EDIT: Joss Whedon has spoken out about why he left Twitter, and it isn’t because of death threats or “social justice warriors.” However, I stand by my assertion that no matter who you are or what your reason is, telling people to kill themselves isn’t acceptable for any reason.
If you’re a nerd (and you probably are, because you’re here), you already know two things:
- The Avengers: Age of Ultron sucked hard and insulted basically every marginalized group on the planet
- Joss Whedon, director of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, deleted his Twitter account following a barrage of negative tweets about the movie.
Valid criticisms of the film poured into Whedon’s Twitter mentions–many of them regarding the role of Scarlett Johansson’s character, Black Widow, as well as a rape joke that made the film’s final cut. But with that criticism came some abusive language, purportedly driven by feminists who threatened physical violence and encouraged Whedon to kill himself.
I am never reluctant to point out that Joss Whedon, fan-appointed feminist savior of nerd culture, writes, well, exactly how a white man who’s been raised to the pedestal of blameless authority on all social issues would write. There are so many problems in his work and his interactions with fans. Here are some of his greatest hits:
- Killing off mostly LGBTQA+/PoC/women in his canon
- Blatant colonialism
- Rape jokes
- The physically-strong-but-emotionally-broken female character trope
- Persistent self-insert “Nice Guy” characters
- Women who die to give male characters Man Pain
- Strong disregard of the concerns expressed by fans regarding all of the above.
Surely there are some I’m glossing over here, but I think this gets the point across: Joss Whedon is a deeply problematic fixture of nerd culture. When before his thoughts on feminism and LGBTQA+ issues had real weight with his fans, now his audience has found the footing to speak for themselves–and to speak against him. And they’re right to. Whedon has been open to discourse with fans; to disengage from critical discussion on issues like feminism and gay rights while accepting praise for his allegedly progressive attitudes is hypocritical and condescending.
But this weekend, some weren’t looking for a discussion. They were looking to vent their anger in violent ways. Feminists have been blamed for these tweets. I don’t think that’s true. While it’s entirely possible to identify yourself as a feminist and still exhibit toxic behavior, too many of the insults and threats tweeted at Whedon were of the “up your ass” variety. In my experience on the internet, it’s generally young heterosexual men who resort to threats of anal penetration. I do not, in any way, believe that the bulk of these threats were sent by women. It’s also not unusual for the usual suspects (4Chan, Reddit, Gamer Gate) to adopt the language of activists in order to express extreme positions in an effort to discredit “social justice warriors.” They’re also fond of creating sock puppet accounts on social media. I suspect that was the case in eighty percent of these abusive tweets.
I did see plenty of critical engagement by fans, in the form of questions about the choices Whedon made (many are neatly outlined in this article by Kyle Wagner). I am in no way condemning these fans or accusing them of “bullying” Whedon off of Twitter. They were simply demanding accountability, and deserved answers. But after countless “remember when” and “friendly reminder” posts in which all of Whedon’s past offenses were tallied, the conversation seemed far less, “these are things Joss Whedon has done wrong,” and more, “this is why Joss Whedon deserved not just the criticism, but the abuse he received.”
I have a lot of radical views. The belief that privileged people deserve death threats as a response to their privilege is not one of them. Maybe this sounds like tone policing. It probably is tone policing. People in marginalized groups receive threats and suggestions of suicide every single day, simply for expressing their opinions. As someone who has received her fair share, I see the marked difference between hatred for the expression of personal truth and criticism for problematic media and the creators of it. Whedon was not receiving threats for simply existing, which is what social media activists face every day. But that doesn’t lessen the severity, in my mind.
As a person who has been suicidal before, and whose family was tragically impacted by suicide, I view “kill yourself” and expression of violent ableism when used as an insult. Suicide is not a deserved punishment for the creation of problematic media. It is a disease. To suggest otherwise is to cast aspersions at everyone who has ever struggled with suicidal thoughts, or who have succumbed to the disease. What horrible thing have we done, that we deserved those thoughts? That some of us deserved to die for? Why is suicide considered a fitting humiliation for someone who has done wrong? Especially considering the fact that Joss Whedon has, in the past, admitted to suffering from panic and anxiety attacks? In what social justice philosophy is sending these messages to a person already struggling with mental illness acceptable?
This is not to say that Whedon deserves a pass for the misogynist, transphobic, rape apologist comments and content he is responsible for. The social justice landscape Whedon stepped onto with his early work has evolved into a world where he no longer speaks the language, nor holds a place of importance, and he has resisted this reality time and again, instead of changing his behavior and creations. Rather than ignoring his critics, he would do well to listen to them, and to take responsibility for the harm his actions have caused to people who aren’t comfortably enjoying white heterosexual cisgender male privilege. But celebrating threats and intimidation as a victory or accepting it as a part of activism when directed at an individual isn’t my idea of social justice at all.
Think critically about who the driving force behind that abuse might be, and what they have to gain from your defense of them. Men’s Rights Activists are right now carefully collecting those receipts to use against activists later. Consider the ableism that you’re supporting when you brush off “kill yourself” as a fitting response to an argument, and how that hurts not just the target, but normalizes the perception of suicide as a shameful act, rather than a fatal illness. And leaving all that aside, continue to demand accountability from creators of problematic media.