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Friday, August 20, 2010

Joss Whedon, Porn, Science Fiction and the Future of Feminism




Someone forwarded me a self-righteous rant about one of my favorite subjects: the late, lamented sci-fi classic TV show Firefly, one of the most brilliant pieces of television ever created (and cancelled by Fox – boo, hiss). I’m sure you can tell I’m a fan. Why? Not just because it’s brilliantly concepted, delightfully rendered, lovingly detailed, incredibly well-acted, and intriguingly plotted – I love it most because it’s the best-written television show I’ve ever watched. Joss Whedon, Tim Minear, and their crew put together one of the highest pieces of art to ever hit the small screen – and then came back with the critically-acclaimed by woefully under-exposed movie Serenity, which extended the franchise brilliantly, before it was snuffed out.

Now Joss And Friends cut their teeth on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel before they ascended to the level of Firefly, and in Buffy in particular Joss was widely hailed as bringing to the fore some contemporary feminist topics and addressing them in the context of a fantasy series with a strong young woman as the lead character. It often led to Joss being portrayed as a feminist, something he hasn’t done much to discourage. The blog rant called into question Joss’ feminist street cred by hammering out an exegesis of parts of his scripts for Firefly and Buffy. Taken by themselves, and from the most extreme points of view, they do seem misogynist in places.

But what the writer, a self-described “lesbian feminist sister”, had go completely over her single-minded little head (and yes, that condescending phrase was intended to be such, though I assure you my assessment had nothing to do with her gender) is that television is ART. You can slam it as “popular culture”, but all of history’s great art was, at one point or another, just another piece of “popular culture” – and this utter lack of perspective seethes through the rest of her piece. It might not be considered high art, but then Firefly’s main purpose was never to be a fascio-feminist manifesto, it was meant to be an adventure story set in a future dystopia. Remember that point. It’s important.

The writer also shudders at the idea, that
“I find much of Joss Whedon’s work to be heavily influenced by pornography, and pornographic humour.”


Considering that virtually all art outside of its most pure and inaccessable forms is a relation of human emotion, and that all human emotion is affected by sexuality – which includes pornography and pornographic humor – I concede the point.

Pornographic humor, of course, is rooted in the depths of our human subconscious. Recall, for instance, that one of the great Western religious traditions of all time, the Eleusinian Mysteries (which are often siezed upon by feminists as a positive feminist allegory) includes the part of the Myth where Demeter, Goddess of Grain and Motherhood, is brought out of her divinely inconsolable grief about her abducted daughter, Persephone, by a dirty joke. Pornography and pornographic humor are as essential a part of human nature as eating and sleeping, and to consider any cultural construct without accepting that is evidence of flawed reasoning or an inadequate education.

The writer makes the further mistake of intepreting the writing exclusively through a radical feminist filter, without considering the idea that inter-gender relations exist as a part of a greater cultural whole: Zoe calls Mal “Sir” not because she’s a submissive female, as the writer contends, but because she is a spiritually wounded soldier who clings to the trappings of the military life, including treating her superior on the ship (Mal is Captain, and therefore entitled to be referred to as “sir” by his first officer) with military respect – in other words, she’s a complete character, not a caricature, of the strong female warrior. Joss treats her like a real person subject to the real world, and that includes such things as elementary adherence to protocol in line with her official duties. Sorry if real women performing in a heirarchy rocks your feminist boat. I’m sure Katherine Janeway, strong female captain of Star Trek: Voyager, internally winced every time she was treated with respect and addressed as “sir”.

Her next contention is the most astonishing. Inara Serra, a major character on Firefly, is a “space whore”, that is, a high-class Companion who rents her company (including her sexuality) to select clients. In the world of Firefly (“The ‘Verse”), the Companions are a powerful and well-respected institution. Far from being mere prostitutes, they are adept cortesans who use their considerable (and expensive) charms in pursuit of a vocation where their sexuality, like their other characteristics, are used to the benefit of their clients and themselves. In many ways she’s the strongest woman on the ship, but her profession – respected in the sophisticated areas of the ‘Verse – is held in contempt by the low-brow yokels who inhabit the backwater colonies she haunts. To them she’s a whore, nothing more – and that’s the same contention the writer of the rant makes. It’s a type of intellectual slut-shaming of a woman who decides to be powerful by including her sexuality in her life, not excluding it.

