Joss Whedon’s latest project, developed during the writers’ strike, was an internet-based musical starring Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion and Felicia Day, aired in three acts over the past week. Spoilers for all three acts follow, if you haven’t seen it.

Since it’s Joss Whedon, it’s practically guaranteed to come with high expectations attached, both for quality creative work and, in many circles, for feminist content. On the former, Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog definitely lives up to the hype. On the latter, unfortunately, I have to say that it failed miserably. Of the three characters, Penny is by far the least developed. She’s a sweet, somewhat naive, save-the-world local activist with big, romantic dreams for her life. While the two male characters are also stereotypes in a way, they’re both larger than life, hilarious caricatures, whereas Penny just seems to lack personality. The fact that Dr. Horrible initially falls for her as he encounters her twice weekly in the incredibly mundane setting of the laundromat is fitting, here.

And naturally, in a story with three characters, two male and one female, there is a love triangle at work, and as is often the case, the woman in that story becomes more of a prop at play in the interaction between the two men. The real relationship struggle, the real competition is between Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer. The reason Penny has lasting appeal to Captain Hammer is because it’s one more front on which he can assert his superiority over Dr. Horrible – while the scene where Captain Hammer assures Dr. Horrible that he will be having sex with Dr. Horrible’s crush was admittedly hilarious, due mainly to Nathan Fillion’s delivery, it depended entirely upon playing out their battle with one another using a woman’s body as a way of scoring points. Worst of all, Penny dies at the end, in exactly the kind of death scene we’ve complained about several times on this site – one that serves almost exclusively to progress the character development of the men in her life. She dies as a result of the competition between the two men, accidentally, by getting in the way. Despite the fact that immediately before Dr. Horrible arrived on the scene, she seemed to be recognizing her boyfriend’s incredible arrogance and selfishness, with her dying breath, she sings “Captain Hammer will save us”. Not only does this show her as the woman to be rescued (if unsuccessfully), the main point of having her say it was to take away that last thing that made Dr. Horrible want to be…not horrible, and cement his commitment to proving himself as the most evil person alive.

I think there were some aspects of the two male characters that redeem the feminist side of this equation a little – Captain Hammer in particular satirizes stereotypical masculinity and strength, falls apart at the slightest hint of pain, and very explicitly acts as a hero not because he’s a good person, but because it gets him attention and affirmation – but overall, the gender roles were disappointingly cliché. I do recognize that this wasn’t an extremely large project, but everything Joss Whedon does gets a pretty significant amount of attention, particularly over the internet. These criticisms don’t even depend on holding Whedon to a higher standard than other authors because of his public stance on feminism – these are exactly the kinds of characters and relationships that have me banging my head against the wall when I see them in nearly every mainstream television show or movie, and thinking for more than thirty seconds about making the woman in your storyline in any way interesting in her own right should not be too much to ask.


  1. says

    Sadly, I agree. I expected Penny to get some sort of power or development in the third act–I was hoping she’d turn out to be Bad Horse or become a superhero herself. Instead, she sings about three lines and then dies, apparently just to provide impetus for a dude to turn extra evil. She wasn’t important in her own right, and it really disappointed me.

  2. says

    IT MADE ME SO ANGRY. I would be all for the skewering of hypermasculinity, IF the show had made Penny an active participant in said skewering. But she wasn’t; she had no agency; she had no personality and did nothing to assert herself. So yeah, it pisses me off when even critiques of masculinity–which I should be totally behind!–reduce women to vessels.

    (More thoughts at my blog.)

  3. S. A. Bonasi says

    Total word. Being a Supervillain Musical, there were plenty of parts that had me cracking up. But the way Penny’s character was used was very disappointing. At best, she had a bit more personality than most Woman In the Middle Designated Love Interests, but that’s not saying much.

    Do you know what I would have liked? If there’d been more exploration of Dr. Horrible and Penny’s differing views on changing the status quo. And from that…

    I would like to say that I didn’t see Captain Hammer as a skewering of masculinity but as the classic Nice Guy/Bad Boy dynamic, only with the hero and the villain swapping roles. The audience isn’t supposed to cheer for Dr. Horrible/Penny because of any of Dr. Horrible’s merits – see the proceeding paragraph about the hint of what they might have in common not being explored enough – but because Captain Hammer is really a jerk.

    I really think they could have done a lot more if Captain Hammer, while a ham of a hero, didn’t only like Penny because Dr. Horrible did; and if they’d built up Penny and Dr. Horrible’s relationship along the lines of both of them wanting to change the world. In fact, that could be something Penny and Captain Hammer had in common, too. Throw in Dr. Horrible being too shy to tell Penny he likes her…or, better yet, make him not a Nice Guy by having him accept his and Penny’s relationship as a pure platonic one — heck, maybe even have him like her only as a friend, making it still workable if not quite a love triangle. So then you’d have a love triangle (or almost love triangle) built around all of the participants being active in having differing opinions of how the world could be best changed. Really, that wouldn’t be any more serious than Act III was, and with the appropriate songs, it could be appropriately comedic.

    Bleh. Who would have thought you could go wrong with a Supervillain Musical?

  4. says

    Thank you for showing that I’m not the only person (well, obviously not considering the way the interwebz has exploded in the last 12 hours on this issue, but still) who was left going “WTF, Joss?”

    I’ll admit to not being a big, frothing-at-the-mouth Joss Whedon fan, but I appreciate his contribution to the genre and particularly for delivering strong female characters who are matched level for level with their male counterparts, and still retain their femininity. And it did strike me as a real cop-out in the end, that Penny ultimately was no better than any other red shirt on any other Star Trek episode; she was completely, and utterly nondescript. There could have been some redemptive value in her death just by omitting her last words, even. But to dangle the prospect of her realizing that she’s made a stupid, empty-headed female mistake with Captain Hammer and then to have her look into Dr. Horrible’s eyes and coo “Captain Hammer will save us”???

    It’s really sort of ridiculous, and not in a good way.

  5. Stella says

    I agree with a lot of this commentary, particularly that Penny’s last words were completely out of character, only uttered because they were what was needed to break Horrible. However, I don’t think it’s fair to say that Penny had no personality. She was idealistic and dedicated and optimistic and sort of quiet and appreciated the small things in life. That is personality, a real personality type. Not as over-the-top as the guys, but every comedy needs a straight man.

  6. Patrick says

    Overall, I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would. But on the other hand, it introduced me to the work of Felicia Day.

    Great. Another awesome, smart, funny redhead on the Internet whose work I will feel compelled to follow. (Who, coincidentally enough, turns out to have been born exactly 15 days before me.)

  7. lkue says

    To me Dr.Horrible was your typical Nice Guy(tm) and Captain Hammer the bastard/jock who gets all the girls, as a nice guy sees it (refer to betacandys post on the bastard-gets-all-the-girls-myth) and Penny your WiR (women in refridgerator). Bad Joss, bad. Might he be a closet niceguy?

  8. S. A. Bonasi says


    Definitely agree with you about Penny. In Act I, she gets a song where she’s trying to petition people to help the homeless, which established that she had a life outside of Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer. In Act II, she gets a song where she tells Dr. Horrible to cheer up. I thought that the lyrics of that one, with lines about how every color can be seen in the darkness and rain makes things grow, really established her unique philosophy toward life. I think this is why, even with the same stupid Nice Guy-Bad Boy false dichotomy love triangle set up, I was willing to see how things played out.

    Which is really part of what made Act III so disappointing. Because, yeah, like I said above, while I think it could have been better if they’d established the characters as liking each other for more than looks, Penny actually having a personality meant that I was expecting Whedon to subvert the formula somehow. But then he didn’t.

  9. says

    I’m glad for this varying POV. My LJ flist has been nothing but ga-ga over this project.

    Really? Mine has been the exact opposite…I had a few with mixed enjoyment, and a lot of anger at the crap treatment of Penny (justifiable).

    However, I don’t think it’s fair to say that Penny had no personality.

    Agreed…while I can’t deny she was shorted compared to the other 2 main characters, I don’t feel she was completely devoid of characterization. It’s just…JW could have done so much more…
    And the way she was treated badly (death, final line, etc) kinda overshadow what was done right.

    To me Dr.Horrible was your typical Nice Guy(tm) and Captain Hammer the bastard/jock who gets all the girls, as a nice guy sees it (refer to betacandys post on the bastard-gets-all-the-girls-myth) and Penny your WiR (women in refridgerator).

    While I can’t disagree about Captain Hammer (jock) and Penny (WiR, though a bit better developed than most), I disagree about Dr. Horrible being the “nice guy”…I saw part of the point being that he could have been a REAL nice guy, but he consciously rejected that part of himself…it wasn’t just about bastard screwing over nice guy, it was about “nice guy” kinda screwing himself over, because he wasn’t REALLY being a nice guy. In short, I guess I got the message that we were supposed to see Dr. Horrible as just as problematic a love interest as Captain Hammer, albeit for different reasons.

    Oh, and re: Beta’s bastards-get-the-girls myth…I didn’t see this as a playing out of that myth in the classic sense; because as Beta pointed out in her article, the real myth is that women WANT a bastard; not that they never date them. Penny didn’t fall for Capt. Hammer because he was a bastard, but because he was able to conceal his bastardness…and in fact, when it starts to shine through, we see her turning away from him (not in as strong a fashion as I would have liked, granted…and then JW spoiled it utterly with that dying line…).

    Can’t really disagree with Purtek’s analysis, though…in general, I liked it despite it’s problems; I just see how it could have been so much better.
    (but c’mon, it’s got a villain named BAD HORSE. That’s just awesome.)

  10. Gryphon's Egg says

    I don’t think that mocking stereotypical images of jockish masculinity is something that should win a male writer any feminist points anymore. It could be part of something feminist if the jock/jerk were contrasted with a with a female character possessing the same virtues and skills that he attributes to his manliness and/or a female character with more traditionally “feminine” qualities who is capable and active in her own way. But not if he’s contrasted only with a male character who fails at at living up to contemporary US-centric mainstream ideals of masculine strength– I’ve seen far too many examples of extreme misogyny from guys who style themselves “geeky/nerdy/nice” to believe that the guy who thinks he’s too dorky to get the girl is necessarily an ally of women.

