Joss Whedon and feminist cookies

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding Joss Whedon and his feminist credentials. Is he a feminist icon, or a horrid misogynistic racist masquerading as an ally? It’s usually safe to say the answer is probably somewhere in the middle, but I have a slightly more specific response.

When we talk about whether someone deserves a feminist cookie, what we’re asking is not so much whether they did a good thing or are a nice person as whether or not they deserve accolades for whatever they’ve done. No one deserves accolades for being a feminist, even if they’re really awesome at it – feminism is the belief that women and men are equal, and that belief should be a base requirement for human beings. People should get accolades for doing work that furthers the cause of equality, but is that what Whedon has done?

I don’t see the evidence that Whedon’s intent was to revolutionize film and break the inequality barriers. In fact, I’d argue that’s why his casting of people of color seems so backward next to his attempts to break some of the rules that hold women back. I think Whedon is basically a person who finds women as potentially interesting as men and has managed to make some stories about them, and some of these stories happen to break some rules that desperately need to be broken. I’m very glad he did this – it’s helped me make my arguments (“See? Shows featuring women can profit!”) and it’s provided various producers the evidence to convince studios to make Alias and to change Starbuck’s gender. Do any of these producers deserve accolades for doing something that should be the norm? Sure, in the context of an absurdly anti-feminist industry in which it’s generally much more lucrative to toe the party line. They deserve some credit for that, no matter how imperfect their work is.

But what no one deserves is insulation from criticism. No one is a perfect feminist. If we don’t analyze our mistakes, how can we improve? The instant a self-proclaimed feminist becomes unwilling to hear from those telling her she’s missed a spot, she loses her feminist credibility. Examining Whedon’s failures is so important because they reveal to industry feminists and anti-racists (yes, they exist, they’re just sorely outnumbered and underfunded) what their next steps should be. They provide examples of how unconscious privilege gets in the way of creating truly enlightened media, no matter your intent. This is a crucial lesson for filmmakers who want to bring about change but have privilege issues of their own to work through. Anyone who attempts to shut down discussions of Whedon’s (arguable) mistakes is fighting against the very feminism Whedon vocally embraces, and therefore is not a very good fan.

Naamen Gobert Tilahun of Naamenblog points out some very good examples of problematic themes in the Whedon shows he’s enjoyed:

The destruction of Angel’s life through Cordelia’s rampant sexuality and yes we find out she was possessed and it wasn’t really her but that whole excuse was way muddled and not thought out.

I would have loved for Gunn (the only recurring POC in his first two shows) to just be able to be smart without a mystical intervention.

The dead lesbian – Tara

The breakdown of women without a male partner or when the male partner leaves – Buffy, Anya, Willow and on and on – in a way where we rarely if ever saw the reverse with Xander and Giles.

There’s a way in which Joss likes to consistently pair physical strength in girls with emotional weakness or fucked-up-ness, almost as if they have to exist side by side and that’s what pissed me off more than anything.

And that’s just to name a few. We should be having spirited disagreements about these elements, and others. We shouldn’t expect to reach agreement anytime soon because there is no single right answer – in fact, there’s often more than two sides to each point. There’s so much more to be learned from filmmakers who try and sometimes fail than those who play it safe and don’t try at all, and no matter where you fall on the cookie issue, the most important thing is that the discussion keeps going.

Comments

  1. says

    I think that the issue of ‘cookies’ is kind of silly, honestly. The important aspect is that there is something to discuss at all. This article couldn’t have been written about the vast majority of shows.

    Anyone who attempts to shut down discussions of Whedon’s (arguable) mistakes is fighting against the very feminism Whedon vocally embraces, and is not a very good fan.

    Well, I don’t think most people would do this. There are, however, many fans who are overcome by their unhealthy emotional connection to a show, and who thus cannot tolerate criticism.

    Excellent article. You have inspired me to write about this subject on my own blog.

  2. Gategrrl says

    I don’t see the evidence that Whedon’s intent was to revolutionize film and break the inequality barriers. In fact, I’d argue that’s why his casting of people of color seems so backward next to his attempts to break some of the rules that hold women back.

