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June 04 2010

'Dealing with the F-Word' - Joss Whedon as a radical feminist. This Smart Pop Books essay is taken from "The Psychology of Joss Whedon" which was published in December 2007.

I love that this essay talks about male characters as examples of feminism in Joss' works too. So many writings on the topic focus on Buffy and River and Willow and Zoe. Not sure I agree that with the phrasing "Both Cordelia and Zoe use sexuality as part of their strength," just because it teeters on the edge of "use feminine wiles to get what you want," but I think I get the point anyway (they don't let the fact that they have the vulnerabilities that go with "feminine" traits get in the way of the fact that they also have "masculine" traits, to use the vernacular of the essay)
I read the whole essay. No argument here. I hope it gets read a lot because it explains better than I can what is most valuable about Joss's work: his characters are people, actual and whole.
I liked this, but does anyone else get annoyed when they refer to Joss by his first name in a professional essay? Or is that just me?
Really excellent essay. One thing is very depressing: "Given the controversial, even threatening, nature of his work ....."

I know that I live in a bit of a bubble. The part of Hawaii where I live is "counter culture", for lack of a better term, in the extreme.
Every woman I'm close to is a radical feminist (as described so succinctly in this essay). The men that we're involved with, on whatever level, take this completely for granted. Because the ones who don't, long ago ran like hell in a different direction.
There is some crossover with more traditional types, but it's all workplace stuff. And like everyone, I have "acquaintances", but they are in a whole other category from close friends. And even in that expanded circle, there isn't a single person whom I would define as actually sexist.
My small, tight circle of family and close friends, both female and male, are distinctly and offhandedly feminist. I guess I'm really lucky.

So it's always jarring and depressing to be reminded that the radical feminist nature of Joss's work is still considered controversial and even threatening.


[ edited by Shey on 2010-06-04 13:48 ]
This is an excellent essay, and I think that online blogs have a tendency to be more informal (hence the first name) unlike formal scholarly essays. I really liked everything about it.
It's a good essay but it would be interested to find out if the author intends to update it with Joss' post 2007 material.
I thought it was a relatively good essay but I really don't think, on balance, that there is all good rad fem stuff in Joss' work.

More so with the male stuff. For example:

As part of this circumscribed ideal, adult men do not cultivate intimate friendships with other men, but instead rely primarily on their female romantic partners and friends for companionship and support.

I can't think of one single example in any of Joss's shows where this kind of intimate male friendship occurs. The male leads, Spike, Angel, Mal, Paul Ballard, even Xander. They all rely on women for emotional support or conversation.

And of all the men in the Whedonverse who might be allowed to express emotions or build successful relationships, none of them do this without in some respoect solidifying their masculinity first (whether that be through strength and fighting skill, techinical abilities, masculine nerdiness, intelligence or leadership abilities). Xander is the only one who even comes close to not being allowed to establish a traditional masculinity.

I also think the success element of this 'male harness' is wrongly portrayed in the essay. True, there is a clear rejection of capitalistic version of success as stated, but no man is actually unsuccessful in their chosen field. The only example I can think of here is Andrew who is the one failed male, and he is a figure of ridicule for it (as well as for other non-masculine traits). Even Xander is a success in his chosen field, which is as a good friend.
I can't think of one single example in any of Joss's shows where this kind of intimate male friendship occurs.

Angel and Wesley?
I agree with Simon, I thought that Angel had pretty close relationships with both Doyle and Wesley, and I felt that Mal had a very close relationship with Book. Of course with so many strong female characters it isn't surprising that many of the closest friendships involved those female characters.
You could make a case for Boyd and Topher. They did have a very friendly working relationship for a while.
Angel and Wesley were close friends in the sense the author means I think, Angel and Spike had a more traditionally male (in the essay sense) friendship which was built around competition and used verbal (even physical) combativeness to maintain a "proper" distance.

...and I think that online blogs have a tendency to be more informal (hence the first name) unlike formal scholarly essays.

This isn't a blog post embers it's from a book of essays originally published a couple of years ago (though it's from the Smart Pops series so not as formal as an academic paper). Personally 'Joss' does strike me as a bit informal for professionally published material but it's not a big thing.

Very well written, interesting essay. It cherry picks a bit e.g. can we really say that Whedonverse men are all mentally healthy and well-adjusted (many of them seemed to have pretty big hang-ups to me, the resolution of which often has absolutely nothing to do with gender equality) ? And was Giles really perfectly OK with losing his position as librarian and Watcher (his arc in season 4 seemed to me in large part about coming to terms with no longer being "the provider" of the Scooby family) ?

It also seems to view the traditional masculine type slightly simplistically (hewing to the view that since the way women have been treated by traditional masculinity is wrong and deeply unfair therefore traditional masculinity MUST be wrong in every single way and so any man who treats women equally MUST have few if any traditionally masculine qualities). For instance, leaving your sister to be tortured by a secret organisation within an apparently corrupt state apparatus wouldn't in any way be adhering to a traditional male role (and therefore not doing so isn't a sign of not adhering to that role). As the essay mentions itself, the traditional male may not show emotions but he certainly feels them (particularly anger and affront) and that aside, not providing for and protecting your family is a much bigger transgression of that role than e.g. crying in front of people (IMO).

Not totally convinced by the "successful male characters are baddies" thing either (I mean it's broadly true, I just think it's more to do with a ragtag band of outsiders vs The Man than it is to do with gender though I guess Joss might be saying that The Man only happens with a society that's unequal along gender lines i.e. if men and women shared power we wouldn't have corporations that diminish and devalue the individual. I don't believe that personally BTW but Joss might, i'm not inside his head ;).

