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September 22 2011

Dr. Horrible and the False Dichotomy of the Love Triangle. An interesting and unusual analysis of the differences between the Buffy/Angel/Spike and Penny/Billy/Captain Hammer love triangles.

This is also a great piece for those of us still troubled by the weakness of Penny's character compared to other Whedon women.

Hm, I never thought of Penny as being weak. She wanted to change the world just as much as Billy did, but she did it through charitable actions and helping others as opposed to Billy's more chaotic methods. Just because she doesn't have super powers and/or doesn't wield a stake doesn't make her a weak Whedon character by my book.
No need for a spoiler tag here. Regarding Penny, how long was she actually on screen for?
I don't see her as weak in her own 'orbit', but in the story she is simply a pawn of the two male protagonists. She is essentially duped by both and then they get to fight over her and ultimately kill her. Hardly female empowerment.
There's two sides to this coin - she changed things for the better (homeless shelter) (or at least, lead the change), and she didn't kill anybody or get into any fights. Or: she was a plot device.

I actually liked penny, but she shoulda had more screen time and jokes. Ideally both together. Some people didn't feel her, and that's why.
I'm not really troubled by Penny's character. Sure, she may be a bit of a stereotypical good girl, but I know people like that in real life. She genuinely wanted to help people, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Her purpose was more than just being someone for the other two characters to push around and idolize: her ideals on how (and why) you should help people people contrasted with their's and offered a different point of view.

So no...Penny's not a weak character in my book.
In my opinion a character like Penny, who is naturally shy, is a real hero for getting out there and approaching strangers for a cause she believes in. Penny's behavior was far more courageous than anything Captain Hammer or Doctor Horrible ever did, and of course her motives were purer.
I never saw Penny as weak, she stood by what she believed in. It was her innocence that cost her her life. She was too innocent to survive in a power hungry world.
I don't see her as weak in her own 'orbit', but in the story she is simply a pawn of the two male protagonists. She is essentially duped by both and then they get to fight over her and ultimately kill her. Hardly female empowerment.

See, I kind of thought that was the point of the story. Billy and Captain Hammer were equally appallingly-behaved towards Penny. As the article points out, Billy just thinks he's the better candidate to date her because he thinks nerds are better people than jocks*. When he's not stalking her, he pays no attention to her - in their first real conversation he tunes her out and makes it clear he thinks her cause is stupid. (And yet she's the only character in the film to accomplish something positive - the homeless shelter. Too bad Captain Hammer takes the credit for it.) Billy only bothers to learn things about her, like that she likes frozen yoghurt (which he only learned through subterfuge), so that he can use the information to manipulate her. Penny is 'disempowered' in almost every way in the story - it's accurate to describe her as a pawn - but that isn't because she's a weak person, it's because she never wanted to be in this particular story in the first place, and the two other characters who dragged her into the story didn't have enough respect for her to make her aware of what was going on. And then got her killed.

So yeah, overall I view Dr Horrible as a critique of the Nice Guy in which the heroine's lack of agency is deliberate and supposed to be a negative commentary on the men in the story, not the woman. (Of course there's a lot of other stuff going on too!)

Where I disagree with the article is that it asserts that Penny never had the option to choose neither guy. I don't think that's fair, because in the end she leaves Captain Hammer (not that he notices) and doesn't choose Billy. I guess the lack of a cookie dough speech confused the issue.

* What's so clever about this is that we are set up to agree with Billy's worldview, right up until the moment he accidentally kills his love interest. Props to Neil for being so cute and blinky.
Completely agree with the article. The whole 'nice guy' thing immediately stuck out to me about Dr. Horrible. And Penny is idealized, 2-dimensional, and is the victim of Man Pain.

I still enjoy Dr. Horrible quite a bit, but I have to watch it while ignoring my reservations. Definitely not one of Whedon's finest moments when it comes to that whole feminism thing.
In my sexual politics, showing men behaving badly does not elevate women. Indeed, given her portrayal as a naive waif, despite her noble intentions and her obvious capacity for acting on them, Penny was likely to get bonked on the head by a lead pipe in an alley sooner or later.
Thanks, Simon...just playing it safe!

