Angry Emissions: Certain Whedon Fans and the Fantastic Pleasure of Rage
Aoifeschatological followup to my earlier critique of the Whedon “peeny” remark. Some of what I say below refers and connects to that first post. But this entry is meant to expand the discussion by investigating what are the real, underlying issues. Honestly — there’re just too many presumptions about gender and women that self-appointed “geek culture” reiterates casually. And the prefatory nature of these remarks are gesturing to that overall situation.
Yeah, I get that #peenygate is #done. But it’s not just about Joss Whedon (no — really! It’s not All About Joss!) There’s far more at stake here than a one-off quip from a very famous screenwriter. I wrote this followup because I’m concerned for a feminism that must speak to a sexist culture that is perpetuated by loads of things besides one mere afternoon tweet. I’ve focused on this instance, however, in that the ‘response’ provided further demonstration of what had originally been described. I believe that examining these details — or at least the ones pertinent to my experience of writing on this subject — reveals some interesting patterns.
In daring to propose a rejoinder to the high priest of contemporary fantasy TV, I expected a backlash. Trans bloggers in general know that, by writing, we risk the most extreme forms of targeted cruelty, as my friend Kat Haché documents with heartbreaking verification. I received predictably hostile rebukes, from a vociferous consortium that included Firely fans from the furry community, MRA militia on reddit, and a number of ardent Whedon worshipers who believe Him to be beyond reproach and will stamp out any heresy on sight. Also, there were ample examples of those who held similar views to mine. As two such voices to read — Mellisa and Kate. Although their takes are somewhat different from mine, you’ll find their commentary useful, incisive and augmentative.
But fandom had a vested need to overlook the number of women who found fault with the tweet, a convenient amnesia of erasure. Much more handy to shrug us all off as pathos-party uppity types, I reckon. Keeps things tidy. Avoids having to have a think.
Holding to an unpopular opinion is a feminist necessity. Dismiss feminists as you have and will: we’re not strangers to invalidation, I can personally assure you of that; however, a lovely thing about gender transition is the discovery of inner resources one dared not even imagine to be there. Not to mention an experiential insight or two as to how culture conceives of men and women inequally.
What most intrigued me then, the reason I compose this addendum — there was such opprobrium of the counter-response that exhibited, almost verbatim, the exact political authority of misogyny that I pointed out in my first post. Really, you couldn’t make it up, so rehearsed was the bitterness. Even the most generalised survey of the post-Whedon debate could find the violent nastiness that, as socially encoded, put into play the anti-woman ethos. (I’m providing my own examples of what I experienced, insofar as they quantify the pathology. Search twitter to find plenty more.) Throughout, there is a recognizable mandate of sacrifice, one which treats women’s bodies as sites of scepticism and submission in order to boost prestige for men and maleness. You think this is just theory-talk? Whingy jargoneering and make-believe? Paranoid delusions of the perpetually persecuted? Take a tromp through the fallout to find out otherwise. The senseless reiteration of cultural power and the transference of misogyny was casebook in self-evidence. Performative masculinity and the remorseless vengeance of masters and their domains.
The Statlers and Waldorfs of the laptop-screen balconies consider acidity towards women to be a participatory team sport. And a pleasurable one at that. Just because “geek culture” frames the banter doesn’t make the bigotry somehow more sophisticated. There’s an unsettling rage on display. It’s disquieting. Its intent is to make women afraid. Superficially, the abuse takes on a kind of rhetorical dismissal of “crybaby social justice losers” or kooky militant agitators. Slagging off social justice now has become the replacement codeword of rightwing snide asides that political correctness stood for in the early 90s. For example, take the trolls that invested their bountiful time-surplus in heckling my article — well, honestly, there wasn’t much actual commentary on what I had to say in my blog entry itself. (Univerisally, I avoid reddit at all costs: this will be the one and only exception of a mention, for “informational purposes only”. I don’t visit there as a matter of conscience.)
In my initial post on Whedon’s tweet, I provided a small list of shout outs to women authors who might have given a more compelling response than Whedon did. Predictably, the disparaging commentary that ensued about their writings — not only in the reddit rut, but that’s what I’ll focus on here — took on the perspective of severe gender bias. It’s one example. But there were many others. So descend into the mucky underwaters of one of Dante’s subreddit, if you dare . . .
