In a March 2 interview with the New York Times, esteemed Jewish author Philip Roth had this to say of critics charging him with misogyny: “It is my comic fate to be the writer these traducers have decided I am not. They practice a rather commonplace form of social control: You are not what you think you are. You are what we think you are. You are what we choose for you to be.”
I make a point to mention his Jewish identity (one that I share) because it informs the validity he feels in making this statement. If anti-Semitism is, as Roth contends, “misogyny’s equivalent in the sweeping inclusiveness of its pervasive malice,” then he enters the discussion on a level playing field. He can comment on the state of women’s oppression because he too has been oppressed; he recognizes the debasement of others because he knows what it looks like directed toward himself.
I do not in any way mean to belittle the centuries of violence visited on the Jewish people, nor to imply that one group’s suffering, past or present, is more weighty than another’s. But this does not mean that all suffering is equal. In the present moment, Roth is a famous, white, heterosexual male in a country where Jews face little to no official subjugation. He does not understand his critics’ “stupid inferences” and “[implausible] fantasies” because he has never had to live them. He did not write the next Mein Kampf, after all—why spend the time lambasting his work when so much true malice circulates elsewhere?
Outsiders attempting to dictate the boundaries of feminist critique is nothing new, and it is true that in the run of things, Roth’s attempts are relatively innocuous. He is the stereotypical old white male, after all—the product of a time that was less informed and more concerned with other issues. We can label him as ignorant, tut disapprovingly, and move on. But his statement has roots in the same stubborn recalcitrance that flattens differences and silences voices in far more insidious ways. The objective misogynistic value of his work is immaterial; the issue at stake is not the prejudice of a text, but who has a right to comment on it.
This is a problem that American feminism has been facing for its entire institutional history. Since the early days of suffragism and temperance, the dialogue against sexism has been dominated by white, middle-class women who, like Roth, pursue their own elevation by silencing the voices and concerns of those not privileged enough to protest by the same means. Suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to give one example, was an avowed racist, stating that black men were not morally deserving of the rights she fought to win for herself. About black women, she says even less. Her prejudice had political purpose: Many in the movement believed that calling for racial as well as gendered rights would render their already difficult task impossible. It wasn’t until the 1990s that white feminism acknowledged (to a degree) the lack of attention and recognition given to those of different races, classes, gender identities, and physical abilities.
Even with this progress, disproportionate praise continues to be heaped on moderate (read: safe) feminists like Sheryl Sandberg, whose best-selling book Lean In has been criticized for, among other things, repackaging and sanitizing the theory that more radical thinkers like Gloria Jean Watkins (better known by her pseudonym, bell hooks) have been discussing for decades; and artists like Joss Whedon are proclaimed (and proclaim themselves) vanguards of positive representation without interrogating the pervasive silences that saturate their works.
I feel compelled to include a disclaimer here: Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed my life. It is a show full of positive female relationships, girls that kick ass, and, always, Buffy Summers: feminine, petite, and so tragically real. But as empowering as this and other Whedon shows can be, they also contain glaring flaws that occur again and again: sexual consent politics are shit; racial representation is almost non-existent. Tumblr user megaparsecs relays my thoughts on the reality of Whedon’s work exactly: “When I first watched this I found it empowering, but looking back that was just because it was all I had: We have to go begging for scraps and that’s why he’s been able to seem so progressive for so long.”
Joss Whedon is not the only example of overly lauded creators in mass media, but he is certainly one of the most vehemently defended. Critiques of his representational problems—such as the unequal number of women killed in his shows compared to the number of men—are often reduced to attempts to deem him, as Tumblr user cantstopmysignal writes in their tags, a “psycho that loves killing women.” Like Roth’s response, comments such as these display a difficulty distinguishing between hate and legitimate critique, emotional connection and the realities of representational violence. Close readings do not threaten Buffy’s iconicity, nor the good the show and character have done for individuals—just as ignoring its very real deficits does not ameliorate the equally real violence it sustains. Once again, the feminist value of the work is irrelevant: Essentializing complex discussions into either-or arguments inevitably silences the voices in the middle.
When concerns are raised and vehemently dismissed, the debate can be summarized in one question: How far is enough? On the surface, it is easy to think that, if harmful discourses are disseminated through mass media, mass media must hold the tools for dismantling them. My own complex ideas on feminism emerged, after all, from watching The Nanny, a sitcom about a ditzy cosmetics saleswoman motivated primarily by dreams of a husband, kids, and a split-level in Great Neck. For all her stereotypical qualities, Fran Fine remains the force that the men in her life revolve around. This show inspires me precisely because modes of resistance emerge within, and as the direct result of, a narrative centered on the hunt for a man. In pursuit of the domestic dream, Fran leaves her insular life in Queens behind, gaining power for both herself and her family. This feels powerful because it is possible: Fran doesn’t need the Slayer’s strength to overcome the constraints of her sex. On closer inspection, however, this “progress” consists largely of the white feminist pipe-dream of a white feminist icon who might be under-educated and lower-middle class, but retains all the benefits of her ability, race, and gender identity.
This brings me back to the question, How far is enough? Fran and Buffy’s modes of resistance might be viable for those who share their white, able, cis-womanhood (like myself); but anyone who labels their stories as feminist (as opposed to texts with feminist elements) neglects the complexity of privilege and a patriarchal entertainment industry where the problems go beyond representation and into the very process itself. There is a reason why you don’t see experimental and intersectional filmmakers like Lizzie Borden or Yvonne Welbon on t-shirts and travel mugs: Patriarchal narrative and stylistic tropes are so entrenched in the public psyche that it is difficult to enjoy and internalize alternative modes in the same way. Truly transgressive projects are simply not accessible enough for an audience unversed in, and resistant to, the issues.
Here, we come to the final questions: how can one achieve true intersectional representation when straw feminists like Whedon monopolize accessible attempts at transgression? How do we hold our artists accountable when writers like Roth grant themselves the final and definitive word? How do we dismantle a discourse where the bar of decency is set at “Nazi” and the various ladders of privilege almost always determine who gets heard? Roth claims that his critics name him something he is not; he does not recognize the privilege that lies in the very fact of being named. The first path of resistance lies, perhaps, in the refusal to be made anonymous; in claiming a name at all.