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.