The behaviour here is quintessentially privileged: never did they actually discuss the woman’s art, only passed judgment on the woman as artist. Just look at the derision they heaped on the selection of female comic writers I briefly named in my prior post. For example, they know little of Ôshima Yumiko’s work, yet they deplored her as forgettable, talentless, and emotionally childish in her recent series Gûgû datte neko de aru. This is patently ridiculous on every level of condescension: ignore their gross misinformation on her œuvre. Moreover, to deprecate the emotional textures of her stories as immature and sentimental, as they did, rehashes the typical male criticism of female authorship that gained traction in the Victorian period: the hysterical poetess, the irrational woman-child. (Likewise, their sneer in regards to me being a harpist, as rendering me inept in feelings and affects, aligns quite clearly with their disapproval of Ôshima as moody.)
I make an important personal digression here: I mentioned Ôshima specifically in my list because she had a profound influence on my transition. She’s written brilliant stories about trans women, one that was given to me when I was on the brink of fatal indecision. When I wrote to her about how much she helped me come out, she responded with warmth to my Japanese language emails. She’s a lovely person and a brilliant writer; it’s pretty cool when a favorite manga-ka pens you a letter. She also kindly allowed me to reproduce pages from her work in one of my academic publications, which appeared in Mechademia, if you’re interested in my scholarly writing on Ôshima’s approach to gender. But many Anglophone alpha-geeks don’t know what isn’t on en.wikipedia, so they dismiss her superficially.
To continue on with the Whedon-fan repudiation of my women authors … and the sexist terms in which they’re couched: Gail Simone’s championing of femininity in comics has permanently reshaped many aspects of the genre: her Alysia Yeoh gave us the first openly trans character portrayed in a realistic manner, a revolutionary stroke of initiative and narration. Moreover, Simone’s been a fantastic ally of trans identified peeps. Next, as for their belittling of Bechdel, whom I also gave a salute — I suppose men only value a female artist if she updates free content for a web comic. Brogsol? Multiple award winner. And as if writing great comics for teens is a bad thing. Note also the masturbation metaphors that they used: … wow. As I was saying about genital fixations . . . they obsess about that stuff, don’t you know. Private fixation very easily converts into public rage-pleasure, as the reddit rampage shows. In similar ways, those of us active on twitter watched the ensuing attacks on trans women by fans in their support for Whedon. The tweets were incidents of auto-misogyny. The dudes actually repeat the act as a response to the act itself. It’s remarkable. (Freud is laughing in his tomb.)
Documenting the absolute disdain for female authorship in the comic book industry would require a hefty manuscript. But even in miniature — the dross is easy to spot. A travesty of socially contracted anti-feminism.
Michael Scott’s post-it notes provided a rather effective point of analysis in my previous blog entry on why “peeny” was not just puerile, but patriarchal. I now provide a link to the clip. Michael, in learning Spanish, genders his environment by imposing on others his signs of male and female: doodled peenies/boobies. (Michael affixing the ‘boobie’ sticker of Womanhood to Angela’s forehead! CLASSIC machismo.) The Office is quite the microcosm of men managing identities and bodies as routine. Indeed, many episodes feature great satire of the penile preoccupations that are asserted, on demand, in masculinist discourse. For other insightful incidents, see also here, or the “genitalia education” scene from S7E04: they’re hilariously accurate sendups. Likewise, any number of Dwightisms just seem too on the cusp of … realism. Intriguingly, Whedon was a director for two episodes of the programme (S3E17, S4E10). Yeah, I’m an Officologist! It’s brilliant.
Listen — the examples aren’t just on reddit or twitter. They’re simply accessible demonstrations. I cite the MRA rubbish on reddit because most of it was passed off as “geek culture” opinion, or at least voiced in the persona of “The Fanboy”. Which means it’s somehow immune from sexism, because “geek culture” isn’t like that. Actually, it’s baseline misogyny. And yes it’s everywhere. Obsession with bodily bits restricts the definition of the whole person, and too much of “geek culture” thoughtlessly duplicates that just like many other segments of society. The reddit and twitter rage in defense of Whedon readily reproduced, with an almost parodic lack of self-awareness, the very same invalidating, facile treatment of women that is culturally predominant. This is, I’m convinced in revising my ideas, what the industry refuses to address at every level. Misogyny congregates and corroborates even in the sacred loggia of comic shop aisles. And we see, time and time again, how their fury through anonymous symptoms demonstrated the real problem. Such superlative reactions just confirmed the diagnosis that we first made in regards to Wheedon’s peenie comment. Sure I doubt Joss Whedon would want any of them on his defense counsel. But I can’t divorce him entirely from the “geek culture” that continually fails to redress its dismemberment of women, figuratively and literally.
