A speech by Joss Whedon at an event in November 2013 called Make Equality Reality made the rounds on social media with people generally applauding. This is impressive given that the speech is nearly 15 minutes long. Online sharing culture doesn't seem to have a 15-minute attention span, but then, this got shared mostly as an Upworthy link. Maybe Upworthy users are willing to take on longer chunks? Anyhoo, having seen the speech back when it circulated, I wanted to write about it then, but a) the holidays intervened and b) sometimes a blog post that feels really big is harder to sit down and write.
Quick highlights: Whedon says that feminism is an outdated word and that we should say "genderist" instead. He doesn't claim to have invented that word, but he trumpets it and gets a big ovation for his trouble. Quick analysis: Whedon stops far short of usefully contextualizing "genderist". Yes, women are people, and people should not be trafficked, harassed or ignored. That sets a pretty low bar, and it misses the opportunity that a new word creates. In two different summer issues of The Atlantic plus a December New York Times blog post, there were actually more nuanced and complete examinations of gender and equality issues. I wished Whedon had delved more deeply like those essays did instead of abandoning his crescendo by following it with a faux low-self-esteem promise to fight quietly in the corner with his ink-stained fingers.
If Whedon had read the articles I cited above, he might have said something different and more useful.
Whedon offers "genderist" as an alternative to "feminist" (a fact I'd forgotten in the months since seeing the video), but I think that's off target. I'm not sure there's that much wrong with "feminist". What I'd told myself he'd proposed when I forgot what he actually proposed is that we should swap out "sexist" for "genderist". That makes more sense to me.
|The Atlantic's The Gay Guide to Wedded Bliss, June 2013|
What if same-sex marriage does change marriage, but primarily for the better? For one thing, there is reason to think that, rather than making marriage more fragile, the boom of publicity around same-sex weddings could awaken among heterosexuals a new interest in the institution, at least for a time. But the larger change might be this: by providing a new model of how two people can live together equitably, same-sex marriage could help haul matrimony more fully into the 21st century.The part about same-sex weddings increasing interest in heterosexual marriage was just a fun perspective I hadn't considered before. The article talks about wedding officiants finding themselves more busy than they've been in a long time with both same-sex weddings and weddings of heterosexual people jealous of the fabulous events celebrating their same sex friends' couplings. The big point here, however, concerns marriages not weddings. Same-sex marriage offers "a new model of how two people can live together equitably". Drilling down to detail, Mundy says:
Same-sex spouses, who cannot divide their labor based on preexisting gender norms, must approach marriage differently than their heterosexual peers. From sex to fighting, from child-rearing to chores, they must hammer out every last detail of domestic life without falling back on assumptions about who will do what. In this regard, they provide an example that can be enlightening to all couples.Here we see where Mr. Whedon could have gone in his speech. In novelty marriages dotted around the landscape for decades, bold men and women have stepped out and determined that wives can work full-time and men can work less than that and can do laundry and shop for groceries. In the main, however, especially when children enter a marriage, many couples seem to have shrugged and decided that dad will work and mom will trade career for kiddie carpool et. al. at least for the 25 years it takes to raise a family. In a same-sex couple, the "default settings" are absent. Each party and the unit itself have to examine skills, leanings, priorities, personal preferences and make definite choices. Straight couples could have been doing that kind of joint work to big decisions, but it hasn't felt very mainstream to do so.
|The Atlantic's Masculine Mystique July/August 2013|
Then the July/August Atlantic featured an essay in which Stephen Marche reframes the dialogue prompted by Anne-Marie Slaughter's seminal "Why Women Still Can't Have it All" the summer before. He says we've viewed the conflict incorrectly:
The central conflict of domestic life right now is not men versus women, mothers versus fathers. It is family versus money. Domestic life today is like one of those behind-the-scenes TV series about show business. The main narrative tension is: “How the hell are we going to make this happen?” There are tears and laughs and little intrigues, but in the end, it’s just a miracle that the show goes on, that everyone is fed and clothed and out the door each day.Marche goes on from this framework to explain his own personal experience with his marriage taking on the economy. He left a job at City College in New York when his wife was offered a dream job as editor in chief at Toronto Life magazine.
[I]n my marriage, the decision came down to brute economics: My wife was going to make double what I made. Good schools and good hospitals are free in Toronto. These are the reasons we moved. And if I were offered a job where I would make double what she does, we would move again. Gender politics has nothing to do with it.Marche's experience presents the economic reason why defaulting to gender roles feels like less of an option for many these days: it's "genderist" to think that the woman must always be the trailing spouse. This angle also plays up how we don't know the shelf life of certain role decisions we make. Some event might come along to upset the apple cart and make whatever we'd chosen for a season not be right for a new season.
Finally, speaking of upset apple carts, John Major shared his story with the New York Times parenting blog about what happens to a stay-at-home-dad when the marriage to a breadwinner wife ends. [Tip of the pen to reader Azure for sharing that one with me.] Spoiler alert: a man who has not been in the workforce for several years and finds himself needing to fight for his rights in a divorce settlement and make his way back into the workforce looks an awful lot like the more familiar woman who has not been in the workforce for several years who finds herself needing to fight for rights and get back into the workforce.
I think it would be cool if "genderist" got adopted. Yes, I am a man who cooks most of the dinners and loves to bake. If you think that's weird, you're being genderist. Yes, my wife is a lawyer at a big firm who makes more than I do. If you think that's not right somehow, that's genderist. It's genderist to expect things to be as they have always been in gender roles. That works as a new word with a more equal-footing meaning than sexist has had. I find myself referring to sexism against men as "reverse sexism", which is kind of like saying that racism against whites is "reverse racism". It's not. It's just racism. But being a sexist has come to mean pre-judging or boxing in women. Genderist could apply more equally to broad brush statements about both men and women.
You're welcome, Mr. Whedon.