  11. says

    Penny didn’t fall for Capt. Hammer because he was a bastard, but because he was able to conceal his bastardness

    I think this is the key point to why I didn’t quite see that as the Nice Guy/Attractive Asshole dynamic. Before I wrote this (and before the last act aired), I had already heard people referring to that Nice Guy sense, but I thought at least that trope was subverted a bit in Dr. Horrible. I mean, yeah, he’s the guy you sympathize with, but at least on some level it was pointing out just how selfish and self-aggrandizing that character type is, and no one ever pretended he *really* cared deeply about Penny.

    As to the idealism as a personality type, I agree that I was maybe too harsh in condemning that. There was some allusion in Act II to Penny having some history that would lead her to doing work like that, which might have helped, if explored. I think it was mainly clouded out by the fact that her entire plot line had far more to do with the two male characters’ development than her own, and it leaves any personality she does have feeling all the more reflective/hollow.

  12. skittledog says

    I have been thinking about this quite a bit, as a feminist who nonetheless enjoyed the whole of Dr Horrible and particularly loved the last act’s resolution.

    I’m not sure why I don’t have a problem, to be honest. But I don’t. From the start I wanted to find Penny really annoying for being such a shallow character of naivete and innocent femininity, but I couldn’t – she was too sweet and ultimately too layered (like pie) even though she didn’t get many lines to show it.

    And then at the end… she wasn’t perfect. Why should she be? She wanted to be saved from pain and death; we all do. But she also wasn’t either shallow or dangerous in her femininity as so many misogynistic portrayals of women are. She was just herself, unsure of what to do with her life, hoping her friend would be at the laundromat.

    I think, if the gender roles were reversed, Joss would have written it pretty much exactly the same way. (Anyone seen Serenity? Which sweet, ever-optimistic character gets shafted? Right.) But ultimately this was not about subverting gender perceptions (which it would have been if he’d done that, female supervillains draw plenty of fire as it is) – this is about something else, the descent into evil of a fairly likeable character. The loss of hope, the loss of purpose, the loss of everything. Death of a loved one is the ultimate way to push a character there (and the most effective, given a 40-min runtime), and I don’t have a problem with characters furthering other characters’ storylines so long as they are true to themselves as well. I think Penny was, in the small amount of time she had to show us who she was. *shrugs* My personal feelings.

    But I don’t feel like I ought to feel that I’m betraying feminists everywhere by loving Dr Horrible to pieces…

  13. Carleena says

    The only complaint I have about this analysis of Joss Whedon’s 3-part internet blog is that it overlooks the essential nature of the series. It is a PARODY. “A literary or artistic work that imitates the characteristic style of an author or a work for comic effect or ridicule”. This series is a parody of many aspects of the typical super-hero comic, which as a genre uses shallow stereotypical characters as vessels for action. Of course, for a parody to be successful it must announce itself as a parody (as opposed to a true representation of fact). Joss Whedon does, in fact, do this many times. See his often hilarious representation of the self-absorbed muscle-head Captain Hammer, which is too ridiculous to be taken seriously. Or, Dr. Horrible’s useless sidekick “Moist”, a mockery of the second rate super-powers often given to the sidekick of a major super hero.

    But what is least obvious, or rather, more subtle, is the portrayal of the “love-interest”. She (as many others in comicbook history, such as Spider Man’s girl-next-door Mary-Jane Watson and the sexy Mystique from X-men, see link below) has red hair. This should signal us from the beginning. But the series remains unclear about the portrayal of Penny until after her death in act 3, in a very important and revealing scene: the news reel. Titles such as “The world mourns whats-her-name” and “Hero’s girlfriend murdered” (with a very large picture of Captain Hammer) reveal the true purpose of her character. She is a stereotype to the most extreme extent. Her lack of personality is supposed to bother you, strike a chord, if you will. She is used to reveal the shallow stereotype of ALL love interests in the comic book genre.

    In light of that one, telling scene, the thinking viewer can not believe that Joss just “overlooked” giving her a personality, but consciously chose NOT to give her one. She is a parody, as the rest of the series, and must be examined through that lens.


  14. Annx says

    Hi. What pissed me off was Penny had the potential to be a interesting counterweight to Hammer and Horrible, but in the end she was just … a victim. A victim to Horrible’s unrequited crush/stalkery (and for the last freaking time, STALKING IS NOT ROMANTIC, I am looking at you Stephanie Meyers), a victim to Hammer’s doucheyness, and then finally the ultimate victim to Hammer’s cruelty and Horrible’s ambition.

    And because the initial tone of the piece was so light and campy, her impalement (hello) and her final blind belief in Hammer highlights just how dismissive a character she was to this piece. And I wonder, are we are supposed to want to go to a midnight showing of this someday to sing along a sweet, innocent girl being victimized? Yah, please sign me up for that.

    Whedon could of made the ending just as tragic, but could have made Penny a dynamic character making a choice instead of a random victim. He could have had her trying to save Captain Hammer and being killed by accident, or confronting Billy and getting hurt in the process, and that would have shown much more respect.

    I have to say, after this? Not really looking forward to Dollhouse – the premise is ripe for more of this kind of stuff.

  15. says

    Okay, I think we’re all well aware that the musical was a parody, and my complaints stand in spite of that fact. I really did like the moments at the end that you mention, particularly the whats-her-name one, and didn’t miss their weight. But Joss Whedon is *way* too good at parody to be that subtle about the true meaning of Penny’s character. If he *really* wanted to make that point, Penny could have had a really hilarious song about her own irrelevance and woman-in-refrigerator status. He didn’t feel the need to be subtle with the other two characters, why use *red hair* as one of the main signals for this one?

  16. says

    This article is now on the front page of Whedonesque, so a quick note to anyone clicking over from there:

    Welcome! We’re a site that discusses how TV and film portray women characters. Just so you know, we do not hate Joss Whedon. In fact we have a number of favorable reviews of his other projects:

    *Subversive Masculinity – How to Learn to Respect Female Strength (Xander Harris)
    *The Women of Firefly/Serenity: Kaylee
    *The Women of Firefly/Serenity: Zoe
    *How to Write Good Ship That Doesn’t Demean the Woman: Zoe and Wash from Firefly/Serenity
    *The Women of Firefly/Serenity: Inara
    *Hearts of Gold, Backbones of Steel

    And our not-so-favorable reviews are far from scathing:

    *The One Thing I Don’t Like About Firefly and Serenity
    *Inara’s misogynistic client
    *Firefly: The Trouble With Saffron
    *Cordelia: Why I Stopped Watching Angel

    We talk a lot about Joss Whedon because he’s one of the few producers in Hollywood who’s even trying to write interesting women, and he puts up with a lot of crap from networks in the attempt.

  17. annx says

    One comment on the parody aspect. The end scene where a newspaper is shown with the headline “The World Mourns Whats-Her-Face”, would have been ironic if Penny had been a dynamic character instead of a vehicle/victim. As it is – the newspaper treated Penny exactly like Whedon wrote her.

  18. skittledog says

    Follow-up thought, occurred to me whilst cooking dinner (pasta is quite boring): what if there is a small tiny feminist side to this story, and it’s this: the tale of what can happen to women who get caught up in the world’s chauvinistic view of them. It is certainly true that both Hammer and Horrible were seeing her as a prize, as something to win with shiny baubles (homeless shelters or Australia, depending how big you’re thinking). And yes, they engaged in a pissing-contest style war to ‘win’ her, and it ended pretty disastrously.

    But I never got a single hint that Penny saw herself that way.

  19. Carleena says


    Those are all excellent questions, some I have been asking myself. Subtlety is, in my opinion, a positive characteristic in any work, whether it be art or TV or internet blogging, so I refer to Whedon’s subtlety with the most positive thoughts in mind. He is not known for his subtlety when it comes to feminism, (See Buffy the Vampire Slayer) but I was really rooting for him. I think it would be a step in the right direction for him to deal with female characters of an exaggeratedly stereotypical nature alongside those more complex women he usually portrays. It creates a very striking effect.

    Though it is true that Penny’s character is less “loud” than Captain Hammer’s, for example, I applaud Whedon’s effort in developing a sophisticated system of parody reserved for the female character in the series, even if it has a few bugs to work out. I would not be able to say this if he had created a hilarious self-depreciating song for Penny, because I don’t think the character would have as much effect if she had jumped out of the box like that. Like I said, I think her character is SUPPOSED to bother us.We are supposed to discuss the merits and demerits of the less-than powerful love interest.

    We may not like her portrayal because she is 2-dimensional and unrealistic, but that is exactly how we are supposed to feel about it. It is supposed to make us think.

  20. nerdyme says

    I suppose I may be seeing what I want to see, but I saw Penny as a far more developed character than others here seem to have — perhaps this is because I think Felicia Day did a great job giving a nuanced performance that (for me) added depth to the character.

    I also found it compelling that Penny (the woman in the piece) was the only one who actually DID change the world. Dr. H and Hammer swapped places , people are still sheep, etc. The only real change in their world is that there is one additional homeless shelter. Penny did not compromise her ideals, did not back down, was willing to accept help from others to achieve her goals, and she DID succeed. She is the true hero of the story.

    In addition, while both Dr. H and Hammer obviously changed their behavior in their
    competition with each other over her, she was able to pursue a friendship with Billy and relationship with Hammer without compromising herself or sacrificing her goal. All the while, she was starting to see through Hammer on her own.

    I didn’t see her as a victim at all — of the three main characters, she was the only
    one with inner strength. I didn’t see her last line as blind naivete or admission that she needed to be rescued, but more that she was occupying the role of nurturer — she was concerned for Billy and spent her dying breath doing what she always did — trying to help and comfort another.

