Lately I have been reading a lot of comic books and generally getting into the genre. Now I certainly have so much to say about that whole experience (as a fangirl and a feminist), but it all is getting tabled due to this little related Twitter gem:
“@thatkylemcmanus: any advice on writing strong female leads in a comic?”
"@josswhedon: Must value #strength but also #community & not have peeny/balls"
So yeah, that happend. Oh Mr. Whedon, did you learn nothing from the Penny Arcade debacle(s)? Are you now so secure in your position because you said you thought "women are people*" that you no longer need to consider exclusionary language? Or maybe you, just like many of us who enjoy cis-privilege, did not think it through when making a "joke"?
Now here is the deal. I genuinely believe that he did not mean for this to be offensive or exclusionary. I don't think he is genuinely transphobic, but I do think he sees no problem furthering entrenched bias through "jokes" like this one. As we all try and grow into better people, we all slip up. As a die-hard feminist I sometime find myself engaging in anti-feminist (or cis-centered) rhetoric and then catching myself. As cultural norms of inclusion grow and change, we often find ourselves in seas of vernacular and concepts that take some effort to navigate. We all slip up, we all learn, we all try and do better.
Most of all, we aplogize when necessary.
This is where Penny Arcade, Whedon and countless others can't seem to get it together. The whole PA debacle could have been remedied with an apology, some indication that there was a lesson learned and promises that in the future sensitivity would be applied. But no. Middle-aged-cis-white-hetero-dude who firmly believes that being bullied as a child entitles him to bully others, had to deliver frothing screeches about "censorship" and escalate the whole situation by designing a line of merchandise that effectively mocked sexual assault survivors. (Consider that a brief summary, there is a wealth of writing on this topic if more nuance is desired.) See also: PA comments on transexuals, poor handling of harrasment at PAXcons and so on. This is like PR Fail 101 stuff, not to mention How Not To Be A Jerk 101. Really people, focus up here.
Whedon took effectively the same approach, though he thankfully did not embrace public escalation with PA levels of fervor. Instead of apologizing he made a snarky remark implying that anyone who couldn't take the joke, or who was too stupid to see it as a joke, could take a hike. For a man who claims to be telling us all how to be feminists, he sure likes that "don't be so sensitive, it was just a joke, you silly things" gaslighting strategy. Sorry, but we all expect better of him. We all know that Whedon is capable of greatness in this specific regard, so show us that. It is not only demeaning to all the people he othered with this comment, but it is also demeaning to his own (albeit not perfect) track record of inclusionary art.
So, for your perusal and use whenever needed I present a basic template for getting your act together and being a full-on humanist adult.
I apologize for my earlied comment (fill in examples if needed). My position of (cis/heteo/white/affluent/whatever) privilege led me to believe that my comments were (harmless jokes/ironic/satirical/whatever) and now I understand that this was not the case. I never intended to (marginalize/erase/trigger/deny lived experiences/etc) of (relevant populations). I now understand that these comments are not funny or clever, but merely reflect entrenched views of exclusion that I do not desire to further. I appreciate this chance to learn and grow as a humanist and, as always, admire my fans' dedication to (inclusion/equality/freedom) in all things.
Then actually do it. Actually make those changes to how you talk, write and act. If someone responded to the criticisms in this way, you can see that it was a genuine mistake that came from a place of ignorance, privileged or laziness, not a place of hate. When a person immediately goes into "defend my entitlement" mode, it is hard to see that. People can change, people can learn, ignorance can be fixed when not willful, people can make mistakes and most importantly, people can apologize and work to do better.
*This is a tricky area for me. On the one hand "woman are just people" is a perfect humanist view. It implies that gender is not the defining characteristic of one's characters and that one sees little need to stick with strict gender roles/sexual identities/stereotypes in creating one's art. However, this is also an effective tool for silencing anyone who ever implies that something one has done/said/written is sexist/transphobic/homophobic/racist/eliminationist. Like Stephen Colbert announcing (satirically) that he "doesn't see color," Whedon saying he "doesn't see gender" serves to shut down any discourse to the contrary. It is a cover-all clause saying "I treat everyone one way (via cultural guidelines that are entrenched in cis-hetero-white-norms) so you can't be offended if I treat you that way." It ignores the fundamental experience of being a woman while allowing hearty round of self-praise on being so progressive. </humorlessfeministrant>