My Apologies, Mr. Whedon

John and I got talking about Joss Whedon last night, after John read an article in Wired (based largely on this interview) about one of very few television writers whose career I envy. For those of you who don’t know who I’m talking about, Whedon is largely responsible for Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse, Firefly, Serenity, and most recently, The Avengers. I haven’t seen The Avengers yet and, quite frankly, I had no real interest in seeing it until Charlie (who only knew that Whedon was of consequence because her fiance pointed it out) mentioned that Whedon was in charge. I’ve been falling in love with Whedon as a writer since I saw Serenity in the theater, but I didn’t really pay attention to the fact that the same man was behind these amazing works of art until I watched Dollhouse last fall, and then only because I started reading Hijinks Ensue, whose writer will most likely either end up with a restraining order  from Whedon or as his best friend and collaborator.

Joss Whedon
Joss Whedon / Photo by Gage Skidmore (CC BY 2.0)

Yes, I am the lazy sort of fangirl who can adore just about everything in a screenwriter’s oeuvre without knowing it. Shut up.

As John and I were discussing what makes Whedon projects whedonesque, two qualities stood out to me. First, the man is a master of dialogue. He has a keen ear for the way people talk that gives me serious keyboard envy. Second, and equally important to me as a writer: he’s a butt-kicking feminist.

I had a hard time coming to grips with that second fact. A word to the wise: while you can watch most of his above-mentioned projects through Netflix Instant, I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. “Whedonesque” means that strong women characters are going to occasionally have their asses handed to them in an extremely graphic manner. When I was watching Buffy, I found that I sometimes had to pause in the middle of an episode and go for a walk to shake off the yick of watching this young woman lose a no-punches pulled fist fight with older men. Dollhouse was infinitely worse.

I kept going back, though it took me a while to understand why I found this fairly violent television to be worthy of my time. My reason? Buffy and Echo are on the frontiers of feminism, rewriting the paradigm of what it means to be female. The paradigm I was raised with is that girls are capable of kicking butt BUT not so capable that it’s okay for boys to kick back. By putting strong women in the category of “not to be touched,” media sends the message that women really are more fragile than men. It’s sickening on an almost physical level to watch a particularly close fight in which the woman seems to be losing, especially when the staged fighting is fairly believable, but I don’t have the same gut reaction watching a similar fight between two men, or between two women, for that matter. Why? Because I have been trained to believe that men and women are not equals, that women are physically inferior to men.

Mentally, I am capable of saying, “That is incorrect, kind sir!” But the attitudes that matter are not the ones you pull out at the university colloquium. The attitudes that have power are the ones you carry in your bones–the ones that will tell you how to react if you should ever face a given situation in real life. In other words, my brain tells me that I am capable of standing up for myself if I am ever attacked by a man, but my bones tell me to cower, weep, and beg for mercy. I have  been blessed in my life to never be faced with a situation where I had to make that decision, but many women are. Domestic violence is not a rarity in the United States, and plenty of women stay in abusive situations, allowing themselves to be hit again and again and again, and not least among the reasons for this is that our cultural perception of women is that they aren’t really empowered to do anything about it.

When a man refrains from hitting a woman, too often his reason is, “You shouldn’t hit women.” That’s a bad reason. You shouldn’t hit anybody. The same man might also back down from a fight with a man, probably on moral principles (if only to save face), but what media usually tells us about this interaction is that the man is also somewhat concerned that he might be seriously injured. In other words, he respects the power of the other man’s fists. When you “respect a woman” by refusing to fight her on the premise that she’s a woman, the only thing you’re respecting is her fragility. I’m not saying you should go around picking bar fights with women, mind you, but I am saying that Joss Whedon’s work is ripping that paradigm to shreds.

Neither Buffy nor Echo is ever beaten up. They lose fights. They win more fights than they lose, however, and when they do lose, they pick themselves up and approach the problem from another angle–with more training, more knowledge, and backup. The narrative of gender this creates is that women and men are inherently on equal footing, and given that equality, women sometimes lose. They have the power, however, to push themselves through hard work and study to a place where they can take down the monster who beat them. Women are not fragile flowers who are helpless when the world fails to protect them: they are powerful, and God help you if you make the mistake of turning your back on a woman you’ve done wrong by.

I am pathetically addicted to television, because I love the indefinite drawing out of the lives and stories of characters. In movies and even books, it seems like I hardly get a chance to know and like a set of characters before their authors wrap up and move on. Seven seasons is a good long time to enjoy the growth of a character’s life. Where television almost inevitably fails, however, is in its consistent inability to stick the landing. I understand why this is–endings are notoriously difficult for even mediums in which you have the time and resources to work them out and rewrite preceding details to accommodate them and many factors make this an unlikely situation for television shows. (These reasons don’t apply to the LOST producers, so I still want to know what the heck their excuse is.) The single best exception to this rule I have ever enjoyed is the finale of Buffy.

*SPOILER ALERT: THE END OF BUFFY IS REVEALED HERE.*

The solution to the series of problems building to the climax in Buffy is a stand up and shout anthem to Whedon’s take on feminism. For those of you who don’t know the show, the basic premise is that there is always exactly one girl who has the particular power to defeat evil: the Vampire Slayer. When one dies, that potential is awakened in another. Buffy & co. find themselves in a more apocalyptic situation than usual (still my favorite quote from the show: “I find myself needing to know the plural of apocalypse.”), and their plan is to unlock the Slayer potential in all of the girls the world over. There’s a great series of shots of girls in bad situations waking up to the fact that they don’t have to take it anymore. Buffy no longer has to carry the weight of being THE Slayer because she is not the only woman capable of kicking butt and taking names. It’s an incredibly empowering moment, and I will always forgive Joss Whedon for writing decisions I strongly disagree with because of that scene.

 *SPOILER DANGER OVER*

I hate to be too much of a rabid fangirl, but Whedon’s ideas of feminism push me in my own writing to go to uncomfortable places that we need to pay attention to… like getting a pap smear or a prostate exam. It’s uncomfortable and a bit painful to write outside of the paradigm I still believe in my bones, but my writing will be better off for it. If I’m lucky, someday I’ll have readers who will be better off for it. If I’m REALLY lucky, society will change because of my writing and I will be remembered as one of the critical literary pap smears of the post-modern, anti-feminist social cancer.

And now I’m wondering if I need to reconsider my aspirations in life. (Also, does being a card-carrying member of the Over-Extended Metaphor Society really give me the right to imply that Joss Whedon is a literary pap smear? Honestly, Mr. Whedon, I mean it as a compliment.)

UPDATE

John says my metaphor is not only over-extended, but also inaccurate. He says Whedon is more like a gynecologist because it’s his oeuvre that’s the pap smear. And now I’m going to award myself some gummy bears for using the word “oeuvre” three times (two of which were totally legitimate) in one post .

4 thoughts on “My Apologies, Mr. Whedon

  1. Melissa
    The differences/similarities and social norms of the sexes is such a wonderful topic of discussion: Makes all those brain synapses just fly. Can’t wait til you and John are settled in Maine and we can all have leisurely, afternoon discussions about…..anything we want. I think Aymie will have some powerful opinions about this topic. Wow, a summer afternoon with all of us together just gabbing and soaking up life…..there go those synapses again:)

    Like

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