  21. WoXVirus says

    i agree on the fact that she wasn’t as strong as the other two characters, but the significance of Penny is way to important for the story, without her Dr. Horrible wouldn’t be able to allow to become a more cold villain and a perfect example is the song “A Brand New Day” or “I can’t believe my eyes”. Joss obviously write Hammer as Jerk so we could love more the dynamic between penny and horrible. I know her death was kind of cruel but she was a character that gave hope to the villain and Dying between these to “larger than life” characters just make them hate each other more.

  22. says

    I agree wholeheartedly with your post. While I truly enjoyed the third act the most of the three, the use of Penny as both sacrificial goat and tug-toy between the two men disappointed me. In this story, she as a person had little value. It is only in her role of trophy that she has worth – although this is more true for Captain Tool Hammer than Billy.

    And as I said in my own review of Act II in my journal, it would be nice to see Joss write a story that did not involve the skewering of a woman. That seems to be becoming a theme with him.

  23. Hayclearing says

    The whole skeleton plot of Doctor Horrible is textbook villain background. Even Penny’s being a philanthropist struck me as a classic detail, something that I’d seen before and that doomed them as a couple from the start. The result is that I really liked the movie, but thought is would be much, much better if they had strayed from that framework a little.

    The only time I really liked Penny was when they were sitting and talking about Dr. Horrible’s ‘job’ problem, because they were really talking and acting like human beings, who could become friends or lovers in a rational, non-stalky/creepy way (or would be able to, if creepy stalking hadn’t already happened, anyway). That gave me just enough hope to be dashed at the end.

    But wouldn’t THAT be a fun project? A supervillain who becomes good, sincere, platonic friends with his/her enemy’s love interest? There’s a lot of hilarious potential there.

    As for Penny’s last words . . . I can see where Penny, having stopped believing in Hammer as a lover or as someone who really understands social problems and the need to combat them, might still believe in him as a punch ’em up will-save-us-from-supervillains kind of guy.

  24. S. A. Bonasi says

    I don’t buy the “Penny’s death was supposed to bother us.” I’m having a bit of trouble phrasing why, but I think it’s because it doesn’t fit the tone of the work. Yes, there are stories where the author fully intends for the audience to find character’s actions disturbing without broadcasting it with a neon sign. There, though, there has to be something that clues the audience in that they are watching that sort of story.

    But Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog isn’t that sort of story. It’s a comical, larger-than-life parody (satire?) of the superhero genre. It’s exactly the sort of story where the neon sign is used. So Penny singing a swan song calling Dr. Horrible the Nice Guy and Captain Hammer the Bad Boy (or Jerk Guy, I suppose is more accurate here), and lamenting her own refrigeration would have been BRILLIANT, both making the point and being in line with the nature of the story. But as is, Penny’s death is just a sexist trope played straight.

  25. S. A. Bonasi says

    I would also like to say that while Captain Hammer being a Jerk was made clear, I didn’t get the same sense that we, the audience, were supposed to see Dr. Horrible as a Nice Guy. It’s standard, when the author puts a Nice Guy in the story, for the Jerk Guy to be telegraphed as the Jerk Guy. So Dr. Horrible was a Nice Guy, no question, but the story was using the Nice Guy-Jerk Guy false dichotomy straight, not parodying or satiring it.

    The tragedy isn’t just that Dr. Horrible loses the one woman he ever lusted after loved, it’s that it happens before Penny, who has finally seen Captain Hammer for the Jerk Guy he really is, can see Dr. Horrible as the Nice Guy Who Was There All Along. Remember, in Nice Guy-verse, Jerk Guy and Nice Guy are the only two men available, and the Nice Guy wins by virtue of the Jerk Guy’s lack of virtues. What makes Dr. Horrible a villain rather than the hero is that he’s a Nice Guy who fails to triumph. As I said in my first comment, this was just the story of the Nice Guy and the Jerk Guy with the Nice Guy as the villain instead of the hero.

  26. EDR37 says

    I’m surprised about this. I thought Penny had a good amount of development in Acts I and II. She did appear less in Act III, but Captain Hammer only appeared briefly at the end of Act I and I thought Penny had more screen time overall.

    Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer both wanted to help the world, but only to satisfy their own egos. Penny, on the other hand, appears to be the stereotypical victim, but is really the only character who truly cares about people. She could have gotten involved with the epic struggle between Horrible and Hammer, but that would have conflicted with the message that her method of saving the world was the right one. If everyone wants to rule the world, you get chaos.

    Ultimately, the battle between Horrible and Hammer shows that when arrogance and jealousy get in the way, good, innocent people die.

  27. J. Earley says

    You know, I authored the same complaint at Ain’t It Cool…under an alias screen name, that being the fact that it has now become the in thing to kill off the female love interest, ala Dr. Horrible and SPOILER HIGHLIGHT –> the latest Batman movie, and that is not cool. I love Joss and I would love to work with him, but we can do better.

    Perhaps a more clever ending, would have been for Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer to discover that it isn’t the battle over a woman at play in this love triangle, as both consciously assumed, but something more profound, buried in the subconcious, that being their own hidden homosexual feelings for each other. The two men should have dumped Penny and fallen in love with each other. Now, that would have been the more profound move…and would have been more entertaining , poignant and shocking for the viewers…the point being that many men live out their lives using women as beards to project false machismo to the world…when those very men are closeted homosexuals. Such an ending would have shocked everyone…and projected Dr. Horrible’s 3rd installment into being considered a masterpiece as well as the entire worth of the whole, now as it stands…it is but a flawed potential masterpiece.

  28. says

    But I don’t feel like I ought to feel that I’m betraying feminists everywhere by loving Dr Horrible to pieces…

    Skittledog, there’s no rule that says a feminist can’t enjoy a show/movie just because it doesn’t meet her/his feminist standards. Hell, if there were, there’d be very little on celluloid for us to enjoy. 😉

  29. J. Earley says

    To: S.A. Bonasi,

    I disagree, with your take on things. Penny’s last words where: “Captain Hammer will save us.”, or something to that point. She died being the woman who still believes in the jerk even though his true colors were revealed. This is a Hallmark of women in abusive relationships with a misogynistic man, or men, in this case, who, the women that is, keep believing in, even when they show lack of moral character. A fact also proven by Captain Hammer’s loyal fans who quickly switched allegiances to the victor.

    You see, often times in this world, it doesn’t matter if you are the perceived good guy, or the perceived bad guy, all that people care about is the perception of who is the victor. One man’s hero, is a another man’s terrorist or villain. Penny died believing that Captain Hammer, due to his image, was without flaw…and could, and would save her, but he couldn’t save her, nor did he try. And Dr. Horrible, never cried for her, neither man did…and that is what is truly Horrible as it exposes the mind of the misogynist for what it is…and that is what the blogger behind this observation is pointing out. Penny was used as a tool…a commodity to be fought over like a piece of furniture by the males in this story…but men have been doing that throughout history…starting whole wars over women and gold. Alas, maybe that was Joss’ point???

  30. sbg says

    Skittledog, there’s no rule that says a feminist can’t enjoy a show/movie just because it doesn’t meet her/his feminist standards. Hell, if there were, there’d be very little on celluloid for us to enjoy.

    Sad but true, this. My fav show at the moment tends to fail and fail HARD to meet my feminist needs, quite often.

  31. says

    I sadly have to agree that Dr. Horrible did not aspire to the feminist ideals of most of the Joss Whedon material. He has shown in the past, that even with a male lead, he can make for a strong feminist message. The only possible excuse is that there was not enough time to develop any of the characters. (Which is why I love the You Tube video “Dr. Horrible: The early years). However this excuse only holds up if you don’t believe that the little development that was done on Penny’s character was not as weapon to be used against the Doc.
    The very first seconds Penny is on screen, you see her handling her underwear in a laundermat. Not a good sign. =(
    And THEN, and this is what pissed me off the most. From the second he drops her off on a gurney (the very edge of a gurney, I am surprised she didn’t fall off), Doctor Horrible is over it. He says himself he feels no emotion. So she’s not even a powerfully effective weapon. At no point was she shown to have strength of any kinda whatsoever. A good heart sure, but she would not even been able to use that for any good if it hadn’t been for Captain Hammer. Sigh. There needs to be a sequel with a female baddie that tears stuff up. Maybe one of the ones in the last scene with Bad Horse. =)

  32. Criton says

    I don’t know.

    It is impossible to make anything and not offend some viewpoint perhaps.

    I, as a man, could be upset that the two males presented were stuck up, somewhat misguided, willfully arrogant, happily shallow, etc etc. This was not a show that painted men in anything like a good light when taken in a serious view. Not remotely. That they were somewhat explored more fully in their depths of failings is not much of a redemption. As such, I am not sure Penny’s lack of detailed exploration is anything unforgivable. This was a 45 minute story about Dr. horrible after all. Buffy got 7 -years-. Maybe Joss deserves a little leeway.

    I am fairly sure homosexual men could easily find a way to be affronted by their only portrayal in the blog as well.

    Joss is a wonderful person. In his name and through his efforts to help Equality Now there are few equals for the good done for the rights of women. The Blog is a comedy. It may be that comedy, by default, points a critical eye at something. By doing so, it will have to portray something in a not entirely glowing light. There were no demons (though there was a horse) and such, so that just left people. Some are men, and some are women.

    I looked at it as entertainment and did not dwell on how crappy it makes my gender look by the examples of the villain and pretty idiotic ‘hero.’

    The message of the blog is something that looks at society, not specific genders. Heroes are misguided and harmful perhaps. Villains might have redeeming, and ultimately, quite redeeming features. Life tends to beat the ideals out of us after years of punishment. These are things (and there are more) that can be taken onboard, drawn from, and perhaps actions taken in the future after seeing elements in comedy that are actually present in our lives.

    I’m mostly happy to see work from Joss again, and I will concentrate on the positive potential of it. I will also giggle at the three cowboys singing Bad Horse’s letter in the opening act. I hope more will look at it without trying to find fault or how it could have been more better.

