This reconsideration of Joss Whedon’s feminism at The Mary Sue is woefully incomplete, at best and a terrible misreading at worst. Author Natasha Simons examines three of Whedon’s shows: Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Dollhouse, writing of Buffy:
And Buffy is textually weak in all her relationships. She falls apart not only when Angel leaves her, but when Parker (yeah, you don’t remember him, either) doesn’t want to pursue more than a one-night stand with her, too. And Riley, well. Riley. Despite being an almost universally despised character, Whedon sends Riley out in a flurry of pique at Buffy, after being caught having his blood sucked by a vampiress in a modern-day opium den. Let’s get that one sorted: Riley sexually undermines his girlfriend of over a year with a vampire, then delivers her an ultimatum that she must essentially get over it, or he’s leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when he’ll be back again (never come back, Riley). She reacts with the appropriate level of scorn, before Xander, the Chronicler of Buffy’s Failures, lectures her on her failure as a girlfriend to Riley, her lack of adequate emotional support, her once-in-a-lifetime chance with this hulking cornfed sad sack – and she goes running after the helicopter like a dog in heat! It’s truly infuriating. To top things off, Xander goes home to his loving, suitable girlfriend Anya – whom he near-constantly belittles, but who makes him feel “like a man.”
I think the first problem in this analysis is that Simons seems to be confusing character complexity with character weakness. And it’s truly unfortunate that she’s suggesting that falling apart when the love of one’s life leaves town is weak — and not simply human. Moreover, what’s wrong with being sad that a seemingly charming boy Buffy really liked turned out to be a one-night stand? This is kind of the problem with conflating “feminist” with “strong,” though. Feminist, to me, means having the ability to be fully human, and to that definition, I find Buffy the character measures up. Her superhuman strength and responsibilities are constantly coming into conflict with her human uncertainties.
Simons admits that she hasn’t watched Angel, which, frankly, discredits many of her complaints about the Buffy-Angel relationship and Cordelia Chase. Had she watched Angel, she would have seen how much the breakup affected him over the entire course of the series. And she would have been familiar with Cordelia’s spectacular transformation and growth as a character. Which brings me to a larger point…
She complains about Riley (rightfully, because he sucked) and Xander (who also grew to suck pretty badly) but she doesn’t seem to notice something that is pretty clear, and to me, gives Whedon his most solid feminist cred: In the Buffyverse, women grow and change even as men stay the same. While Xander largely remains the same wise-cracking manchild, Buffy, Willow, and Anya all grow to be practically unrecognizable from the selves they were in their first appearances on the series. Sure there are core verbal tics that don’t change — much like Cordelia stays snapping on fools — but all of these characters become more fully sexually realized, in touch with their own needs and simultaneously more considerate and giving. They leave teenagerhood behind and become women.
On Firefly, I find Simons’ reading of Inara to be misguided, though perhaps not completely invalid. She dislikes the fact that being a Companion — an educated, cultured woman who has sex for money — is so highly lauded. This may come down to a difference of opinion, but I find that portrayal of regulated sex work to be pro-woman. But I come from the perspective that it’s going to happen, so why not make it work in such a way that protects the worker? For the record, Inara is given a hard time by Mal, and other men occasionally, for her line of work, which is a bigger red flag to me than the mere fact that she is a sex worker. But that she’s treated with respect and reverence and refuses to be shamed for it is pretty feminist. Simons wraps up by complaining about the romance between Mal and Inara, which consists of him “asserting dominance” over her…but then completely leaves out the fact that Inara literally leaves the ship because she’s had enough of him. And that “romance” is barely touched on in the feature film, Serenity, except when Mal is shamed by the other characters for driving her away. It’s an odd omission to be sure.
I can’t spend too much time defending Dollhouse because it was not a very good show. But I find it amusing that Simons spares not a single word for the Dollhouse’s manager, a woman named Adelle DeWitt. Instead, she brings up several incomplete tellings of incidents on the show, chalking everything up to some latent desire men have to perform violent acts on strong women. She mentions the repeated rape of a doll, but doesn’t mention that DeWitt subsequently had the man killed for his crime. She claims that the handlers and clients for the Dollhouse are predominately male — which isn’t quite accurate. There are women in power throughout the course of the show. She doesn’t point out that there are male dolls who are used for sex as well. Etc. Like I said, Dollhouse had some problems, so I’m not interested in defending it. But Simons’ shoddy argument, on this show especially, deserves being called out.
With allllll of this said (who knew I had so much to say about Whedon? Oh wait), do I think Joss Whedon is a perfect feminist? Hardly. But he’s the best thing mainstream Hollywood sci-fi/fantasy has produced. There are serious problems with the way he portrays women. I’d argue that Angel turning evil after he and Buffy had sex for the first time is a very sexist trope. And I give credit to Simons for pointing out his characters of color are also often one-dimensional (still, call me, Gunn!). Zoe is strong and silent, and often pretty flat. But Whedon also consistently produces deeply complex female characters who are strong/smart/superhuman and emotionally flawed. And those who aren’t superhuman–Joyce, Dawn, Adelle, Kaylee (and re: Kaylee, Simons should really make up her mind here: Should women be allowed to enjoy casual sex or not?)–are still funny, smart, annoying, conflicted, and interesting.
I greatly appreciate Whedon’s work, and upon many, many rewatchings, I’ve found things to love and things to hate about it (for example: he should really stop killing people we’re emotionally invested in). Ultimately, on Whedon’s feminism, I will say this: the women on Whedon’s shows are human (even when they aren’t actually human). And that’s the kind of feminism I can get behind.