Whedon vs. Whedon

March 19, 2009

Joss Whedon the feminist, vs. Joss Whedon the writer, director, creator.

There are a lot of folks out there who consistently try to judge Joss Whedon’s television shows through a very strict feminist lens because he’s a professed feminist and sometimes writes strong female characters. On one hand, I think discussion of feminist issues is always a good thing. On the other hand, I’m insanely bored with people criticizing Mr. Whedon because the women in his shows aren’t all strong, or always strong and don’t always win and aren’t always right.

It doesn’t seem to matter that he writes television where the women are often very strong, win a good portion of the time and are very frequently right. It also doesn’t matter that who or what a person is in real life doesn’t always translate directly into their art. Or that in real life even strong women aren’t always strong or right or win every battle, or are even always happy.

It seems to me that balancing a feminist sensibility with a desire to write a show that enough people will watch and enjoy to keep it on the air has got to be a nearly impossible task.

What I think Mr. Whedon does better than most television writers is write female characters who are real and have dimension. They’re not just eye candy, they don’t just serve a single purpose and they’re not cookie cutter or stereotypes. Buffy, Anya, Faith, Willow, Tara, Zoe, River, Kaylee, Cordelia and Fred (to name a few) all had depth. None of them were perfect. They all had flaws, pain and weakness. Some had more flaws, more pain or greater weaknesses than others. But to be fair, Mr. Whedon’s male characters are certainly no less flawed, pained or burdened with weaknesses than are his female characters.

I think many of Mr. Whedon’s critics think that because he is a professed feminist who supports Equality Now and has been honored by them, and because he enjoys writing strong female characters, that somehow every female character he writes should fit some sort of feminist ideal. I think that’s a ridiculous expectation and would most likely result in colossally boring television.

Now Dollhouse comes along, and just a few episodes in some feminists are crying foul, or at least criticizing the show from a feminist standpoint. Again, I always think that discussion of feminist issues is good, and Dollhouse certainly has some people talking, but I really think it’s too soon to judge the show and I think some of the judgments being made are unfair and over the top.

I recently followed a link from Whedonesque to a pod cast criticizing Dollhouse/Joss Whedon where one of the critics admits that she hasn’t even watched the show. That was the point where I turned the pod cast off.

I also happened across a blog post where the writer stated that all five episodes thus far have included sexual violence. (I apologize for not providing the link, but I didn’t save it and can’t recall how I found it.) There has been violence in all of the eps thus far, and since our heroine is a woman and the bad guys thus far have been… well… guys, naturally some of that violence has been between male and female characters, but I wouldn’t define it all as sexual in nature or even as having sexual components or overtones. Some of it, yes, but not all and certainly not episode 5, True Believer.

Dollhouse is a slow starter and I’m sure that a lot of viewers are far too impatient to stick it out until it really takes off. Some others are disappointed because Dollhouse doesn’t have the comedy element that Mr. Whedon’s previous shows have had.

I think that Dollhouse is a complex show with a lot of potential and I plan to keep watching and see where it goes, for as long as Fox keeps it on the air. And to be honest, I’m not sure how I could judge the show from a feminist standpoint, even if I wanted to. The starring actress has played a minimum of two different characters per episode and not all of those women can be strong, though many of them have been. They certainly cannot have the same depth that I appreciate in Mr. Whedon’s other female characters, and Echo (the recurring personality) specifically does not have depth, being a rather childlike, suggestible and easily controlled base personality.

Right now, what I know is that the show keeps me more interested with each new episode and that I want to see what happens next. I think it will be worth revisiting this discussion after a few more episodes, when we have a better idea of what the heck is going on, but for now I think it’s best to sit back, watch the show unfold and eat some popcorn.

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8 Responses to “Whedon vs. Whedon”

  1. ubuntucat Says:

    I’ve watched a few episodes of Dollhouse. I don’t think Echo will be the next poster-woman for feminism, but the show isn’t nearly as bad on the sexism front as most primetime fare (House, Lie to Me).