But then again the writer also seems to consider any heterosexual coupling “rape”. We’ll get back to this again in a moment.

She seethes at the fact that an intelligent, well-educated woman would EVER want to use her sexuality for anything but (presumably) lesbian hand-holding. Real self-actualized, self-aware, powerful woman in that society, or our society, apparently must check their hearts at the door and use their vaginas only for empowerment unsullied by mere males. Real feminist women cannot be heterosexual without betraying their feminist ideals, in the writer’s narrow universe.

She further castigates Zoe, a very emotionally complex and complicated woman, for having a real, live, functioning heterosexual relationship with a (gasp) White Male. They’re a real couple: they fight, they fuck, they call each other endearing names, they depend on each other for fulfillment and support. But apparently Wash, who is, compared to his warrior wife, a “semi-muscular man”, treats the woman he loves dearly and is hopelessly devoted to like “a piece of meat” according to the rant writer. Despite the fact that Wash is probably the most Beta male in Sci-Fi history, his simpering masculinity is just too strong for the rant writer to handle. The fact that his devotion to his wife is so strong that (in one famous scene) he’s not even tempted when he’s in the middle of a whorehouse should say something about the character – but he’s merely male, and therefore an implicit rapist. The fact that Zoe is equally devoted to Wash, to the point where she is willing to sacrifice her Captain, leader, and war buddy Mal in order to save him is also lost on the writer. Heterosexual relationships are apparently fundamentally flawed no matter how well they work and make people happy.

And then she starts in on the violence, throwing around words like “homoerotic” and “hypermasculinized” and “manliness” and “rivalry” with gay abandon. I won’t get into it, save to remind you that Firefly was an action-adventure sci-fi story. Last time I checked, they did best with a lot of fight scenes. Action adventure stories that center around discussing the characters’ feelings without a couple of good fistfights or gun fights aren’t, by definition, action-adventure. Firefly is set in a lawless frontier, where violence is part and parcel of the characters’ lives, not to mention the way they made their living. You’d think she’d know what she was getting – it was right there on the box, since all the characters are heavily armed in the picture. If she was that opposed to violence, homoerotic or otherwise, you’d think she’d skip it and pick up Personal Best instead.

So that brings us to consider her total perspective, which associates anything male or masculine automatically with rape and oppression. Men, in her opinion, are not allowed to be masculine, they are not allowed to be sexual, they are not allowed to be violent – they just plain aren’t allowed. Feminism, in her view, is the glorious idea of a world untainted by Y chromosomes. Half the human race is expendable and undesirable. Women good, man bad.

And that’s a problem. For feminism.

Because you can look at feminism in one of two ways: as a real, vibrant, creative and correcting force in our society – our whole society, men and women – or you can look at it as a mindless dogma more attached to idealism than to constructing real solutions to the very real problems we face today. And I mean “we” as in “men and women” – because the the transformative power of feminism has touched all of our lives. For the ranter and the radical anti-sex captial-F Feminists she parrots, the feminist ideal is a lot like the Marxist Workers’ Paradise, a mythical lesbotopia utterly unconnected with reality. The problem is the latter attitude is at odds with the former in such fundamental ways that it threatens to discredit all of feminism and the good it has done with crazy misandrany and complete male-bashing.

The promise of feminism is that men and women should ideally be treated as equals in our society, and despite a lot of reactionary misogyny over the years the march toward that goal has been steady and consistant. Many of the original outrages that inspired the movement and philosphy have been defeated and tossed in the trashheap of history – and I say good riddence. But the issues of chattel marriage, female disfranchisement, and economic independence, among others, were the low-hanging fruit. It was easy to see the injustice and take action. Now – in our Western culture, at least – what remains gets far more complicated, because the feminist philosophy in its single-minded pursuit of its goals, is now running up against some of the very basic aspects of masculinity that men, as a gender, are probably unwilling to compromise on.

