Two Problems, One Connection

11Feb09

In reading parts and pieces of Racefail 2009/the Great Cultural Appropriation Debate, I read something that resonated not only in the context of Racefail or in discussions surrounding racism.   (…and here’s where I freely admit that I didn’t read everything, or even the majority of things.  I read a lot of recaps because frankly there’s only so much I can read of original stupid without being so outraged that I have to reply in ways that it turned out someone else did in a far better way about a week and a hundred comments ago, and the discussion has long since moved from that point.)  Which is not to say that it isn’t a very important point in the issue of racism:

Don’t expect gratitude if you’ve thrown a few bones, if you’ve been slightly less horrible than others.  Don’t expect to be called a friend or an ally when that’s all you’ve done, and you still do problematic stuff.

Because I massively I can’t find where I read that statement, which I’m paraphrasing.  I feel like it may have been said by Avalon’s Willow, but my poking around is not turning anything up.  If you know where the concept came up, please let me know so I can give credit where it’s due.  Racefail–or rather, this latest outbreak of racefail–has (probably in a very necessary way) exposed the real issues lurking under the veneer of the allegedly progressive SFF community.  It’s vastly important, and I urge readers to look at the link above or the ones linked by myself and Chally in my post from 21 January.

Without negating the huge issue above, though, I found ‘don’t expect me to be grateful when you throw me crumbs’ to be relevant when I found myself face to face, once again, with The Whedon Issue.  If you’re in Anglocentric fandom, chances are pretty good you know that Joss Whedon has a new series, Dollhouse.  Lots of different talk about it has ensued, either massive yays or deeply felt nays about the concept–pretty people who can become whatever the client wants, then have their minds wiped again for the next go, issues of human trafficking, prostitution, etc.  After the preview recently at New York Comic-Con, the flurry of discussion increased…

And I just got, frankly, fed up.  While I’m not about to condemn Whedon as a treacherous patriarchal bastard, I continue to refuse to call him a feminist hero…just because he throws the feminist pop culture/fandom geek a few bones of empowerment does not mean I have to bow and scrape and acknowledge alleged greatness.  He’s done a lot of stuff I don’t appreciate, both towards women and towards minorities.  In Firefly, everyone speaks Mandarin as a second language, but where the fuck are all the Asian people?  First healthy lesbian relationship in primetime, great, but where are the gay guys?  (It’s not like Tony Head wouldn’t snog a bloke.)  How many times do the most powerful women have to be deranged or stone bitches?

And that’s not even getting into the Frank Miller Test, which I have mentioned before and probably will again.  My feelings about sex work are complicated, but I really have problems with the heart of gold vs. traitor dichotomy regarding sex workers in fiction.

Or the massive problem of removing the issue of slavery from a thought experiment about the Civil War.  Or old tropes about relationships.  Et cetera.

I will admit here that I do enjoy a good deal of problematic telly and fiction and comics and films.  I enjoy stuff of Whedon’s creation.  But I’m not going to insist you all acknowledge the feminist nature therein because the creators said they were feminists.  It’s like me trying to tell you that because Heinlein loved strong women meant that he was a feminist who wrote feminist works.  And I’m not going to laud Whedon as a feminist icon or agree with him that he’s a feminist just because he says he is.

But at the same time, I highly doubt he’s a massive tool of the patriarchy. He’s just another flawed ally, in my book.

I’ll be watching, Friday.  I might even enjoy it.  But I’m not going to applaud.  I hope that’s okay with you.



12 Responses to “Two Problems, One Connection”

  1. I think it comes down to not expecting to be thanked for ally work, to not expecting any kind of greater standing. At least then we’re being honest with each other – allies mess up – and we don’t have the ‘but I’m one of the good ones’ line adding another layer to the issues. Badly put, but that’s where I am with it.

  2. I think you’re right, Chally. Being thanked can come in many forms, too, even just in demanding recognition.

    Joss…would do more in my book if he talked less and put more into his work.

  3. I’m not really disagreeing with you, Bene, but more intrigued: can you point me to what you’re reacting to? I hadn’t noticed that Joss angled for being thanked or for getting greater standing for his feminist leanings? I’m likely just not reading the same stuff as you, so I’d be interested to take a look.

