My Love-Hate Relationship With Joss Whedon

[caption id="attachment_6274" align="aligncenter" width="235"]The cast of Dollhouse The cast of Dollhouse[/caption]

 

This is a guest post by Shay Revolver.

It started when I was 13. Some friends and I went to see Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It sounded like a lovely idea. A movie with a cheerleader as lead for my more “girly” friends, a vampire flick with a female heroine for me and the guy friends who were dragged along on this group “date” and just wanted to see vampires. It wasn’t like we had a choice–none of us had a car, and this was the only thing playing that we were old enough to watch at the theater our parents dropped us off at. I thought it would be perfect until it occurred to me in the lobby, while procuring nachos and popcorn, that this film was devised to please everyone, and usually when movies set out to please everyone, they pleased no one. But, it was a movie, and on a hot summer day that meant air conditioning; plus, there would be vampires, a female heroine and that was all I needed to give it a try.

I sat, I watched, I was stuck somewhere between annoyance and amusement that my nachos weren’t the only thing in that theater covered in cheese. It seemed like for every great thing about the movie there was something equally as bad, if not worse. Even at that age, I worried that the film would be remembered more for the five-minute vamp death rattle scene at the end than for the female lead. Being the resident cinephile, or film-loving smart ass, I tried to save the film by saying it was supposed to be campy. In my head that was the only way I could wrap my mind around what had just occurred. I worried that if the film wasn’t successful there would be no more films with strong female leads–that we would have to keep being arm candy and damsels. Everything that made her complex, easy to relate to and bad ass was turned into a joke. I left the theater feeling sad.

In the interim, there were other films with strong female leads that caught my eye. Some of them were American but most of the time, I had to turn my gaze to the art houses and screening rooms of the East Village and Lower East Side. The women I was looking for could only be found in indie and foreign films. Sure, there was the pop up complex, bad ass heroine (or antihero) here and there beaming in beauty once in a while on the big screens of the mainstream, but they were so few an far between that I could count them on one hand and very rarely did they resonate in the way the other films did. Then something different happened. Studying in my dorm for midterms, during a very crazy junior year with my brain frying and a cold brewing, I turned on my TV and on some random network, there was Buffy. Buffy 2.0. to be exact, and in all of its campy goodness I could not turn away.

[caption id="attachment_6275" align="aligncenter" width="199"]Summer Glau Summer Glau as River Tam[/caption]

 

There was a woman on TV, being bad ass and somewhat complex (as complex as a teenage girl could realistically be), and I along with millions of other people ate it up. On the surface, it was beautiful and a pleasure to watch. In my philosophy studying brain it was full of conflicts, ideas and other interesting complexities. As the series progressed there was less complexity in Buffy and more complications. During the series run, much like the movie, I found that for every step forward there was a step sideways, often back. But, I couldn’t turn away. In my head I juggled with the bizarre coincidence that Buffy’s “virtue” was linked to the sanity of all the men around her. Her virginity literally turned Angel evil. It was a pattern that played out throughout most of the show. Her sexuality was a prize to be given and taken at will. It was also her downfall. She would be punished for choosing to express her sexuality, for having desires, for not being the “proper girl.” It was one of the themes that bothered me throughout the show.

When discussing how male writers and directors portray women and their “complexities,” the name that gets called out the most is Joss Whedon and his strong, complex female hero Buffy Sommers. I, for one, was always team Faith. She was way more complex and realistic than Buffy. I could relate to her. While Buffy spent most of her non-training conversations lamenting over wanting a relationship and kicking ass in between sessions of just trying to get a date, Faith was more concerned with finding herself, being independent, and if love came along, that’d be cool too. She wasn’t nice all the time, she straddled the line of morality and was okay with who she was. She was a creature of pure impulse, turning into the woman she was going to be, who never tried for perfection. Watching her evolve was fascinating. She was like Catwoman to Buffy’s Batman and I could relate. While Buffy went on to have “relationships” that mimicked the plot line of almost every Lifetime movie, Faith was content to be alone instead of settling for the sake of not being alone. She was punished with being labeled as insane for expressing her independence and sexuality.

[caption id="attachment_6276" align="aligncenter" width="189"]Sarah Michelle Gellar & James Marsters as (everyone's favorite dysfunctional couple) Buffy and Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer Sarah Michelle Gellar and James Marsters as (everyone’s favorite dysfunctional couple) Buffy and Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer[/caption]

 

When the short lived Firefly and its companion movie Serenity came to us, in true to Whedon form, the “virgin” lives and is strong. The “whore” is ultimately punished for her ways and although she does manage to survive and ride off into the sunset with Mal, her redemption comes only with settling down with a man to make her honest. While I will forever love the females in power aboard the ship, they were often led astray by their desires. The message often came off as, sorry ladies you can’t have it all. Even the hard-hitting River Tam was as bad ass, complex and brilliant as they came; she was also a virgin and very broken. She had passed the age where her sexuality should be expressed. She was incapable of expressing herself, and she went insane for contact. At the end of the day, the only woman who could save herself was the one who let go of her sexual identity or any idea of companionship, and she remained isolated and broken. Despite her strength, her survival often depended on the men around her.