I also don't think Zoe uses her sexuality in any particularly deliberate fashion - she doesn't deny it, it's part of her, just like being tough and ruthless are but she also doesn't use it, it just is (i.e. she sees herself as equal and acts that way).

As I say though, nicely written, stimulating read.

Even Xander is a success in his chosen field, which is as a good friend.

More prosaically in fact, Xander finds his niche in construction (is there a more traditionally masculine job ?) and meets with great success (becoming foreman etc.) though in doing so he apparently conforms with traditional masculinity (when Buffy temps at his site for instance he tells her not to show the other guys up with her superior strength).
Book and Jayne had that gym male-bonding thing going on...
I can't but help wonder If the author would feel quite the same way after reading season 8?
Could go either way, I reckon.
As I was reading this I couldn't help but think about the feminist fail of Season 8. In the past I would have eaten this essay up like candy. But everything has changed now, and it makes me sad.
Lord, I remember reading this when it first came out and bemoaning how hyperbolic its language was. I get it; the author just loves Joss and how he treats feminism. But comments such as "While Joss’s vision for women does personify radical ideals, it is his depiction of men that is truly revolutionary" are just so beyond the pale. I wonder if the author understands what the word "revolutionary" means? That it cannot be modifed by the word "truly." Is there something we can point to that's "falsely revolutionary?" The use here is an intensifier, because it is not enough to be revolutionary, if you are Joss, you have to be truly revolutionary (you have to be more perfect!) to distinguish you from all those other revolutionaries out there. So, Joss gives men some feminine characterstics, and wow, that's never been done before, anywhere, ever!!!!

It's an interesting article, no question, and it makes some good points, but it is buried under tons of this hyperbole, and it reads as if an academic naife has written it, where everything is in superlatives in order to strengthen the argument. Because apparently the argument is not strong enough on its own merits.
I think that's just part and parcel of the informality of the style. Strictly it's nonsensical but i'd bet we all know what's meant by "truly revolutionary" (or "genuinely revolutionary" or "really revolutionary" etc.) just like "I ain't done nothing" is bad English and illogical but still quite easily parsed.

I agree though, it's not actually revolutionary anyway (partly because it'd been done before and partly because TV portrayals of men and women haven't undergone revolutionary changes since as far as I can see).
I think it's fascinating to hear constantly about the feminist fail of S8, but rarely the feminist fail present in previous (televisual) seasons.
ardentdelerium, I wrote a just-for-fun essay which discussed Cordelia's sexuality, and how the purely-manipulative side was usually presented as a negative. In AtS S4, the fact that Cordelia starts manipulating Connor with sex is the first sign that she's evil. In "You're Welcome," Cordy's sex appeal is shown mostly through her clothing, but there's no other mention made of it -- her sexuality is acknowledged but not dominant.

zeitgeist, what fails are you thinking of?
Well, I don't have a lot of time to get discuss-y, but I've heard it said that:

The show’s rebellion against the patriarchy is built on a patriarchal foundation that, consciously or not, undermines many of the themes the show wanted us to think we were seeing. As strong as she is, Buffy’s girl power is unplugged time and again by hot guys with weird hair.

For example - also some people might say that having a "Watcher" keeping an eye on our girl superhero is stating that it's fine so long as a father figure is there to keep a lid on things. Also, her powers were given to her by old dudes. Some folks would even say that Chosen isn't very feminist because it implies (they would say) that real world equality isn't possible unless you have super powers. Just as a starting point. *stir*

[ edited by zeitgeist on 2010-06-04 17:55 ]
I dunno, hindsight's 20/20 but Giles as Watcher sure feels like he was there mainly so that Buffy could eventually grow to a point where she didn't need him (and we could watch her do so) - he's kind of a patriarch that "sees the light" whereas the rest of the Watcher's Council don't (and meet a sticky end). 'Angel' has some questions to answer though IMO like the passivity of the female character deaths or the way pregnancy/reproduction is often portrayed as negative (or at least problematic). And 'Dollhouse' is another can of kettles altogether ;).

...I wrote a just-for-fun essay which discussed Cordelia's sexuality, and how the purely-manipulative side was usually presented as a negative.

Being manipulative is a negative though (particularly when it's, for instance, a mature woman manipulating a sexually inexperienced teenager) so how else could it be presented ? Bad people do bad things, that's how we know they're bad (in fiction).
Bad people do bad things, that's how we know they're bad (in fiction).

Also the maniacal laughter, wearing of black hats and twirling of mustaches is helpful signaling.
Re: the idea that Joss doesn't portray male friendships - I think Angel and Spike's relatonship was fairly well developed. Sure they started out together because of women but in the end they were brothers....Gunn and Wesley were good friends until Fred came between them. Angel and Doyle were friends.....Jayne and Book worked out together - Mal sought Books advice in Serenity...
Uh oh.

*self-consciously stops twirling mustache and laughing maniacally*
*takes off black hat.*



[ edited by zeitgeist on 2010-06-04 20:53 ]
The nerds were certainly a disturbing take on male bonding, though not without nuance. Weak men gone bad while attempting the paradigm.

[ edited by toast on 2010-06-04 21:56 ]
Toast, the nerds are an excellent example, particularly Andrew's friendship with Jonathan while in Mexico (which was genuine regardless of the whole stabbing him to death thing), AND Andrew's close friendship with Spike. It was like Andrew tried harder to actualize his male friendships than did Xander (who only talked about bonding with Riley).

Which, of course, reminds me of Riley's friendships within the Initiative, those were close male bonds. But I guess we don't want to talk about the guys (one played by Kal Penn) in 'Beer Bad', huh? lol
I think it's fascinating to hear constantly about the feminist fail of S8, but rarely the feminist fail present in previous (televisual) seasons.