    I guess part of it is, I think that we’re all, to some extent, participants in patriarchy. I am, even as I’m a dedicated feminist. My being a woman doesn’t make me innocent of that participation. That’s because I, like everyone else, am a product of my context. Most people I know are, to greater and lesser extents (though some will claim otherwise, mostly by claiming to be ‘themselves’, as if who they are existed outside of their context, and as if the individual weren’t itself a recent invention). I don’ think there’s an ‘outside’ to patriarchy, though there are multiple sites of challenge, many of which I participate in. I think Joss is a participant in patriarchy too. I’m not a big fan of the ‘guilty or innocent’ thing that seems to occur when it comes to participating in progressive politics: no one is entirely innocent, I don’t think; but nor should they have to be to be recognised as participants in progressive politics.

    Thanks for the link to the Racefail 2009 stuff. I’m off to do a bit of reading…

  4. WP–I suppose I should have specified and targeted Whedon less than his fanbase and the media, because that’s where the apologia really starts, and Whedon makes no effort to disabuse anyone of the notion. (A good article to read is Hathor Legacy’s Joss Whedon and Feminist Cookies). Whedon’s declared his own feminism publically more than once, but the most famous and cited by feminist fen is the Equality Now speech from 2006; Eliza Dushku herself called him ‘the ultimate feminist male writer’.

    What I was trying to convey with this post, and I’m not entirely sure I succeeded, was that I don’t think he’s a willing tool of The Man, but at the same time I feel that lauding him for vague stabs at equity, veiled in the trappings of what makes good TV on the FOX network (read: highly problematic stuff), is not something I want to participate in. And in fandom, where I have a visible if quiet presence (not as Bene) I feel very pressured to appreciate him as a feminist icon, an advocate, and the…well, the Great White Hope. DO NOT WANT.

    But you’re right, we’re all mired in patriarchy. I just wish Joss would admit that he is, too, especially as a white male writer/director/producer in Hollywood.

  5. I absolutely think Joss angles for feminist adulation. The Dollhouse interview I posted over in the latest Otterday thread really clinched that for me.

    I don’t expect perfection, but I would expect that someone who was serious about feminism would grow and learn over time. The Dollhouse pilot strongly suggests to me that Joss has become less feminist, not more, and he continues to display a major lack of grasp on the other equality/oppression/appropriation issues that I would expect an avowed feminist to be working on.

  6. I haven’t seen it, Lauredhel, could you expand on the appropriation?

  7. No, wait, don’t bother. Just read Karen Healey’s post.

  8. *grin*

  9. Mmm. I see less angling for feminist adulation, more an attempt to actually negotiate with these ideas in a public sphere that really doesn’t like talking about them (and which I think is thereby being changed, hopefully). And maybe making some people pay attention to a more interesting reading than they might have otherwise. [shrug] I’m certainly not thinking he’s the great white hope, by any means. There’s extremely definitely problematic stuff all through his work, not least in the female bodies depicted, and I agree that he needs to do a fair amount of work around issues of appropriation and white privilege (fair amount being a serious understatement). Able-bodied privilege should get a big look-in there too.

    But I’m also not convinced he’s not developing the feminist questions from what they were earlier, either. If Buffy was about women not being the victims they’re always supposed to be, I think Dollhouse is all about specularity—about people being made into what other (more dominant) people think they are; and that’s a hefty question that negotiates questions of free will (I spotted that ‘willingly’ in the Queerty article too, L, and was weirded out by it as well; but for me the issues are only made more intense by her unwillingness, not erased), questions of essential subjectivities and social constructionism, issues around exploitation in the absence of awareness of the exploitation (all issues which have a strong presence in contemporary feminist theory). I get that he might not be dealing with these in a way that others find particularly convincing; nor do I think that this negotiation with them is unproblematic. I’m not handing out feminist cookies, not at all (tis not a practice I am all that interested in). Nor am I interested in insulating Joss from critique. What I am interested in is allowing that critique to go further than it could otherwise; to engage with the text in all its complexity, the good, the bad, the interesting and the problematic. And also to engage with another question which is always raised for me in relation to this stuff: how does one depict, say, misogyny and its overcoming without first depicting misogyny? Can we think of better ways to negotiate that that nonetheless are interesting and engage with a current mainstream audience? How do we walk that tightrope?

    (and apologies, because this is kinda a response to both threads here and over at hoydens! I should have been a bit more… able to separate. But I am weary. Sorry bout that).

  10. I’ve responded more over at Hoyden, WP, as we have parallel conversations going on. Should I c/p here, Bene? (I’m never sure of the netiquette in this situation!)

  11. Nah, don’t worry about it, Lauredhel. If people are following only from here: here’s a link to the thread. I’ve been a little slow on the uptake lately.


  1. 1 Otterday, and Open Thread (now Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse discussion) — Hoyden About Town

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