    I can understand where a lot of the feminist kneejerk response has come from, though, since the marketing of the show was over-the-top skin-selling (Eliza Dushku… naked) and made the show seem to be essentially about a robot prostitute.

  2. 42ndwavefeminist Says:

    Hi ubuntucat!

    To be honest, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the marketing and I’m not sure how much say Joss Whedon has in that, either. But from a marketing department perspective, naked Eliza Dushku probably seems like a great idea.

    But you’re right. Echo probably won’t be the next feminist poster woman, but I also don’t think she has to be.


  3. […] has been confusing to many people. Maybe this will help? How about […]

  4. Crys T Says:

    Hi. I’ve found you via feministblogs.org and I just wanted to stop by and say, “hear, hear!” I’ve been trying not to read too much about Dollhouse because it’s not being shown here in the UK yet and I don’t want to know every detail before it is (if it ever is), but some of the feminist critiques seem to be a bit wrongheaded to me. Surely, given the premise of the programme, the threat of sexual violence would be pretty much constant to the female characters?

    Maybe it is all down to how it’s done, and until I’ve seen the episodes, I won’t understand why people are badmouthing them, but from the details that have been provided, it sounds to me as if this violence can be understood as the logical consequence of the world the characters inhabit.

    • 42ndwavefeminist Says:

      I really wish the US and UK would run shows at the same time. It would be so much nicer!

      I think you have the right idea about the premise of the show, and logical consequences, but I won’t say more since you haven’t seen it.

      I sure hope you get to see it soon!

  5. Rachel Roslin Says:

    Hi, I found this via a WordPress tag search for “Dollhouse.” 🙂

    I’m a Whedon fan, and I don’t really know what he’s doing in Dollhouse. You say, “What I think Mr. Whedon does better than most television writers is write female characters who are real and have dimension.” And I agree with that for Buffy and Firefly (I haven’t watched Angel). But I think the problem that I and other feminists have with Dollhouse is that the very premise kind of prohibits Whedon from writing female characters who are real and have dimension, since the entire point of Echo is that all her dimensions have been wiped away. If last night’s episode indicates where this show is going to go, and if Echo continues to overcome that horrific blank-slate programming, then I think the show could end up making some incredibly powerful comments on the relationships between men and women and the ways in which men often demand a sort of systemic blank-slate state of mind in women. It’s just that so far it seems like Whedon is fetishizing Echo and the other Dolls even while trying to make points about their lack of agency. It feels very weird to me.

    I still plan to continue watching it; I want to know where it goes. But I just wanted to point out that I am one feminist who does watch the show every week, and I want Whedon to succeed, yet I’m still not sure he’s doing so.

    I’ve posted reviews of each episode on my blog, if you’re interested.

  6. 42ndwavefeminist Says:

    What I got out of last night’s ep was consent. I think this show is going to be exploring issues of consent at all levels, from Sierra’s basic inability to give consent in her doll-state, to whether or not the consent the programmed actives give while on an assignment can actually even be considered consent, to the initial consent to become a doll in the first place. I can’t think of any other show, ever, that has delved into this issue in the way I think we’re getting into it here. I’m very excited to see where it goes and will probably post a full post about it later.

    I don’t think Whedon is fetishizing Echo, but I can see where it really does come across that way. And I absolutely understand where you’re coming from. I think part of the weirdness we’re all feeling is just that it’s early in the show yet and the writing team is just getting their legs under them, really. But I tend to be very forgiving with scifi shows in general, and Whedon shows in particular.

    I’m glad you’re still watching and I’ll stop by to check out your reviews. 😀


  7. […] between characters flaws and a character who’s just written poorly. To quote from the blog 42nd Wave Feminist: I think many of Mr. Whedon’s critics think that because he is a professed feminist who supports […]


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