“It never occurred to me that championing equality for women was going to be controversial.”
When Joss Whedon retweeted Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency series of academic video game critiques he found himself mired in the latest nerd culture war: GamerGate. Always an outspoken feminist, and a filmmaker known for highlighting women in his work, it should have surprised no one that Whedon stood alongside people fighting for equality and better representation, but these days anything can start a firestorm.
That the firestorm got its name from Adam Baldwin, one of the stars of Whedon’s cult show Firefly, made Whedon’s involvement feel all the more weirdly personal. Watching Baldwin snipe at Whedon (and everybody who crossed his path, myself included) was weird and discomforting for Whedon’s legions of fans, many of whom are women, and most of whom share his political views.
I had the chance to sit down with Joss Whedon for ten minutes at the Avengers: Age of Ultron junket, and while I did ask him questions about the movie (you'll see that stuff closer to release), what I really wanted to talk about was the war for the hearts and minds of nerds, a war that has continued this past week with an explosion of political fury at the Hugos, scifi lit’s most prestigious award (you can read up on the insane kerfuffle here). This week Whedon also found himself getting some attention when he criticized the first clip from Jurassic World, a clip that had Bryce Dallas Howard as a stuck-up, sexless prig and Chris Pratt as a laid-back guy full of life throwing sorta gross sexual innuendo at her. The clip was tone deaf (among many other problems), even as it was clearly a less-talented writer’s attempt to ape Lawrence Kasdan’s 1980s aping of 1930s screwball comedies. The end result: a clip that felt mired in sexual politics from the Depression era. When Whedon said something:
...and I'm too busy wishing this clip wasn't 70's era sexist. She's a stiff, he's a life-force - really? Still? https://t.co/qqts4jpSva— Joss Whedon (@josswhedon) April 10, 2015
it became actual news.
I’ve always liked Whedon’s work, but I really like Whedon’s politics and his refusal to stay silent. As a culture war rages in fandom I have been heartened to see Whedon standing tall, and to me he’s one of the more important figures in the modern history of our nerd culture, both as a creator and as a person. So I had to ask him about these battles, and about GamerGate and whether he has ever sat down with Adam Baldwin to try and hash it all out.
We are in the middle of a war in fandom, one that keeps growing from month to month. The Sad Puppies drama with the Hugos is just the latest manifestation of it, and it seems - to me, someone who has been a nerd for my whole life - absolutely crazy.
It does seem bonkers.
The problem is… I’m not saying the problem is Twitter, but let us use that as an arena. Everybody has access to everybody, everybody has the chance to boil down the most simplistic version of what it is they have to say and reach whoever they’re saying it about. I think in some ways there are crazy, rabid, angry misogynist people out there…
Comic book fans, video game fans, have traditionally been subcultures that have been very edgy. They’re like secret societies almost. Obviously the majority of people are not like that, but I think that’s always the way with sports or other things I know nothing about -
The secret societies you have not been inducted into.
Exactly. But I always think there’s that element, and now that element can be incredibly vocal. And with Twitter it’s boiling down to its most simple state. People who have a more nuanced view are just going “Black. White. Left. Right.” because that’s all people have the room to type. And other people read that and it creates this cycle of oversimplification, where, okay MAYBE somebody believes GamerGate actually has ANYTHING to do with ethics in gaming journalism - maybe they somehow believe that - but there’s not even really time to really express that. You’re for or you’re against us. I don’t know the way out of that. There’s also the anonymity, which is letting us express primal rage. And we all have it. It’s not just coming from fandom, it’s all over the place. I’m as likely to be attacked by feminists for saying something feminist as I am to be attacked by anybody else. We’ve gone into this crouch and leap mode.
You’re one of the few people willing to engage that. You’re releasing a billion dollar movie, which means you need to appeal to the widest audience as possible, but you’re also being vocal in your beliefs. A lot of people in your position are not. This week you came out and criticized Jurassic World’s clip - which I thought was terrific of you - which is maybe not the politically expedient way to approach it.
You know, I honestly think that was bad form. I literally forgot that I don’t do that. I literally just went… I was so shocked! Honestly, I was shocked! Like a dowager - “Oh, good lawd!”
Do you think it’s generally important for you to speak out?
Yes and no. I don’t think I should have tweeted about that movie; there are plenty of other things that bother and offend me in movies and I usually don’t tweet about them unless the movie is old, long over, I don’t want to be knocking ‘The Other Guy.’ I don’t want to set myself up as the arbiter of awesome. I was shocked, and I thought, ‘Come on, we can do better than this.’ I didn’t say the movie was a problem, just the clip. And having worked on a film of one of Crichton works, that’s sort of how that formula operates. But as a quasi-celebrity it’s uncouth of me to attack somebody else’s material.
But to speak up politically? It’s both necessary and damaging. It’s necessary because there’s so much that’s horrifying in our world, and so much that needs to be done. Not to say something about, I feel, is kind of morally bankrupt. At the same time, as an artist? It’s the worst thing I can do, because everything I make gets judged by that standard. “This movie isn’t feminist enough!” Well, this movie is about people, it’s not a polemic. It’s going to come from me, and I have everything in me - including that inchoate rage that wants to attack everybody. Once you define yourself, your art becomes more limited. If I could do it all again and remain anonymous… I don’t know that I would.
It never occurred to me that championing equality for women was going to be controversial. When I retweeted Anita Sarkeesian, it wasn’t because I was on a soap box. I was like, ‘This is interesting guys, check it out!’ I had no idea what I was stepping into… and I’m not sorry I did. Since the damage is done, I’m going to continue to speak when I think it’s appropriate. And occasionally when I don’t!
You’ve spoken up about this and your old pal Adam Baldwin actually coined the term GamerGate. Have you guys talked about your differing positions on this?
You know, we really haven’t. Because I don’t know what to say. I feel like there’s a disconnect from reality.
Adam has always been a very conservative Libertarian, and he’s always been a very sweet and grateful and hard working actor, and that’s the guy I like to think about, not the guy who is calling me and Felicia Day out on Twitter because some obnoxious person is on our side and saying, ‘This proves...’ something. I don’t understand.
I never understood. He very sweetly begged me not to vaccinate my children. He gave me books on the subject. Get him and Alan Tudyk on the stage together and it was hilarious. They would yell at each other and then I would yell ‘Action!’ and they would yell at each other with acting. They got along, they were pushing each other’s buttons.
But he’s such a good guy, so to see that lack of connection with the reality that people are being really, really hurt, really damaged by what these people represent, it saddens me.