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.