Interesting. Maybe you're not looking and reading the works that do discuss this? I'm fortunate to read analysis by fans with a great interest in feminism and they have a lot to say about the televised series--in fact, it's all that they have to say about the televised series that's led to me speaking up about Season 8 (these self-same feminist fans don't even read Season 8). I think it's likely that a feminist critique is not going to be easily found in widespread circles.

There was even discussion within the past few weeks that linked to a listing of the disturbing and overwhelming trend of dub con in not only Season 8, but all of BtVS and AtS. And stories that use dub con without treating the matter with the due sensitivity it deserves definitely raises a flag in feminist waters. Then you have the vast mileage of discussion about what some would call the failed message of Chosen (the Potentials in the room get asked and make a choice, but the girls all over the world... they don't control their own fate) and the blatant use of rape metaphor to create the Slayer in Get It Done.

What I'm finding more radical is that the failures of Season 8 have led to many fans reevaluating the televised seasons and not liking what they see. Of addressing critique that they had perhaps overlooked before now. Seeing the series with new eyes.

That's not even opening the door on the feminist failure of AtS. Pregnancy destroys women's lives, hollows them out and offers them up as sacrificial lambs to the antihero. I know many feminist women who are great lovers of BtVS, but can't stand AtS for this very reason. They have a similar reaction to this the way they react to Supernatural.

One of the greatest thing Season 8 has done for discussion is bring feminist critique out into the open. Feminist critique, not just feminist laudatory exclamations, because while there is much to be praised (the strength and dimension of the female characters, episodes like Helpless) there's also much to be negatively criticized.

Finally, I think there's so much analytical criticism of Season 8 because the story continues to disconnect the average reader emotionally, constantly jettisoning you off the rollercoaster and tossing you up high. And once you have that bird's eye view, you start to take a closer look at the lay of the land. The televised series hooked readers in emotionally while the comics take "overblown storylines" to exponentially prefixey levels and lack the human component (e.g. SMG's acting) to ground it. Without that grounding in the story, it's all the more natural to analyze and reach the level of critical thinking where you do see the feminist fail.

[ edited by Emmie on 2010-06-05 01:11 ]
I meant specifically here - the quote above was from a feminist critique elsewhere. I've not had the time to read every post in our most recent two S8 discussions, so I could go there and see that very discussion. The truth is the more you deconstruct, the less likely any work is to hold up to the scrutiny of every possible interpretation.
And while I respect and enjoy reading critiques of the feminist persuasion, I find myself applying the humanist lens more often than not. The scene in "Chosen" being an example of when ordinary people make life-changing decisions. In this case, to be "strong", but I saw it go beyond merely claiming their Slayerhood. The Potentials by default were in line for this power. Power that was held out of their reach by some rules. All the empowering of Slayers did was remove those "if the universe deems you worthy" stipulations. What's theirs by birthright is theirs to take. The choice to be strong extended beyond that, for me. For one, not everyone at that battle, who died at that battle was a Slayer. Anya chose to be there. She chose to fight. She chose to be strong. So did Dawn. And Xander. And Wood. And Giles. And hey, so did Andrew. The girls who were at that battle made a choice before they got their powers. They chose to face down their fears. That's where the "strong" is. They chose and therefore controlled their own fate insofar as it was theirs to control. No Slayer is forced to fight, as no Slayer is forced to be in the Slayer army. Those that do, chose to be strong. To be connected to each other. To become their own Scooby Gang of hundreds.

As for the blatant use of rape metaphor in the creation of the Slayer, to me, it fell in line with everything we knew about Slayers up to that point. The Slayer was never strong, not in the sense I discussed before. The Slayer was a victim. She was Chosen. Handed a bloody (literally) destiny. Controlled by the Council. Most Slayers were trained from young, and if Kendra's upbringing is typical, then the training removed their sense of self. They were the Slayer, nothing more. Which is why I've always argued that just because the Slayer was physically strong didn't make the entity of the Slayer a feminist icon. That's why the show was never just called "Slayer", as the FOX execs apparently wanted to rename the show. That was missing the point. The feminist figure was the petite blond with a so-feminine-it's-kinda-ridiculously-silly name.

While I think your assessment of how S8 is making some fans reevaluate the previous seasons is fair, I'll also point out that only some fans are doing that. For me, the tone of S8 has largely stayed true to its television counterpart. Yes, there are feminist fails, if viewed from only a feminist POV, but I apply a larger lens to my viewing/reading too. I find that most of the time when a plotline is a feminist fail for some, it's a humanist yay.

For example, I've read essays that criticize the fact that Xander, a man, is the hero who saved Buffy in S1, and then Willow, and the world in S6. And when viewed from only one perspective, sure, I can see that argument. But Xander is not just male, he's also human. An utterly unremarkable human being in the grand scheme of things. The "zeppo". And therefore, it's a triumph from the humanist POV when Xander, a person completely devoid of any supernatural capability uses love and optimism to save Willow, his best friend from childhood, from committing what would amount to supernatural planeticide (yeah, I made that up).

So yes, perhaps analyzing S8 with a feminist lens will bring up its feminist fails, just as you conceded, analyzing the previous seasons with the same lens brings up the same. All I'm proposing is that perhaps only using one lens is inadequate to make a conclusive statement about the matter. The fact that BtVS is a show that requires an interdisciplinary approach to wholly appreciate it is telling. This, IMO, is why that "Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy" book is a general failure. It tries to shoehorn the show into just the different schools of philosophical thought, but when the source material draws from so many various sources, it's really hard to do any measure of shoehorning.