    Hmm. I had a flashback (sort of) to the original Star Trek and Gene Roddenberry’s attempts to gather a multiracial crew onto the bridge (and elsewhere, if he could). He couldn’t keep a woman as a commander on the bridge, but he was able to keep a black woman on the bridge (in a small role onscreen but in a large role off-screen.

    It is odd, now that you mention it, about Gun being the only prominent black character-guest or regular- in either Whedon Buffyverse show. It’s been so long since I’ve watched Buffy (and stopped watching Angel because it crossed the line for me and became disgusting in theme) that this article shines a big bright spotlight on something I didn’t consciously consider during its run, but puzzled over when Gun appeared.

    There was a lot that was *right* with Buffy, but a lot that was wrong, as well.

  3. says

    I’m not sure I follow you here:

    The instant a self-proclaimed feminist becomes unwilling to hear from those telling her she’s missed a spot, he loses his feminist credibility.

    Particularly the link to Grace’s post. Could you explain a little more?

  4. says

    Also, for what it’s worth, I thought a lot of allecto’s criticism was valid or at the very least needed to be seriously considered.

    Accusing Whedon of crimes, such as battery and rape, goes beyond “spirited disagreements,” though.

  5. says

    Thanks both to you and to Naamen for talking about this and exactly explaining my discontent with both sides of the Whedon Feminism issue.

    Big cookies to you both.

  6. Izzy says

    Good points, all of them.

    As someone whose feminism has a very sex-positive emphasis, I’m honestly disturbed by Joss’s treatment of sexuality in general, at least in Buffy and Angel: you do get the attitude that sex is a horrible destructive force, that it’s something Evil Men want and Good Girls don’t, that women who *do* enjoy sex, particularly casual or kinky sex, are damaged (Faith and S6 Buffy) and so forth. I mean, I can get, and celebrate in an ironic way, the “love makes NOTHING better” theme, but there’s a specific anti-sexual element in some of this stuff that creeps me out.

    To his credit, he did seem to get better about that particular issue in Firefly. As, indeed, he seemed to be getting better about a lot of things–Zoe was physically competent and powerful without either being skinny or emotionally broken–and I would’ve liked to see where that trend would’ve led. Unfortunately, I’m not familiar enough with his later work to know if he’s continued getting better or fucked up again.

  7. says

    Thing to remember – Joss wrote for comics, following in Chris Claremont’s footsteps. CC also would write characters as female when everyone else was writing them as male, and give them powers and dramatic roles that no one else was doing. (Airline pilots instead of models! Air force colonels instead of secretaries! Team leaders instead of always The Chick! this is all to the good, indeed.)

    But there is so much that is (to understate) nails-on-the-chalkboard about his depiction of women and sex – the posts & comments in Jason’s series on the X-Men at Remarkable highlight this well – particularly the equation of “bad” with “sexy” when embodied in a female character, which has held constant in the comics tradition; one of the ways that you can tell a heroine has gone bad is that she starts dressing like a dominatrix instead of a speed skater, and another way is that she starts liking “kinky” sex and taking the lead, instead of being a proper vanilla gal who waits for her man to want to dance…

    So – yeah. (And I’ve long argued that refusing to argue over problematic-things-that-we-love-still is no good for fandom, so doubleplusgood that.)

  8. SunlessNick says

    Very good post. Hopefully I’ll have something more cogent to say when it’s sunk in a little more, but for now all my reactions are tangled.

    One thing I would add to the problem list is Willow’s magical addition – simply having her get hooked, as if it were a drug, made her a victim of her own power – when she’s powerful, she’s evil and mad, when she’s weak (not using magic), she’s good (and she gets captured in the episode she does significant non-magical work, emphasising her reduced power).

    One alternative take I saw proposed was to have it more parallel to gambling addiction – taking more and more risks for the high of feeling knowledgeable and powerful – which is still a breakdown of Willow, but not one that’s because she’s powerful.

  9. wombat says

    Long term lurker never commented.

    Excellent post (but you knew that).

    I get very angry when people say things like: “Joss Whedon is not a feminist.” This is odd because I am not a fan of Whedon’s work. I’ve seen little of his most famous work (not an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example), and what I have seen, I have liked but not loved.

