With Allies Like These

[Content Note: Misogyny; anti-feminism.]

Background: Joss Whedon, who is considered a feminist ally (ahem; cough) leaves Twitter, in the midst of a lot of feminist criticism of Age of Ultron. People speculate that he left, at least in part, because of that feminist criticism. Whedon offers a comment saying that was not the case, but also makes sure to note that feminists (who criticize him) are definitely the worst:
"That is horseshit," he told BuzzFeed News by phone on Tuesday. "Believe me, I have been attacked by militant feminists since I got on Twitter. That's something I'm used to. Every breed of feminism is attacking every other breed, and every subsection of liberalism is always busy attacking another subsection of liberalism, because god forbid they should all band together and actually fight for the cause."

..."I've said before, when you declare yourself politically, you destroy yourself artistically," he said. "Because 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."
If that argument sounds familiar, perhaps that's because it's exactly the same "marginalized feminists who criticize privileged feminists are toxic" rhetoric that white feminists use against feminists of color all the time, and exactly the same "circular firing squad" rhetoric that progressive men use against feminists all the time, and exactly the same "criticism of privilege is divisive and marginalized people who won't shut up are the people who are preventing unity" rhetoric that we are obliged to deconstruct around here all the time.

Whedon says he has been "attacked by militant feminists," which is a very particular word choice that plays into a very particular stereotype which is used to demonize and delegitimize feminists. He hasn't been criticized; he's been attacked. Not just any old feminists, but by militant feminists.

They have to be militant feminists, you see, because Whedon is a feminist, and thus Doing It Right. To acknowledge that maybe just regular old feminists could have disagreement with him, and he with them, is to implicate himself in the divisive lack of unity that he explicitly condemns: "God forbid they should all band together and actually fight for the cause." The singular cause. The one cause that he is definitely getting right, unlike those militant feminists who attack him.


Mark Ruffalo, an actor in Age of Ultron, who also identifies as a feminist, was asked during a Reddit AMA yesterday to address the criticism of Whedon. He responded thus:
I think it's sad. Because I know how Joss feels about women, and I know that he's made it a point to create strong female characters. I think part of the problem is that people are frustrated that they want to see more women, doing more things, in superhero movies, and because we don't have as many women as we should yet, they're very, very sensitive to every single storyline that comes up right now. But I think what's beautiful about what Joss did with Black Widow – I don't think he makes her any weaker, he just brings this idea of love to a superhero, and I think that's beautiful.

If anything, Black Widow is much stronger than Banner. She protects him. She does her job, and basically they begin to have a relationship as friends, and I think it's a misplaced anger. I think that what people might really be upset about is the fact that we need more superhuman women.

The guys can do anything, they can have love affairs, they can be weak or strong and nobody raises an eyebrow. But when we do that with a woman, because there are so few storylines for women, we become hyper-critical of every single move that we make because there's not much else to compare it to.

So I know Joss really well. I know what his values are. And I think it's sad, because in a lot of ways, there haven't been as many champions in this universe as Joss is and will continue to be. And I know it hurts him. I know it's heavy on him. And the guy's one of the sweetest, best guys, and I know him – as far as any man can be a champion for women, he is that.

So it's been a little disheartening.

But I also see how much people love that aspect of it. There's an equal amount of people who find the love interest between Banner and Black Widow to be a big standout. And it's very satisfying to people. So it's a movie. People are going to have their opinions. And that's actually a great thing. The fact that this is a debate that's coming out of this movie is probably a positive thing.

I just don't think that people should get personal with Joss, because he really is – of anyone – an advocate for women. He's a deeply committed feminist.
I (obviously) agree with Ruffalo wholeheartedly that there are not enough women in superhero flicks, but criticisms of filmmakers who participate in that dynamic is not "misplaced anger." I can "really be upset" about the cavernous void of equitable visibility and "really be upset" that the filmmakers who are not sensitive enough to that cavernous void of equitable visibility are woefully underserving the precious few female superheroes we actually have.

It's always terrific to have a man 'splain at me what I'm really angry about, though.

But what really bothers me about Ruffalo's comments is his defense of Whedon on the basis that he is "a champion for women" and "an advocate for women" and "a deeply committed feminist." That, because of those things, Ruffalo "just [doesn't] think that people should get personal with Joss."

Really? If I shouldn't direct feminist criticism at a man who is a champion and advocate for women and a deeply committed feminist, simply because he asserts himself to be those things, then at whom should I direct feminist criticism?

Whedon has communicated, again and again, that he is someone of whom I can and should expect more. If he identifies as a feminist ally, then I expect him to be receptive to feminist critique; otherwise, that identity is nothing more than a petition for cookies, with no accountability to the community with whom he identifies.

Every time I make a criticism of the work of a man who identifies as a feminist ally, or who produces even the most marginally feminist content, I get the same pushback on social media: Feminists are never happy. You're hurting the very people trying to help you. Who even cares what you think?

Well, someone who tells me he's a feminist, someone whose friends assure me that he's "a deeply committed feminist," should care what I think. And he should understand that criticism from members of a marginalized community with whom you're allied is not an "attack," but a gift.

Expecting more is a brash act of courage, and it is also an extraordinary act of generosity. I am a better person than I once was because people gave me the gift of expecting more of me, of setting a higher standard and encouraging me to reach for it, of challenging me not to settle into the well-tread grooves of my socialization, of admonishing me to reject the vast and varied prejudices and myths with which I'd been indoctrinated, of urging me expect more of myself and persuading me to believe I could be the change I want to see.

Being "a deeply committed feminist" is not supposed to be a suit of deflective armor against criticism from people who take that declaration in good faith. It is supposed to be an invitation to dialogue.

I don't waste my time and energy offering feminist criticism to reprehensible misogynists who aren't receptive to feminist ideals. If I'm now not meant to offer feminist criticism to "champions of women," either, because I'm supposed to be grateful for whatever crumbs they offer me, that means every man who creates content is unreceptive to feminist criticism.

Either they're unreceptive because they are hostile to feminist ideals, or they're unreceptive because they are already "feminists" and thus don't need any input from ungrateful militant feminists.

This dichotomy of silencing is upheld by anti-feminist and feminist men alike.

Ruffalo defends Whedon on the basis of his feminism, but you know who else is "a champion for women" and "an advocate for women" and "a deeply committed feminist"? Me. Like many other of Whedon's feminist critics.

But somehow those same descriptions, employed in defense of Whedon, are used to dismiss us as divisive militant attack feminists who refuse to get in line with the cause.

If only there were a vast, vibrant, cacophonous ideological movement which could address the fundamental injustice of the very same qualities being used to lionize men and marginalize women.

Oh well.

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