This might be more important to little-l feminists than you might think.

Let’s start with pornography. Simple issue, no? Well, no, it isn’t. Because men aren’t going to give it up, ever, as individuals or as a society. Porn is an expression of masculine sexuality, and I would no more allow my sexuality to be dictated to me by a “lesbian feminist sister” than I would expect her to let me dictate what her sexuality should be. While the big-F Feminists rail at porn as inherently exploitive, I’ll remind everyone that they also rail at heterosexual sex in any form as inherently exploitive, if not actual rape.

Since a good 80% of the women of the world are primarily heterosexual in orientation, that fallacious idea saps the credibility from any further arguments even among small-f feminists. As a member of the porn industry, of course, you may consider my opinion highly biased and my perspective narrow. I’ll freely admit to that. I cannot consider all porn “exploitive”, and I certainly don’t consider my heterosexuality to be implicitly so. But even if you discount my profession, please don’t discount my perspective: because if feminism is to progress as a socially relevent philosophy and movement, then it must do so in concert with men and it must come to terms with the idea that masculinity isn’t going to dry up and fade away.

I know men. Good, strong, happy, healthy men who love their wives and girlfriends, do their best to avoid being complete dicks, and try to be the best fathers to their children they can manage. Like the characters on Firefly, they are flawed, of course, as we all are (even lesbian feminist sisters). But taking their flaws into consideration, even the ones who get closest to being feminists (I doubt the rant writer would allow that anything with a penis could actually be a feminist, regardless of captialization) balk at the idea that their sexuality is inherently evil, immoral, and oppressive. Nor do they want to give up their porn.

Men like porn. We need porn, as a gender. And men won’t give up their porn even when there’s a state-imposed death penalty for its possession. That’s not a cultural affectation, that’s a human universal, part of the male sexual psyche that’s basic to us. We can’t put it away any more than women can put away maternal instinct. We can mitigate the need, but somehow I think a world full of sexually-repressed men would not lead to the Feminist lesbotopia the rant writer imagines. Men are driven by sex in a way most women are not, and that’s not a flaw – it’s part of who we are. We are who we are, and we will always be so. Feminism needs to accept that fact if it wants to move on to any meaningful change in our society. Some small-f sex-positive feminists are doing just that, and change is happening. The rant writer, on the other hand, has inspired nothing but contempt – not for her gender, but for her misandranous, male-hating perspective on our gender.

Science fiction (often called Speculative Fiction) serves an important role in our culture: it shows us the possibilities of our future, in a variety of ways. One way is the socialist-utopia of Star Trek, where everyone wears gender-neutral spandex and only has sex on vacation. Another way is the Firefly method, where real, honest-to-goodness problems in our own society (like a woman’s turmoil at the necesity of dividing her loyalites between career and family, as Zoe experiences, or a woman’s struggle to define herself as independent and still enjoy a healthy sexuality, as Inara experiences) are dealt with by real, deeply flawed, deeply human characters in bad situations.

That’s the art of the TV show (see, I told you I’d get back to it). Firefly took nine very real characters with baggage and flaws and hopes and fears and it put them through the wringer of a wild and unpredictable life, to see where they would end up. It wasn’t always pretty, and it wasn’t always clean, and it was frequently bloody – but real life is like that, too. And that’s the value of science fiction in general, and Firefly in particular: it is through the flaws and the mistakes and the injustices it portrays that the art of inspiring a depth of feeing shines through. And if the rant writer can’t get a handle on that, then she should find some secluded Lesbotopia Paradise Island of Amazon Women of her own where she need never be bothered by a Y chromosome again.

And I'm not even going to get into Kaylee. Can of worms, there.

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