Critiquing Joss Whedon

Joss Whedon created – Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Serenity and the upcoming Dollhouse. Now I have issues with a lot the shows listed, I’m also a huge fan. My problem isn’t entirely with the shows but also in the way a lot of of fans perceive Joss. He gets a lot of cachet from certain segments of fandom – about how he loves strong women, how he describes himself as a feminist, his population of diverse women.

Yeah I kind of scoff at all of that. First of all I will never understand why men who choose to treat women decently get a fucking medal, that should just be par for the course. I know it’s not and we as a society need to work on that but handing out cookies to these men and not allowing them to be critiqued or not critiquing them just allows them to get away with a lot of bullshit – that without the cachet of being a “feminist man” or “pro-feminist man” they would be torn to shreds for.

While I love Buffy & Firefly. (Angel I’m kinda *meh* on) the first thing that I notice is that Joss likes a certain type of woman to be strong: they have to be skinny and white and ever so traditionally beautiful. Not really that feminist to me. I’ve had a lifetime of reading comics where skinny  women become superheroes all the time. Buffy was little different from them to me. I liked her sarcasm, her determination but didn’t truly see her or the show as ground breaking…wait rephrase perhaps it was ground breaking for the medium of television specifically. But it seemed to me that everytime there was a feminist moment of fabulousness it was always within this very narrow view of women so that no ground was actually gained in my eyes. If it was anything it was the feminism he ascribed to was this prevalent “girl-power” pseudo-feminism. Yes, it was great to see girls and women being strong but you know what I would have loved? If we could have seen women of different colors, sizes, abilities, classes being just as strong without fucking up and killing someone innocent (Faith) or dying (Kendra).

And so often the shows fell into stereotypes and tropes:

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 yes we can’t say that Joss had a hand in all of those, he was the creator but he did not write every episode but as the creator he sets the tone, the pace and the message of the show. None of the show writers are going to write a character completely out of the character that Joss has set. It’s a trickle down effect.

Also I think most of us can agree while Joss might have an inkling of feminism he’s really bad at race…really really bad. Yes, in Firefly we have a mixed crew – which I love – but there’s a way in which River and Inara never have their heritage brought up and the complete absence of Asian folks in this Asian inspired show could be a whole post in and of itself. Just plopping down some folks of color is not good race politics you have to explore it at least a little – and I know he only had 12 episodes. Also the gender politics in Firefly/Serenity weren’t the best. In fact cracked.com listed Hollywood’s 5 Saddest Attempts at Feminism- River’s at #3.

I want to talk about these things, I want to talk about his consistently really bad race politics in all three of his shows. I want to talk about the co-opting of feminism by the mainstream into this whole “girl power” movement where there’s not real critique of power structures and the similarity of this “girl power” movement to the Republican ideology of “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” without any discussion of the continuing hierarchies and how difficult that can make it. I want to talk about all of that and how that’s filtered into Joss’ work but all too often I’m completely shut down by calls of “He’s a feminist!” as if that gives him a free ride to do whatever else he wants.

I own: all 7 season of Buffy, Firefly, Serenity & the first two seasons of Angel so it’s safe to term me a fan but I know that Joss has issues that crop up as do all creators. Shoot I know my own work probably has issues but I would hope that no one would give me a pass, that folks would tell me imy issues so I could be aware of it and either acknowledge it as a problem that had to exist in the work or apologize and try and do better next time. When we don’t allow for these critiques and questions to be voiced then we’re doing a disservice not only to the work but to the creator as well.

There might be posts later that focus on these shows and specifically their race politics when I get the time because:

Buffy – So. California town with little-to-no People of Color?

Angel – Only representation of POC is the trope of ghetto-gang-hustler?

Firefly/Serenity – The already mentioned absence of Asian folks coupled with the complete appropriation of their culture.

29 responses to “Critiquing Joss Whedon

  1. Excellent points, pretty much all of which I agree with. I liked Buffy a lot but really love Firefly (did not like Serenity), and it drives me crazy that it would have been so easy to include an actual layer of Han Chinese characters, especially in positions of authority and wealth to reflect the implications of the world building.

    Just a note about this:

    First of all I will never understand why men who choose to treat women decently get a fucking medal, that should just be par for the course.

