Joss Whedon’s Women. (Or: Why I’m tired of giving a pass on feminism.)

Dear Joss:

(I hope I can call you Joss, instead of Mr. Whedon.  You promote a jocular familiarity with your fans that has become the standard of nerd-core, and I’d like to think that you wouldn’t mind.  I don’t know if you’ll ever read this, but I’m hoping if you do that it’s okay.)

I have a question for you.  It’s probably not a question you get very often, but it’s one that’s very important to me.  When did you give up on strong women characters?  When did you decide that behind the hand, hipster-ironic sexism was okay with you?  (Okay, I admit, that’s two questions.)

You started off great.  Ellen Ripley was a woman I could get behind.  Maybe she was a product of her time, but she represented a great many things that I, as a woman, wanted to see in my stories.  She helped me address the body horror of pregnancy (and, FWIW, I am not ever having children because part of my dealing with it was deciding I wasn’t strong enough to go there).

You gave me Original Buffy.  She was bad-ass and yet vulnerable, confused and yet purposeful.  She was growing up, without knowing what that was going to mean, but instead of getting lost in some sort of diet fad, teen craziness, she explored the confusion of being a highschooler by learning what it meant to slay vampires.  And she looked good doing it, even if Kristy Swanson’s hair choices are now…shall we say…regrettable.

Then…TV Buffy happened, and things started falling apart.  I don’t blame you for this, at least not entirely.  I don’t think sex positivism without consequences would ever have gotten through Hollywood in a teen show in the 90s, so I get why Angel had to lose his soul, and Faith had to be an amoral crazy girl, ripped right from Girl, Interrupted and updated to the millenials.  I don’t love it, but I can forgive it.  After all, we had Willow, and she was totally awesome…

Until being a lesbian drove her crazy.  Ahem.  Maybe we’ll skip over that.

I’m going to take a pass on Angel, because I never watched it, and skip right to Firefly.  We got Kaylee, who really just dreamed of being a pretty pretty princess.  Well, fair enough, so do I, and her problems with Simon look a lot like some of my relationships.  And we had Inara, the magical sex worker who heals you with her ladybits.  You don’t see something problematic there?  Because I’m seeing a real “let’s turn the whore into a madonna” thing, without addressing that yes, she is a sex worker, and yes, there are emotional and social complications from that.

It’s a sci-fi utopia you say?  Where China became the dominant power?  Then where were all the Asians in the casting?  (Note: I’m a white girl, or at least I pass for one, so I’m not sure I can really address all your messed up colonialism in that show.  I’m aware of it, but probably not the best one to speak on it.)

Then we get Dollhouse.  Where the women have literally become props for other people’s projections and fantasies.  Even the one character I wanted to identify with broke my heart, in the end, because Mellie, too, was a Doll.  Can you understand how hurtful it is to think you see your truths reflected in a story and then find out that, no, in the end you are created to appeal to a man?  That show was full of little jabs, and tiny cuts, and by episode six I couldn’t watch any more because I didn’t want to see a show that Joss “Strong Women” Whedon had made about his own id, and the manic pixie dream girls he wanted to rescue from themselves.

In Dr. Horrible two men (who are both conventionally good looking) play a literal tug-of-war out over a woman.  Did I laugh at “This is the hammer?”  Sure.  But part of me wondered what Capt. Hammer’s genitals had to do with the moral of the bad guy really being emotional and having a complex inner life.  It was, ultimately, a boy’s story with no place for me in it.  (And that’s fine.  I’ve been carving out my own place in boys’ stories for a while, I’m pretty used to it now and I have a finely honed chisel.)

…all of this brings me to The Avengers.  It was, I thought, a pretty entertaining movie.  The dialogue was snappy, and I enjoyed the plot by and large.  But where were the women?  Jane Foster gets sent away so she won’t be in harm’s way (even though she probably would have known how to shut that gateway down long before all those things destroyed midtown), Pepper is relegated to a plane and 12% of the credit…and Natasha.  Oh Natasha.

