Sunday, May 4, 2008

On Joss Whedon's Feminist (and Not-So-Feminist) Discourse

I am a serious Joss Whedon fan. Just about anything that man does ("Buffy", "Angel", "Firefly", Serenity, Astonishing X-Men) ends up being something I watch (or read) over and over again. His characters continually amaze me with their depth, and the unpredictable turns their development takes. So when I came across these three posts by Allecto, I read them with great interest. I decided to list all the things I could think of in all of Whedon's oeuvre that stuck out as particularly feminist or antifeminist.

So, here goes:

The Good

  • a plethora of strong, distinctive female characters evenly distributed along the moral spectrum (Lilah, Faith, Buffy, Willow, Cordelia, Fred, Dawn, Zoe, Inara, Nandi, Patience, River, Kaylee, Tara, Gwen, Justine, Saffron, Agent Brand...)
  • the ending of "Buffy," when the Potential Slayers are all made into Slayers and brought together. Sisterhood is powerful!
  • Buffy confronting the three old men who created the First Slayer
  • the existence of female Watchers
  • the Faith/Angel mentoring relationship
  • Xander: supportive (male) lieutenant/best friend of (female) Hero. How often does that happen?
  • the mature Kitty Pryde

The Bad

  • the tendency of characters in "Buffy" and "Angel" to suffer Horrible Consequences for having sex/falling in love (Angel becoming evil, Cordelia getting impaled after discovering Willow and Xander together, Tara getting killed, Willow turning into Warren)
  • in both love triangles in "Angel" --- Connor/Cordelia/Angel and Gunn/Fred/Wesley --- the female is more of a love object/catalyst for dramatic male-male feuding than an agent in her own right; woman-as-prize seems to be rearing its ugly head here
  • too many female characters in comas!
  • Willow using mind-controlling magic on Tara
  • glorification of prostitution in "Firefly"
  • Cordelia is excessively punished in Season 1 of "Angel" for having been a bitch in "Buffy." Truly evil (male) characters were allowed to find redemption with a lot less Character-Building Hard Luck than she was put through just for being mildly irritating.
  • Zoe doesn't seem to have a lot of solidarity for other women, with the exception of Kaylee. She's a strong woman, but entirely male-identified.
  • Mal seems to have zero respect for Inara's boundaries, and he insults her all the time. He only comes to her defense when other men impinge on his sole right to insult her (see "Shindig")!
  • whose idea was it for Cordelia to be mystically impregnated with some horrible demonspawn twice in the same series? Isn't once enough?

The Ugly

  • Darla.
  • Spike's attempted rape of Buffy
  • Saffron and Eve --- both strike me as archetypal woman-hating images. Woman the Deceiver, who uses her wiles to charm the men she's simultaneously trying to ruin. (Props to Allecto for helping me realize this about Saffron!)
  • Angel's harrassment of Lilah in Season 1. Yeah, she's evil, she works for Wolfram & Hart, but his treatment of her is extremely creepy and reminiscent of the way male stalkers and abusers treat non-evil women all the time: choking her, lying in wait for her in parking lots, "visiting" her uninvited at work...
  • Wesley keeping Justine in his closet. Yuck!

So, given this cursory roundup, we can see that Joss has a very divided record in terms of creating truly feminist works of art. I do not believe, as Allecto does, that Joss is a misogynist --- I think he is definitely not one, and I think he does try to be feminist. He could probably stand to do quite a bit more reading of feminist literature, as he seems genuinely not to get a bunch of stuff. And, ultimately, he has done the young feminists of the world a great service by giving them this wealth of female characters, even if many of them are subjected to some seriously retrograde bullshit from both the plot and the male characters around them. I'm not just saying that because I'm a fan. It's hugely important to have a wide range of available female characters so that (ideally) every girl can point to one like herself. Boys have always had a veritable smorgasbord of heroes to choose from; I'd like to see as vast an array of heroines as well.

(Also, for whatever reason I can't bullet the first bullet point on any of these lists. The gods of Blogger really don't want me to write this post, evidently ...)


Anonymous said...

Posting as anonymous since I don't have an account, no other reason.

In the Ugly, you included Spike's attempted rape of Buffy, but not Buffy's repeated sexual abuses against Spike. While I respect that you naturally wish to highlight misogynistic overtones, I personally believe that such is also worth including in the same section. Afterall, how different is physically beating him and at one point, if I recall, actually raping him, from Willow's mind trickery?

Lindsay said...

Hi, Anonymous. Sorry about the long response time; I was out of town.

Anyway, I agree with you about the abusive nature of Buffy's treatment of Spike while they were secretly seeing each other. Because this post was just about Whedon's treatment of women characters and feminist issues, though, I didn't see fit to include that.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree. Buffy in season six was torn between sleepwalking or being just a horrible person. She was never awful to Willow, who tore her out of heaven, but she decided to flip on the bitch switch at the man who she slept with. Most of season six was a waste of a season, and all the good female characters were punished at some point or another.