On Whedon’s Feminism

Firefly's Mal and Zoe

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.


Filed under Sexism, TV, Women

23 responses to “On Whedon’s Feminism

  1. NYPinTA

    I have similar thoughts to yours after reading the ‘reconsideration’ but I don’t understand one thing: what does what happens to Angel after having sex with Buffy have to do with feminism? It happens to him, not her. He had a moment of perfect happiness and that gypsies don’t want him happy. They want him miserable, so *poof* bye bye soul.

    • I think pts, below, is correct. The reason I call it a sexist trope is because girl has sex, boy turns evil, and it’s ostensibly the girl’s fault. But even that gets a complex treatment.

  2. pts

    Re: Angel losing his soul and becoming evil…

    I think two things are relevant. One is that, as the Buffy and Angel progressed as series, it becomes clear that having sex isn’t the issue. Angel loses his soul temporarily when on euphoria causing drugs and deliberately uses his soul after SPOILERS ‘defeating’ the Beast, which only incidentally involved sex. Furthermore, Angel has sex with at least two other partners and doesn’t lose his soul. Perfect happiness becomes much more about the existentialist ethics underlining the show than about anything sexual.

    Second, it seems clear to me that Whedon’s theme in the episode where Angel loses his soul the first time is an analysis of how older and experienced men often treat young women as expendable objects. I agree that the idea that sex with women corrupts men and makes them evil is a sexist trope, but I don’t think that’s really the theme that Whedon focuses on the episode, as Buffy’s later conversations with her mother, for example, demonstrate.

    • Femdish

      That’s a really good point. Furthermore, while I do see Angel losing his soul as a result of having sex with Buffy as problematic, it does actually go through and challenge the assumption that it is Buffy’s fault. We go through Buffy’s feelings of why he’s suddenly changed, especially the moment when she says to an evil Angel “was I bad?” The lesson of the episode is that it was not Buffy’s fault, that she could not have known what would happen, and despite the outcome she did her best – this is best shown in her discussion with Giles at the end of Innocence when she asks him if he is disappointed in her and he tells her point-blank that it is not her fault and says, “Do you want me to wag my finger at you and tell you, you acted rashly? You did, and I can. But I know you loved him, and he has proven more than once that he loved you. You
      couldn’t have known what would happen. The coming months are going to be very hard – I suspect on all of us. But if you’re looking for guilt, Buffy, I’m not your man. All you will have from me is my support… and my respect.

      What I do have a problem with in this story is that it’s not very sex-positive, which is a definite staple in my brand of feminism. But, keep in mind the show aired in 1997 and Buffy was 16, and by the end of the next season the characters were able to engage in guilt-free responsible sex.

  3. Sean Robinson

    Sidestepping the larger discussion (I used to have real problems with Whedon’s treatment of women but am coming around), I have a problem with the comment: “[D]o I think Joss Whedon is a perfect feminist? Hardly. But he’s the best thing mainstream Hollywood sci-fi/fantasy has produced.”

    This continues the sad trend of ignoring the integral contributions of Jane Espenson and Marti Noxon, who have both been at the forefront of progressive mainstream sci-fi. Espenson wrote 20+ episodes of Buffy, was one of the main writers for BSG, showrunner for Caprica and will be working on the upcoming American season of the occasionally problematic but always LBGT-friendly Torchwood. Noxon was a co-exec producer of Buffy starting with season 3 and was the showrunner in seasons 6 and 7. Under her watch, the character growth of female characters within the show showed improvements by leaps and bounds in terms of complexity and depth.

    Female writers and creators’ contributions are often overlooked, of course, but the debate over Whedon’s feminist cred seems to me to really play into the myth of the male auteur and is undercut by the fact that many of the elements under debate were the product of smart, under-credited women.

    • Sure. Implicit, though it should have been made explicit, in that statement is that he’s the best male mainstream writer/director/producer/showrunner. I certainly agree that Espenson, especially, made a huge difference — she wrote some of my favorite episodes. Noxon, on the other hand, wrote some of the series’ weakest episodes. I also wouldn’t call seasons 6 and 7 a credit to her abilities.