    “Intent doesn’t matter,” is a phrase I see thrown around a lot in feminist circles. I’ve always agreed with this: If you are hurting someone, it doesn’t matter if you mean to or not. What matters is if you stop. And yet when someone like Joss Whedon comes along who is doing something good and maybe has good intentions, suddenly intentions matter a great deal. Suddenly it matters whether or not Whedon intended to revolutionize film.

    We should always debate the media we love and not shy away from critisism, but there’s a difference between critisism and deciding that a person is sexually and physically abusive because what kind of stories they tell (as one infamous non-fan said of Whedon). I have written sexist work. I have written racist work. I have INTENTIONAL written sexist stories. I’m not claiming to be a perfect person, but I would rather be judged by my actions then my stories.

    –Wombat

  10. says

    I could swear I already commented here, but it seems to have fallen through a digital crack.

    @Brianna, we learned the hard way that some of Whedon’s fans get very hostile if you suggest he doesn’t walk on water when Whedonesque linked to Purtek’s very mildly negative Doctor Horrible review. But the good news was, some of his other fans told them that was OTT even if they didn’t agree with the review.

    @Gategrrl, Roddenberry is a very interesting contrast with Whedon. There’s no question his intent was always to portray a world more egalitarian than NBC was comfortable showing on TV. It took him 25+ years to get to where he could achieve some of the goals he had in 1966.

    @Skye, I edited my pronouns but missed a few in that sentence. And the link was supposed to go to a different post (guess copy and paste didn’t pick it up, so it just input Grace’s link again and I didn’t notice) – it’s all fixed now. And yes, allecto’s criticisms were worth a read. Some of them I agreed with, some I felt didn’t stand up. But I think characterizing a creator’s person based on what he writes is wrong. Characterizing him on things he’s said in interviews COULD be justified, but you can’t psychoanalyze an author by his fiction – especially in something as collaborative as film/TV.

    @Thanks, Bene! Mmm, cookies!

    @Izzy – very well said. I LOVED the rare nod to the truth that sex is never, ever a problem solver all by itself. But despite this I was often uncomfortable with how Whedon handled sex, and you’ve summed up just why that is.

    @Bellatrys, I didn’t realize his comics history. Interesting! And you’re right. There’s nothing I hate more than seeing a woman suddenly start to dress “like a dominatrix” because it always has to mean the same thing on TV.

    @Nick, I totally agree. That was one of the reasons I stopped watching Buffy – the message that Willow, who’d always been the strong and savvy one where Buffy was sometimes naive or fragile – couldn’t handle power. If she can’t, who can? And if good people can’t be powerful, we’re so screwed as a species, aren’t we?

    @Wombat, I’d rather just judge the stories themselves than try to judge the man at all.

  11. Izzy says

    Nick: And for extra annoyance factor, that particular story arc was written/produced by a woman, I believe.

    Jennifer: Thanks! I mean, I’m not a romantic, so the “love hurts” plotlines kinda appealed to me. But the attitudes toward sex and women (and Anya, the only really sexually aggressive “good guy” a) being all sorts of weird, and b) dying in the end) annoyed like hell.

    Wombat: I mostly agree–especially because you can write racist or sexist narrators without being a racist or a sexist yourself. But on the other hand…Terry Goodkind. And Anne McCaffrey.

    I think that, if the vast majority of your work has offensive themes, and you’re not showing a progression away from those themes or going “oh my God, I can’t believe I did that, what was I thinking, sorry” when someone points that out to you, then you sort of *are* whatever sort of git is applicable here, and deserve to be publicly known as such.

    But even that is no justification for speculating, in the absence of evidence, about actual things you might or might not have done.

  12. says

    Regarding Dr. Horrible:

    Goodness, that thread was slightly insane. Good that the other fans shut them down. I had forgotten about Dr. Horrible – I don’t think that review was negative enough, honestly! (I found Dr. H to be 99.9% boring)

    @Izzy:

    I’m honestly disturbed by Joss’s treatment of sexuality in general

    Interesting points, I never saw it that way before.

  13. says

    Izzy, don’t forget John Norman (of Gor!), either – once you start having your gary stu protagonist give long monologues about how awful feminism is and how the Nature of Woman is to joyously Serve Men, over and over again, page after page outnumbering such trivial things as plot and character motivation and worldbuilding and so on, IMO you forfeit the right to be “presumed innocent” in this regard.

