On the Impossibility of Women’s Issues

Joss Whedon at Make Equality Reality.

Joss Whedon at Make Equality Reality.

There are two kinds of people who care about the equality of women: those who understand that feminism has a branding problem, and those who do not. In case you haven’t heard, Joss Whedon is one of the people who gets it. In a speech delivered at an Equality Now benefit dinner, the writer and producer of gems like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Serenity, went into some detail as to why he hates the word ‘feminist’. I recommend you invest 15 minutes in checking out his talk.

To unpack Whedon a bit, what he seems to have a problem with is the idea that ‘feminism’, akin ‘communism’ or ‘post-modernism’, is an acquired worldview. It’s something you have to be introduced to. To be a feminist, in other words, is to stand outside the cultural mainstream. Whedon would rather that feminism – the radical idea that women are people – instead be taken as the default. He argues that what we need is a word to describe the laggards, rather than the vanguard. Whedon suggests ‘genderist’, as in, “Please excuse my uncle’s genderist remarks; he’s from a different time.” It probably won’t take off.

Whedon’s talk has gotten mixed reviews. Over at Skepchick, Elyse Anders seems to have liked it – which is how I first came across the video. In contrast, The Atlantic ran a piece by Noah Berlatsky that was critical, but which I thought almost purposefully missed the point.

(Some of you might be familiar with the tagline, “This is What a Feminist Looks Like.” It’s been a few years since I’ve seen it printed on a t-shirt, but when I was in college it seemed to have been fairly popular. The idea was simple: people have a stereotyped image of the kind of person who would identify as a feminist, and the campaign was an effort to challenge that view. It’s not hard to conclude that the effort is a tacit endorsement of Whedon’s critique – you don’t usually try to challenge the way people think about your idealogical position if you think that the way people see things helps your cause.)

Whedon is a writer and, in the end, you can’t blame him for going after the language we use to think about the world we live in. But I think there’s a more fundamental problem with modern feminism and it’s this: feminism starts from the premise that there is such a thing as ‘women’s issues’. I’d like to humbly submit that there is not.

What could that possibly mean? Does it mean that there are not issues that disproportionately affect women? Of course there are. But the idea of ‘women’s issues’ carries within it the germ that there are also issues that are exclusively about and for women. In a dangerous way, it treats women as a special interest group.

But this makes no sense. Are the men in society supposed to be indifferent to whether women receive equal pay? Should sexual violence be a niche issue? Living in civilization requires us to actively care about each other’s wellbeing – we should be uneasy about the idea that there are issues that only women should care about.

But by the same token, we should also be uncomfortable with the idea that there are issues about which only women are allowed to speak authoritatively. There’s perhaps no more poignant example than the conversation about abortion. A lot of people insist that abortion only concerns women, as if the rest of humanity has no stake in it. The idea that you shouldn’t be allowed to have strong feelings about the termination of an unborn fetus because you don’t have a uterus makes about as much sense as the idea that you shouldn’t care about women being the victims of rape because you don’t have a vagina. (Note: this is not an excuse to hold unscientific positions about either rape or abortion.)

You might recall ‘The Republican War on Women’. It was a moniker introduced by Democratic strategists to describe a collection of Republican policy proposals leading up to the 2012 election. There was some noise about social welfare spending that disproportionately affected women, but the brouhaha was essentially about reproductive health and abortion.

I’m going to go ahead and let you guess whether this heroic portrait of President Obama was for 2008 or 2012.

I’m going to go ahead and let you guess whether this heroic portrait of President Obama was for 2008 or 2012.

For the record, the Fog Of Policy is not a big fan of sensationalist metaphors. But internet blogs and political parties have different goals: the Democrats used the idea of a Republican war on women to drive up support among women and win reelection for President Obama. At times, it almost seemed like the GOP was trying to help them. Such is politics – i.e. not beanbag.

However, the rest of us would do well to remember that political parties and social movements also have different goals. If you want to energize voters, little works as well as making them feel threatened. As I’ve pointed out before, winning elections is often the art of finding fissures in society and then driving a wedge in them. At first, social change is like this: you identify a value you want to change, and then you energize a radical fringe around that goal. But to win the sort of victories that can’t be taken away, you need to do more. You need to convince your neighbors that your goals are their goals – that the values you’re fighting for are at the heart of their own sense of identity. This is the only way your gain won’t be their loss – if you can’t make them allies, then you at least make them spectators.

Abraham Lincoln, as well as the leaders of the Civil Rights movement, understood this. Slavery wasn’t just about the moral standing of slaves, and Jim Crow wasn’t just about the rights of blacks. In the same way, feminism isn’t just about the standing of women. The society we live in is, after all, a reflection on all of us.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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