Baxter wrote:

I don't see her as weak in her own 'orbit', but in the story she is simply a pawn of the two male protagonists. She is essentially duped by both and then they get to fight over her and ultimately kill her. Hardly female empowerment.

This is exactly what bugs me about Penny. She's a good person, but there are a lot of sweet, kind people in the world who aren't really strong enough to stand on their own. Doesn't make them bad people, and I don't think Dr. Horrible idealizes this character type at all, but really, did she have to be such a dependent person?

My thinking about the show as a whole is in line with Cruella's:

...the heroine's lack of agency is deliberate and supposed to be a negative commentary on the men in the story, not the woman.

Dr. Horrible has much more to say about the damage done to men and women by conventional masculine roles and stereotypes. It's not about women at all...but Penny is supposed to be, at a minimum, likable. In the end, she's so weak that the contrast between her (compassionate, nurturing, shy, and a driver behind the scenes) and other Whedon heroines (typically straightforward, assertive, physical, funny, and pragmatic) actually undermines the idea that women can be strong, distinctive, and heroic in different ways.

Joss and company were straddling a line here: trying to use female disempowerment to criticize the "Nice Guy" and the "Jerk". But lots of strong women are disempowered by men, and our still male-centered society, every day. Fighting for your place doesn't mean winning, and winning, in the real world, isn't ever going to be complete. Some people, like Penny, lose outright. While I like the show and the valuable criticism of the men and what they represent, I feel like the goal could have been achieved without making Penny quite so...empty.

[ edited by Three Flowers In a Vase on 2011-09-23 14:47 ]
Has anyone read her backstory in the comic book? Did your opinion of her change as a result?

I think in the timeframe of the musical, something had to give. Hammer and Penny were very much reduced to secondary character status and were written with broadstrokes. He's two-dimensional, she's nice. I don't know if Joss and co could have delved much more into their characters without something else having to give (like the budget or the rhythm of the plot).

I wouldn't compare the musical to Buffy. There a character could be fleshed out over the space of seven years. I'd compare Dr Horrible to the last few episodes of Dollhouse where a character's seasonal arc came and went in the space of five minutes. And whilst the plot of that show was enjoyable and was a hell of rollercoaster, the characters on screen were there mostly for the writer to say "AND THIS IS HOW WE MUST MOVE THE PLOT ALONG". Much in the same way that Hammer and Penny were used.
I didn't see "Dr. Horrible" as a commentary on gender politics. I didn't think Penny's behavior was because she wsa female; if Billy and Captain Hammer were both gay, Penny could have been Paul and done and said all the same things. Except, given the relative lack of gay musicals, that might have been taken as a commentary on gay men (look, it all ends in death!). Not, I hasten to add, that I think Joss Whedon et al ever thought about having the love interest be male. But it doesn't seem that anyone is reading Billy and Captain Hammer as the last word in heterosexual male behavior - that is, so far I haven't read any criticisms saying that "Dr. Horrible" is a statement on how *all* heterosexual men are manipulative and oblivious to the women they court - so why should Penny be taken as the last word in female heterosexual behavior? I think in this instance "weakness" may be conscious or unconscious code for "someone who is not intentionally funny in a universe of people who make good jokes."
This is excellent. What I love most about Dr. Horrible is that objectively, the heroic villain is not a hero and the villainous hero is not a villain. What I like least about Dr. Horrible is that the fans generally simplify it to villain=hero/hero=villain anyway.

It's very easy to sympathize with Billy, but sympathizing all to often turns into rooting for the underdog to get the girl, utterly ignoring the girl's own right to get something better than an appealing but unworthy love interest. The entire show is seen through Billyvision; nothing Penny does has any meaning except insofar as it involves Billy's success in winning her heart. I think it's a marvelous trick of the narrative, showing us Billy's selfish motives and lack of empathy, but if you stick with the interpretation that he's the real hero of the story in spite of his supervillainous aspirations, the point about Penny gets completely lost.