  33. JohnC says

    Dr Horrible was my first introduction to JW, other than the odd episode of Buffy. So I can not claim expertise on his works (or on feminism, for that matter). That being said, here’s my two cents:

    It seems like the central tenet of the ‘film’ is that people are, in fact, layered like pies. Penny describes Capn Hammer as ‘cheesy on the outside, but sweet on the inside.’ Billy/Dr. Horrible adds that he has a third layer, which is also cheesy. This assertion seems to hold true in Captain Hammer’s case, as he is simultaneously a do-gooder and a chauvinist. Although his motivation seems to be selfish, he does a number of heroic things in the course of the story: he pushes Penny out of the way of the van in Act I, and procures funding for the homeless shelter in Act II. Whatever his motivations may be, good deeds are the means to his ends.

    Dr. Horrible, on the other hand, uses evil deeds to get what he wants. If he were to be described as a pie, his outer layer is that of an aspiring villain. On the inside, he’s Billy: an awkward, shy ‘normal guy’ who’s infatuated with a girl he barely knows. If you look deeper at his character, you’ll find that his deepest motivation is not to win Penny’s heart, but to gain entrance into the ELE, get revenge on Captain Hammer at any cost, and eventually take over the world. In other words, Dr. Horrible’s actions are driven by a desire for power, not by love.

    Lastly, Penny. I agree that she is a far-less developed character than the two men, but she is more complex than some of you give her credit for. She’s clearly motivated toward social change, and consistently behaves in a manner that serves this purpose. Through dating Captain Hammer, she gains small victories such as the mayor funding her shelter. She seems pleased to reap the rewards of dating the ‘hero’, but remains drawn towards Billy throughout the film. Perhaps she sees Dr. Horrible’s/Billy’s great potential as an agent of social change, but is wary of surrendering the more ‘guaranteed’ returns offered by Captain Hammer’s influence.

    All in all, the main characters each have their own three layers of personality. I need a diagram…or perhaps a pie chart (eh? eh?) Am I way off base? Irrelevant?

  34. annx says

    “I hope more will look at it without trying to find fault or how it could have been more better.”

    Fine. Your wish – but not mine. This is the thing I find MOST annoying about Whedon fans. Whedon is not infallible as an artist, and no artist is perfect. Christ, I got into a discussion about the weak parts of Shakespeare’s Henry IV two days ago, but I am not supposed to think Whedon is a tool sometimes? Part of the fun of experiencing art is commenting on it … saying what parts you find strong and which weak. While some of Whedon’s stuff is great, some of his stuff is mediocre, and some of his stuff is somewhat thoughtless and weak.

    Dammit, I have a right to my opinion and to criticize and comment. If you look at the title of this blog – that is what this blog is trying to encourage – just having a discussion on female roles.

    If you would like to go back to a world where Whedon is some sort of demigod with no faults – there are other blogs.

  35. says

    It is impossible to make anything and not offend some viewpoint perhaps.

    True – but we’re not talking about being offended. We’re not asking for someone to make us feel better by writing better women characters. We’re asking why they don’t write them in the first place. We’re asking what it is about the people who drive the TV/film industry that they think white straight men are the most important – arguably only important – characters on celluloid. Framing the argument as if it’s all about our hurt feelings and our desire to have them mollified effectively dismisses the valid questions we’re raising.

  36. says

    I’d just like to lend some support for the “Penny’s character as parody of classic comic tropes [i.e., Women in Refrigerators”]” view. I think that the blog actively engages with the way in which formerly rich female characters become shafted (pun not intended, but now that I see it here, it stays) as accessories to male protagonists. Look at how Penny’s homeless shelter becomes “Captain Hammer’s Homeless Shelter” in the media, treated as another aspect of his character, rather than of Penny’s. This becomes most explicit when we see Captain Hammer’s fans, interviewed during the media frenzy surrounding Captain Hammer’s charity, holding up a photo of Penny and announcing “We don’t care for her.” To the fans, all the things that made Penny unique have been absorbed into the Captain Hammer persona, and Penny herself is seen as an appendage. This and the “refrigerators” style “death of a female character to enhance male character’s development” are pretty much the two main ways in which female characters are most mistreated in comics, so I have a hard time believing that the fact that BOTH of these tropes show up in Dr. horrible was not intentional parody, especially given
    a) Joss Whedon’s track record on engaging feminist issues
    b) that fact that he writes comics for a living, and is thus familiar with these tropes.

    Whether or not the parody is effective, of course, and interpreting the purpose of said parody, is up to the audience , as in all satire. I’m just inclined to give the satirist the benefit of the doubt, as a matter of principle.

    P.S. in this case, I interpret the purpose of said parody as a method of exposing how using the female character(s) in this way diminishes their own potential. This is best expressed in Penny’s dying lines, where any shreds of personality she had throughout the musical have literally all been shed, and she is reduced to a transparent cookie-cutter character uttering stock clichés. This grim turn of the parody is underscored by the grim nature of the final song, which I feel reinforces my point.

    I hope that this whole post has been coherent. It’s late, and I’m a bit bushed. Good discussion all around so far, though! I look forward to checking this blog when I wake up.

  37. skittledog says

    I’m sorry, I still think Penny was the ‘best’ character in the thing, in terms of being most realistic. Which perhaps explains my take on this – real characters win over aspirational ones for me, most days (although I do like a little aspiration mixed in). Captain Hammer was an extremely stereotypical character, with only a tiny amount of depth showing through at the end, and Horrible… well. Incredibly sympathetic, and somehow that got me past the point where he thought destroying society would be a good thing. He a bit crazy. So if you look at it in the light that there are no positive portrayals of anyone in this thing – geeks with vlogs, strong heroic guys, fangirls, newscasters, horses… I’d say Penny is the most aspirational and in many ways strongest character there.

    That the one character who stands for truth and light dies is not a cop-out, it is not even that classically Joss – but it is the necessary end for any tragedy as bleak as this is.

    Oh – and I don’t know about others, but I don’t see Joss as a demi-god. I like his work, true enough, but I have had plenty of problems before and I’m sure will again (please, nobody mention Wesley and Fred in the same sentence…). Just… not this time. It’s not a question of overlooking the flaws and liking it anyway, I just either am focusing on something entirely different in the piece, or I’m seeing it differently somehow to most of you, it seems. I dunno.

  38. says

    I don’t know about your assessment. On the one hand everything you’re saying about character development is true, but on the other hand, isn’t it often the case that character development in a love triangle is lopsided?

    It tends, (in my experience) to naturally gravitate towards either the odd one out, the two competitors, or one of the two competitors, but very rarely focuses on all three. This is especially true in short formats.

    In this case, the Penny character happened to be the passive one, but I think someone had to be. Considering the feuding egos, there just wasn’t room for another outlandish character. I don’t find it a particularly egregious lapse for a passive character to happen to be a woman, and in the case of Whedon, it really is just happenstance.

  39. La Snare says

    I thought the same thing at first: great show, but boring gender roles. But then I realised that Joss Whedon has earned the right to use a few gender stereotypes. In the world of the media, yes, Penny was a cop-out. In the world of Joss Whedon, however, she was a actually a shift from the norm.

  40. Mike says

    I think you have good points, however, given that Joss Whedon’s body of work includes very strong and well developed female characters already, I would think that it’s a bit unfair to be expecting him to veer in this direction in every project he does.

    You noted that its not just because you are holding Joss at a higher standard, but that every story should have this.

    I think that in this particular story, Joss wanted to focus on Dr. Horrible and his character development. Sadly that did not include a very well developed female character, but including one would just detract from this particular story. I agree that Penny was just a device, but then again, so was Cpt Hammer. This story was about Dr. Horrible.

    It’s perfect the way it is.

  41. says

    Heh. I have two commenters on my own rewrite of the ending trying to tell me that having Penny live and fight against both Hammer and Horrible and their worldviews would be “unoriginal” as opposed to the stunning originality of the umpteenth instance of the WiR, and that there simply would be no other way for Horrible to learn his karmic lesson except via her death – like having to deal every day with the fact that no, she really DOESN”T like “the real you” at all now that she’s seen your bloodymindedness wouldn’t be an even more painful and object lesson…

    I guess we shouldn’t hold it against any of them – Joss included? – given that they really don’t have any models of women being anything other than Campbellian/Gravesian Precious Vessels who die to inspire, or are won by their victorious Alter-Ego-Boys…

  42. says

    J. Early –
    Perhaps a more clever ending, would have been for Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer to discover that it isn’t the battle over a woman at play in this love triangle, as both consciously assumed, but something more profound, buried in the subconcious, that being their own hidden homosexual feelings for each other. The two men should have dumped Penny and fallen in love with each other.

    Hah, I put that in my alternate ending! You can’t tell me that exchange between Hammer and Horrible in the laundromat door wasn’t totally slashy – and foreshadowed by the whole “YOU’RE not my nemesis, beat it!” scene at the beginning. Not to mention that this sort of subtext is pretty much a given in comics with their Constant Rivals story arcs – Luthor & Supes, Joker & Bats, Magneto & Xavier, to the point that sometimes it’s just acknowledged by the creators any more.

    In fact, you could have a musical number entitled “Foe-Yay!” – a Busby Berkely-style dance extravaganza with all the heroes/heroines and villains/villainesses of the setting exchanging partners, going corps-a-corps, while they sing about the UST that is generated by constantly fighting over…well, what *are* they fighting about, except precedence amongst themselves? Kind of like an old royal court…

    Someone could probably do a Restoration Tragicomedy entitled The Constant Rivals, too, about the social lives of the caped set, satirizing the genre along those lines, kind of like a Misanthrope/Malfi mashup.

  43. S. A. Bonasi says

    J. Earley,

    I’ve been thinking about Penny’s last line, and I can’t buy it as her being oblivious to the end about Captain Hammer, since that would directly contradict what came before. Someone up above mentioned that Penny, having seen Captain Hammer as the jerk he is, might still see him as someone good at saving the day. I’m wondering if perhaps she might have just been trying to reassure Billy Buddy.

  44. says

    Just as a note, J. Earley, I would have liked to have read this thread without spoilers for Batman. 😉

    That said:

    I’ve read a lot of folks saying “This is Joss, and thus obviously he meant X.” I have to admit, I’m a fan of “the author is dead.” Would you be giving this an “obviously it’s satire/play off the tropes/strong female character with layers” if it wasn’t Joss Whedon?