    One thing I try to do on purpose is mix things up in my fic: sometimes my heroes and heroines say things that are “wrong” in the context of the story, and they may espouse positions I don’t, sometimes the villains say things that are “right” and agree with me – obviously if I had a protagonist who was all “Rah-rah torture!” and failed to convey somehow in the narrative that I didn’t agree with this any reader who went “Gack! I do NOT want to be in the same room with P@L!” would be perfeclty justified…but by the same token, I would consider myself to have failed as an author.

    Jennifer, I didn’t have time to get into detail when I posted that, but the “women can’t handle power” pretty much *is* THE issue with the Strong Heroines in Marvel. Not all of them – the Ms. Marvel and Rogue and She-Hulk storylines have their Issues but don’t fall into that per se; but THE big story of X-Men under Claremont is….dun dun dun DUNH…
    Dark Phoenix, which name should sound just *slightly* familiar to Buffyfen!

    And in it, the absolute “moral” of the story is – the lead female character cannot handle power without becoming corrupted and – of course – turned into a black-leather & corsets sexpot as a side effect. Doug in comments at Remarkable brought out something I had kind of blipped over in reading, but over and over again in the dialogue Claremont has Jean talking about how her new Phoenix powers feel like an orgasm, if in veiled, PG-ish language, and how she’s basically become a nymphomaniac in her endless desire for the “high” of wielding the Phoenix Force.

    Now all kinds of excuses can be made – it was The Ultimate Power, and we all know that Power Corrupts etc (but you never see the corrupted guys putting on black leather codpieces and getting orgasmic in genre!) and she was being manipulated by an Evil Wizard who was putting *his* fantasies into her head (but this makes no sense with the earlier Jean Grey vs Evil Wizards canon, as the characters themselves keep protesting in what Slacktivist calls “Meta-Character speaking through despite the forced lines”) and the Hellfire Club is at least partly responsible for her black corset costume (but how come the Hellfire Club men all dress in 18th c aristocrats’ outfits and the women all dress like Gay Nineties’ madames?) and she gets to make The Heroic Sacrifice, it isn’t *all* The Menz taking away her power, in order to save the universe from herself (for the time being.)

    But then he goes and does it again, very shortly, to the *other* Strong Female Chara, Storm, who in a huge fight against Dr. Doom after he’s been psychically tormenting her goes raging completely off the charts powerwise, and having accessed her full mutant powers, becomes filled with delusions of grandeur and superiority (which she has NEVER shown any sign of before) and must be overwhelmed by the male characters who all love her and want to save her from herself. It’s *exactly* the Dark Willow scenario.

    And it *never* happens with the male characters when they get power-ups. They never turn into coked-up whores who want to both f*ck and eat the entire universe to satisfy their insatiable appetites for power and “sensation”, and will in a drugged-out rage kill even their dearest friends, relations, and lovers who try to talk them down from this or worse yet, wet-sheet them until they snap out of it…and likewise, when heroes go bad they never turn up in thigh boots and g-strings, for some strange reason!

    (Aside: I have been working out in my head for a long time an AU scenario in which the Phoenix Saga follows roughly the same outline but has an entirely feminist hue, I really do think it can be done, without even *too* much subversion and changing of canon. I know I was strongly corrupted myself by reading a “Jirel of Joiry” story at age 15, but nevertheless…)

    Then there’s non-powered but badass heroine Dr. Moira MacTaggart, who we early on find out is perfectly willing to grab a machine gun and take on an army of Lovecraftian demons – who has no maternal feelings towards her monstrous son (born of rape by her ex) and is ready to kill him to save the planet from him, who later on gets possessed by some Ebol Force that first manifests itself by the symptoms of…kinky bedroom games and black leather corsets. (Her lover kicks himself for just having thought she was trying to spice up their relationship and amuse him at the time.)

