So, about Joss Whedon …

So, Joss Whedon’s ex-wife, Kai Cole, just recently wrote an article talking about how Joss Whedon is a hypocrite for claiming that he was a feminist while acting decidedly non-feminist in his marriage to her. Of course, something like this garners comment from pretty much all corners of the web, with both Vox Day and John Scalzi commenting on it, with Vox Day claiming that this is indicative of male feminists and Scalzi mostly claiming that he’s not like that. But the one that most inspired me to write this post is a video by Liana Kerzner, where she admittedly rants about the situation and then blames it all on Anita Sarkeesian. Since she’s been critical of Sarkeesian in the past, one’s first reaction might well be to tell her to lighten up a bit on Sarkeesian, because not everything is Sarkeesian’s fault. But she makes an interesting argument on the link that I think is worth exploring a bit.

Now, the issue here is that Whedon allegedly had a number of affairs while married to Cole, and hid them from her. And when she expressed concerns about how much time he was spending with attractive women, he allegedly insisted that he didn’t feel lust for them, but admired and respected them because his mother raised him as a feminist. This, of course, is what is triggering all of the complaints about Whedon’s hypocrisy about feminism, as it looks like he was using his purported feminism as a way to deflect criticism in this case and, perhaps, in many others.

Liana K’s argument is this, as best I understand it: the problem is that feminism like Anita Sarkeesian’s holds that any sort of sexual attraction on the part of men is in some sense wrong. And if all ways of thinking about sex with women are wrong, then all you have is, at best, a kind of continuum of wrong, with, say, looking at attractive women on one end and things like rape, sexual harassment and adultery on the other. But since this is a continuum, the lines get blurred. Instead of arguing whether the sexual action is right or wrong, you end up arguing over how bad the action is. But it’s wrong anyway. So being attracted to those young actresses and fans is only arguable a bit less wrong than sleeping with them. This makes it easier to rationalize away taking the arguably worse actions, by arguing that you’re already doing wrong, and this is just a bit more wrong.

I think that there’s a bit of a flaw in her argument, though, and I think it centres around, in fact, arguing strictly in terms of right and wrong, and particularly in not recognizing the idea of an action being understandable and yet still, in fact, wrong. What usually happens is that either people end up insisting that someone who succumbs to temptation is completely morally wrong, or they end up excusing them as not really having done anything wrong, because that’s a situation where most people would also succumb. And, to me, the real approach is to argue that you can understand why they failed and did the wrong thing — so they aren’t just an evil, immoral person — while insisting that, nevertheless, the action was still wrong and something that they definitely ought not have done, and ought not do in the future.

I see Whedon as being in that position. From the letter from him that Cole quoted from:

When I was running ‘Buffy,’ I was surrounded by beautiful, needy, aggressive young women. It felt like I had a disease, like something from a Greek myth. Suddenly I am a powerful producer and the world is laid out at my feet and I can’t touch it.

A lot of people are using this as a prime example of his attempts to shift the blame to the women instead of accepting it himself, including Liana K. The problem is … we should be able to see how this is, well, true. Once Whedon had wealth, power and influence in the entertainment business, he was going to attract a number of very attractive women who would want to sleep with him for various reasons, from being intoxicated by his fame and potentially his genius to hoping to influence him into helping their careers along. So suddenly he moved from being an average guy who those sorts of women wouldn’t look twice at to being a guy that they all in fact were aggressively pursuing, for whatever reason. It shouldn’t take any great feat of empathy or anything beyond simple reasoning to determine that this would be a very powerful temptation.

Let me relate to me personally here. I haven’t had a lot of success with women and women of that quality certainly wouldn’t have never have given me that sort of chance. And yet, years ago, a friend of mine who had just broken up with his girlfriend (because she cheated on him) that he had had trouble with the fact that at most events I attended with his girlfriend — we were on the same debating team in university — I spent a fair amount of time with his girlfriend — when he was busy doing other things — because I got along with her relatively well and she seemed to welcome the company. He pointed out that he figured that if I had wanted to sleep with her, I almost certainly could have. Which, I didn’t. And yet I have to concede that it would have been a temptation, not only because she was attractive, but because in terms of looks she pretty much hit my preferences, too.

I’d like to say that I made a heroic resistance to her charms, but truthfully if she was at all hinting at that I missed the signs, or at least it didn’t even cross my mind because she was dating my friend, and that tends to encourage me to, at least, not think of them that way (or at least, not seriously). And if she had been more direct, she would have certainly turned me off. But the point is that it would have been a strong temptation, and while I like to think that I could have resisted it, I’d have to concede that it wouldn’t have been easy.

So, by the same token, I’d like to think that if I was in Whedon’s position I would be able to resist inappropriate relationships, however that’s defined. But I have to concede that it wouldn’t be easy to resist that temptation. Thus, I can understand why Whedon found it overwhelming and in fact gave into that temptation, while still saying that what he did was wrong.

So I don’t buy that it’s this blurring of the rights and wrongs that’s the issue here. It’s not that he was confused about what was right or wrong here and was just shifting from the lesser wrong to the greater wrong, but instead was that he was giving in to a temptation that he seems to have known that he should resist and yet did it anyway.

Or, perhaps there was some of that. I think that feminist theory could indeed be adding something here, and that something is the idea of objectification. See, feminist theory drives its criticism of male sexuality on the notion of objectification, the idea that it reduces women to sexual objects and at that points stops treating them as people. And, thus, what makes a sexual action wrong is that objectification, and much of the feminist criticism focused on arguing that this is, in fact, what Whedon.

The problem is that the evidence doesn’t really support that idea. If Whedon was pulling the typical “casting couch” kind of relation, that might make sense, but it doesn’t really seem like that’s the case. Cole castigates him for both inappropriate sexual and emotional relationships, and the list includes friends and colleagues. It’s actually pretty reasonable to think that Whedon was in some sense seduced into thinking that his relationships didn’t really contradict his feminism because he didn’t objectify them, sticking to women that he respected and admired. As a potential example, imagine that one of his encounters was with a long-time collaborator, Felicia Day. Now I’m not saying that they did have an affair and not even insinuating it, just taking it as a good example that could have happened. Now, Felicia Day is attractive, but she’s also noted for having a unique personality that might attract some people, and Whedon has expressed how much he likes her personality in the past. It’d be pretty easy for him to justify his actions with her being willing and with him not just caring about her looks or her being needy, but instead liking her as a person, and then having sex with her out of that sort of connection. It would justify his claim that he didn’t lust after women, but instead “admired” them, because he admired and respected them for more than just their looks. So he wasn’t treating them as objects, and so was maintaining his feminism.

And, ironically, if he had been objectifying them the temptation might have been easier to resist. If the only thing he liked about them was their looks but found them annoying twits otherwise, all he would have had to do to avoid them was ignore them and never hang around with them, which if they were annoying enough would be easy. But if instead he found that he liked them and liked to be around them, that obvious move would be much, much harder, and he’d be more likely to try to rely on his own willpower which, then, failed.

So what I think we really need to recognize is that there is purely sexual attraction — which much feminist theory will consider objectification — and there is platonic respect and admiration and there is deeper love. No one should want to exchange the latter two for sexual attraction, but flashes of inappropriate sexual attraction are not a problem as long as they are not acted on. If you have those flashes, take them out and look at them for what they are, put them away, and find a way to ensure that they don’t make you act inappropriately. Too many people simply forgive them which risks them impacting future actions, and feminism demonizes them which stops people from looking at them and taking actions to limit the actions they can influence in the future, so instead they bury them deep down and repress them in the hopes that no one will find out how bad they are. Neither way is the right way to go.

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