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April 07 2011

A Debate on Joss' Feminism. The linked author defends Joss' feminist credentials against this critique .

A great topic, one that's near and dear to me, but I have major disagreements with both feminist analyses.
I agree. I thought the response was (much, MUCH) less wrong than the criticism, but still a bit lacking. I'm curious to see whether your reaction was similar.
Well, I couldn't read past the Riley-bashing in themarysue link. Which is a shame too because that 'essay' was making good points up until then.

FYI: bashing characters to get your point across is not meta. It's ranting.

*goes to read the other link*

[ edited by menomegirl on 2011-04-08 01:24 ]
The commentary linked in the topic is much, much better. :)
@menomegirl: I think you'll probably stop pretty early on the other essay too, since the author also kinda bashes Riley. I just stopped reading coz I'm tired of reading people presenting half the story, and then overstating an argument. Perhaps my approach to life is more holistic than I give myself credit for.
The response does a pretty good job of explaining my problems with the initial analysis: cherry-picking and confusing complexity with approval.

But all in all, this exchange really highlights why I try not to have arguments online any more.
It wasn't just Riley; the second link bashed Xander as well. I didn't read much further than that before I hit the back button in disgust.

I just stopped reading coz I'm tired of reading people presenting half the story, and then overstating an argument.

I agree.

The author of the linked topic essay was better spoken, I thought.
Yeah, I gave up on the linked essay when the author stated that men don't change in the 'verse, using Xander and Riley as examples. I consider Xander to have changed and matured enormously throughout the series and there's no doubt that Riley had a compelling character arc.

I'm tired of reading people presenting half the story, and then overstating an argument.

What Xi said.
Is Joss always a pitch perfect feminist with regard to every character from every point of view? No. A) That's impossible for a story of any complexity and B) Sometimes Joss does have other ideas for his stories that take priority. Shocking I know that he would think about anything else, but it happens occasionally.

It's easy to pick something apart, so for the critics, let me make this simple: If Joss is getting feminism wrong, who's getting it right?
Yeah, to be honest it really doesn't feel like the writer of the original article really knew that much about the characters she's talking about.

The response, while I don't necessarily agree with all of it, at least shows a greater knowledge of the topics before analysing them.
I think both sides had some things right and a lot of things wrong. And I find myself agreeing with a lot of what BringItOn5x5 has pointed out.

Joss Whedon is a great starting point, an introductory to feminism. And I have but face here, but he's not perfect. He's human. I think the idea isn't feminism that Joss really strives for, I think it's equality. Every human, regardless of gender, should have the same freedoms and not be subject to preconceived roles.

My wife and I are having our first child soon, and it looks like we are having a girl. You can believe me when I say that I will be teaching her a lot that I learned from Whedon, I.e. that the princess can rescue herself, heck can even rescue the prince and save the world, she can fight, she can speak for herself, make her own decisions. Even if she turns out to be shy, quite and very into pink, I want her to know that she is not less than a boy, and doesn't have to be subject to the ideas of out dated ideology.

[ edited by The Goose on 2011-04-08 05:57 ]
Or there's this which is more serious and less pop op-ed . Which I had linked to before but the PopMatters essay is an expanded version.
I often find that people who critique Buffy seems to do so from todays standpoint, forgetting that a lot have happened since 1997. Sure, the show is perhaps not theoretically pure feminism by todays standards. And today Buffy isn't all that spectacular, but when it originally aired the show, and how it portrayed its characters (of all genders and spices) was more or less unique and it opened a lot of doors.
I'm amazed no one mentioned the part in The Mary Sue article, in she says Dollhouse "embodies Whedon's love for the male fist in the female's face." A fairly unpleasent accusation.

Basically agree with the other comments here. Both articles lacked, but the response was certainly closer to my own thoughts. To me Whedon is a feminist, but that doesn't mean his character's and worlds need to be. He writes (mostly) real characters, not strong or feminist ones.