    When Sue Storm of the Fantastic Four finally goes postal – tempted of course to the Dark Side by a villain, it would never happen that she would just *snap* one day – and becomes a raging psychopath out of her frustration at her shabby treatment by her husband, her brother, and their colleague and decides to take them all out after making them suffer for their chauvinism and selfishness, her costume goes from being a full-body unitard like all the others to being this bizarre Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue concoction with some spikes and a gimp mask thing… Her husband being all Strong and Manly snaps her out of it, btw, although they do realize that they really should treat her like a full team member and not a glass doll after that.

    The only female chara in the X-verse who doesn’t afaik ever get corrupted by her power-ups is Kitty Pryde, aka Shadowcat, the Girl Who Walks Through Walls, aka Every Teenage Fanboy’s Fantasy Girlfriend (according to any number of older fanboys at least) who always remains sweet and innocent and pure (even after she falls in love and has Teh Sex with two of Our Heroes in the course of time) and is the sort of slender, gawky, action hero that well, sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t she?

    Now, just for kicks, let me point out the fact that Joss Whedon has just finished up a return run on the X-Men, in which Kitty Pryde makes The Ultimate Sacrifice by bonding herself to a giant planet smashing rocket which has been sent by an alien force that nobody else could destroy or turn aside – none of all the jillions of historically-stronger superheroes and heroines on the planet – so that she could extend her powers to the entire object and safely phase it through the Earth without effect. She’s now (until rescue/retcon) in a quasi-coma in a steel coffin shooting off into outer space, while all her friends and lovers mourn, as the story arc concluded.

    There was a lot of disatisfaction on the forums, and a lot of complaints of rehash…

  14. Firebird says

    It’s easy to thnk that if we critique something that has moved – however slightly – in the direction we would like to see things go, that we are ungrateful, impossible to please, and possibly doomed not to have anyone help us again soon. It’s a victim’s stance, but one that I can remember lots of lectures telling me to take. In one part, it’s the way we celebrate baby steps in our children – but these aren’t children we’re dealing with; it’s a (supposedly) mature modern society. In another part, it’s the whipped dog licking the master’s fingers; bite him for the pain and he’ll do it again. That’s a harsh way to put it, and I cringe as I type, but I think there’s a measure of truth behind that interpretation.

    And then there’s the fact that we are dealing with stories, sometimes good stories, that made us feel like we were falling in love with real people instead of pictures on a screen or words on a page, and it is difficult to accept criticism – much less be the criticizer – of people and things that we love, in part because of the nature of that love, and in part because if the object of our affection is not completely perfect, what does that say about us as loving it? There is a personal maturity in this that we should all be striving for.

    The fact is, though, that individuals and groups who give to the cause of an oppressed group of people, especially if they are not a member of the oppressed group, tend to feel that they deserve extra kudos for their magnanimity, and a free pass for their failings, and can often become not only disinterested in further helping but actually virulent enemies of the cause if they aren’t treated like royalty. It’s a sad failing of human nature, and perhaps indicative of the very nature of privilege, that even in the process of helping those who are victims of whatever privilege we possess that we still feel they should uphold the privilege we are accustomed to.

    @Bellatrys: I was fascinated by your descriptions of comic book plots, and wanted to comment on the one about the Fantastic Four:

    Her husband being all Strong and Manly snaps her out of it, btw, although they do realize that they really should treat her like a full team member and not a glass doll after that.

    Interestingly, this doesn’t work in real life, no matter how convinced we humans are that crisis and ultimatums are the way to change. I know a married couple who cycle through a similar round of slowly building rage through fit of crying and fighting to a short honeymoon phase and back to the bad treatment that leaves her silently rebuilding her rage. I have observed it for 6 years, and given what comments and advice I can – but most recently I’ve started telling her that nothing’s going to change if she keeps on doing things the same, and asking her if she wants to change or keep living the way she does. The point is, I have very rarely seen acting out on a one-time basis actually hold someone’s attention long enough to effect lasting change. On the other hand, simple changes in one’s own behavior is much more effective in forcing change on the other person’s behalf.

    Which is not to say that expressing rage may not get people’s attention. But a one time display followed by a return to meek and mild just makes them think you had a crazy moment and watch you for signs of crazy returning – and give them fodder for the pseudo-wise head-nodding elders to say that “it’s that time of the month” or “well, emotions, you know…” Getting someone’s attention has to be followed by something to keep their attention – for example, Sue would have to start calling them on it when they treat her shabby. Every time.

