The problem of Joss Whedon

(Author’s Note: It’s not only geek culture that has a problem with this, and it’s not only in regards to cishet women. The following is a very narrow assessment of a very broad problem, reduced for space constraints and ease of reading. I’d love to hear some expanded opinions on this from people of color, and those who identify as queer, trans, or otherwise LGBTQIA+.)

Just in the last couple days, the geek world has been turned on its head by a statement released by a woman about her male ex-partner, upending everything we thought we knew about feminism in Hollywood.

Or not so much. It’s honestly not terribly surprising that the men who are in power, especially in the sci-fi and fantasy media realms, tend to be problematic in regards to women. I’m inclined to think that the clay feet of our nerdy idols is a continued failing of geek culture to recognize the subtle ways in which bigotry is reinforced within our subculture. Don’t get me wrong, we can clearly point to individuals and incidents as being the predominant focal points of bigoted thought. But there is an overall environment which allows all men with power in geek media to get away with gross treatment of anyone other than straight, cissexual, white males, and that’s a problem which needs addressing.

Gene Roddenberry, Johnny Depp, and most recently Joss Whedon: all have a history of being vocal advocates for social equality (especially in regards to women), but eventually enough info comes out that they are exposed as exploiters and abusers of their spouses, significant others, and the women they cast for the characters they write. I’m going to try to keep this to just public material, rather than referencing personal matters that may be in dispute.

Let’s take a look at the stereotyping and presentation of women in sci-fi and fantasy, using some of Joss’ properties as examples.

Buffy is often pointed to as the obvious argument for Joss’ feminism, along with his penchant for writing female characters that appear, on the surface, to be of the “Strong Female Character” trope. Within the details of the story and dialogue, though, he falls into the trap of the male gaze: Any woman considered “desirable” is always model-thin and dressed to the nines, even when relaxing or performing actions that would be incredibly uncomfortable when wearing skirts and heels. The women who are dressed comfortably and practically are either an older generation than the main cast, or pigeonholed as “undesirable” for superficial reasons.

As one example, take Kaylee Frye, in Firefly/Serenity. The actress, Jewel Staite, was asked to gain 20 lbs to play the character in the show. The costume designers deliberately played up her frumpiness and provincial style (ex. her dress in “Shindig”) so that she would be a complete contrast to the refined and urbane Simon Tam. This is a long-used tired trope of “romance despite class differences,” frequently seen in Regency-era properties and romantic comedies. His interest in her despite her perceived undesirability becomes the plot point, rather than a natural outcome of character development.

As a contrast, take Inara Serra from the same show. Inara spends her life being an idealized object. Her position is that of being revered by the women and desired (mostly) by the men. In one of the more uncomfortable moments of the show, Inara points out the hypocrisy of this:

You have a strange sense of nobility Captain. You’ll lay a man out for implying I’m a whore but you keep calling me one to my face.

Following on the heels of that are the reactions to Inara’s female client in “War Stories,” (“I’ll be in my bunk”) and the overall treatment of Companions within the Firefly universe, where they are reduced to the Madonna/Whore dichotomy. This is especially apparent in the few glimpses we get of their personal ceremonies, which appear to be a highly spiritual ritual, performed while wearing stylized and revealing clothing. This objectification of an entire feminine subset is common in science fiction and fantasy, and is seen in almost every major property (Orions in Star Trek, the women of the Red Room in Avengers/Marvel, most of the female villains in DC, the Twi’lek in Star Wars).

Assigning one of the characters from this subset as a romantic foil for the male lead is par for the course. It is a tired and overused trope, and one that turns the female half of the heterosexual relationship into a two-dimensional being, existing only to reflect the attitudes and desires of the male character. She is rarely developed on her own, and then only as an accessory to him, as either part of the exposition of his background or the establishment of him as her savior from an unsavory life.

Regarding Joss’ modern properties, one has to only watch The Avengers franchise to note the lack of complex female characters. For a long time, the only women in the Avengers franchise were Freya, Odin’s wife, Natasha Romanoff, a woman who was rescued by Hawkeye from a spy agency where she was trained to become any type of woman, and Pepper Potts, who exists only to be a foil or romantic interest for Tony Stark. Again, all are reduced to their roles as accessories to the male characters. In Civil War, we finally saw another major female character introduced – as a balancing act for the two conflicting groups, so that there was near-perfect symmetry between the sides (a flyer, a person of color, a marksman, a leader, a woman). Wanda Maximoff is less a real character than she is an object to fill a role.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is slightly better, thanks to a trio of female characters, lead by Ming-Na Wen, who carries a long and noted history in television, and has developed significant professional capital. Combine that with a writers room that is not headed up by Joss on a daily basis (though he has editorial control over plots), and the formula diverts from his usual. Daisy Johnson and Jemma Simmons have both evolved far past their initial characterizations, and Melinda May has carried some significantly emotional storylines as a departure from her initial stoic façade.

And so a pattern emerges. The women in Joss’ properties are not fully realized characters unless they’re being written by other people, but rather objects to tick off boxes. “Hero? Check. Sexual being? Check. Innocent? Check.” It shows in everything he does, though in some cases it has been obfuscated behind the writing or directing of others. This portrayal of women is rather like the Queen on a chess board. She is powerful, yes, but only in a limited form, frequently used in defense of the King.

In the past few years, we’ve seen an increasing intolerance for bigoted and misogynistic attitudes within film and media creation. A cast of diverse female characters, as seen in Mad Max: Fury Road, is lauded, while obviously stereotypical writing is panned, as in the recent release, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. As a result, creators have become subtle in their coding: Male characters express superficially feminist views, while taking actions that belie their words – evident in movies such as Passengers. Female characters are placed in apparent positions of power, but are written as social stereotypes. This is parallel to how Joss presents himself: the vocabulary and phrasing of his public statements on women are all organized “correctly.” He says all the right things in press junkets, but his written dialogue and character development put the lie to his words.

One cannot separate the art from the person – the art comes from the person, especially when that art is the creation and portrayal of individuals who express opinions and fill theatrical or fictional roles. Dismissing the creator is to ignore the influence that creator carries, especially in regards to the shaping of society. To continue to idolize the art produced by men who have a history of misogyny, without identifying and critiquing that misogyny on a regular basis, is a reinforcement of the cultural biases which already run rampant through our movies and shows. We are fortunate enough to live in an era where the influence of media is becoming well-recognized, and there are occasionally successful attempts to create properties which better portray a diverse and complex society. It behooves us, then, to notice and highlight the properties which falsely do so – they are the most dangerous to an integrated and celebrated society, through their subtle reinforcement of dangerously bigoted tropes.