    It doesn’t really matter, in the grand scheme of things, what Joss meant. It matters a lot what he got across. What he got across to me is that Penny was a toy that the boys fought over until she broke. I enjoyed the rewatch when I randomly decided Penny was a robot.

    It’s less than 45 minutes to get across a storyline. I wasn’t expecting deep meaningful characters, but Penny was a plot point, not a character, and that’s where I get irritated.

    There are far too many stories like this for me to buy that this was satire. If he had reversed the genders and had two women fighting over Peter it would have looked a lot more like a satire or a play off the tropes to me. (And then we could have a discussion about how women ‘fighting’ over a man is shown in mainstream media – ‘catfight’ anyone?)

  45. says

    I’m glad to see that someone else was thinking the same thing I was. As soon as I was processing the plot in my head, I thought to myself, “Wow, this was really classic ‘Women in Refrigerator’ treatment, and I’m a little surprised that Whedon didn’t notice.”

    I, like some of the other posters here, considered that it might be intended as satirical, but I really think it’d be a stretch to claim it as such. The whole punch of the story is “look how Doctor Horrible was affected by Penny’s death!”, and that’s not a satire of WiR, that’s textbook WiR. (Although I think it does dip into satirizing the trend with the newspaper headline.)

    So, count me in as a “yep, you’re right”, and as it being a bit of a disappointment in an otherwise fun story.

  46. says

    I’ll quickly repeat the basics. It’s a parody. It’s the hero’s journey told through the eyes of a sympathetic villain. He looks like he might be redeemable, but Dr Horrible really is a jerk deep down.

    At the end of Episode II, I expected in Ep III for Dr Horrible to realize what a stupid life he was getting into, probably because he felt silly doing it in front of Penny. So bravo Joss, you kept up the suspense and surprises. Instead the story fell back into genre norms.

    I was really surprised by Penny’s last line. What I expected was for her to provide a last second critique of the genre that had killed her. I thought she’d voice the viewers’ disappointment with both Hammer and Horrible. “Oh my God, you’re both idiots!” That could’ve finished Horrible’s character arc just as well as what she did say.

    I think he did successfully subvert and ridicule genre standards. It was a Coen Brothers type of mocking. Everyone’s pathetic. Hero an empty shirt. The villain will do anything to join the (ahem) cool crowd. Girl observer rejects genre trap, then runs back in. It was a let down, but in a surprisingly memorable way. I’m here typing because I can’t stop thinking about it.

  47. says

    One thing: please everyone read the following before commenting further:

    Satire: a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn
    Parody: a literary or musical work in which the style of an author or work is closely imitated for comic effect or in ridicule

    These two words are commonly used as synonyms, but they’re not. Satire makes fun of people; parody makes fun of fiction. So if you say it’s a “satire”, then what you’re saying is that Whedon really thinks women are dumb idealists who fall for bad guys and never, ever get a clue and he’s making fun of them. If what you mean is that he’s making fun of other FILMAKERS for putting across that message, then that would be “parody.”

    It’s not a question of overlooking the flaws and liking it anyway, I just either am focusing on something entirely different in the piece, or I’m seeing it differently somehow to most of you, it seems.

    Okay, I misunderstood. This is cool, too – I’m seeing a lot of reads on this story around the web, and it’s all valid.

    On the one hand everything you’re saying about character development is true, but on the other hand, isn’t it often the case that character development in a love triangle is lopsided?


    That is almost exactly what she said:

    there is a love triangle at work, and as is often the case, the woman in that story becomes more of a prop at play in the interaction between the two men.

    See here for more on the topic of how love triangles screw over women characters.

    Whether or not the parody is effective, of course, and interpreting the purpose of said parody, is up to the audience , as in all satire. I’m just inclined to give the satirist the benefit of the doubt, as a matter of principle.

    See above regarding the different between “parody” and “satire”. I’ll give YOU the benefit of the doubt and assume you meant “parodist” rather than satirist.

    I don’t think anyone’s arguing it wasn’t INTENDED as parody – his intent is not relevant (see Anna’s comment). Some are arguing it doesn’t work. And whether it works is NOT up to the audience. It’s up to the writer.

    But hey – maybe Whedon’s “intent” was to get everybody debating. In which case, it worked beautifully. 😉

    But then I realised that Joss Whedon has earned the right to use a few gender stereotypes.

    This statement is incredibly ironic. Hollywood WANTS stereotypes. Because Whedon’s refused to submit to some of the key stereotypes ever since he was a story editor on Roseanne, it’s probably held back his career. If anything, the fact that he’s still making TV and movies shows he’s earned the right to ignore/break even MORE stereotypes.

    I do think it most likely his intent here was to PARODY stereotypes, not get lazy and succumb to them.

    Anna, sorry I didn’t catch the spoiler before – I’ve put a highlight on it. :)

  48. says

    Thanks, BetaCandy – both for the spoilertag and the definition of parody vs satire. I meant satire in my earlier comment.

    I think folks forget that Joss has, on more than one occasion, been very tone-deaf to how things have come across in some of his work – see: Fastest Way To Die In Very White Sunndale Is To Be Black & Gosh, Is There Still A Dead/Evil Lesbian Cliche?

    I mean, I don’t think he woke up and thought “A hah! I will write a story where a nice white lady dies in order for the menz to have character development!” I think he woke up and thought “Hey, cool origin story – with singing! And cowboys! Yes!”

    And then just… forgot how many (male) origin stories are told over the bodies of women. The same he forgot the dearth of lesbians on t.v. when Tara was murdered and Willow went evil. The same way he didn’t notice that Sunndale had a race issue. I think he’s thoughtless, not malicious.

    Critiquing the work doesn’t mean Joss is a bad person, or that there’s something wrong with folks who like what we’re critiquing. I mean, I fully intend to buy the soundtrack the second it’s available because it’s awesome.

    But Penny is dead so that Dr Horrible could feel bad. And I find that irritating.

  49. skittledog says

    Why, exactly? I mean, isn’t this the plot of every tragedy ever? Okay, Shakespeare killed everyone so we all felt bad, but it’s still a very classic device whoever the victim is.

    Thoughtless? Maybe. But in filming a story you have to give characters genders and ethnicities and sexual preferences, and it seems pretty inevitable to me that once you’ve done that any perceived mistreatment of the character will anger anybody who shares those categories. Normally, there’s a bigger cast to smooth some of these out (I would not like Inara much if she were the only woman in Firefly, nor River) – this was teensy. Okay so maybe that means you should take even more care but… yes, she’s a device. They’re all devices. It’s fiction with a message.

    Actually, I only dropped by here to share the thought that I am edging towards a different interpretation of Penny’s last line (which is the only thing that bugs me even in the least, since it seems so pointless): really, why isn’t this a joke? Just because she doesn’t get to smile at it… I mean, what she’s saying is “it’s okay, I have shards of death ray in my vital organs and you’re apparently an anarchist sociopath, but the guy who just wants to brag to the world about his sex life will make it all better…”? I can, if I want to, see humour and a half-apology for her hero-worship of Hammer in that line. It’s a nice thought, at least.

    I promise to shush now…

  50. says

    Anna, ditto to pretty much everything you’ve said.

    I also wanted to add that I do think there was some subversion of general expectations in not having Dr. Horrible end up redeemed by the glowing power of the love of a truly good and pure woman, possibly as she dies, which is pretty damn common in Hollywood as well. Having him end up “evil” – and really, jaded and bitter and thinking if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em – did make something of a statement. It just wasn’t a feminist one (which is fine, but then it’s also fine for me to point out that while in the process of making that point, it’s not necessary to get unfeminist).

    Someone mentioned Wash’s death above, and suggested that it’s very similar to Penny’s because of a) the skewering and b) the nice, sweet nature of each of their characters. I can see how this story certainly fits in to a “niceness gets skewered by the world” kind of message, but there is a very, very big difference between those two deaths, and it is the central point of this post: Wash’s death had an impact on the audience primarily because of Wash, the character we had come to know and love. Penny’s death has an impact on the audience and on the story because of Dr. Horrible and the impact it has on him. Yes, we saw Zoe grieving Wash, and it was damn effective as a way to show us something about her, but that’s not the only reason he died, and it’s not the only thing that showed us all that stuff about Zoe.

    And finally, as Betacandy, Anna and others have said, I just do not believe that there is a way to earn the feminist “cred” to just cash in, sit back and say “think I’ll forget to think about gender/race/sexuality in this one”. Whedon has certainly earned the “cred” (from me, and I assume from many others on this thread) to have us look past our disappointment with this musical and watch anything and everything he produces from here on in, but I find the idea that there’s an “anti-sexism” bank that one can use to trade on stereotypes or harmful cliches to be pretty darned offensive, actually. It sounds an awful lot like saying “well, you can’t expect a guy to treat women (characters) like they’re relevant and human and complex and just as interesting as men all the time can you?”

  51. says

    Here’s Whedon’s take: from the Washington Post:

    But, yeah, Penny is not the feminist icon of our age. And yes, she does exist in the narrative as part of Doc’s fate — but everyone in the story is there to move the story. Is she less real than Hammer? (Is ANYTHING?) We gave her a cause so she wouldn’t JUST be the Pretty Girl but the fact is, neither Doc nor Hammer gives her the attention she deserves — Doc’s crush comes before he has the slightest idea what she cares about. Which is not uncommon. It reminds me of Sweeney todd, the Judge and Sweeney singing “Pretty Women” — a beautiful duet with no insight whatsoever. Just images.

    But we shoulda gave her more jokes.

    I like how he handles criticism. I see this as acknowledging the criticisms have validity and that he, the creator, is not perfect, but not getting into much detail so as to avoid accidentally pissing anybody off with a slightly ill-chosen word – or the press’ notorious “quote taken out of context.”