      With that said, obviously, this is all shorthand for a bigger issue.

    • I never continued to watch Torchwood after the supposedly “hilarious” date-rape in the pilot, so I can’t judge Marti Noxon’s work there. She “was the showrunner in seasons 6 and 7″, you say? The seasons with an attempted rape on Buffy, the murder of one of the only positive lesbian role models on television by a misogynist and the death of Anya at the hands of characters even Xander could fight off? Despite the ” Yay, empowerment!” ending of Season 7 – complete with a stand-in for the patriarchy getting sliced in half through his phallic area – I would hesitate to champion her as a strong example of a feminist auteur.

      Jane Epsenson, however, does truly deserve greater credit and respect and you are quite right to point out her contributions (and exposing the myth of the male auter in general, all my Noxon-snark aside). Anybody who can write for Gilmore Girls and BSG with equal aplomb deserves rabid acclaim. That episode of BSG with Cat made me cry and her blog is a very helpful resource for scriptwriters of any gender – http://www.janeespenson.com/

  4. WHS

    Two points:

    First, I totally get how Angel’s transformation can be seen as sexist, and Whedon should have found a better way to steer clear of that particular trap, but I think anyone who reads that series of events as some sort of pro-chastity moralizing is missing a lot. Throughout the second half of the second season, the audience’s sympathies are with Buffy. Her friends and teachers do chastise her, it’s true, but we’re supposed to be on the inside, looking out, and seeing how unfair and cruel it is to blame her for what happened.

    I think that points to the larger purpose of the whole sequence: it mimics in some ways the emotional trials experienced by a teenager facing his or her first sexual encounters. Like it or not, for a lot of kids, sex is depicted as something immoral that brings negative consequences. And I don’t think anyone would argue that kids who choose to have sex might find themselves dealing with unexpected and difficult emotions. Evil Angel forces Buffy to reckon with similar feelings of attachment and guilt and isolation, but all the while, most viewers understand that what’s happening isn’t really her fault. And in the end, Buffy herself accepts her innocence, which is what gives her the confidence and strength to finally kill Angel.

    My second point is just to note that everyone has missed the single creepiest moment in all of Whedon’s shows (that I’ve seen, anyhow, because I haven’t seen Angel or Dollhouse): that episode of Firefly where Inara devirginizes some poor nerd with glasses. Just thinking about it still gives me the willies. He’s so clearly a stand-in for drooling male audience members, and despite the fact that a loser like him has nothing to offer a confident, experienced, and beautiful woman like Inara, the show tells us that she’s quite taken by this simpering pushover. Honestly, it would be better if she slept with him grudgingly out of professional obligation. As it stands, the episode goes out of its way to subordinate Inara to this wimp not only sexually, but mentally as well — for no apparent reason other than to give the show’s male viewers some fantasy fodder. Yuck.

  5. Megan

    Cant we just eave at it “Its a supernatural metaphor for the natural” & stop analyzing and just enjoy the show.

  6. Megan

    typos , just like a women
    lol kidding

  7. TtotheG

    “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.”

    *Slow Clap*

    Great response. Also an interesting Whedon factoid I recently stumbled upon is that his first work was for Roseanne. Brain-Dead Poets Society, one of the few Whedon episodes, is a really great piece of sitcom on a (for the time) groundbreaking show. I think it’s safe to assume he’s been writing feminist material for the viewing public since 1989.

  8. I like that first line of analysis.

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  10. I always loved the fact that Angel turned evil after he and Buffy had sex. Metaphorically, it perfectly encapsulated some of the fears I had as a teenage girl, that if I were to give my trust to a partner, he might not be able to handle the level of responsibility that an adult relationship requires and “turn evil” as it were.

  11. lightbulb

    Dollhouse was the show that introduced me to all things Whedon, so I always feel as if I have to defend it (flaws and all). In my opinion, Dollhouse is not feminist but misandrist. Why are a vast majority of Dolls female? Because who else would pay the big bucks for a mindless sex slave than lonely, rich men? Dollhouse points out how men manipulate women, and how a lot of women just let themselves be manipulated. That is, until our heroine says “Fuck this” and learns how to take back her identity(ies).