In conclusion, while I recognize that feminist critique is a legitimate cultural study of the text at hand, it has never been the only one that fans have applied to the matter. And for my teenage self who had a perfunctory understanding of feminism. it was the humanist values that I appreciated more. I did appreciate Buffy telling the Council to shove it on more than one occasion, just as I'm enjoying Buffy sticking it to the universe right now. Am I comfortable with the journey to this point? Nope. But I wasn't comfortable with the lows that Buffy had to go to (quite literally again) in S6. But there is no triumph without adversity. It mirrors the real-world feminist struggle. Sure, women are now allowed to work, wear pants, to a certain degree, express their sexuality, vote, run for office, etc. BUT, fact remains, women are still being paid only 70% of their equally qualified male counterparts. There is still objectification of women. There is still the belief that a woman can't do a man's job. The list goes on. Score a victory, and you move on to the next battle. That was the ending message of "Chosen". Sure, they stood victorious over the Hellmouth, but there's another in Cleveland. And as long as there's evil in the world, the First exists.

[ edited by wenxina on 2010-06-05 03:03 ]
Zeitgist, it's true that the more you deconstruct, the clearer it becomes that a text cannot adhere to all philosophies and all cultural lenses. Feminism has been highlighted as at the core of BtVS, however. When deconstructing, when analyzing, one looks for the lens that's most relevant. For Buffy the Vampire Slayer, feminist critique is incredibly relevant not only because the series is about a woman but because the series incorporates feminism into its message (this seems unavoidable to me when I listen to the commentary for Chosen).

All I'm proposing is that perhaps only using one lens is inadequate to make a conclusive statement about the matter.

Analysis of the subject matter with a feminist lens makes an argument for its failure or success in that specific arena. And if a reader values that women and men be treated with equal respect, then it's a failure that should have universal ramifications.

As for conclusive statements, there's only subjective statements to be made with arguments backed by textual evidence.

I've just been watching far too many shows recently where women are three-dimensional and strong (can I get a shout-out for Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights or Alicia on The Good Wife?) without the text mired in such problematic (and, as I see, ugly) representations of women.

On the subject of feminism, it becomes clear that there's a struggle to maintain an enlightened representation in Whedon texts without falling into old attitudes. Attitudes that demean and marginalize women and are deemed "normal" until they're brought to the light and examined. Call it cultural blindness. Call it privilege. Call it whatever you will. It's pervasive and it's only gotten stronger in Season 8.

As for believing in feminism and humanism, for me the two are not antithetical, but walk hand in hand. At the most basic meaning of feminism to me, it's about women being treated as equal to men. What is more humanist than all people being treated as equal regardless of race, gender, class or sexual orientation? At its heart (and as I understand it), feminism embraces humanism. And likewise, humanism that ignores feminism or LGBT rights? That's not humanism. They are philosophically intertwined, not entirely separate notions.

I look to feminism for enlightenment on how we are failing to achieve that equality that humanism espouses. Amidst the horror of Rape Culture and violent crimes against women, there's the overwhelming and insidious nature of demeaning and objectifying women that permeates the heart of culture, language and mindset. And when I see this negligence starting to turn the tide in Season 8, turning the tide of progress of the TV series, it's not a happy day. And it diminishes what makes BtVS unique.

I find it interesting that shows created by people who aren't called "radical feminist[s]" present a greater ideal of feminist notions than what Whedon's offering. A friend noted that however flawed BtVS was as a feminist show, it was a landmark achievement. But since BtVS, I don't see an evolution from that victory. I see a backslide. So maybe Whedon was a "radical feminist" for the 90's and the turn of the century, but I can point to other examples where it's being done a whole lot better in current cultural creations.

[ edited by Emmie on 2010-06-05 03:41 ]
I find myself agreeing more with Emmie than Wexina, though this is because I am using a different lens than Wexina does, that of a more fem crit reading rather than a humanistic one. At the time S7 was broadcast, I had serious problems with the lack of consent- an issue by now most of you are well aware I harp on regularly- involved in their activation. They had no agency, they had no choice; choice occurred only later after they had been granted super powers and thus had become uber mensch,if you will. Their choices were radically limited once they were activated. I have also read numerous critiques of feministic fails in various blogs that are not usually linked here, some of which are rather angry and vitriolic- and again, many of us know what I refer to (I do not agree with those readings, but they are valid readings nonetheless). And I could never get my mind around the idea of a Watchers' Council that was portrayed as so fecklessly stupid it was amazing they could buy a Twinkie let alone coordinate a battle against what amounted to Hell itself. And who would threaten the life of a child they had already spent years training just to see if she was somehow worthy. As to S8, I think it is truly and deeply flawed, but it is much in line with the direction Joss has been taking, which is away from a frank feminism to something, I am not sure what, but which seemed to reach its apotheosis in Dollhouse, where things went badly wrong, imo.
it is much in line with the direction Joss has been taking, which is away from a frank feminism to something, I am not sure what, but which seemed to reach its apotheosis in Dollhouse, where things went badly wrong, imo.

Exactly so. I too see this moving away from "frank feminism" to something else. If what Whedon is currently doing is "radical feminism", then it's so radical I don't even understand how it's feminism anymore. As you said, it's something else.

[ edited by Emmie on 2010-06-05 03:47 ]
Well, it's a given that feminism is one lens through which one can deconstruct the show, but there are others that are also relevant. However, even staying within feminism there are at least several different lenses to choose from, not all of which agree on every point that may be in contention. And that's before you start arguing with Dana over text/metatext/subtext/authorial intent/reader response :).