  52. S. A. Bonasi says


    there simply would be no other way for Horrible to learn his karmic lesson except via her death – like having to deal every day with the fact that no, she really DOESN”T like “the real you” at all now that she’s seen your bloodymindedness wouldn’t be an even more painful and object lesson…

    A big WORD to this. A female character biting the dust is NOT the only way ever for a male character to develop in a story. Sometimes it’s not the appropriate or strongest choice. Yet it’s become a stock plot point, a lazy short hand that writers use instead of having to put work into coming up with an original catalysis for the male character’s development.

  53. Lucian Smith says

    Just a smallish comment–while I generally agree that it would have been nice to have Penny be more developed, I do want to point out that she didn’t die ‘so that Dr. Horrible could feel bad’. She died so that Dr. Horrible could get into the ELE. Bad Horse told him to kill someone, and he tried to make that be Captain Hammer, but it ended up being Penny. That’s the irony in the last song. (Also note that Penny was safely hidden until Horrible sang about her, and she stood up.) Basically, her death was the whole point of the story, so much so that if she didn’t die, it’d have to be re-written basically from scratch. Not that it couldn’t have been better had they done so, of course, but at least it wasn’t an arbitrary choice to give the ending some zing; it was integral to the story’s structure.

  54. says

    I’m pretty sure everyone here watched the show, Lucian Smith.

    And the idea that the show was all written just so Penny could die doesn’t actually improve anything. It’s still two boys fighting over a toy until it broke, so one could be Evil and the other could be shown up as a coward. It’s still WiR.

  55. says

    I do want to point out that she didn’t die ’so that Dr. Horrible could feel bad’.

    Lucian, when we say that “she died because” we’re talking about the meta, the storytelling reason, not the in-story reason. Which is the thing you admit in the next breath (“Basically, her death was the whole point of the story”) – we’re just arguing that a) it wasn’t the only way that Hammer’s arc could have been told, – somebody ELSE could have died equally ironically (the boy in his Fan Club, frex), and he could have lost Penny thru it (she realizing that he *meant* his “cut the head off” slip earlier and wanting nothing to do with him) because it wasn’t PENNY’s death specifically that Bad Horse demanded, just A death – so the ONLY reason to make it Penny was to make for Horrible’s Manpain; b) it was EXACTLY the cliche WiR arc that is ALWAYS told about The Chick, and we expect better of Joss – possibly mistakenly.

  56. says

    A female character biting the dust is NOT the only way ever for a male character to develop in a story. Sometimes it’s not the appropriate or strongest choice.

    Nah, S.A. Bonasi, I’ve changed my mind. Frex, Sonia should have TOTALLY been run over by a cart on her way to or from work, thus motivating Rodion to give up his proto-Objectivist views and turn himself in out of his Great Manpain (plus the whole girl-had-sex-and-dies thing, how could this go wrong?) – instead of her arguing with him about the nature of right and wrong and justice and love for pages and pages, and ultimately coming to the conclusion that she needed to stop being passive and making excuses in her own life, too. That would have been WAY more angsty and Made Of Awesome, but silly old Dostoyevsky just didn’t understand how to write psychological drama and suspense, yanno?

  57. S. A. Bonasi says

    Lucian Smith,

    I disagree. Firstly, Anna is correct. Central-to-the-story WiR is still WiR. But secondly, I don’t agree that the story would have to be “re-written basically from scratch” if Penny didn’t die. The story would have worked just as well if the final act had played out, for instance, with Dr. Horrible killing Captain Hammer (thus getting him into the Evil League of League) only to have Captain Hammer’s death motivate Penny into becoming a super-hero and Dr. Horrible’s archnemesis, with her still helping the homeless, of course. The tragedy – that Dr. Horrible gets what he wants but losses why he wanted it in the first place – would still remain. That’s hardly a rewrite “from scratch”.


    Totally! :-)

    What story is that from, by the way? I don’t think I’ve ever read any Dostoyevsky, but it sounds like perhaps I should check them out.

  58. says

    S.A. Bonsai, I’m not bellatrys, but that’s Crime and Punishment

    ‘Tis! Crime & Punishment is one of those Legendary Doorstops that Seriously Rocks!!1!, along with Les Miserables (the Waterloo section will give you nightmares – no, that wasn’t in the musical) and others of the Era of Cliffhanger Prose Series like Our Mutual Friend , tho’ of course Mileage Varies as ever.

    But I was honestly surprised at how addictive I found C&P when I first read it in HS (and several times since, I save it up as a treat for myself b/c it’s pretty involving even as a reread), since it was one of those Very Important (Good For You!) books, but it turned out to be full of seriously screwed up characters and wangsty-emo-Objectivist antihero and you start out knowing the whodunnit and seeing how it’s all going to fall out and having no idea what’s going to have a bearing on the plot – and you can’t tell me that the Raskolnikov/Razumikhin situation isn’t highly slashable, either! but seriously, a great big doorstop of a novel with a whiny-emo-Objectivist antihero who is completely kickable, and yet you want to keep reading instead of shouting SOMEBODY KILL THIS JERK PLEASE!!! – ? Not something you come across every day.

    Dostoyevsky does a really good job of writing flawed, complex, messy-but-interesting characters (male *and* female) whom you can want to shake and STILL care about what happens to them, and frankly, the setting doesn’t feel all that horribly dated – being broke and struggling and trying to achieve something in spite of The System and not being able to ever get a leg up, just kind of translates through the ages…

    Actually, I should reread it and write something about how Sonia’s plotline both uses and subverts some of the Good Girl tropes that still exist, both the Hooker with a Heart of Gold and the Always Loving & Giving – iirc there’s a strange Virtue Of Selfishness thing underlying her final Moral Sacrifice despite the overt Christianity that I don’t recall seeing critics address before (some of them might have addressed the Ho!Yay, given Serious Literary tropes, I don’t remember – but certianly not in the exuberant manner of fandom anyways) and also the Dunia plotline, with the nasty preppie (the successful version of Rodion?) and the passive-aggressive stalker-possibly-wife-murdering creep *both* getting the heave-ho…in favor of a guy who’s not merely Nice, but actually *good*…

    But hey, we’re so much more advanced in our visions of society in 21st century America!

  59. Leni says

    I guess I jut didn’t see this as being a story about Penny. It’s about Dr. Horrible and his pathetic (but entertaining) attempts at human connection/world domination.

    Both of which failed pretty miserably, I might add. Well, at least until the very end, perhaps…

    Anyway, the “But Penny was just a rope for the males to tug on” thing rings hollow with me. It’s a parody (as we all agree), but also the story just isn’t about her. She’s underdeveloped because she could be anyone- she’s incidental. Dr. Horrible doesn’t care or even know who she is and his crush on her is entirely superficial. That’s entirely his failing, and for obvious reasons since she is so likable.

    To call that “un-feminist” is to miss the point of the parody.

  60. La Snare says


    I find the idea that there’s an “anti-sexism” bank that one can use to trade on stereotypes or harmful cliches to be pretty darned offensive, actually. It sounds an awful lot like saying “well, you can’t expect a guy to treat women (characters) like they’re relevant and human and complex and just as interesting as men all the time can you?”

    Well you can’t. All stories need some characters (male AND female) who are just there to move the plot forward. If every character in every film/novel/television show was detailed, important and interesting it would make for terrible storytelling. The problem has been that men get more of those relevant, human, complex and interesting parts and women get less. The problem is NOT that weak parts for women exist.

  61. says


    Please stop beating that straw man already. No one ever said we wanted the story to be about her.

    And no, you do not need underdeveloped characters to serve as plot devices. Ever. I was a screenwriter for a decade; how long have y’all been doing it? It is never necessary because it’s so damn easy to give even your least important characters at least a touch of agency, a touch of promise that had the story been about them you’d have found it very interesting.

    This is a total red herring, of an argument and I’m not letting through any more comments about it until the thread gets back on topic. Thanks for understanding.

  62. says

    It is never necessary because it’s so damn easy to give even your least important characters at least a touch of agency, a touch of promise that had the story been about them you’d have found it very interesting.

    BC – which is why, incidentally, the “Redshirt” trope is so annoying a cliche in adventure fic, with or without the addition of “Retirony” , it’s lazy-bad storytelling for no good reason.

    –It’s also interesting in that women are *rarely* Redshirts, in the sense of nameless mooks who just get hit by the SFnal equivalent of a stray bullet in a firefight: the presence of a uterus is more important and trumps everything, if there is a female character she must be The Chick instead, and her death will relate to that aspect rather than to just Wrong Place, Wrong Time, or Hubris (“what could possibly go wrong?”) or Excessive Zeal (“Hah, I can take this bug-monster!” or Misplaced Curiosity (“Wonder what happens if we push this lever?”) or any of the sundry non-sex-linked fates that befall male extras who play the Cautionary Role in genre fic. Female characterization and plot arcs follow Gravesian/Campbellian Rules, always.

    I’m damn sick of having to identify with the Sacred Vessel and the Smiling Muse, for always and always and always, personally…

  63. Patrick says


    Absolutely. Disposable male characters get non-gendered deaths, but disposable female characters almost always get gendered deaths in some manner. Especially in the “gorn” genre of so-called horror films. (Compare the two Hostel films.)

    (Incidentaly, this is why I will continue to argue that Metalocalypse is not misogynistic as some people have claimed. The gruseome deaths and injuries that women suffer in that show are pretty much identical to the gruesome deaths and injuries that men suffer. It is only misogynistic in the sense that it is very, very misanthropic.)

  64. S. A. Bonasi says

    La Snare,

    While stories certainly need bit characters – such as the person serving the drinks at the bar that Our Heroes stop into for information – Penny is not a bit character. She’s a main character, a named character, a singing character. She may not be the lead character (that’s Dr. Horrible, obviously), but that doesn’t make her the same as Captain Hammer’s nameless fans, either. She was important enough to deserve better than she got.

  65. says


    Parody is satire. It mocks human foibles as expressed in the various arts. One word happens to encompass the other. In this context, one can use them interchangeably.

    Trying to get us to conform to the word “parody” is like saying “It’s not a joke, it’s a knock-knock joke.”

  66. says

    Chemist, re-read the definitions I provided.