The first article's discussion of Dollhouse was a tired one and something I thought we had all gotten over by now. Just because it depicts acts of aggression and suppression of female (and male) characters doesn't mean it agrees with them. I don't think Dollhouse was perfect and it was probably my least favourite of Whedon's work, but the discomfort it put on the viewer was a strong point for me.
Jeez, didn't get past the first page of the original 'critique'. There's a lot to say about Whedon's work and feminism, both these pieces miss the mark by a long way. I'm off to read the popmatters article now in hope of something better.
The best I can say for the initial critique* is, at least the author's biases are plain for all to see. Other than that, same old character preferences and axe grinding dressed up as analysis leaving the general impression that the author watched different shows to the ones I saw. The response is slightly better but also makes almost no attempt at even-handedness and also employs personal likes and dislikes as if they're analysis (and the men don't change in Whedon shows ? For realsies ? Cos, y'know, Wesley, Spike, Xander, Topher spring to mind. And anyway, why would writing static, simplistic male characters give Whedon "feminist cred" ? The kind of feminism that elevates women by derogating men is exactly the kind I want nothing to do with).

* or, full disclosure, the first page thereof. Couldn't be bothered to go beyond that, didn't feel like i'd gain by it.
"...feminist cred: In the Buffyverse, women grow and change even as men stay the same." Oy. I think Joss can be critiqued on any number of levels about the question of feminism, but this is simply dunderheaded. This is not what feminism is about.

"It wasn't just Riley; the second link bashed Xander as well. I didn't read much further than that before I hit the back button in disgust.
I just stopped reading coz I'm tired of reading people presenting half the story, and then overstating an argument."

Does anyone see the problem here?

I find this question very interesting. I am not sure that Joss does the best job of supporting a feminist reading of his shows, and I have read a lot of critical theory which dissects this question. The book I am reading right now- "Televising Queer Women"- does a superb job of looking at the Willow/Tara relation and examining its complex readings, some of which support a heterenormative viewpoint- certainly not what we would associate with a more traditionally feminist reading. I am going to quote from the book, and I realize that you will not see the context from which this comment emerges: "A film studies graduate of Wesleyan University, Whedon is no stranger to the mediated language of moving and still pictures. So while he did not deliberately construct Buffy's Sapphic lovers to invite the gaze of FHM and Stuff readers or have control over which magazines, lingerie or positions Hannigan and Benson posed in (as he should not have), he remains a collaborator in the visual dilution of his own purportedly feminist visual text. Whedon is caught in the web of Willow and Tara's (in)visibility."

"Dialogue does not alone support the indeterminate nature of Willow and Tara's relationship; they are also visually coded with "normal" boundaries for their gender, according to hair, dress, makeup, and behavior. More accurately, their sexuality is visually unassuming: no stereotypically short, "buth" haircuts." Later: "Regardless of perspective, the representation of Willow and Tara through images and dialogue is problematic. Even as Whedon created a feminist, cutting-edge text, he also created stereotypes."

There are reasoned critiques of Joss's feminism to be found. They are more cogent than either of the two seen here. The main link above is simply shallow; the other more biased. Neither is very good, though as points for debate, they can be useful.
The popmatters essay that Simon links to above says much of what I would say. As far as Willow/Tara being "visually problematic", I call bullshit. There are lesbians who look butch and there are lesbians who appear to conform to heteronormative standards of appearance and dress. Calling Joss out for Willow and Tara looking like stereotypical straight girls (which, do they? I'm not so sure about that) is not only silly and insulting, but misses a lot of points.

Not the least of which are that it's easier to acclimate people to an idea by steps and that it makes it easier to tell the story that "these people are much like you" to people who may not be sure about that. I think it would be just as problematic to send in a parade of stereotypically butch lesbians. There isn't some lesbian factory somewhere churning out short-haired, wide shouldered, flannel clad, visually obvious gay women... at least, not that I'm aware of, but perhaps someone else can chime in with a link to said factory.
As I sad, ZG, I had to take the quote out of context, but the points being made are part of a larger argument about how queer women are portrayed on TV in general, not specifically just in Buffy.
As I sad, ZG

I didn't mean to make you sad :\.

