Dear Joss Whedon, Et Al: Leave “Feminist” Alone

We’ve all seen the misguided pop culture caricature of feminism rear it’s ugly head, popping up in far too many celebrity quotes and media pieces that misinform the masses and scare people away from identifying as feminists.

This imagined man-hating, bra-burning political radical still lives in the ’60s or ’70s, rants constantly about the patriarchy and doesn’t shave her legs (gasp!!). The suggestion is often made that the word “feminist,” with all these false associations, be abandoned in favor of a new word.

One of the latest attempts to re-brand feminism came from a surprising source: writer and television producer Joss Whedon, who is acclaimed for his shows that feature strong female leads, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse and Firefly

While some praised the speech he made (cough cough, Jezebel) at an Equality Now benefit last week in Los Angeles, many have taken issue with the 15 minutes he spent dissecting the word “feminist” instead of, say, firing up the crowd to support ongoing efforts for global gender equality.

Unlike those who take issue with the cultural context of the word feminist, Whedon argues against the word itself. He finds the last syllable particularly troubling: “-ist, I hate it.” He adds,

It’s this terrible ending to this wonderful beginning. This word for me is so imbalanced, just tonally, it’s like watching a time-lapse video of fresh bread being put in the oven and then burnt … it bugs me that I don’t love the word more. ‘Ist’ in its meaning is also a problem for me, because you can’t be born an ‘ist.’ It’s not natural.  You can’t be born a Baptist, you have to be baptized, you can’t be born a Communist an atheist or a horticulturalist. You have to have these things brought to you.

I hate to break it to you, Joss, but the progress toward gender equality that we’ve enjoyed in this country did not happen naturally or without struggle. It was fought for by generations of strong women and men who opposed what the patriarchy told us was our natural role as women. It did have to be brought to people—and it still does.

Said Whedon,

People are confronted by the word ‘feminist’ and it stops them, they think they have to deal with that. But I think we’re done with that as intelligent human beings.

Perhaps from the privileged position of a wealthy white male it’s easy to think that we no longer need to “deal with that,” at least on a rhetorical level. Whedon suggests a solution of sorts: Let’s just use the word “genderist” to describe gender discriminators from now on, instead of “sexist”. (Uh, Joss, that also has an “ist.“)

The feminist movement is not perfect. This is in part because a movement is made up of people, and people are fallible, but feminists continue to critique themselves and strive for more intersectionality and inclusivity. If you choose to not identify as a feminist because of disappointment with the movement, that is your right. But if you choose to not call yourself a feminist because you don’t want to be thought of as a radical,  a man-hater or (god forbid!) a hairy person, then you do yourself and society a disservice. To those who feed the pop-culture caricature (I’m looking at you, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and Kelly Clarkson, among others), please realize that when you dismiss the term you weaken the fight for gender equality and harm those who have dedicated their lives to it. Every time someone says, “I’m not a feminist, but … ” a suffragist rolls over in her grave, a little girl puts down a book and picks up an apron and Rush Limbaugh gets a hard-on.

Instead of proposing that we educate people on what it means to be a feminist, the suggestion continues to be that we just adopt a new word. Well, I, for one, won’t. To reject the term is to let the opposition redefine it for you. I’m with famed feminist writer Erica Jong, who said in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times,

[Feminism] has been bad-mouthed in a million different ways, and many women have been fooled by that, but feminism only means that women want the right to be whole human beings. End of story.


Photo of Joss Whedon courtesy of Flickr user Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons; feminist symbol courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Video of Whedon’s Equality Now Speech courtesy of YouTube. Cartoon drawing, “The Pop Culture Feminist Caricature” by Melissa McGlensey.



Melissa McGlensey recently graduated from the University of Oregon with a B.A. in English and Spanish with a minor in creative writing; she is currently interning at Ms. Read more from her at