See.  I’m a feisty redhead.  I love Natasha, and I thought the interrogation scene was rather splendid!  Women have, in the past, used men’s underestimation of them for all kinds of things.  And it was clear that Coulson took her seriously.  So why, why was the only person she had any kind of emotional moment with Barton?  But that wasn’t even the worst.

The worst was your hipster-ironic, laugh behind your hand because you put it in the mouth of the bad guy seixst dialogue.  You used the words “mewling quim” so your audience wouldn’t catch on that what Loki was really calling Natasha was a “pathetic c**t.”  And that, Joss…that hurt a lot.  It felt like every time a nerd guy has told me “girls suck, but not you, you’re special.”  It hurt like every time a geek guy has told me, “you’re really smart, but most girls wouldn’t understand what I’m talking about.”  It hurt like every single time I was told there was a place at the table for me, and then there wasn’t, because the boys put up a big no girls allowed sign, and told me that it wasn’t personal but if they let me in they’d have to let those other girls in too.

That was a sexist piece of dialogue, on top of a recent history of sexism, and I don’t really know what to say to you anymore.  I want the old days back, women like Ripley and original Buffy.  And I’m tired of giving you a pass because your women are strong on the surface.  A pretty veneer isn’t enough any more.  I need substance.  I need women who have emotions and kick ass.  I need women who reflect me.  I need women who tell stories about more than what boys project on them.

So.  I guess what I’m saying is, if you want to keep writing stories for boys I won’t begrudge you, but I will start looking elsewhere for stuff that says I have a place at the table.  I hear Chuck Wendig has a couple of awesome strong ladies, like Miriam Black and Atlanta Burns.  If, however, you want to get back to doing real feminist work, give me a call.  I’d love to be able to love you again.

– Sweet Pavement

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10 thoughts on “Joss Whedon’s Women. (Or: Why I’m tired of giving a pass on feminism.)

  1. Anonymous says:

    I can see where you are coming from, but I want to address one point that doesn’t jive with me.

    You take offense to Loki calling Natasha a “mewling quim.” And attribute that offense to Whedon, rather than the character. That doesn’t make sense to me. Whedon wasn’t calling her that. Loki was.

    As a writer, sometimes we have to write things even we detest. We do that in order to portray the character. To get across aspects of a character’s personality. Sometimes it isn’t pretty.

    Do we attribute Hannibal Lecture’s penchant for human flesh to the author? No. We don’t. So how could we attribute that line to Whedon?

    You also say, “laugh behind your hand because you put it in the mouth of the bad guy seixst dialogue. ” Are you saying that Whedon was using Loki as a sock puppet? That you feel Whedon would want to say this, but used Loki instead? Seems rather uncharacteristic of the man, if that is the case.

    Just wanted to mention those points.

  2. Rowan Cota says:

    Jeffrey:

    In this case I attribute it to Whedon because, as I have said in other conversations on this topic, there are ancient Norse insults which Loki would be much more likely (IMHO) to use. There’s one that literally means unperson, and I would think he would be a lot more likely to sling that at someone than an insult based on gender. “Mewling quim” would have made more sense to me if he were talking to Sif, someone who is at least maybe on his level since she’s also a god. But in insulting a human and choosing a gendered insult, it reads to me from a critical standpoint as though the script-writer (who may not have been Whedon, I don’t know off-hand) was trying to sneak in a juvenile insult and see if he could get it past the censors.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Keep in mind who these characters are. Loki is a master manipulator. Black Widow is a strong woman. He used that term in an attempt to subvert the exterior she had constructed. It was a directed attack at her psyche, in a very calculated move. She was sobbing — so he believed — and he went in for the kill.

    Unfortunately, Black Widow bested him at his own game. Turned it on him and got the information the team needed. She was the only one that was going to get it from him, she knew it, and took the initiative.

    No man asked her to go do it. She saw the opportunity and took it.

    I find that to be a very strong woman indeed.

