Saturday, February 1, 2014

On the infamous Whedon Tweet of Whedonocity (trans*phobia and gender esentialism)

Question: Joss, any advice on writing strong female leads in a comic book?
Answer: Must value #strength but also #community & not have peeny/balls
Ok, so, what can we take from this?
  • Well it's not enough to be strong, one also has to value strength.  Ok, sure, why not.  I guess the point is that we don't need another comic book character who is all, "Woe is me for being cursed with awesome, I hate being strong and which I were just in the center of the bell curve."
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  • Second, must value community.  Ok, what the fuck?  So strong female characters can't be loners?  But apparently strong male characters can because otherwise it would go without saying since the person doesn't seem to be having trouble writing strong leads in comic books in general, just the ones who are female.

    Strong female character who goes around saving people because she values human life, but doesn't give a shit about social structure and community and whatnot (Chaotic Good for the win!) cannot be a lead.  It's not feminine enough for something.

    Strong male leads can value community or not value community as they will, but women are forced by their gender to value community.  That's not sexist is it?  No, not at all.  It's just saying that women are a monolith who are programmed for virtues traditionally associated with being wifely and/or motherly.

    It's not sexist, their brains are just different.  Separate but equal and all that.

Then we get to the part that has set off the infamy bells:
  • "& not have peeny/balls"
There are two reasons that it has.
  1. Reason the first: What this says is take a strong male character who values strength and community, swap out the genitalia, and you've got a strong female character.  This can work.  It got us Ripley.  But what it ignores is that there are differences between the female experience and the male experience.

    Remember that guy who thought women had it easy on online dating and set out to prove it by signing up to an online dating site as a woman?  Within two hours sexism the likes of which he had not seen (either toward others or himself) in his entire life drove him away from the project and left lasting negative effects.

    Know women your entire life, be around women your entire life, pay attention, listen, and even then all of the sexual harassment you witness combined will not equal to what you experience if you spend two hours on the dating scene as a woman.

    Even if you believe men and women are equal (the definition of feminism, by the way*) that doesn't change the fact that they are not treated equally.  In some situations you can get away with writing a character first and choosing their gender later, but given the detail comic book leads sometimes get you're probably not going to get away with it.

    Superman values strength and community.  Take away his penis and balls and he does not a female character make.
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  2. Female is not defined by genitalia.  That's the big one.  This is the reason it's gained almost immediate infamy.  Remember the female racer who, it was discovered well into her life, did in fact have testicles but they were just internal?  Didn't magically make her male.

    You know the .3 to 5% (some studies estimate as high as 10*, I doubt them) of the population that is trans*? Now not all of them are male or female, that's the reason that there's an asterisk when you write trans* but not when you write "trans man" and "trans woman" the asterisk is for those who cannot be described as "man" or "woman".

    It's a larger and more diverse group than you might think and a big part of the reason it's larger is that a lot of old statistics were based on sex change operations which a relatively small percent of the population get.  Which is to say that, even after every getting medical thing they want done, there are men with vaginae and women with a penises and testicles.

    So it has been for thousands of years, so it will continue to be into the future.

    Joss Whedon's tweet indicates that those men can be strong female leads in comic books.  Wait, what?  The question was how to write female characters and you answered, "Men with vaginae† will do just fine"?  What the fuck Joss?

    Joss Whedon's tweet indicates that those women cannot be strong female leads in comic books.  This is less of a, "Wait, what?"  This is straight up trans*phobia (don't go to the etymology, it will not help you; a lord is not a bread guard: words change.)  It's saying that trans women don't count as female.  cis** women count as female, trans men can count as female, trans women do not.

    Does this mean that Joss Whedon is trans*phobic?  No.  The action is trans*phobic.  The intent doesn't matter.  And the intent was, he says, to not be serious.  Here's the problem: trans* issues are deadly serious.  I mean that completely literally.  Deadly.  People die over this.

    Joss Whedon is someone people look up to.  That group of people is not composed entirely of saints.  Some of them are trans*phobic.  Most of those will see this tweet as proof that he's in their camp.  It'll bolster their belief and their position.  It means that when an opportunity comes for them to turn that internal trans*phobia into external action they'll be more likely to do it.

    That is when people lose their jobs

    That is when people get hurt.

    That is when people get traumatized.

    That is when people get killed.

    That is when people are driven to suicide

    That is when the world changes for the worst.

    And that is the problem with the tweet.
If anti-trans* attitudes were a thing of the past then maybe, maybe, you could do, "Hur, hur, I'm pretending to be a bigot from the 12th century.  Isn't it silly?" and have it be ok.  But the facts are that we live in a world where bigotry is not a thing of the past and if we're talking about trans* people we're talking about a group frighteningly likely to be assaulted (ordinary or sexual, pick your flavor), raped, killed, or some combination of the previous.

And in that situation the tweet totally deserves to get dumped on and so does Joss for making it and then refusing to so much as acknowledge it might be a problem.

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* If we had developed in a matriarchal misandrist society the definition that now goes with the word feminism would instead go with the word "masculinism"

** Second note on language, in case anyone here doesn't know.  Trans means not cis, cis means not trans.  They're a matching pair that forms a complete set.  They come from Latin.  Basically, if you cross the bounds of the gender you were assigned at birth, you're trans* ("trans" in Latin or English means many things, all linked to "across") if you stay within the bounds you're cis ("cis" in Latin or English means "not across".)

[Added:]

† It has been pointed out that I went a step too far.  Joss didn't say that a man with a vagina would do just fine as a strong female lead.  He said that a man who was lacking a penis or testicles would do just fine.  No mention of what should exist, or not exist, in place of those things.

Injuries, illness, and so forth can necessitate the removal of those parts.  Icky I know, but apparently it makes them strong female leads if they value strength and community.

2 comments:

  1. I'm pretty sure there's a spoof job interview video (on Cracked dot com I think) where Superman actually says that as an alien, he has no penis.

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    Replies
    1. Well, there you go. By Whedon's logic Superman is already a strong female lead.

      (Yeah, I did see the word "spoof", I'm just ignoring it for effect.)

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      And thanks for commenting.

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