As far as Dollhouse not being feminist, that's probably an overly verbose discussion for another time, but I will say that, as with any lens, feminism should not be the be all and end all of ones worldview and the only lens. I think to truly understand and deconstruct a work, it needs to be viewed through many many lenses (and I'm not implying that anyone is saying otherwise, though they certainly may :)). Certainly equality is one point that has drastic ramifications, but sometimes "bad things" have to be depicted in order to refute them and what exactly is being depicted is to some extent subjective (oh no, Dana, I'm drifting towards reader response, help me!). I would never dream of thinking that everything depicted or every bit of dialogue spoken was a POV that the writer(s) agreed with/espoused. Whether all of the "bad things" as viewed through a feminist lens were for the purpose of refutation or some were for base titilation (in Dollhouse specifically) is certainly a topic we've taken forays into before, however.

Basically I say transcend and include is the end game. Include feminism, but include other lenses, too. And if a text fails to be a perfect representation of a specific lens, I don't think that's the most important aspect of story. Provoking thought and inspiring questioning are important, and if a text does that right vis a vis feminism or humanism or what have you, then bravo. A humanistic approach may succeed at a certain point in enlightening us on a point of general human nature and fail to a specific feminist lens or vice versa. Sometimes when you are telling a story, the stronger arc emotionally can be the most fraught with peril from an intellectual deconstruction standpoint and the story wins out. Anyway, I am so sleepy right now that I may read this tomorrow and say, "What the hell was I talking about?", but Emmie thanks for chatting and you can DEFINITELY get a shout out for Tami Taylor!
No doubt. I'm not arguing that feminism be the only lens to be used. I just happen to be using that lens a lot because it's more relevant to my feelings on the subject. I've also been using the lens of a storyteller a lot, especially in my critique of Twangel's arc. For instance, how outside influences masked Angel and Season 8 made a mystery out of his identity without really getting payoff for the mystery. I believe this choice has undercut the effectiveness of Angel's incorporation into the story. And that's just from a basic literary analysis lens. The feminist lens gets a lot of use from me (and others) because it's incredibly relevant.

I think there are areas in Season 8 that are being set up for refutation, some are being weaved in for base titillation and then you have what's there that just slips in, not intended for titillation, not intended to be refuted, but just there. Taken for granted. Like classic authors of the past several centuries leading with antisemitic beliefs in novels.

Always fun chatting. And Tami Taylor is one of my newest TV heroes!
And I missed ALL of this...

This was a really great article and I enjoyed it immensely.

I am largely unaware of the major feminist critiques of AtS. I'm not being silly, I just wasn't around and haven't heard them. I assume there had to be more than the pregnancy aspect, because I never saw that as an intended theme. Rather, that seemed like the machinacion of an extremely long plot line. Unless we're saying pregnancy is "off-limits" for any sort of non-positive shenannigans. And that seems silly on the surface, since there are all manner of real stories which are related to pregnancy and end badly so I'm thinking I just haven't heard the actual criticism.

What am I missing here? Any good reading material?
Emmie and Dana, you raise the issues of dub con (good term, by the way -- thanks for introducing it to me). These are entirely valid, but I do have a question about your interpretation -- as I'm reading it, anyway.

Wasn't the rape imagery in the "empowerment" scene in "Get It Done" done quite intentionally? Later on in "Chosen," Buffy's dialogue implies that there's only been one slayer (or two) all this time because the original creators, being men, wanted one disposable girl they could use. But, as Buffy pointed out at different times, they aren't the source of her. She's breaking the rules.

I had another issue about the dub con, too, but as I wrote it out I realized you were right, so yeah.

Still, it remains dubious consent in that Buffy was breaking out from an even more dubious power structure, so could we compromise and say the Buffy/Willow/Scythe Power-Up was at least a step in the right direction?

And then say that the show itself has many dubious moments, but is still at least another step?

Personally my deep complaint about the show is that the superpowers generally revolved around doing violence, which gripes my Quaker soul. But at least it was equal-opportunity violence for once.
@Emmie: I'm not arguing that humanism and feminism are mutually exclusive. I'm just saying that at times, the humanist message precedes the feminist message in Whedon's storytelling, or at least, can be read as such. No, I'm not championing the rejection of feminism for humanism. Because you're right; feminism would fall under a subset of humanism, at least the way I read it.
All I'm saying is that BtVS has never been a purely feminist text. There are strong feminist overtones, but there are also strong more general humanist ones. At times, they mesh, and others, depending on personal interpretation, they don't. See my Xander example above.

I understand your reasoning for applying a feminist bias to your interpretation. However, as a separate minority, I don't just view Buffy as a feminist icon, but also an LGBT one. When I say humanist, I don't mean to exclude feminism (that would just be silly), but rather to be more inclusive. BtVS isn't a feminist show because it hammers home feminist propaganda. It's considered a feminist show because it has strong female characters, who are only rarely Mary Sued, and who deal with real problems, despite the supernatural veneer. But it's also regarded as a show that displays a great regard for acceptance of people of all walks of life. Sometimes to portray that, feminism isn't blatantly front and center. Does Xander stopping Willow from ending the world count as a counter-feminist moment? Couldn't it be interpreted that through love and compassion, qualities that are valued within the feminist ideology, Xander saved Willow. So while a male character was ultimately the hero in an absolute sense, he achieved his victory through feminist ideals.

