good! That sounds like we're going to Bora Bora and then we're off to the Taliban Islands with white sands....It's jolly and fun and it shouldn't be and it's not fair. We've got feminist and our ist.
Let's go back to this ist, okay. Let's rise up a little bit from my obsession with sound to the meaning. Ist in it's meaning is also a problem for me. Because you can't be born an ist. It's not natural. You can't be born a baptist; you have to be baptized. You can't be born an atheist or a communist or a horticulturalist. You have to have these things brought to you. 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. That we are indoctrinated with it, that it's an agenda.
And that's when I realize what my problem is (well, one of my problems). My problem with feminist is not the word. It's the question. It's the question. "Are you now, or have you ever been, a feminist?" The great Katy Perry once said – I'm paraphrasing – "I'm not a feminist but I like it when women are strong." That's lovely Katy. Don't know why she feels the need to say the first part, but listening to the word and thinking about it, I realize I do understand. This question that lies before us is one that should lie behind us. The word is problematic for me because there's another word that we're missing. That words have failed us. And I'd like to use as an example race.
In the public discourse, there's one word to deal with race. Racism. That is the word. And it implies something very important. It implies something that we are past. When you say racist, you are saying that is a negative thing. That is a line that we have crossed. Anything on the side of that line is shameful. Is on the wrong side of history. And that is a line that we have crossed in terms of gender but we don't have the word for it. People are confronted with the word feminism and it stops them; they think they have to deal with that. But I think we're done with that as intelligent human beings. Being on the wrong side of history in terms of the oppression of women is being on the whole of history, all of recorded history, you're on the wrong side.
If you're someone who geniunally believes that women don't deserve or aren't as much as men, you're like the plague. On the big history chart, you're the plague....It's just pointless and deadly.
I start thinking about the fact that we have this word when we're thinking about race that says we have evolved beyond something and we don't really have this word for gender. Now you could argue sexism, but I'd say that's a little specific. People feel removed from sexism. "I'm not a sexist, but I'm not a feminist." They think there's this fuzzy middle ground. There's no fuzzy middle ground. You either believe that women are people or you don't. It's that simple.
Misogynist. Misogynist – some people might not know where the y goes in that word sometimes. We should reach out to those people. Education. But more importantly, misogynist implies very directly hate and aggressive action against. And most people will think of a misogynist as a sociopath, as an anomaly. Nobody is going to say "I hate them." And quite frankly, many people – most people – don't. As we all know, you don't have to hate someone to destroy them. You just don't have to not get it.
So clearly I gotta come up with this word. We need this word so that we can change the public discourse a little bit. And I came up with a lot of good ideas. I'm not going to lie. Good stuff, good stuff.
Obviously number one, I like the rhythm and intent of "pathetic prehistoric rage-filled inbred assclown," but that's a lot to ask of a hashtag.
Second in line: genderist. I'm alone in my room and I come up with genderist and I think "Oh! I've cracked it. This is amazing." This is it...It really resonates with me, and I live with it, and I don't go anywhere near the internet because I'm sure somebody's already thought of it....
Of course other people had thought of it, many people had thought of it, but I had never heard it. And I still haven't heard it. And so unless somebody comes up with a better one – and please do – my pitch is this word. Genderist. I would like this word to become the new racist. I wuld like a word that says there was a shameful past before we realized that all people were created equal. And we are past that. And every evolved human being who is intelligent and educated and compassionate and to say I don't believe that is unacceptable. And Katy Perry won't say, "I'm not a feminist but I like strong women," she'll say, "I'm not a genderist but sometimes I like to dress up pretty." And that'll be fine.
This is how we understand society. The word racism didn't end racism. it contextualized it in a way that we still haven't done with this issue.
All of recorded history versus one benefit dinner? No context.
I say with gratitude but enormous sadness, we will never not be fighting. And I say to everybody on the other side of that line who believe that women are to be bought and trafficked or ignored...we will never not be fighting. We will go on, we will always work this issue until it doesn't need to be worked anymore.
"Is this idea of genderist going to do something?" Whedon asked at the end. "I don't know. I don't think that I can change the world. I just want to punch it up a little."
He explains it here perfectly. You can of course say you're not a feminist! It's not what I would do and it makes me sad but it's your life. You can say you're not a feminist because you don't like the movement and how it's been isolating to women of color, or because you think women shouldn't have to be asked if they are feminists. But don't say you're not a feminist because of things that are inherently not true about what word means or that inarticulately imply that there's something wrong with owning your belief that men and women should be equal or rejecting the many women and men that have come before you who let you live the life that you've led.
Don't imply that the word itself means women who don't like men. Don't say you don't need it. Don't say we're past it. Don't just say you don't like labels. What's frustrating is to see smart women who have been failed by our education system, who have not been taught about women's history in school the way they should have, expressing inaccuracies and lack of nuance about a word. Whether or not they'd like to consider themselves role models – and they certainly don't have to – there are young women and men reading those interviews who are saying, "Kelly Clarkson isn't a feminist" and who walk away from that not understanding why Kelly Clarkson doesn't call herself a feminist. It breeds further miseducation about our shared history. And remembering where we came from, the intolerance we live with and that has come before us, is the part that matters. When you say, "I'm not a feminist," and then rattle off a reasoning that is merely spitting out the groupthink understanding of what the word means, you're letting yourself down and you're letting others down.
That's just my opinion. It doesn't have to be yours. But understand why you have the opinion that you do and be able to articulate it. This speech is perfect because Whedon is articulately explaining – in a funny way, to boot – his opinion on the topic. It's not perfect because he's right or because no one has ever said any of this before, as Whedon joked on Twitter when he wrote, "Heading off to the @equalitynow bash to explain to @GloriaSteinem how I invented feminism. Bet she'll be impressed!" It's perfect because he's been lucky enough to be educated to the point that he understands the words that he's using. He understands what he's rejecting and why. Whether or not we call ourselves feminists, that's the perfection we should all strive for.