    • Actually it’s a little more complicated than that. One of the major themes of Dollhouse was the way technology enables us to abuse each other, and how the convenience and pleasure that it provides causes us to drift, morally. One of the things that unsettled a lot of people about Dollhouse was the lack of judgment in the early going–the obvious moral frame of reference would have been sympathy for Echo as she struggled to build a personality and used it to fight back against her evil captors, but instead the show seemed to be asking us to feel sympathy for the Dollhouse workers along with the Actives, and even, once “Man on the Street” dropped, to sympathize with the clients, the people who are making use of this abhorrent organization. This understandably repulsed a lot of people, and in fairness the show sometimes struggled to convey its arguments (I’ve always been baffled by the fact that it took so long to clarify that the Dolls were, at least in theory, being healed from a variety of mental illnesses as a result of their sojourn in the Dollhouse.) But it’s significant that the show’s morality is presented as a challenge. It’s clear in retrospect (if not at the time of watching the early episodes) that the show doesn’t expect us to say “My own personal sexbot? Huh huh, that’d be awesome.” We’re *supposed* to find all this repugnant; the show then essentially turns this around on us, saying, “Yes, but if you had access to this kind of technology, can you honestly say you wouldn’t use it?” That’s the point of Paul Ballard’s character arc–from passing judgment to willing accomplice. Again, you can argue that the show fumbles the ball when making its arguments, but this is unquestionably what it’s trying to do.

      So I’d argue that it’s not misogynist or misandrist; it’s just deeply misanthropic. While I don’t necessarily find Whedon’s arguments convincing, I respect him (and his brother Jed and writing partner Maurissa Tancharoen, who actually seem to have been more properly the “authors” of Dollhouse than Joss, who only wrote a couple of episodes) for trying to make them, and to wade into a bit of a minefield. The show does indeed become problematic from a feminist perspective on a number of occasions, but it does so precisely because it’s trying to grapple with difficult issues. The show is constructed essentially as a dissection of the male gaze and the role of a male author writing feminist fiction; for this reason, interpretation and intent are crucial. There are plenty of reasonable criticisms that can be leveled at the show, but simply saying that it’s attempting to pander to men who like to see women get beat up is reckless and unfairly dismissive.

  12. Wendy

    If Whedon shows women in all their variety, why does the tone of Season 6 take such a critical and moralizing approach to Buffy’s pleasure in BDSM sex? Yes, she likes to feel submissive to someone who shares her strength. No, it’s not dirtybadwrong. But the show certainly acts like it is.

    • Shadowen

      Well, that depends. There are some feminists who are a bit more extreme than others who think that any sort of BDSM is inherently abusive and cannot be feminist. I dunno if Whedon is one of those, or if he wrote Buffy as seeking out rough sex as a form of self-punishment, or what.

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  14. Skytteflickan88

    While I disagree with the original article very much, and you bring up some valid points, your article leaves some to be desired as well.

    My main critique would be that you claim that “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.”

    First; not true. Giles grows from stiff librarian who does what he’s told by the council to a man willing to stand up for a his personal beliefs. Xander grows from immature (although essentially good hearted)jelaous teenager to a man who’s not afraid to stand in the shadow of his more poweful friends, doing his part in saving the world while still being the loyal funny guy we grew to love in the first place. Riley also grows up; he learns to think for himself. Simon on Firefly was in the end of the movie a lot more willing to get his hands dirty than the stuck up doctor we saw in the first ep of the show. We also saw other men go through journeys as well. Just think of Larry; from bully to hero. To sum up, both women and men grew on the shows.

    Second, feminism for me, equals equality. In case Whedon were only letting female characters grow, and not the males, that would be sexist of him. Characters of both sexes should be fairly written, or the stories aren’t feministic.

  15. KaiEm

    I just discovered your blog, in which I read about “hollerin’ season,” Whedon, and cake tribute videos in my first 30 minutes of browsing? You are going straight to my RSS feed!

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