To be real, women and other minority groups are not really equal yet. And I'm okay with the portrayal of that struggle, because it is part of the battle. Seeing a perfectly equal world isn't really going to help my cause. To a certain extent, there's a certain sense of denial and escapism of portraying an idyllic world.
As people have said, feminism is not the only lens but the feminist lens itself is multifaceted. Feminism has a compound eye. Is a genuinely feminist story one that lays bare the misogyny lurking in our storytelling culture or one that imagines how things could be different? There are many aspects of BtVS that have been equally condemned and praised by feminist critics. The Chosen spell is an obvious example. Some feminists and fans read it in terms of individual empowerment and see a violation of all those potentials who didn’t take part in the original decision. Others (and I would be one) read it as an emancipation, the overthrow of an oppressive system that by allowing only one woman to have power restricted her choices to “do your duty or let the world go to hell” and left all the others with no say at all in whether or not to use their potential. To some the Buffy/Spike relationship is a genderbending and hence ground breaking romance to others yet another genderfailing story about a woman falling in love with the man who tried to rape her. Is Buffy fighting in high heels a subliminal reassurance that she’s just another foot-bound hot chick with sexy superpowers or sending the message that a woman doesn’t need to dress like a man to be strong?

The essay linked here was written by a psychologist who began by psychoanalysing Joss and the childhood roots of his self-avowed radical feminism and went from there to look at examples of where he had been successful in applying radical feminist principles to his character’s psychology. It was kind of one-sided as such essays tend to be but I think it did establish a case for Joss writing male characters who are able to break from traditional masculine norms. S8 has relatively few male characters but in general those who have rejected the traditional norms are on the side of the Slayers (Xander, Andrew and Oz) while it's the antagonists who are more “successful, emotionally controlled, competitive, and independent.” The Generals have reached the highest level in their chosen careers. Twilight is controlled to the point of literally not revealing his face and when he does reveal it admits his whole modus operandi has been to manipulate other’s emotions but not admit his own. Warren is less successful than the others but fiercely competitive – his relationship with Amy is a constant battle of the sexes. Angel is especially interesting because while acting as Twilight he presented a façade of emotional detachment, his motivation turns out to be that of the traditional romantic heroine. Everything for love - he acts as if hypnotized by the “happy ever after” while Buffy proves ultimately as immune to its thrall as she was to the Master's and Dracula’s.
Zeigeist- oh, it is fun to watch the reader response occur! ;-)

I tend to read Buffy through 3 disparate lens- an ethics one, a queer theory one, and a feminist one; the latter 2 are sort of related. But as time has gone on I find more and more evidence of a fail in the feminist lens, which may actually be a completely normal development. Buffy has been around a long time now, time has passed, and there have been developments in culture since it was on TV so perceptions and readings change, and it is common for established wisdom to be reconsidered and, yes, deconstructed. I am not saying Joss is not a feminist; I know his first goal was simply to tell a story, and a lot of how that story is seen is created by the people who see it, not by the person who wrote it. All these lens are constructs by which we infer a meaning. And if I get any more pedantic, let me know, says the man stating the obvious.

Here are some criticisms, not for the faint-hearted and one (by allecto) truly reviled here:

Not as bad as it sounds:

[ edited by Simon on 2010-06-05 13:09 ]
Sorry Dana5140, I don't mind feminist critique but I do draw the line at allecto getting linked here even in comments because of the nature of her personal attacks on Joss. If people want to know more or discuss this, do email me at and I'll quite happily converse on the matter.
Besides which Allecto doesn't want discussion.
[I should have clearly said that allecto is a dead topic and not to be discussed - apologies]

[ edited by Simon on 2010-06-05 15:16 ]
So .... excuse me if I'm out of line for asking, but why haven't the offensive links been deleted?
Maybe I'm over-reacting, but I've read some of this garbage before, and "offensive" is a mild term. Especially the "vile trash" cited by vampmogs - and that is a genuinely fitting description.
why haven't the offensive links been deleted?

They were? I should have clearly said that allecto is one of those very rare Whedonesque dead topics and does not get discussed on site - apologies for not making that obvious.
Simon removed the link he was referring to. The others, while some of us disagree with what they say, to put it mildly, are not as over the top as the one removed.
Oh and this a pretty decent critique, I don't agree with most of it. But it's very well written.
I don't have time to get into this, but I wanted to pop in and give azzers a link or two on AtS:

Start here and continue here.

Thanks, that's what I was asking for Lirazel. I was feeling a bit behind the topic.
You're so welcome!
As a radical feminist, I have no problem seeing Joss as one, especially, as one of those links mentioned, one who is more second wave than third. Nevertheless, I enjoy reading feminist critiques of his work. Emmie, I really appreciate your writing even though I don't always agree with you. I have greatly enjoyed S8, and I liked Chosen as well as Spike. I'll be buying S2 of Dollhouse on DVD.

On the preview, I see Lirazel has popped in, and I really enjoy your writing, too. Oh, and Dana. And others ...

A small point, Wenxina: Women aren't a minority group. We make up a slight majority in the U.S. and other Western nations. As the author of this essay notes, issues facing men are also a part of feminist analysis.

I found the discussion of lenses interesting. I don't take one lens off to put on another. In real life, I wear my glasses all the time, but when I drive, I put a pair of sunglasses over them. (It's the cheap alternative to replacing the clip-ons I lost or buying prescription sunglasses.) Similarly, I'm always a feminist when I look at media, but I also can incorporate other ways of looking at the world, whether it's humanist or whatever.

[ edited by Suzie on 2010-06-05 17:01 ]
A sociological minority's not necessarily a numerical minority. Whether or not women are termed "minority" is a subject of some debate and one example of why "subordinate" might be a better term. In terms of systematic disenfranchisement, there are important similarities between gender inequality (which I agree does affect everyone) and inequalities faced by other groups. And with LGBT issues gender is definitely an important part of the mix. Like wexina, I see Buffy as a story that deals with feminist issues and others as well without becoming ideological in a way that would be pretty limiting.