One sees exactly how Whedon’s sex abbreviation, and the prevalent ideology therein, fed the fanboys exactly what their bile salivates for. This is about control through reductive labels, reinforced and re-inscribed — and comics are rife with this! Such is the damage in how asinine “observations” by Big Names perpetuate sexist stigmas: and some of us must live through the results, unable to shrug off the initial purposes. Just as Whedon’s tweet had rendered womanhood to referential genitals, so the knockdown efforts afterwards treat women as reduced and consumable through abuse. It’s there. It’s there for all to attest.
Online forums showcase, far too often, a toxic bravado that encourages the suppression of women’s voices. There is little or no recourse on the part of the erased. I’m using some of the responses to #peenygate as an incident-specific dossier; but the overall principles are pretty recognisable. Anytime an article comes along about trans teenage girls wanting to go pee in a safe manner, the phallacy/fallacy is used to deny her rights, interrupt her education, and threaten her future. For example, to quote one of hundreds disqused in the Bangor story: “Anyone who thinks women can have penises is mentally ill.” (And hundreds more comments on this line, much more violently stated.) In arguing that she must be forbidden access to female facilities, these commentators are depending on the very same cissexism that was implicit in Whedon’s tweet. We hear this simplistic pseudo-logic of invalidation based on body parts constantly.
With the requisite imprimatur of “geek culture” or not, many of us love sci-fi and fantasy. The genre is innovative, and we’re excited. We consume it, study it, and are inspired by its limit-pushing. Speculative fictions can have the imaginative power to reform cultural inequalities: that’s why fantasy can entrance us like no other genre with its alternative versions of perceivable realities. Yet its narratives can also just reinforce oppressive norms, but with fantastic disguises. Don’t shirk away from that threat. We know how the rhetoric of the disqualification of women, especially trans women, works.
In my original assessment, at no point did I call Joss Whedon names, or accuse him of being transphobic, or say that I hate him, etc. Nonetheless, miscasting critics like me as SJW fops was the easy laugh for the ragers. However, my intention was to provide a measured response that addressed, especially for cisgender readers, the sexism at play. Whedon’s tweet exemplified the problematic underpinnings of simplistic gender allocation that are justified as shorthand definitions of male power. His words depicted the systemic, erroneous representation — through attribution and substitution — that trivialises sex differentiation, always at the expense of women. It’s not just Whedon; he happened to produce a case study that garnered loads of attention.
Women as disproportions and fractions. This is no laughing matter. I’m telling you — this is no joke. And the implicative impact goes beyond the ‘compose new tweet’ function of this single instance.
I know there’re legions of Whedon protectors out there, to cite how one angry defender identified when rushing into the fray to compare feminists with the Gestapo. (Calling trans people “creeps”, as this linked tumblr did, also reveals that unpleasant undercurrent once again.) Such unadulterated fan-idealisation, one that will not even consider a contrarian point of view, has never struck me as a useful virtue, nor reflective of what good, critical readerships should be. My article was not written for the idolators.
Rather, the sincere effort was made to analyse, for those curious to understand better, why many women — trans and cis — found Whedon’s phallic economy to be troubling. As I pointed out previously, one can recognize the presence of male heterosexist impositions in what he glibly said. De jure, these prejudices permeate all levels of cultural structures, and not just Whedon — as I’m saying, his peeny-bon-mot lent a useful reference point.
Diversity, and the lack of it, is a major issue in the industry at the minute. The cis-het-white-dude monopoly will not remain unchallenged, even as they roar with ear-wax stained fingers, while simultaneously trying to shut out what they don’t want to hear. Certain Whedon fans raged in praise of their hero, spurring their momentum by cursing anyone who didn’t share the dogma of Joss. This is what we mean by male authority. Now, as for the man in accounting for himself, he tersely advised — if you don’t like it, don’t follow. Mr Whedon, I wasn’t following you to begin with; I’m well aware that you’ll easily soldier on without my support. This followup post won’t win me any more allies, to be sure. Really. I didn’t anticipate an apology from you, as such. But I did expect that a writer of global stature may have had a more articulate offering in the queue.
So I shall turn to the inimitable Hélène Cixous:
Mme. Cixous, some of your thoughts on a woman’s strength? —
“Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard.”