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May 29 2012

Ask A Feminist gives Joss two thumbs-up. Our fearless leader and several of his finest creations get a shout-out in a discussion of portrayals of women on TV and in the movies.

Trigger warnings for other topics discussed in this post, including abortion.

I thought that was a good, thoughtful conversation on feminism. And, not to start a debate or anything, but it made me very happy that it's coming from a Christian perspective, which is my own perspective and one that is often ignored and/or seen to be incompatible with feminism when it really isn't.
Going back and re-watching the Buffy series, I really notice how Buffy and Willow are both heroines in their own right. They both have tremendous power. I felt like "Chosen" was the culmination of a long journey for each of them.

And Joss' answer to that question he always gets asked... PERFECT response.
Great article, yeah I love how Willow turns out not being a sidekick so much as a side hero.

ntertanedangel - I know where you're coming from re: christian feminism, and I'm glad it works for you. But I don't think it's entirely preposterous to think that a religion which gets its tenets from a text that supports slavery and the subordination of women is incompatible with feminism.
cazador - oh, geeze... See, that is the problem. yes, the Bible has been used in the past to support slavery and the subordination of women, but I would argue that that is an abuse and a misinterpretation of the Bible, and that a closer study of the text reveals a very very different message.

I can understand why feminists might be resentful of Christians, and there certainly are Christians who oppose feminist ideas, but to say that the religion as a whole is like that, or that all Christians behave in such a way is ridiculous. Christianity is an incredibly diverse religion, parts of which are very much in support of feminism.
If you ask this feminist, I'd give Joss one thumbs up, one down. Dude's got issues.

Nice introduction article to feminism though! I'm always glad to see people discuss feminism with civility and intelligence. "Ask A Feminist" seems like an interesting idea. I find that a lot of people who are averse to it simply don't know much about what it means.
I would be curious to hear what you think those issues are, prophecygrrl, and not to pick a fight or anything. Just curious. I know much has been made over the years about having women adopt what is typically considered a masculine solution to problems, i.e. brute force, and whether or not that is in fact feminist. Personally I don't see violence as having a specific gender role, and also see Joss empowering women in his fiction through so many means other than that, that it never sticks out to me as an issue (and of course his chosen genres tend to fall under the big tent of action/adventure, and you can't have that without a lot of butt-kicking). And of course there's Dollhouse, which in my opinion is worthy of as much scholarship as has been thrown at Buffy (and I'm sure a lot of it would be quite a bit more contentious and controversial), which is maybe what you're referring any case, not my place to put words in your mouth so again, curious to hear what you have to say.

On the Christianity front, I think like with most religions based on prescientific era texts, they are better served in the modern era by a "spirit of the word" reading (full disclosure: Technically I'm a Lutheran, we love that spirit of the word stuff) than any sort of textual literalism that clings to clearly outdated social mores. At the end of the day I see a person's spiritual/religious journey and beliefs as being highly personal no matter what faith or denomination one chooses, and said faiths and denominations should serve more as a helpful guide than a dogmatic dictate on how it all works.

Whew, heady stuff for a Tuesday! Think I'm done for now.
I love Joss' work and for the most part, his feminist driven writing - but his treatment of Cordelia's character was pretty disgraceful.
ntertanedangel- wasn't characterizing the religion, just its source material.

I also have a couple of issues with Joss and feminism. Most notably that he mostly portrays white feminism. This is more than just a problem with female representation, his majority white casts have always been an issue with me. Whenever people ask me if I have any critiques of my favorite work of fiction ever (Buffy), it's always the one I give.

[ edited by cazador on 2012-05-30 17:15 ]
To his credit, Joss has branched out ethnically in both Firefly and Dollhouse. Buffy could have been more diverse but I'm guessing there was plenty of network 'guidance' on the makeup of the cast. And of course at the end of the day he brings so much more to the conversation around feminism with his work than 90% of the others working in the genre, so I'll cut him a fair amount of slack for not meeting every litmus test out there.
cazador - erm... that's strange because I wasn't defending the religion, I was defending the source material. Nevertheless, that's probably another conversation for another day.
I'll start with, I like this article and I agree with it.

But I'll say the same thing I say about "Joss's white feminism" as I say about Leah Dunham's Girls. As a writer, they tell you to write what you know. Then they tell you to be diverse. It's the reason David Simon is lauded so heavily for the Wire (his life experience lends itself to those characters along a writers room that contained people like David Mills) Meanwhile Joss ends up with a problem known as "Charles Gunn."

