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Buffy The Vampire Slayer

The Joss Whedon Post We Had to Have, or Joss Whedon and Feminism, Part One

Tuesday 28 March 2006, by Webmaster

I don’t mean for this post to stand as the be-all and end-all of the way feminism views the oeuvre of Joss Whedon. Rather, there’s been a few thought-provoking posts out there in the blogosphere about Whedon’s depictions of women, his female heroines, and their relationships with the men around them.

So here’s part one: The Good. Feminists love Joss Whedon (mostly) because he basically gave us a TV show we could call our own. The hero, Buffy, was a complex female character who fought off the allegorical dangers of adolescence and ‘being female’ in the form of vampires and other monsters.

Whedon created the character of Buffy specifically as a mixture of weakness and strength. He has stated explicity that he wanted Buffy to be one of society’s most vulnerable - a young girl - and yet also a superhero: the inversion of the scared young woman who usually meets her fate early in a horror film by being eaten/chopped to bits etc. And this works brilliantly within the horror genre, because unlike the conventional realism of say, a cop show, horror allows a much more metaphorical reading of daily life.

Horror has long confronted us with out fears in a mitigated, metaphorical form: a fictional monster almost always functions on some commentary on what a culture or a society finds most terrifying. Monsters also tells us - as does horror - about our bodies and the dark fears we have about them, exploring what Julia Kristeva called ‘the abject’; the fears of being cut and penetrated and drained and so on.

The first couple of seasons of Buffy dealt with the real concerns of most adolescents - fitting in, making friends, family problems, relationships and so on, by reflecting them in this allegorical mirror. Take the episode of BtVS called ‘The Pack’ in which a group of teenagers go on a murderous rampage after being possessed by hyena demons. It captured perfectly just how threatening a tight-knit gang of young people can be to any outsider; especially their peers.

Within the show, Willow and Xander are both interesting and I’d say feminist characters. Xander is a male character but one who reads as feminised, and despite his attempts to enact a certain sort of masculine behaviour, he comes across as being a ‘nice’ guy instead of a jerk, and he suffers for it: he is effectively exiled within the school for his lack of masculine conformity. He also functions are the moral centre of the show, especially in later series, and his sense of fair play and equality usually wins out (with some slippages): see, for example, when he buys Cordelia the prom dress she desperately wants but can’t afford.

Conversely Willow is the girl that we (we geeky nerdy feminist types, anyway) all identify with. Buffy is who we sometimes wish we were, but Willow is who we feel the deepest empathy and identification with. And as the show developed over the seven seasons, Willow became the most interesting, and powerful, character. And like many long-time fans of Buffy, I became increasingly frustrated by the way the show stymied her character, especially in the sixth and seventh series. But I’ll save that for the bad.

Of course, as the series evolved character roles changed and the monsters changed to reflect different issues and realities. I don’t have time/space/patience to do a blow-by-blow exploration of the whole seven series and the way feminist themes were teased out.

I haven’t seen Angel so I can’t really discuss it, but in Firefly Whedon also presents sympathetic, largely interesting and non-stereotypical female characters. Zoe is probably the most ‘masculine’ character aboard Serenity, considering the positive traits typically ascribed to the masculine - she is stoic, calm, strong, heroic etc. Then there’s Kaylee, who is unabashedly sexual without being overly sexualised, and of course there’s the Buffy-esque (only crazy) figure of River who is both strong and fragile, broken and yet integral.

Beyond the specifically feministy slant of both shows, the other reasons many feminists love Whedon’s work is because he’s not afraid of moral complexity. Take, in BtVS, the view on the killing of humans. Yes, lots of vampires and other monsters are disposed of fairly heartlessly, but when humans die, the consequences are depicted as complex, far-ranging and real in a way that you rarely see on television. Most of the characters who are dispatched of in Buffy series are mourned and mourned deeply - the best example, of course, is Joyce, Buffy’s mother.

These aren’t specifically feminist concerns, of course, but I think that any feminist critique of pop culture is interested not just in depictions of women but in depictions of relationships and all their complexity. It could also be argued that female-centric modes of story-telling have usually been constructed as being about relationships - see the dichotomy between stereotypical men’s films or ‘action’ movies, and women’s films, chick flicks, romantic comedies.

Whedon’s shows destabilises these boundaries because he gives us action and relationships: he gives us ‘talk’ about women’s feelings and beliefs, and also gives us ‘action’. He further destabilises the boundaries by making Buffy not an honorary male - like, say, Ripley in the Alien movies. Buffy remains an extremely feminine girl even while she does typically masculine things like rescuing others and exhibiting huge strength, and that this very girliness breaks down the typical distinctions between male and female.

In Firefly and Serenity, Whedon’s moral complexity is more about society as a whole and how it operates. Firefly is a more conventional outsider narrative - the scrappy band of heroes fighting against the powers that be - but I think the Reavers and their creation is a really interesting development that I would have loved to have seen given the long-form treatment as a series. Not saying that the movie wasn’t great, but TV shows offer a far greater scope for teasing out ideas, threads, and characters in a way that is impossible with the necessarily truncated world of cinema.

In Firefly, Whedon is also implicitly concerned with ideas about ‘family’ and the ways that post-modern families are cobbled together not out of blood relations - though these are also important. From a feminist perspective, the idea that you can make a family out of those who share common goals is important: the collective that respects the individual is an important part of feminism. I may be stretching it a bit here, because I don’t think Firefly is as implicitly feminist as BtVS, which I’ll get to later.

Okay, that’s enough for now.