    Oh, and I am always looking forward to the inevitable bad girl clothing, because I happen to think it’s often really sexy. Or at least really interestingly visually striking, a la Nancy from The Craft. *sigh* *starts thinking about how to make good girls dress like that…*

  15. Patrick says

    Great article! I don’t have too much to add regarding Whedon that hasn’t been covered in comments (my Internets were out for a friggin’ week), but a lot of it is stuff I wish more people would realize.

    Good stuff regarding Claremont, as well. He’s another perfect example of a writer doing a lot of work to move things in the right direction while still having a lot to criticize.

  16. Shalon says

    I got a little lost here. just started reading this site while looking up Joss Whedon. He’s a Favorite of mine. I Love his shows mostly because his characters are loveable and normal. Even placed in extraordinary situations they are still… just like me and the people I know. I’m a strong woman, who has had enormous trouble finding my husband because I was seen as “too strong” Like any other person I fall apart after every break-up too. So I didn’t see that portrayal as anything but true to life. except that she had more power to screw up with. My question is about the reference to Another favorite of mine, the author Anne Mccaffrey. Am I missing something? Is something she wrote somehow NOT in line with feminist objectives? The Tarnsman of Gor series reference I understood. After the author’s wife broke up with him so violently around book 5, he got positively preachy in his Anti-female sentiments. But Anne Mccaffrey? I can’t even call more than two male protagonists to my mind, and all of her main characters are strong, and loving, and good. Some are more weak than others, some have more power but all are fine examples of the kind of women I believe all of us should aspire to be.

  17. Shalon says

    Also as a slight aside. Angel DID have the same “Bad Willow” type problem. Remember? whenever he experienced happiness, he lost his soul, gained the full power of Angelus, went all dark sexy sadist, and had to be destroyed. in fact, Buffy had to kill him to save the world! Willow just needed to have a good cry when she did it. Angel got dusted. Joss Whedon doesn’t keep that particular conundrum female. Absolute power corrupts Willow, Buffy, Angel, Giles, Anya, even Xander in the one episode where he obtains power. They each become sexy dom-type sadists before they finally get put in their place. Absolute power corrupts every Whedon Character equally and absolutely.

  18. says

    Yeah – rape that leads to a nice healthy relationship, which I found rather traumatizing to read. I have never understood why so many feminists are all “Yay, Anne McCaffrey!” and then you say “but rape?” and then they’re all “Rape? What rape?” and you tell them and they’re all like, “…oh, yeah, I didn’t really think of that.” Seriously, WTF? I was maybe 19 when I read the first Pern book, and I couldn’t finish the book because I was so disturbed by rape being passed off as a good way to get your relationship started. That was the last message I wanted guys I might date getting. Jesus fucking Christ.

  19. Raeka says

    @Shalon: I don’t remember Buffyverse very well, but I think the difference between Willow, Buffy, and Anya going crazy with power and Xander, Giles, and Angel is that I vaguely remember the men were FORCED into that change –there really isn’t much Angel can do about the curse on him, and I think Xander fell under a spell or was possessed or something supernatural?

    The women all went corrupt at exercising their own, inherent power –the corruption happened as a weakness in their personality, rather than an outside force coercing them into that change.

    …my apologies if I’m not quite correct, it’s been years since I saw Buffy, and it’s 2:30 AM here. But that’s kinda what I recall of the show.

  20. Jen says

    I go with my gut on this kind of issue, if the characters behave in a way that I feel is actively promoting a way of life or ethos I don’t agree with I just *can’t* continue watching it. But I never had a problem with any of Joss’s work.

    Whedon is very much a Genre writer, he knows his genre inside out and so he plays with the conventions. The fact that Buffy wasn’t simply a straightforward reversal of a story with a male hero and instead concerned many female characters and their serious real life issues is important because as I’m sure you’ve discussed on this site Genres are often inextricably linked with Gender roles; I feel Joss Whedon managed to keep the spirit of the traditional Horror/action-hero genre and bypassed or at least messed around with the old gender roles to create something more than just an exception to the rule, it changed the whole genre for good.

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