Your Experience Is Not Universal

A huge problem in any dialogue about any issue is this: a lot of people do not get the above. They assume something doesn’t offend them right off the bat, so anybody who claims to be offended is, well, wrong.

Take the very first comment on this post at Feministe, in relation to a … questionable Vogue cover, saying straight up: “I do not see what you are seeing”: while it’s nice to hope we live in a world where that statement is simply an offering of alternate viewpoint without an inherent, unspoken “Ergo you are wrong”, I’m not sure what else I’m meant to take from it.

And in regard to the by-now-fairly-ubiquitous images in a recent feminist publication, the same has been said again and again: it’s ironic, it’s retro, I don’t see what you’re seeing so it cannot exist.

I don’t have the tools to properly unpack this kind of racist imagery, so I’m not going to try. This post is my plea to people out there to listen to the people who DO have those tools and CAN unpack these issues. And as I thought this all over, I realised that, as so often happens once you give something a bit of thought, this applied directly to my own experience, and made me look at something in a totally different way.

I’m certainly known, where I am known, as a little bit of a feminist. And a little bit of a geek. And I certainly spent more than enough of my teenage years glued to every episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. So I guess it was only natural that when someone dares to question the Awesome Feminism-ness of its creator Joss Whedon, people would turn to me to … I don’t know, defend his honour or something.

Because I’d run into this kind of discussion before, I was well ready to decline. I like BTVS, I like what I’ve seen of Angel, and yes, I like Firefly. But I can like all those things without signing up to the cult of Joss Whedon Is The Saviour Of Modern Feminism. And I disagree with some of _allecto_’s arguments, because we have different takes on different issues. I can also do THAT without joining the chorus of “You can’t question the Mighty Whedon!”

But do I think there are some worrying gender-related issues in Firefly? Damn straight. Do I question the “diversity” of a cast of female characters who line up with uncanny accuracy to the Spice Girls? Hell yes. And when I explain these problems, most of the time people sit back and think, “You know, there’s some good points there.”

Until:

So in the very second scene of the very first episode, an episode written and directed by the great feminist Joss, a white man tells a black woman to ‘shut up’ for no apparent reason. And she does shut up. And she continues to call him sir. And takes his orders, even when they are dumb orders, for the rest of the series.

I admit when I first read that, I thought, “Wait a second, that’s kind of harsh, and it totally misrepresents the real Mal/Zoe dynamic in the series, doesn’t it?” And it wasn’t until this week, really, that I could look at that and think: of course I didn’t react strongly to that. I’m white. I live in a society which has a very different set of race issues and history than the US. So who the hell am I to say that a woman of colour, watching that episode – watching the first real statement of the power dynamics between those two characters – shouldn’t think, “Well great, a white man bossing around a black woman, how wonderfully offensive.”?

This is the difficult thing. This is the part where I have to remind myself: my experience is not universal. I watched Firefly with nary an issue in the world, first few times around. Then when feminists pointed things out, I listened, and thought about it, and realised they had good points. Because those things made sense to me. They matched up with my experience. But reading that into a few-seconds-long interaction between two characters? Surely not! Not until I remembered that this is exactly the same stuff that’s been exploding all over the blogosphere about those pictures and that Vogue cover. It’s another white feminist saying, “But my issues are actually real and important, you’re just being over-sensitive.” And if I had a nickel for every time I’ve blown my stack at a man telling me I was being oversensitive? Even with the current not-brilliant exchange rates, I would be a rich, if angry, woman.

Even after having it explained, even after having a minor epiphany about it this week, that scene still does not make me cringe. It doesn’t bring up a lifetime of experience, because there’s nothing really relevant to bring up. It doesn’t resonate at gut-level. But I don’t think that’s the important thing. The important thing is knowing that just because it doesn’t, doesn’t make it okay. And when someone makes another post saying, “I have a problem with this”, the important thing is to take that little voice in my head that’s saying, “But I don’t see a problem!” and tell it to go play in the corner while I listen, and reflect, and remind myself that my reaction isn’t the only possible reaction, and isn’t more important, more worthy, or more relevant than anyone else’s.