I'd rather see more of the "choose neither!" option in shows and stories too, but I don't see Penny as weak for being presented through her relationships with men. She obviously has a life of her own, with interests and concerns beyond Billy's and Hammer's petty goals, but we're stuck behind Billy's eyes and we can't see her unless we transcend his prejudices. In the end, she does the right thing regarding both men, and it's not her fault that she sings the lamest song in the musical.
Does anyone else read Billy as emotionally immature rather than incapable? I guess where I start having disagreements (and it's not a massive gut feeling or anything, so I'm not passionate with disagreements) is that while we're making Billy the paragon for all things evil and stalker (before the death of Penny), the charecter himself seems less incapable than he is unaccustomed.

This may be a more decidedly psychological view than anything, but it makes me a little uncomfortable when people confuse emotional baggage and personal idiosyncracy with irredeemably static charecter flaws (in a non-narrative sense). Billy himself is incredibly naive, and I think the narrative itself does a good job of setting him up as more than a little hesitant about the whole affair. In other words, we give him causation in Penny's death because that is tragic and he certainly is an indespensible ingredient, but we all see a man who doesn't appear to want to kill his enemy in cold blood. The same enemy who actually pulls the trigger and kills Penny.

Please don't confuse this with a "Penny should date Billy", but I think what Joss did very well and why I consider it a well done tragedy, is that he sets up in Penny the type of woman who could probably deal with (both in terms of her desire and her faculties) Billy's baggage and make him a better person through friendship. In essence, a salvation from the path he appears to be on and one that when we see completed we can tell is not one he truely wanted. The idea that him wanting more precludes the very idea of friendship I think is a tad specious based on the fact people don't like manipulation and so it sounds good. But more than a few friendships have started with two people who had dissimilar views of what the nature of the relationship should be.

Also, I don't buy the lack of empathy arguement for Billy. We see multiple times where he is conflicted by the situation. His first meeting (speaking anyway) with Penny, he continuously vascilates between being there for for her and what he is actually there to do which is something she in direct conflict with. Had he truely lacked all empathy, he would have simply spurned her there and come back with a lie later. He even apologizes in a moment that seems more heartfelt than manipulative for coming on strong which certainly doesn't show a lack of empathy in my book. We also have his realtionship with Moist which seems to be genuine interest and friendship which is also something that you can't have if someone lacks empathy. A lack of empathy in Penny's context would be more visible if she were actively spurnning him where in the context of the actual story she is oblivious.

By Act 2 and 3 we're off in the middle of plot and we don't see it as much, but by then the protaganists and antagantists are set and we're moving the plot forward. I guess I'm just saying that I feel like I'm seeing the charecter of Billy reduced to a "nice guy" strawman, and I don't really think that's what the goal was. If that were truely the case, there would be no tragedy.

[ edited by azzers on 2011-09-23 22:35 ]
azzers said:

I guess I'm just saying that I feel like I'm seeing the charecter of Billy reduced to a "nice guy" strawman, and I don't really think that's what the goal was. If that were truely the case, there would be no tragedy.

For me that doesn't undermine the tragedy at all. The events are definitely tragic in themselves, as Billy slips from being generally decent (if, as you say, naive and socially inept) to conflicted to, in the face of his own guilt, self-characterized as evil. However, the underlying tragedy is that while neither Billy nor Captain Hammer is completely irredeemable at the beginning of the show, they both fall into roles or "types" that lead them to disaster. They are not able to escape being the "Nice Guy" and the "Jerk", because those are the only options they see. Hence my conclusions about Dr. Horrible being a criticism of enforced masculine gender roles.

Naturally, that social tragedy only works in the story because of the dramatic tragedy, so I don't disagree with anything you said...I just think it's all operating at multiple levels. :)

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