    You’re completely right, of course. But — and this isn’t even disagreeing with your point — as a woman who just turned 50 and still remembers the standard line of the 1970s, this is *still* refreshing on those all too few times I come across it. When, forex, many hot new epic fantasy writers — young men who likely self identify as feminists — are writing epic fantasy that still doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, Joss Whedon continues to win points.

  2. Naamen, have you seen Dark Angel?! It has kickass women of color, including an out and proud black lesbian named Cindy. Three of the five main characters are people of color and Cindy’s sexuality isn’t a big deal at all.

    There’s GREAT moment where Cindy is held captive by some villains, who demand that she get on the phone with Max and lead her gal pal into a trap. They warn her that they’ll KNOW if she tries anything sneaky. So she gets on the phone, which they’ve tapped, and calls Max. Cindy immediately tells Max about the sexy guys she met, and that the two of them definitely have to go on a double date. Max plays along, though she knows something is totally wrong, as Cindy is not bisexual in the least ;). Max swoops in, saves the day, but almost dies, except for Cindy ultimately saving her. A sci-fi show with women of color kicking butt and saving each other (instead of waiting for the lead man), this show was a fave of mine. Of course, all the shows I like get cancelled. Sigh.

  3. And that’s not even mentioning Dollhouse. When FOX thinks you have a problem with your female protagonist not having agency, you’re definitely in toruble.

  4. I can cut him some slack on casting traditionally hot women and putting PoC in the roles he put them in back in the 90s, simply because the network often has a very big heavy hand in casting. I mean, chances are he thought he was really revolutionary just to cast women in roles that could’ve been played by men and to cast PoC in roles that could’ve been played by whites. Sadly, that WAS revolutionary at the time, so that may be as far as his thinking process got. But I don’t know, so I prefer to say it’s unfortunate how the casting occurred, whoever’s fault that may be.

    Now, your criticism of his story elements is bang-on, and with the exception of Tara’s death (which *could* have been called for by the network, I have no idea), it’s hard to imagine the network was micro-managing those things. I.E., I can’t hear the network saying, “Let’s demonstrate that all women fall apart without men!” It’s more likely such elements are coming from a place of unconscious bias that Whedon and 90% of Americans share. And that’s what makes it so interesting to discuss his work – he’s like that person who just discovered his workplace isn’t treating women fairly, and he wants to help, but he’s not sure how, so he takes baby steps and some of those baby steps feel heroic in the context of this horribly anti-feminist industry, but he’s also still got his own privilege getting in the way.

  5. Pingback: Joss Whedon and feminist cookies | the Hathor Legacy

  6. > the way a lot of of fans perceive Joss.

    I don’t understand this at all. I love Buffy – I think that it’s the best TV show ever made, but that doesn’t make Joss a god. Fans will do that, though.

    Pretty good points overall, I do have a few disagreements, though:

    > The destruction of Angel’s life through Cordelia’s rampant sexuality

    What are you referring to? An off-one episode? Or the Jasmine storyline? If the latter, I thought that was more the “transformation of the world through arcane magic.” Sex was not really a big part of it.

    > 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.

    Isn’t this a bit, I don’t know, educationist, for lack of a better word? It’s not as if Gunn was stupid at the beginning – he was always very smart. The mystical intervention was just to increase his knowledge – I thought that one of the major themes of that story was that he didn’t really need it – that it didn’t really help and, in fact, only caused problems.

    The no-Asian-characters-in-Firefly really bothers me, though.

  7. Wow this is a kickass post. I haven’t watched Buffy (largely for the reasons you mentioned, and the “girl power” stuff), but what I have heard of the show from family members fits in nicely with your critique.

    Why is it so difficult to find good entertainment that includes strong women/feminism *and* POC? (Oh, that’s right… because every time someone does write about POC Hollywood whitens them)

    Also I’m in agreement with the point about cookies — but I think Kate’s right, it can be so refreshing to find someone who thinks that *gasp* — women can be strong characters. It tends to make me very forgiving.

  8. As I said over at Hathor Legacy, lots of cookies to you for going into exactly my discontent with both sides of the Whedon issue. It’s good to hear about being in between.

  9. Kate
    I understand your point and actually feel the same way. There are some shows and books I like that I know are problematic but the reason I watch is that they actually have women talking to each other about stuff. Female friendship is something we rarely see on screen unless it revolves around getting/keeping a man as if that’s all women can care/talk about and in that context Joss really did it well.