This trend continued with Dollhouse, where the female bodies were literally used as objects and in a way that can only be expressed as soul rape, they are forced to forget the trauma and sleep until their bodies are called upon to be used again. Yes, in some scenarios these women were called upon to be more than just a warm body in the bed of the highest bidder, only worth what someone else was willing to pay for them, but the disturbing part was that they had no choice in what was happening to them, making it akin to a psychic roofie-style rape. I’ve heard the arguments that men were kept in the dollhouse as well , or that women were in power in the dollhouse, but none of that makes the situation any less horrifying. In the end, Echo is saved by a man. She was rendered incapable of saving herself. I looked away.

[caption id="attachment_6277" align="aligncenter" width="184"]Kristy Swanson, the original Buffy Kristy Swanson, the original Buffy[/caption]

 

That has always been my issue with Joss Whedon’s work. As strong as his female characters are, they’re often on some level tortured and in some ways punished for being exactly what I was looking for in a female lead on TV. They seemed unable to find completion without having a man in their lives. That is what completed them. That was how they found themselves. It was also how they were punished. Buffy couldn’t save the world until she fell in love with her series-long tormentor and almost-rapist Spike. River Tam would collapse under the weight of her own strength. In Dollhouse, all of his female characters were used as pleasure objects and shells for men, and other women were serving as their pimps. There was no end to his female characters’ suffering; their worlds just got grimmer. There was no chance for redemption. Yes, they’re all strong in the traditional sense of the word because it is such a rare thing to see in media, but they’re also all still traditional archetypes.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m happy that he keeps creating these strong female characters, I wish more male creators would do the same. Gender equality in casting, Salt withstanding, is often hard to come by. I just know that I would love it even more if he wouldn’t make them set up to fail, if he wouldn’t put them in situations where their survival is dependent upon men, or where their happiness was aligned with or subject to the men in their lives. I’m hoping that the Agents of S.H.I.E.L..D. proves me wrong in the long run, and a shift is coming now that he has proved his weight. But so far we’ve already seen one damaged woman, one about to fall prey to her romantic desires, one who lacks sexuality, and another who has been mind controlled. For a very long time Whedon was the only game in town for seeing a continuous flow of strong women in power. Now there are other options, and most of them are women writing and creating roles for other women. It has been proven that there is a market for the characters that Whedon has often said that he wants to create. I see glimpses of these women in the characters that he does portray. Now that he has reached the level that he has in his career, hopefully he will show us these women that he wishes he could have created, shown and brought to fruition as he often laments. I can’t wait to see them.

 


Shay Revolver is a vegan, feminist, cinephile, insomniac , recovering NYU student and former roller derby player currently working as a NY-based microcinema filmmaker, web series creator and writer. She’s obsessed with most books , especially the Pop Culture and Philosophy series and loves movies and TV shows from low brow to high class. As long as the image is moving she’s all in and believes that everything is worth a watch. She still believes that movies make the best bedtime stories because books are a daytime activity to rev up your engine and once you flip that first page, you have to keep going until you finish it and that is beautiful in its own right. She enjoys talking about the feminist perspective in comic book and gaming culture and the lack of gender equality in main stream cinema and television productions.. Twitter @socialslumber13

 

13 Comments

  • limbomonkey
    Posted December 8, 2013 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this! I am so tired of hearing “Buffy is feminist because she is a strong female” and that being the end of the conversation! I’m not a Whedon fan, but my husband loves Buffy and I watched most of it with him. I have similar complaints re. Buffy and Faith. But also Willow and Anya. It seems that in the Buffyverse, all powerful women must be minded or turn evil. Buffy and Faith by their watchers (Faith went all evil when she didn’t have her watcher). Willow got too powerful/evil and needed Giles to step in. And Anya was a demon. That doesn’t sound very feminist to me. It sounds like the patriarchy.

    • lazysmurf
      Posted December 9, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

      Faith came back from jail in the 7th season strong and independent. She even took over the organization for a while.

      • limbomonkey
        Posted December 9, 2013 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

        Didn’t she not do a very good job at that though? But even if she did, one example (even a few examples) at the very end of independence isn’t enough, in my view, to make the show about defiance of patriarchy. (Though Buffy calling out the council and telling them that they need her was a good start.) Not saying anyone said the show was about defiance of patriarchy, I just think it’s something to discuss when talking about the show as feminist.