    Satire makes fun of human foibles. Parody makes fun of storytelling styles. They can co-exist, but they are not interchangeable. Therefore, as I said once already, if you say this is satire, you are arguing that Whedon thinks women are stupid and is making fun of them via his presentation of Penny. If instead you mean to argue that he thinks the Women in Refrigerators trope is stupid, then you should argue that he is parodying that trope.

    It makes a huge difference in this context.

  67. S. A. Bonasi says

    I just wanted to elaborate on my reply to Lucian Smith above. While I suggested Captain Hammer’s death prompting Penny to become a super-hero, that’s not the only acceptable alternative. I suggested it because it inverts the WiR trope, but a female character doesn’t have to be an arse-kicker to be dynamic and interesting. It would have been just as well for Penny to never became a super-hero, to continue helping the homeless, but to hate Dr. Horrible for what he had done. Heck, there are even ways in which Penny could have died without it being WiR, if her death was more active. There’s no question that the story only works if Dr. Horrible loses Penny in the end, but there are many ways in which a person can be “lost”, and there was no reason for the writers to make Penny be so darn passive about it.

  68. Jacq says

    just wanted to put in my vote for the not-dissapointed-by-the-ending camp.
    From the 2nd time i watched it, all i can see at the end is a woman who is almost incoherant from pain/shock/dying etc, but still wants to make sure her friend is ok. (2nd last line – Billy, is that you, are you alright?)
    i dont see her looking Horrible in the eye and still praising Hammer, i see someone in their last moments falling back on a long-held belief (about Hammer being the hero who’ll save them all)

    (crawls back under rock)

  69. SPM says

    The fact that this show is supposed to be a parody and have the stereotypical characters makes this arguement pointless because Penny was purposely made a victim.
    In my perspective Penny had more character than Captain Hammer. Captain Hammer was the egotistical rival that ended up killing her wheras she was the love interest, victim, friend, and Horrible’s only chance for redemption. She was only a trophy in Act 2 because Act 3 wasnt even about who gets the girl it was about Dr. Horrible achieving his true goal and that was joining the Evil League of Evil by Killing Captain Hammer. It is true that Captain Hammer being with Penny is the reason that Dr. Horrible pushed past his principels on killing people but it wasnt because Penny was a trophy that he wanted all to himself it was because killing Captain Hammer would be easy to him because he hates him. Lastly Penny because the fuel to Dr. Horrible’s Fire because her dieing means that he has nothing left in his life other than that which hes strived for most and that is becoming a full blown supervillian so now Dr. Horrible lives and Billy the Laundry Buddy is dead but the world keeps spinning.
    Its actually very much like real life, heh.

  70. SPM says

    I want to point out that I meant to say that this show is both a satire and parody, sorry and that I completely agree with Jacq above me.

  71. says

    ” Is she less real than Hammer? (Is ANYTHING?) ”

    See, but, that’s what bugs me about her. She is more real than Hammer and she really shouldn’t be. Or, more specfically, she’s so realistic – more real even that the lead character – that she can only directly affect the plot, while the way in which Hammer and Horriblle are unreal directly connects them to the themes as well.

    It’s not that she needed to be made more real, but that her character needed to be better developed in terms of reflecting the themes of the story. Hammer was a bad guy that was popular and seemed good, Horrible was a wanna-be bad guy that did bad things for good and bad reasons, why not make Penny someone who seemed bad or was unpopular, but did good things?

    She kind of was, and I can see where they were going for this, seeing as how she was one of those annoying signature collectors, and some of the stuff other people have mentioned. However, none of this was played up enough for that to really come through well. Too much focus on making her the sweet girl next door cuz guys all fall in love with the sweet girl next door, yes?

    Making her less real would have in turm made her death make a clear statement about popularity/society/good and evil/etc. No need for major plot changes or fanwanking to make her death about more than how others reacted to it, since making her one of the “paths” that the audience/Horrible could choose would actually have made it easier for the audience to identify with her thematic charicature than we do with her realistic (but necessarily flat) character.

    Her death would still be problematic, but more in the way of “while I don’t expect everything to pass the Bechdel test, it’s hard not be annoyed at pretty much any movie that fails it simply because so few of them pass it” and less in the way of “can the token character be less of a token, please?”

    (And, yes, I agree BetaCandy, he handles criticism well. Which is why, despite not being the second coming, he still tends to kick ass. One has to be able to listen to constructive criticism in order to be able to grow.)

  72. S. A. Bonasi says

    This isn’t a response to anybody’s comment but a continuation of the comment I made earlier about how Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog plays the Nice Guy-Jerk Guy false dichotomy straight rather than parodying it.

    karjack writes:

    Let’s take Billy. He is the geeky outcast nerds everywhere can relate to, but he is not a good guy. The ‘nice’ guy is not nice! He’s horrible to Penny, all the while whining about how why, oh why, won’t she just see how wonderful he is! He goes through all these convoluted schemes just to avoid putting on his cowboy panties and talking to her. Neil Patrick Harris is great, talented and nuanced in his delivery, and I enjoyed his performance.

    I don’t think Billy is meant to be a sympathetic character. The fact that he’s the guy so many viewers can relate to is a wakeup call. Hey, nice guy? You’re not nice. Your bizarre obsession and inability to treat the object of your affection as anything other than, just that, an object, isn’t nice — it’s creepy. You’re the villain in this piece.

    Over at, Dustin Rowles writes:

    The musical follows the decidedly non-horrible Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris), an aspiring super-villain with a PhD in horribleness hoping to get his credentials and join the Evil League of Evil. He’s sort of a bumbling, awkward sympathetically likable guy, whose heart is in the right place … sorta.

    Horrible wants to spend his life with Penny, while Hammer just wants to have sex with her a second time, cause that’s when they do the weird stuff.

    Bolding is mine, but I recommend reading both karjack and Rowles’ posts in full.

  73. John Mark Ockerbloom says

    “having to deal every day with the fact that no, she really DOESN”T like ‘the real you’ at all now that she’s seen your bloodymindedness wouldn’t be an even more painful and object lesson…”

    On the other hand, I’m not sure I’d believe that the lesson would actually sink in that way, at least not in the short time-frame we’re shown. The way Billy/Horrible’s character is drawn, I could easily see him treating that for a long time as only a temporary setback: “I haven’t *really* lost her, she’ll come around soon enough after I give her time and show her more what I’m really like.” That’s what I’d expect from a stalker type. Death, on the other hand, is pretty hard to wave aside.

    On a third, prosthetic hand, it might be interesting to imagine a full Broadway-length musical, where the entire show we saw comprises just the first act. Suppose that in the second act, set years later, Dr. Horrible gets the idea to revive or recreate Penny somehow? (Hey, he *is* a mad scientist supervillain, after all.) He thinks she will be the girlfriend he always wanted, and will now be properly grateful and affectionate to *him* for ‘rescuing’ her from the dead. And suppose the neo-Penny has other ideas? Could make for an interesting and entertaining second act (and one where we see more agency from her character), if the idea is well fleshed out.

  74. JupiterPluvius says

    given that Joss Whedon’s body of work includes very strong and well developed female characters already, I would think that it’s a bit unfair to be expecting him to veer in this direction in every project he does.

    The what, in the where, now?

    I think it’s PERFECTLY fair to expect strong and well-developed female characters in EVERY SINGLE ARTISTIC PROJECT !*

    *Except for movies/musicals/plays/TV shows/novels taking place in explicitly all-male settings like a prison or a monastery. I was fine with the lack of strong female characters in Das Boot, frex.

    There’s no reason why every female main character in every project done by everyone shouldn’t be strong and well-developed. Because otherwise, they’re not particularly realistic, are they?

  75. Mike says

    I noticed my previous comment, appealing for Betacandy to reconsider deleting comments with other points of view to which he/she does not agree – for the benefit of having a credible discussion on this topic – has subsequently been deleted.

    If the purpose of this blog is to create change and progress the feminist movement, dismissing other people will only result in alienation and the continued propagation of a negative stereotype currently being unfairly projected on all feminists.

    I stumbled across this site and it opened my eyes to this issue. However, I am disappointed by such uncompromising behavior and will not be visiting this blog any longer. Best wishes and goodluck to your cause.

  76. sbg says

    I noticed my previous comment, appealing for Betacandy to reconsider deleting comments with other points of view to which he/she does not agree – for the benefit of having a credible discussion on this topic – has subsequently been deleted.

    Huh. And yet there are varying POVs all throughout this thread. BetaCandy, you’re not being diligent in wiping out all those who don’t conform!

    Get on that.

    Please note sarcasm.

  77. says

    No, Mike, it wasn’t deleted. It never made it through moderation. I guess one of the other editors let this one through, so we could point out the error of your ways.

    I’m asking people to use words correctly so there’s less confusion. Because I’ve read some people around the web who seem to be arguing “Yes, he’s making fun of women, but that’s okay.” If anyone here thinks that, then we need to have a whole other discussion than what we’re having here.

    You’re creating a straw man by saying my insistence people be clear on what they’re saying so we know what we’re debating is equal to saying “no disagreements!” That’s completely disingenuous because, as SBG pointed out, this comment thread is swimming with points of view: people who agree with Purtek, people who had different issues than hers, people who thought it was great.

    And then you follow up with the usual anti-feminist silencing tactic of warning me that you’ll continue thinking of feminists as bitter man-haters unless I let you have your way.

    Go right ahead – I’m sure you were going to anyway, given how everything you’ve said so far was, frankly, bullshit.

  78. sbg says

    There’s no reason why every female main character in every project done by everyone shouldn’t be strong and well-developed. Because otherwise, they’re not particularly realistic, are they?

    Yes, this. When male characters are given layer after complex layer of development, too often a female character is built on shallow, stereotypes. Her role too often boils down to that of Precious Object (sometimes this even happens when she’s a central, strong figure) in some way or another.