    All I’m asking is that we look at the characters in depth and see what is being played in the subtext, before jumping to conclusions.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I agree, both with the post and your clarification. It’s too easy to say “but the bad guy said it, so it’s not fair to say the writer/creator is implicated, because he’s not condoning it”.

    In general I am suspicious when “bad” characters display “bad” traits, because they are usually so overt that I think we’re supposed to see them as “bad” as opposed to the goodies’ “goodness”. So, for example, Loki can be abusively misogynistic and we go “yup, he’s a baddie”, leaving other characters to be only subtly sexist (Tony Stark?), meaning that we associate that with “goodness”. It often works in a similar way with racism – “bad” characters show how “bad” they are by being overtly racist, which makes the more subtle or ‘benign’ racism/sexism look reasonable and acceptable in comparison.

    Also, yeah, it just made me mad that what they clearly wanted to say was “c**t” so they found a ‘clever’ way to sneak it in without actually getting in trouble. Congratulations.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Hi Rowan, thanks for the interesting and provocative post. I haven’t seen Avengers and so can’t comment on it, but I would like to talk about a couple of your ancillary points.

    First, I feel that “being a lesbian drove Willow crazy” is a gross mischaracterization of that character’s arc. I also thought Faith was more complex and sympathetic than you’re giving her credit for. I note your critique of Firefly omits Zoe entirely. Inara is kind of a gray area for me too, although I think Joss tried to be more sex-positive in Firefly, even if it wasn’t a big leap forward.

    Joss does tend to make his villains anti-feminist quite a bit (see: “Heart of Gold,” Angel losing his soul, etc.), and so it’s not surprising to see him put sexist insults in the mouth of a despicable character. I guess personally, I don’t feel that’s an indictment of his feminism, because most of the time those words tend to come from characters who embody everything he despises.

    I do agree that we need more “women who have emotions and kick ass” — I think that when it comes to female characters, too many writers now confuse violence with strength and vulnerability with weakness.

    Invincible, emotionless characters are boring no matter what their gender — that was one of the big problems I had with Dollhouse. I felt Joss created a bunch of characters that were impossible for anyone to relate to, and the few people with genuine humanity are despicable. I think Whedon was trying to create some kind of dystopic “Handmaid’s Tale” type story, but I found it too horrifying to be entertaining. But I think it was intended to be so — Dollhouse felt to me like a mirror held up to our society, saying “this is our future if we continue down this path of objectifying women for men’s pleasure.”

    Thanks for the post and the opportunity to comment.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I disagree with the ‘being a lesbian drove her crazy’ thing. Tara was mostly what kept her sane, IMO.

    I think the biggest problem was Xander being a self-centered moralizing asshole self-insert character, who was positioned by the plot as some sort of voice of reason. Darla pointed out that when one thinks of Xander out of context its a mostly positive seeming character, but often when you think of him in specific contexts… Asshole.

    I think Dollhouse might have been well intentioned on some level. But it really really needed more of a critical feminist perspective to succeed. I’m not disagreeing really, just musing out loud.

    Anyway. I agree, basically 🙂

  7. Anonymous says:

    Isn’t “mewling quim” so precisely shocking because of its sexist content? Certainly it moves Loki’s villainy into a realm that asks us to think of him in (gender-) political terms. It’s surely just a slur to claim that Joss Whedon and Loki’s attitudes align. We’re talking about the villain here.

    (N.B. You should definitely watch Dollhouse again. It should take seconds to notice that Joss Whedon is attempting a critique of all that you accuse him of here. . . Whether he’s successful is open to question!)

  8. Anonymous says:

    My third paragraph is referring to Dollhouse, in case its not obvious. I meant to insert ‘of Dollhouse’ after ‘premise’ in the first sentence, but somehow lost it while editing.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I also don’t see why you had an issue with “mewling quim” as an insult and equating it to Joss having said it himself self-righteously. Joss wrote all of this as Loki is the villain, the villain insulted the hero, the hero one-ups the villain and gets information purely through wit, villain is left looking stupid. Joss punished Loki for underestimating and insulting Black Widow. Where are you upset at this?

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