[ edited by Sunfire on 2010-06-05 17:11 ]
So ... the award Joss received from Equality Now, a prestigious international feminist organization, has less validity than the subjective opinions of the bloggers linked by Dana5140, each with a personal nit to pick, even when you take the truly disgusting, deleted one off the table?
Just asking.

I would also ask Dana .... why did you find it necessary to link a despicable personal attack that you knew would not be allowed to stand?
Again, just asking.
@Suzie: I find it hilarious that you wear your sunglasses over your glasses when you drive, since I do the same. I'm not as diligent about wearing my glasses as you are, but it is something I do. :)

I think Sunfire sufficiently addressed the minority context for me, so I'm not going to repeat it. But I'm not sure if it sounded like I was saying that I do a lens swap whenever it calls for it. To be clear, I don't. I just use a more general lens than the feminist one, as I think the humanist one sufficiently covers the same area but in a broader more inclusive sense. That isn't to say that on occasion, I don't pull out the magnifying glass to study certain aspects in closer detail. But I don't see the point in studying the entire picture with a magnifying glass. That magnifying glass may be a feminist/LGBT lens. I think we all identify with issues that are closer to us. For me, it's LGBT issues, but since gender identity/roles/stereotypes play into both feminist and LGBT issues, I'm not blind to feminist issues.
Shey - obviously I don't think that :) re: the subjective picking of nits vs. The EN Award.
Sunfire, interesting point. I brought up the majority/minority issue in the same way that people talked about South Africa. Black Africans were subordinated, and that would have been wrong even if their numbers were few. But it seemed especially egregious because they were the majority. (I'm using the past tense, but I do understand that many problems continue.)

Some people talk about women and ethnic minorities as if women had similar percentages in the population. In the U.S., for example, Latinos make up about 15% of the population and African-Americans about 12%. In a group of 100 people, if there are 10 Latinos, 8 blacks and 10 women, then the representation of women is far worse. (Of course, this is complicated because there are women of color, black Latinos, etc.)

Wenxina, I hesitate on humanist analysis because there's plenty of humanism that doesn't address gender at all, and it has irritated me. That being said, I think Joss is a great role model as a humanist, and I do read various analyses of his work.

Btw, I think of your name as When Xena.

Shey, a person like me can love, love, love Joss and still want to see the stuff that we disagree with. That's why I read Whedonesque.

The EN Award is just as personal and subjective as the bloggers. I think Joss' mother, or maybe it was one of her studnets, helped found EN. But for many feminists, the personal and the subjective are not bad things. You've probably heard the phrase "the personal is political." Nitpicking is what academics and a lot of bloggers do. It's also called analysis or critique.

Not all feminists support Equality Now. A number of third-wavers dislike a focus on sex trafficking, and don't see prostitution as any more exploitative than other jobs. They don't use the term "female genital mutilation."

Then there are feminists like me who wish Joss would offer another dinner because this time, I'd be willing to give $10,000 to EN.
Shey- because no matter how deplorable the argument, it does not invalidate the comments simply because they are deplorable. I am an academic; I am accustomed, since I work in a marginalized profession, to addressing truly despicable attacks on my profession. I cannot pretend they don't exist. See: Simon Singh v. British Chiropractic Association. And note that when Singh says that there is not "one iota" of evidence for chiropractic treatment for pediatric conditions, I know factually this is not true, since I was the editor who published much of the pediatric research.

I had no interest in opening up a wound with my post, but we were talking about feministic fails, and this led to discussion about critiques of Joss's approach to feminism; ergo, the links I posted. Most of the ones I posted are sober; I do not agree with them, but as a contrast to those which laud Joss they are worth reading. We need to take the good with the bad. I am not upset at having the allecto link removed; I should have realized that that post might have been a banned one, and that's fine. But again, it is still out there, and it still does actually exist.

Really did not wish to stir the pot here, just contribute to a very interesting discussion.

For those using a humanist lens, I do think there is one failing: a lack of people of color and a use of those that do exist along stereotypes- Kendra and her patois, Mr. Trick (evil), Gunn (gang member), and not much else. But that's for a different discussion thread, really. :-)
Dana, that would be an anti-racism lens. :) "Humanist" doesn't = "we fight all injustices." The most basic definition is a rejection of belief systems that center on a god or gods in favor of one that focuses on humans.
Shey - obviously I don't think that :) re: the subjective picking of nits vs. The EN Award.
zeitgeist | June 05, 18:42 CET

zeitgeist, my comment was not aimed at you, but at Dana5140, who to my knowledge has never posted anything positive about Joss, unless it involved the Willow/Tara relationship, before it ended.

I'm not a blind worshiper. I hate that Joss decided to continue BtS in comic book form. Because of my personal, subjective dislike of comics, I believe that "season 8" diminishes all that BtS represented, in it's seven seasons as a TV series with real actors giving depth and nuance to the characters and story arcs.
That is obviously just IMO - I'm using it to illustrative that I'm not an uncritical follower of the great god Joss.

But to never discuss or link to anything that isn't critical to an extreme that leaves no room for the genuine achievements of the person being critiqued, isn't "criticism" at all, in the literary sense. It's simply bashing, and usually with a personal agenda.

Thus my criticism of yet another post by Dana52140 with nothing even remotely objective to say (or link to).

I don't mean for this to be a third person criticism of another member. So Dana, straight at you:
I believe that it's really become a broken record, at this point. Discussion and dissent is one thing, unremitting bashing is another, and I cant see what use it is, except for allowing the basher to continue to vent. Just IMO.