  10. Tommy-
    I LOVE Dark Angel, own both seasons and wish there had been more because they were getting into really interesting territory about claiming your own space and families of your own making and seperatism.

    Original Cindy is just awesome, no other way to say it. An openly lesbian WOC in a sci-fi show who doesn’t die at the end and kicks ass? When have we seen that before on screen? ANd more importantly will we ever see it again?

    Ryuutchi-
    Seriously? That’s why Dollhouse got delayed? Duuuude, that’s just sad.

  11. Jennifer-
    I don’t think I saw his casting as revolutionary at all in terms of race at least until we got to Firefly. I mean in Buffy POC showed up and were horribly stereotypical (Kendra) or horrible evil (Trick) and then died horribly – nothing new there. And then in Angel we have “the thug” Gunn and really that’s nothing new at all.
    In Fireefly yes I agree I like that there are POC I just wish there had been Chinese in it.

    he’s like that person who just discovered his workplace isn’t treating women fairly, and he wants to help, but he’s not sure how, so he takes baby steps and some of those baby steps feel heroic in the context of this horribly anti-feminist industry, but he’s also still got his own privilege getting in the way.
    That’s exactly it! Yeah it’s great that he’s doing this I just do not understand the fans who refuse to criticize him because in the context of television and sci-fi television he did some great things around (certain types of) women but he’s far from being the be all and end all.

  12. Brianna-
    When I say Cordelia’s sexuality I’m not just talking about the sex but the whole way the thing was portrayed. Cordelia was very much shoved into a betraying-woman-who-brings-about-downfall stereotype. I mean she is about to meet up wioth Angel so they can proclaim their love and then has no memeory sleeps with his son and proceeds to bring Jasmine into the world and ruin his life in a way and lead him to Wolfram & Hart.
    As for Gunn I think he’s very much showed as “street smatrt” which is de riguer for black characters, “Oh they might not be college smart they’re “street smart” and it becomes a droning buzz of black people can’t be any kind of smart but street smart. I think they could have easily thrown in backstory of Gunn being close to getting his law degree already or taking night classes or something. The whole magical thing irked me all to hell because no one else underwent anything similar to it – Angel fell into being a CEO, Lorne worked with entertainment, Wesley with his books, Fred with her science – none of them needed magical enhancement but the black man.
    Taken by themselves neither of these instance are that bad but taking then in context of the lexicon of female and POC characters you can see where Joss fell back on stereotypes and trope a lot.

  13. Ico-
    I would say if you get the chance watch a little BUffy ’cause it really is an interesting show with characters that grow and change but yeah there are some thigns that irk me so much about it. Number one being the almost complete whiteness (excepting Season 7 when my friends and I are convince forced integration took place) of the main adn supporting casts.

    Plus Joss falls into “God so many problems but look at what he’s doing with this female character – she actually gets an arc and development AWESOME!” and you forgive him a lot in the show because of it. I mean I forgive him a lot so I have no problem with that it’s the whole “No! He is a feminist! We may never critique Joss!” that annoys me.

  14. Bene-
    Thanks a lot!

  15. Pingback: In Which We Are Finally Not Jossed « feminism + fandom = attitude problem

  16. Awesome post, naamen. I’ve tried to explain my issues with Whedon to friends who are rabid fans, and it’s always a bit of an uphill struggle.

  17. “I mean I forgive him a lot so I have no problem with that it’s the whole “No! He is a feminist! We may never critique Joss!” that annoys me.”

    Ah, I see, gotcha.

    My sister is a fan of Whedon. She is always starved for good entertainment with memorable female characters, so she’s really delighted with a lot of the stuff he does. Not Buffy so much — but she loves Firefly. Really loves it. I haven’t seen it yet, but most of what I have heard about it has been raves about how awesome it is, so it’s on my list for sure. :)

  18. Hey,

    I just discovered this post and wanted to mention that I once did a university essay on Firefly: “More than just a flavor – Asian characters on Joss Whedon’s ‘Firefly'”.

    I’m German, but as you can see from the title, the thing is written in English. I basically started from a very disappointed point of view, and in the end I still think there could have been more prominent Asian characters on the show, but I don’t see it as bad as I did before I wrote the essay.

