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.”
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.