11 comments

  1. Christine

    I don’t have the tools to properly unpack this kind of racist imagery

    It’s black men with spears chasing a white woman in the motherfucking jungle. If you can’t unpack that, you’re not trying very hard.,

  2. QoT

    Okay, Christine, I should elaborate: that wasn’t meant specifically in relation to those images, but rather that when I see things like the Vogue cover or the scene in Firefly, I don’t immediately know how to assess them or what the issues can be. When it’s pointed out, it seems obvious.

    The jungle imagery? Certainly was obvious, especially because of the previous incident with the original front cover. How they managed to go, “Whoops, front cover = bad” but didn’t think, “maybe we should check the other illustrations we’ve used” baffles me.

  3. Lyn

    Enjoyed your post – am lacking the brain-power to say anything really insightful but was pleased to run into another woman on the standard the other day and I like the cut of your argument. I’ll be back.

  4. QoT

    Thanks! As chance has it, I was directed to your blog a few days ago re: the WoW entry! Always good to meet other Kiwi blogger-women!

  5. docweasel

    How’s this for closer?
    If they were basketball fans, instead of women, they’d know that far from being a put up job by racist Vogue editors, LeBron probably made the face himself, naturally. Its one of his signature “grimaces” after he scores or makes a big play:
    http://docweasel.wordpress.com/2008/04/27/whine-on-you-crazy-feministe/
    that was on the first page of google images, I’ll wager there are 50 more where that came from. I’ve seen him do it dozens of times, and they don’t telecast Cavs games down here very often, I’m a transplanted Ohioan in Florida. He’s becoming such a big star, they might start, though, thankfully.

    But still, if you want to make something out of nothing, or assign motives where they don’t exist, I’m sure this won’t stop you.

  6. QoT

    Doc … I had a whole reply typed out, then realised you just referred to “basketball fans” and “women” as though they are mutually exclusive categories.

  7. belledame222

    there’s no question that there are problematic aspects in JossVerse, race far more egregiously so imo than sex/gender per se.

    but i think y’know the problem people were having with allecto’s post(s) wasn’t so much just the critique of the shows so much as whole, he must totally be raping his wife! why’s she staying with him anyway! why stay with any man! except possibly John Stoltenberg! it must be the money! yeah, that’s it! nothing problematic about saying THAT, boyyyy…

  8. docweasel

    That was supposed a joke, however weak.
    if ;you didn’t recognize it as such I guess the fault is mine.
    I humbly apologize for my many faults
    If you would deign to type out your reply again I’d be happy to read it and be edified.
    A click on the link alerts me to your interest.

  9. QoT

    Okay, Doc.

    The problem is about one hell of a lot more than the facial expression. It’s facial expression, plus pose, plus a white woman in HER clothing/pose, giving an overall, “King Kong called, he wants his imagery back” impression. And it cannot be accidental. It can’t be, “whoops, LeBron pulled a funny face and now it has bad overtones”. It’s textbook “animalistic black man seizing vulnerable white woman in diaphanous clothing”.

    Leaping immediately to accusing those who see this as a problem as “making something out of nothing”, “assigning motives where they don’t exist”, when you’ve tried to reduce a long and complex argument into “teh feminists don’t understand LeBron’s game face” is just shallow and transparent avoiding of the problem.

  10. docweasel

    The problem with reacting to trivia like this is that you and your ilk make yourselves risible and allow reasonable people to dismiss you and your concerns. Then, when you _do_ have a valid point about _real_ problems concerning women, you’ll find yourself ignored because “they are always bitching about something”. I’d like to see you and your cohorts as exercised about FGM, the persecution of GLT and the treatment of women as little better than animals in the Muslim world as you do over a stupid fucking photo that effects nothing and means nothing in the greater scheme of things.

    But that would actually take real effort, instead of setting yourself up against a straw adversary.

    [QoT: Classic, doc, truly classic! The good ol', "There are MUCH MORE IMPORTANT THINGS!!! This issue is irrelevant!"
    Unfortunately FGM? Is a horrible and real thing. The treatment of women in certain regimes (and bonus points for painting all Islam with the extremist brush!)? Is a horrible and real thing. Daily, often unnoticed, insidious racism and sexism in the mainstream media? ALSO a horrible and real thing. ALL are valid issues to get angry about. I don't think "strawman argument" means what you think it means, given that you have not answered and certainly not taken down any of the arguments in this post, much less proven that this argument is one solely set up to establish that sexism exists.
    Any more comment prefaced on the lines of "women aren't basketball players"? Will be the exact opposite of convincing.]

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