I see the point to some extent if all lesbians on TV are portrayed as heteronormative in appearance, but it's also true that TV is distorted in many ways to begin with. There aren't a lot of shows filled with average or below average looking people or the overweight for example (except as specifically comic characters where their weight becomes a focus for mockery). It kind of all comes back to "are we portraying characters or are we trying to speak for all Xs or Ys everywhere". Sharon Stone playing a murderer who happens to be a lesbian does not mean that the writer/director intend you to think "holy crap, lesbians are murderers!".

This quote becomes somewhat appropriate again:

"People talk about my image like I come in two dimensions, like lipstick is a sign of my declining mind. Like what I happen to be wearing, the day that someone takes a picture is my new statement for all of woman-kind" - A. DiFranco

As far as it being out of context, granted, but you wouldn't be taking this particular chunk out if you didn't think it spoke on its own and I don't agree with what it says, either out of context or within any context that I am currently able to imagine it being part of.
In the original critique, I found the point about Zoe's mourning for Wash ("Zoe permits herself not the slightest time to mourn, going into full battle mode nor do we get any reaction, verbal or non-verbal, from her for the rest of the film.") very intersting, cause it highlighted a fact for me that cuts through this debate: Whedon can sometimes be very subtle in his emotional beats.

Because we, as fans, all of course remember Zoe saying "She's torn up plenty, but she'll fly true." But how can you take that as textual evidence and posit it as a counter-argument to the point that she doesn't deal? It's everyone's decision to read that as Zoe talking about Zoe or as Zoe talking about Serenity. Whedon leaves that open, hence critique of his emotional points will always have that (understandable) backdoor, same as we as fans have a very convenient way to rationalize our reading of the Zoe character via subtleties like that.
What about when she goes berserker and just starts firing and beating on the Reavers? I think that was pretty obviously her reacting to Wash's death wasn't it?
Well, it's everyone's decision, but if you listen to the commentaries a lot of the mystery gets taken out of it... and it's revealed that Joss didn't think of it that way until Gina Torres pointed it out. Of course he loved it once he realized it.
trunkstheslayer, yes, but that's exactly what I meant: Of course there is textual evidence too, but the discrepancy between critical reading and fan-affirmation imo often lies in the nuanced subtextual level.

And of course, ManEnoughToAdmitIt, but we cannot expect everyone to know every background and anecdotal info there is. I am fully convinced that a critical reading can be valid without listening to DVD commentaries.
I agree Joss can sometimes be subtle with his emotional beats wiesengrund, the layers are what takes his stuff from "good" to "great" IMO, I just don't think that's one of those times - to claim Zoe goes into "full battle mode" and doesn't react is surely the essayist missing the point on a grand scale. Her going into "full battle mode" WAS a (non-verbal) reaction of the strongest suit - Zoe's so angry and grief stricken she no longer cares about her own life, she doesn't calmly join the fight, she hurls herself into the melee without a plan and without displaying any of the cool, ruthless professionalism that typifies her approach to combat. Missing that is, well, let's say "not particularly astute" ;).

(even though "...but she'll fly true" is subtler, more subtextual - to the extent that Nathan famously missed it first time around - it still shouldn't pass by anyone claiming to offer an analysis of his work IMO)
While Xander largely remains the same wise-cracking manchild,

Sigh. Yet another person who hadn't watched S7. Or read S8. The Riley bashing is getting really old. Both essays look more like ranting instead of well thoughtout meta. Sad because I'd have loved to read a good Feminism and Joss meta.
I'm really tired of the Riley Bashing too!! I loved Riley!!
I thought it was Nathan that didn't get the line was about Zoe herself & not the ship.
Yeah, it was Nathan that didn't get it initially, in rehearsals (despite normally being, in Joss' words, "very astute" about these things), Joss intended it all along. ManEnoughToAdmitIt (and possibly wiesengrund) are just misremembering that aspect of the commentary like some kind of imperfect human beings or something ;).
The first essay (and I use thetern lightly) was just indefensible crap.

The defense was only slightly more insightful and suffered greatly from the author's stated opinion that Dollhouse was not a good show. Because Dollhouse contains by far the deepest and most complex reading of feminism in any of Joss's shows.