  79. SunlessNick says

    I think folks forget that Joss has, on more than one occasion, been very tone-deaf to how things have come across in some of his work – see: Fastest Way To Die In Very White Sunndale Is To Be Black & Gosh, Is There Still A Dead/Evil Lesbian Cliche? – Anna

    That last annoys me especially, since he had spent the previous year and a half going on about the Dead/Evil Lesbian Cliche, how he was “hyper-aware of the issues involved” (direct quote), and how he intended Tara/Willow to be different.

    there simply would be no other way for Horrible to learn his karmic lesson except via her death – like having to deal every day with the fact that no, she really DOESN”T like “the real you” at all now that she’s seen your bloodymindedness wouldn’t be an even more painful and object lesson… – bellatrys

    Yes it would (something else I’ve often said about Tara and Willow).

    There’s no reason why every female main character in every project done by everyone shouldn’t be strong and well-developed. Because otherwise, they’re not particularly realistic, are they? – JupiterPluvius

    No, there’s not. I was about to make mention of the size of a character’s role in the story being relevant, and then I caught your use of the word “main” :). Which means I just plain agree with you.

  80. sbg says

    I still can’t help thinking this would have been a much more interesting parody had Whedon made Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer female characters, and Penny male.

  81. Anna says

    sbg – Interesting thought.

    I admit, when I read a reconsideration of Harry Potter that changed the genders around, suddenly Snape became a lot more interesting to me.

    I wonder how the stalker-vibe would have come off. *ponders*

  82. sbg says

    I wonder how the stalker-vibe would have come off. *ponders*

    I wonder how people would have reacted to it, regardless of how it came off. After all, nerdy loser-types who follow women around like puppies are endearing, but women who do the same tend to be written off as scary and needy. Sarcastically speaking.

  83. Renee says

    I never had a problem with Penny, actually, because my reading of the text was that Penny was meant to be taken as the “normal” person. She is a foil to Hammer’s ego and Horrible’s zealotry – she is simple, naive, and optimistic, and ultimately she accomplishes more in the name of good than both the well-intentioned Villain/Hero and the mindless Hero/Villain.

    I don’t think she was perfect and I think she could have been improved, but I can understand why she was the way she was.

    I also don’t think her death was meant to propel anyone forward. Her death was just the tragically ironic ending.

  84. hv says

    Personally, I think focusing on Penny at all is missing the point: This story is centered around Dr. Horrible, and ALL other characters are rather 1-dimensional.

    I think the issue Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog is driving at is about masculinity in American society today. I think the point that is being made is that in order to be a man, you must be a super villain.

    Here are some very disorganized thoughts about what I think the real meaning of the story is:
    Note the following:
    – Billy is at first reluctant to kill or do serious violence – it’s against his nature, and we can see that all his previous super-villain activities have been lackluster, and he seems unenthusiastic about the entire thing. The first thing he does, in fact, is to defend his supervillianness to people emailing him about his blog. – As though he is defending his manliness, trying to assert himself while at the same time being very reluctant to hurt anyone (as is shown later).
    – Captain Hammer is the ideal of manliness – a strong (and chauvinistic) hero. However, he has super powers, and that is why he can be a hero – An ordinary person, like Billy, can’t be Captain Hammer – and thus cannot be a hero.
    – The ELE is what defines what it means to be a supervillain. Being a villain is killing. ~ Being a man is being violent, in our society. This goes against Billy’s nature at first.
    – Before Captain Hammer shows up, Billy has not been truly misogynistic towards Penny. He wants to talk to her but he is afraid, because he doesn’t see himself as worthy of her. (When does he think he will be confident enough? When he becomes a man/supervillain.) It is, in fact, his pursuit of masculinity that dooms his chance at a relationship with Penny however: This is shown over and over again, first when his theft of the Wonderflonium interferes with his first conversation with her, and then when she begins dating Captain Hammer. Since Captain Hammer is obviously representing the ideal of manliness, it is pursuing our society’s concept of masculinity that causes Billy to be unable to get what he wants – Which, yes, is represented stereotypically and simply through a woman who is purely virtuous (Note that Penny has no character flaws).

    However, in the end, Billy finds that by becoming a supervillain – Becoming a man – He has killed Penny.
    To get to the point:
    Billy finds at the end that he has become a violent misogynist (Penny’s death IS about misogyny, I agree, but in the context of a larger story that is sympathetic to men who are not violent (“manly”) by nature. ) and he is haunted by it.
    Still, he sings not what he is shown to be feeling through all the subtext – He sings that he “won’t feel a thing” which is another whole aspect of masculinity in our society – That men are expected not to feel, or be vulnerable.
    In the end, don’t we find out that Captain Hammer – the “real man” – has never felt pain before? So I think Joss is suggesting that the traditional concept of masculinity is ridiculous and impossible – An impossibly strong, powerful, invulnerable superhero.
    And men – real men who are just flawed people – become villains by trying to compete with that impossible ideal.

    If Billy rejected the ELE and decided not to be a supervillain, he would have had a real conversation with Penny- who is a one-dimensional symbol for acceptance/love/what-Billy-wants, and she showed at a few times that she liked Billy – The Billy who is not Dr. Horrible.

    I think the message here is that men should reject society’s traditional concept of manhood. That’s why Penny is a flat character – The story is about manhood. The only “real” character – the only one with flaws – is Billy.

    Our society, sadly, is one where men who reject traditional manhood are punished socially by other men. That, I think, is what the story is about, and in that context, I think the story should be very feminist-friendly: The traditional concept of manhood is misogynist, not to mention ridiculous. There’s a ridiculous violent crime rate, and women are often victims. – Which in fact, may be a large part of what Penny’s death is about. Her death, is in fact vital to the story because it shows that Billy, by becoming Dr. Horrible, has become a misogynist. Billy becomes Dr. Horrible- He becomes horrible; He becomes a “man.” Men are horrible. This interpretation seems so obvious to me that I have to think it’s got to be what the show intended to say.

    Thus, I think, a feminist seeing Dr. Horrible DOES have something to take from it – That in order to get rid of misogyny, women as well as men have to get rid of the traditional concept of masculinity. If men were allowed to be gentle and shy and still be men, then perhaps they wouldn’t feel like they must be villains before they can be accepted/loved/respected.

  85. says

    I think I’d agree with your reasoning if it weren’t for the fact that we don’t see Billy display any respect for women within the blog itself. We see him as non-violent, yes, but we never see any instances where he regards Penny as a person, not just an object to be longed for. In order to agree with your statement that “Doctor Horrible” is trying to show that “adhering to traditional ideas of masculinity lead to violence and misogyny”, we would have needed to have been shown, first, that “not adhering to traditional ideas of masculinity leads to non-violence and respect for women.” Where I can see how Billy, initially, is equated with non-violence, and Captain Hammer equated with violence, (and he can certainly be equated with misogyny), we are never shown, at any point, that non-violent Billy can be equated with respect for women.

  86. hv says

    re: Mana G.

    I think that’s an excellent point. However, I do still think that the argument that Doctor Horrible shows “adhering to traditional ideas of masculinity lead to violence and misogyny” without Billy being respectful towards women at any point: In my view, Billy doesn’t represent the opposite of Dr. Horrible or Captain Hammer: He represents the not-yet-socialized boy. (Note that “Billy” is a child’s nickname.)
    I think the fact that Billy never at any point is shown as having healthy attitudes towards women is part of the point – in our society, we don’t have an socially-accepted concept of masculinity that is respectful to women. Still, this is kind of subtle and stretching things, so it may not have been intended to the writers.

    That the show is an attack on traditional concepts of masculinity, however, I am very certain of: Captain Hammer’s last scene, crying because he had never felt pain before, sends a very clear message that traditional masculinity is ridiculous. Also, given the fact that Billy has his self-confidence all staked in becoming a super villain and that it was an external force – The ELE – that defined what being a supervillain was – Primarily as violence, but perhaps also as misogyny – makes that interpretation seem accurate to me.

    I think the fact that we’re missing any sort of message of “here’s the way to behave that leads to respect for women” is if not a deliberate attempt to say that our society lacks positive / non-violent non-misogynist male role models, is certainly indicative of that.

    While I do agree that Billy/Dr Horrible had no respect for Penny as a person / objectified her, I think that it’s a definite stretch to say that the writers of the show were being misogynists by their treatment of Penny’s character. The show was told from Dr. Horrible’s point of view and he’s the only completely fleshed out character. Moreover, the focal theme is masculinity- The ending of the show is quite effective and thought-provoking, given that: Dr. Horrible is welcomed into the ELE and he sings that he has “everything he ever wanted” and finished by saying he “won’t feel -” And then suddenly he is Billy again ” – a thing”
    I think the point made here is that Billy had embraced masculinity and then found that it was harmful and violent, and that he caused Penny’s death, and he’s haunted by it.
    The most objectionable thing, as far as the writers go, is Penny’s last words of “Captain Hammer will save us” which I think actually might be making a point that women have shared responsibility in the belief in Captain Hammer / traditional masculinity. Or, it’s just meant to show that she’s delirious, or it’s because for the ending to be what it was, Dr. Horrible has to think that she never saw through Captain Hammer (she did, but he never saw that) – Ending with Dr. Horrible not really understanding that she knew Captain Hammer was a bad person – which also is another possibly bit of social commentary as to how men don’t understand that they could abandon traditional masculinity and still be loved/accepted/confident/etc.
    The fact that her last words are thought-provoking / capable of being analyzed if you ‘get’ the story so many different ways I think at the least shows that the writers didn’t just blindly do away with her.

    I think maybe Joss Whedon is just being held to a higher standard because of Buffy, and any story that he does that is not specifically about female power / liberation seems like a betrayal to some.


  1. […] Doctor…Horrible? | the Hathor Legacy This is overly critical, but still an interesting read. (tags: feminism Dr.Horrible joss_’verse joss_whedon) […]

  2. Alas, a blog » Blog Archive » More On Dr. Horrible: Links, Quote from Joss, Rape Joke In The Comic Book (ugh!) says:

    […] more good posts critiquing Dr. Horrible from a feminist P.O.V.: one at The Hathor Legacy, and one at Rebecca Allen’s place. There’s a lot of good discussion going on in their […]

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