RF: typo

[ edited by Shey on 2010-06-06 03:52 ]
Your O is wrong, shey- and you have not read all of my comments so you cannot know when I do and do not agree with Joss. However, I am, certainly critical- but as I have noted before, this is about the fun, not about the attacking- I probe, because it is in my nature to probe, and the people who post here probe right back and manage to do so without the ad hominen, you know? I have no stake in whether Joss is in reality feminist or not, but as an issue to examine, it's a good one with a number of possible readings. And to my knowledge, this is one of the few times I have linked to critical articles- though I think I might have initially linked to that banned article when it was first posted, simply because it was so beyond the pale that I was astonished to read it and felt that others might wish to respond.

But again, I should not have to defend myself. Agree or disagree with me, fine; but I am sort of tired of always being the butt of this kind of argument. I don't hate Joss. I like much of what he has done, his shows have given me great pleasure, and I often disagree with what he writes, for all sorts of reasons. As do others. There is a spectrum here of posters, from those way on the right who never find fault to those on the left who usually do, but this community is one where it is usually safe to post without fear of getting called out. Argue the issue, not the man.

And just to show I am a really human guy, here is a personal link of a very happy kind (for my son and his fiance):

The wedding is in less than 3 weeks!
I don't mean for this to be a third person criticism of another member.

In third or first person, this isn't appropriate here. Stick to the issues, not the posters making the points. You can disagree with someone pretty strongly without doing that.

Dana5140, links to personal information don't really help when the discussion has become too personal. I'm not saying it's wrong so much as sort of undermining the point to stick to the topic at hand when discussion has already started to focus too much on well, you.
[See above re: Allecto, dead topic]

[ edited by Sunfire on 2010-06-06 04:44 ]
Your O is wrong, shey
Dana5140 | June 06, 04:20 CET

Excuse me? How can an opinion be "wrong"? An opinion is, by it's very nature, a statement of an individual's subjective take on something.
The word "wrong", on the other hand, is a judgment, and leaves no room for interpretation or debate or even meaningful discussion. Thus the common use of "IMO", as a courtesy to those who disagree with what is being stated.

So back OT .... IMO, Joss qualifies as a radical feminist, especially as defined by the article being discussed:
"A radical feminist means believing that fundamental changes to the system are necessary, in order to bring equality."

Others may disagree with that definition, but it works for me and since it's used in the article, it's the definition I've been using. Which I hope gets the discussion back on track. Because it is certainly one of the most interesting discussions that keep showing up on this forum.
Shey Just wanted to agree w/you re: the comics. And the other thing, too.

I can't really take part in this topic, because...well...I like Joss. I like "Buffy." I liked the first season of "Angel" and will probably like the rest of the series if I ever get to see it. I liked "Firefly" and the movie "Serenity." I liked what of "Dollhouse" I got to see. I write a lot of "Buffy" fan fic, because the characters appeal to me, and I love the family dynamic. I think Tara and Willow had a beautiful relationship because it was genuine. It's a shame Willow lost herself in magic and nearly destroyed what they had. I disliked Buffy's destructive relationship with Spike; I found him to be an obsessive abuser. But these are all just my opinions.

Is Joss a feminist? I don't know. Mainly because I don't really know what's meant by that word. He writes "strong female characters," which tends to get the attention of critics, who either laud or shred his work. But I can't think of another series that has had as much scholarly attention as "Buffy" has. They teach classes on it in college, for crying out loud! People write their theses on the show. How many books are out there about different aspects of the show? It's still being hotly debated years after it went off the air. So obviously he did something right.

When Joss does something like speak out against stoning a woman to death, or takes part in a campaign like NOH8, I'm more likely to pay attention. Not because I worship the ground he walks on but because I respect his courage, and I find myself agreeing with what he has to say about those issues. And what I love even more is that so many of his "people" - writers, actors, etc - feel as strongly as he does. How often do you see that in a television series? It isn't just talking the talk - they truly walk the walk.

Huh. Look at that. Guess I did have something to say, after all.
Dropping in a plug for Susan J. Douglas' new book Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism's Work Is Done , which helps illuminate indirectly the questions here, by addressing in journalistic rather than academic language the way in which embedded feminist images now contribute to "enlightened sexism", i.e., the return of the old images & narratives & agendas with the excuse that feminism has triumphed, so now the old equipment can be trotted out again because the gains are irreversible -- "Of course Scarlett Johannson can be be tightly wrapped in fabric & photographed continually from the rear & still convey feminist empowerment even as Gwyneth Paltrow crumbles under the burdens of being appointed head of Stark Industries" (from the 2nd Iron Man flick, which I watched at the instance of a friend) being a fairly good example of the sort of thing Douglas discusses.
In fairness, the film was somewhat restricted by Black Widow's comics depiction - that's her costume, showing her in something else would be like having Iron Man without the suit (don't get me wrong, comics are clearly highly problematic in their depictions of women and have been for decades but if you're adapting a comic then I guess you need to keep certain things and a well-known character's distinctive look is one of them).

And I was also bothered by Pepper's crumbling, particularly since the idea all along has been that she basically runs the company anyway while Stark leads a playboy lifestyle. Apart from the potentially sexist message it just doesn't make sense - why would she suddenly not be able to cope just because, effectively, she got a new office and job title ?

Interesting thread, ad hominem dullness aside, (parts of which I skimmed for fear of spoilers - i'm not caught up on "season 8" yet) with lots of links and recommendations for reading (I was only peripherally aware of the Simon Singh libel case too so finding out more about that has been illuminating in several respects).

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