In that case, you end up with a character that doesn't feel real. That particular writers room didn't really appear to have anything to say about HIS experience. Heck, they had to REBOOT his character. Near as I can tell, he started as an archetype, became a romantic foil, and then became a plot device. And that was NOT the fault of Richards who made the character someone we could sympathize with, I'm just not sure there was much more that could be done with him. Coincidentally, race relations in LA (of all places) is not exactly a skinny topic.

If you can't replicate the voice or experience, don't do it. Jubal Early, the Operative, Nick Fury, Inara, and Zoe are all essentially race neutral characters and that's fine. My question? Where are the writers of color in Hollywood? That concerns me far more than Joss needing to be the voice of "everyone."

[ edited by azzers on 2012-05-30 21:55 ]
I don't have a problem with the level of violence the female characters display on his shows. As far as gender goes, I'm mostly concerned with the way female heroism is often permeated with coded sexual assault- the Slayers on Buffy, River Tam on Firefly, Cordelia Chase on Angel. I haven't seen Dollhouse, so I can't attest to that.

I find the white-majority characters pretty offensive too. Buffy and Angel are set in Southern California- where are the Latin@s? Firefly is set in a universe that's supposed to be rich with both Chinese and American culture- yet I don't see any actual Asian people. I don't feel comfortable cutting Joss any slack for that when he is lauded so often as a great storyteller and feminist. Buffy, Angel, and Firefly are some of my favorite shows and Buffy Summers in particular is just one of my favorite fictional characters ever, but one can appreciate them and still understand them as problematic.

@azzers: I agree that there should be more artists/writers of color in Hollywood and beyond, but I don't think that's the main problem with race representation. Joss Whedon, Lena Dunham, and other critically acclaimed white writers should be held to a basic standard of great storytelling: that one can create and explore believeable and complex characters, and do so responsibly, without having absolute lived experience as each of those characters. There's a really great article from Greg Rucka on the topic:

Writers don't write Men or Women or Dogs or Salmon. Writers write characters, and at our best, if we do it well and with care and with thought, we invest in those characters a spark of life, a realism and nuance that makes them believable and relatable. We seek to craft characters who inspire empathy, characters our audience will care for, and as a result, will care about what happens to them, and thus will share the journey we have charted. A story, after all, is the character's journey.

^That's the kind of integrity in storytelling I really respect. :)

[ edited by prophecygrrl on 2012-05-30 22:10 ]
Thanks for your thoughts, I certainly agree although I guess I might see the intentions behind them to be a little different. As far as Dollhouse goes, you get sexual assaults without the coding, so be prepared if you ever decide to dip into those waters.

[ edited by Simon on 2012-05-31 12:01 ]
@prophecygrrl -

Sorry, but I did not see your response until today (and I may be talking to the void on this one because it's off the scroll.)

I actually enjoyed Rucka's post on this topic when it was posted but I will point out that fundamentally he was discussing writing male/female characters. He pointed out, what I don't think would be uncommon as a means for a writer to do it, talking to other men or women to find the voice of that character.

But while I think there is very little difficulty in striking up conversation with men and women (or at least minimal overhead), the same could not be said for Joss driving to Compton for research and interviewing what might be people extremely reticent to voice their views accurately to an outsider who just pops by and wants to ask about things. Think about some of the mixed reaction to the movie Precious within the African-American community because it was felt by some that it peeled back the curtain on dirty laundry. Again, contrast this with Ed Burns (who worked in inner-city schools and the police), David Simon (who worked Baltimore City for a paper) and David Mills who was a race writer for various media. The difference was just the vastness of experience available to create what felt like realistic portraits.

It's not that I believe Whedon & Co were fundamentally incapable (Simon himself either seriously or not called Buffy the best show on TV) or that The Wire was perfect. It's that I do not believe with two shows going simultaneously (and one extremely white), there was sufficient time given the production cycle for that level of research. Remember, even Rucka may have deadlines but by the nature of his medium he has far more time than a TV writers room which also has to hire, break arcs, break stories, and rewrite all in the span of one year.

And my point is this, as a consumer of drama (and especially after shows like The Wire which get it so right), I have no complaints with writing rooms sticking to what they can do well. If you can do the research, fine. But if you can't, I'd rather (as a viewer) the writer save the "diversity" and write what they know.

Yes, race representation is a larger issue. BUT, it's not helped by having writers rooms that completely lack racial diversity. Especially when such rooms appear to be prone to pushing black cast members to less central roles in an ensemble (if recent returns are any indication). Not to mention questionable storyline choices like in The Vampire Diaries. To me, it's not entirely dissimilar to the all male writing staff who while not being malicious, puts in extremely offensive story lines. It's a lack of diversity that leads to that. An interesting article on it can be found here.

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