    If you’re interested: http://www.p-pricken.de/uni/fireflyasians.zip

  19. Oh, and on the real topic: I pretty much agree. Buffy is a great show and it has great female characters. If you know George RR Martin, he likes to say when writing female characters, he just tries to write a good character, gender being secondary. I sometimes think the Mutant Enemy staff doesn’t do that as much, instead writing characters with some gender stereotypes attached. And yes, Martin has his own kinds of problems, especially lately.

    On the other hand, Giles flipped out when Angel killed his girlfriend (and didn’t go Dark Giles mostly because he didn’t have Willows S6 power), Spike is the epitome of the lovesick puppy (at least at the beginning and up until after S5) and Xander did a spell to hurt Cordelia when she broke it off the first time. I admit the reactions weren’t the same, though.

    Finally, I think a lot of these developments happen simply because the writing staff meeting tries to come up with stories. “Wouldn’t it be cool if Anya became a demon again?” / “Okay, we need to make Buffy sad.” / “What if Willow was the bad guy this season?” and then trying to find a way to engineer that. I’m not sure that changes anything, though.

    As to Angel S4, I think Cordelia slept with Connor and used that to manipulate him, she kissed the big rocky demon beast, she offered herself to Angelus and she penetrated Lilah’s wonderful throat (the worst of her deeds), all while being pregnant and before bearing the demon child to and all demon childs. So sexuality does play a role there.

    And now I think I’ll subscribe to this blog. I came for Genius, stayed for Whedon and now it’s your responsiblity to get rid of me again.

  20. Naamen, have you checked out True Blood? While watching it, I couldn’t help but think of how utterly different it was from Buffy, despite both having blonde female protagonists and vampires, due to True Blood’s inclusion of people of color, poor people, and LGBT people.

  21. QoT-
    Thanks. It is really hard to critique him around his more rabid fans where I finally just have to throw my hands up and walk away.

  22. Patrick-
    Thanks for the link I’ll definitely check the essay out. It sounds really interesting!

    I was just talking about Joss and women today with one of my roommates and we were saying it’s funny because a lot of the people who were under Whedon in his shows actually turned out to write women characters much better female characters than he did. Tim Minear and his Wonderfalls episodes just to name one.

    I think that the men did experience grief in the series but like you said it was in a very different way. Xander and Giles especially seemed to experience pain almost as a one-shot while the pain of Buffy, Willow, Cordelia, Faith, Tara etc. was epic and seemed focus on to such a degree that it almost became fetishized. It was almost “Let’s see how long and how hard we can make these girls hurt for.”

    And thanks for subscribing! I’ve slowed down posting because of grad school but I’m still posting at least once a week.

  23. Anonymous-
    True Blood is a show I’ve been meaning to check out but I’m torn between just watching it or trying to read the books first – which is something I always try and do first but I don’t really have the time because of school. So yeah I think I’m just gonna have to take the plunge and watch the show because a lot of my friends have been raving about it.

  24. Browser hickup listed me as “Anonymous” up there, but yeah, definitely make an exception and check this show out. There’s actually a scene where you clearly meet a gay vampire, which is nice, because with all the metaphoric vampires = queers, it’s nice to see that the identities are NOT mutually exclusive. Plus, it’s nice to see that the show not only has plenty of POC main stars, there are also plenty of POC guest stars as well (including one seriously FINE Latino in short shorts).

  25. Naamen, if you do read the Charlaine Harris books that are the basis for True Blood, please post about them! I actually thought they were MUCH worse on the race & homophobia front than ever BtVS was (and that’s saying something), but I’d love to hear a second opinion. Plus you can knock off the first book in a day.

    Racialicious has a great discussion of the race problems on True Blood going right now…

  26. Tommy –
    Okay you’ve totally convinced me to break me rule. I’m going to try and make time this weekend or at least fairly soon to watch the show

  27. Zahra –
    Interesting because I’ve heard people say that and the opposite that’s one of the reasons I want to read the books and see how I feel about them. Have you watched the adaptation yet? Do you think they fixed soem of the problems you had with the books? or are they worse?

  28. Pingback: SpaceWesterns.com Sideshow › 22nd Carnival of Feminist Science Fiction – Part I

  29. Excellent and reasoned points…and now I may have to watch Dark Angel.

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