Overall, a pretty weak take on a much discussed subject.
I can't fault the second author for stating her opinion of Dollhouse. I didn't care much for the series either.
I find this type of criticism interesting to read, but essentially I think a lot of it is centred around the fact that not every fan, or scholar, will interpret everything the same way and nothing can please everyone. I strongly disagree with the idea that Joss' work is anti-feminist, although I do find it interesting to hear people discussing why they feel this way.

In many ways, I think it's a no win situation - if Joss presents only strong, perfect heroines who kick ass, then that would be a shallow, unrealistic portrayal of feminism that could arguably be sexist in the way it idealizes women and places them on a pedestal. But if Joss presents heroines who are flawed, who sometimes lose or suffer injury and who make mistakes - then he gets accused of the same sexism because the heroine may look foolish, or weak, or make mistakes. Some people it seems that for anything to have a feminist ethos, only good things must happen to the female characters, they must never suffer and always emerge triumphant.

I think this approach would result in poor storytelling and unsatisfying portrayals of female characters. I think where Joss' work stands out is that he generally tries to present us with all different types of characters and is interested in the male and female perspective. I would definitely argue that Buffy comes primarily from a female perspective and centres more strongly around female empowerment and the dominance of the female characters, whereas Angel takes the lead from its titular character and seems to focus through the prism of male experience, which explains the greater number of male characters and the tendency to present women as damsals in distress.

My point is that you can't expect any particular group to be above criticism or portrayals that are less than flattering, because that in itself would be insulting. If anything, I think Buffy has an occasional tendency to present the male characters as foolish and flawed more than the female characters, yet I don't think this is due to an inherent desire to destroy masculinity in favour of feminism - it just so happens that some men really are like that in real life.

To present any sort of authentic story, we are going to have women and men who are weak and disempowered and who are victims, we're going to have women and men who are heroes and admirable, and we're going to have the majority of characters who are somewhere along that continuum, who have good and bad qualities, who are likeable yet make mistakes, or evil yet intelligent or whatever it's going to be. The patriarchal, traditional portrayals of women were either as the virgin or the whore, the beautiful, passive love interest or the femme fatale. And it seems as if some feminist critics want the only portrayal of women to be as a sort of Buffybot who never makes mistakes or actually have meaningful, realistics relationships with men which may result in scenarios where she may be in the wrong.

The original criticism this article responds to criticises Dollhouse heavily for its exploitation of women and the dominance and power of men. Isn't that the point? Alongside the fact that the writer didn't mention that male Actives exist alongside females or Adelle DeWitt running the LA Dollhouse, the show seems designed to investigate the nature of exploitation rather than glorifying it. Couldn't the portrayal of groups such as the Watcher's Council, the shadowmen, the Alliance and the Dollhouse be designed to criticise organisations that dominate or debase people (or specifically females) rather than celebrating that? In fact Serenity the film tackles that explicitly, as do most Buffy episodes featuring the Council (who tend to make every situation worse, before ultimately being destroyed). The writer is suggesting that showing these type of groups is somehow sexist, when the whole point of them is they are usually villians to be defeated or disabled.
Came in here to shoot my mouth off the other day in another thread that duplicated the 'Mary Sue' link. Chose my words very poorly and I think, by the comments following mine, that I may have been misunderstood (for instance some people seemed to think I was targeting the commenters here, which I certainly was not, only the linked article), but the link was deleted before I had the chance to respond. Anyway, I guess I have a second chance to choose my words poorly.

I've been reading a lot of articles like the Mary Sue one lately, that discuss the feminism or lack there-of of not only of Joss Whedon's work, but elsewhere. I'm not a very political person, and don't typically read feminist articles, so maybe my senses have not yet hardened enough to the level of vitriol and irrationality that can often be found in these types of writings. I certainly don't think that it's unfair to hold Joss Whedon's toes to the fire, as it were, to hold his work up to scrutiny. And as a woman, whether I'm politcal or not, I certainly have an interest in women's stance in the world, and how they're portrayed in fiction. But I'm not interested in recklessly demonizing men, and these sorts of 'analyses' that are done without compassion, intelligence or rationality make me angry.

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