        • lazysmurf
          Posted December 9, 2013 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

          She didn’t do an out and out great job, she didn’t have any experience leading people though or working with a group. People still mess up but Faith found her way back to the good side through her own strength of character, not through any man.

          I think the whole 7th season is such a feminist victory. Buffy and Willow take the power that the ancient men gave to one girl and spread it to all the potential girls ever. The entire council was destroyed! Patriarchy literally smashed,

          Also Giles tried to stop Willow and couldn’t. It was Xander who finally did it by reminding her how much he loved her.

          • limbomonkey
            Posted December 9, 2013 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

            Well then yay! Maybe I should have stuck it out to the end, but after Xander lost his eye, I got a bit squeemish. And my husband had this habit of getting so excited with the last few episodes of a season, he’d have to watch them all at once, while I was sleeping. I think I saw the season finale of season 2 and that’s it.

  • Really?
    Posted December 8, 2013 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    I’m sorry but this article is startlingly inaccurate in many ways, and in several places shows a lack of Familarity with the shows themselves. As someone who has actually watched all of the shows being discussed in their entirety, I would recommend the author do so as well.

    • revolver
      Posted December 9, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      Hi, there.
      I actually have watched every episode of all of his shows, I own all of the box sets on dvd and all of the Buffy based video games going as far back as the game cube, (i usually play the Faith character) hence the title. I am even using the speech (back story withstanding) between Spike and Buffy in the Touched episode as part of my wedding vows. Being familiar with his work is why I have a love – hate relationship with Whedon and his work. If you can express where you feel that my portrayal has been inaccurate I’m more than happy to discuss it with you.

  • Posted December 9, 2013 at 12:58 am | Permalink

    I appreciate the in-depth analysis. I’ve only ever had a problem with one or two of Whedon’s scenes. Sure, Dollhouse is a whorehouse, the women there suffer. That’s what fiction does. It makes characters suffer to show what they’re made of. If the women weren’t facing big conflicts the show wouldn’t be interesting.

    • revolver
      Posted December 9, 2013 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      Thank you for your comment . I agree, conflict is necessary to make the media interesting which is why I have the love- hate relationship. His shows tend to straddle a line that forces my brain to do a feminist cha-cha, so i spend half of the episodes cheering the female strength, I spend the other half cringing at the delivery method and some of the circumstances.

  • lazysmurf
    Posted December 9, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    You should watch the rest of Dollhouse, Echo redeems herself.

  • Jack Greenall
    Posted December 18, 2013 at 1:20 am | Permalink

    I agree with a lot of what you’re saying, and even as I’m a fan, I’m with you on Joss Whedon’s Feminism needing a more critical evaluation than it has had in the past.

    The one part that I’m not on board with is the “Her virginity literally turned Angel evil” bit. It’s not that it’s untrue, it just doesn’t feel like that story as I know it.

    A girl, aged ~16, has sex with her older boyfriend, and afterwards he’s changed, he’s not the same guy anymore. I feel like there’s potentially a resonance to the story for it’s target teenage audience. I got what they were getting at.

    From at least Dracula onwards, the mythos of vampires revolves around sex. Virgins, blood, night time, uncontrollable hunger, a fate worse than death – a very Victorian monster. But the loss of virginity outside of wedlock isn’t scary to us like it was in the past – in fact it’s a rite of passage. A lover who stalks you, menaces your friends, spills your secrets to your mother and threatens you and everyone you know in a campaign of violence and terror, on the other hand, is a nightmare.

    I grant that teenage sex leads to tragic consequences/cosmic punishment for the girl is a tired, sexist, anti-sex cliche that’s often used in lazy storytelling,

    But playing that trope while modernising the vampire myth (within the sphere that originally made it scary) and relating it to both an essential experience of growing up and a terrifying allegory for gendered violence, and doing so in a way that fits into the character arc of both Buffy and Angel and fuels the overall plot arc of the season… I think is clever, effective, memorable and justified.

    • Jack Greenall
      Posted December 18, 2013 at 1:26 am | Permalink

      I also think that Buffy’s response to what happens – gathering support from her friends and family (hats off to Joyce’s parenting skills), changing the mystical locks on her house, staying safe and waiting til she has the strength and distance to deal with the problem, is not the worst model for dealing with a stalker-y ex boyfriend.

  • Aidan Long
    Posted February 21, 2014 at 12:41 am | Permalink

    I sort of feel that while you have a point, it’s not quite as bad as that. I’ve seen the men get just as messed up as the women in Whedon’s work. I also don’t think they were tortured for being strong it was simply life giving them hell. Plus, Faith was more punished for not caring about who she hurt to express her independence, not for being independent. However, this is still a good article and it’s always interesting to hear an opinion that differs from mine.

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