I had every intention of writing an article exploring Joss Whedon’s treatment of sex in his various works, and then I started doing some research online. When I write articles like the one I was envisioning, I worry about unintentionally copying someone else’s ideas, so do a bit of searching to make sure that I still have something new to say. Sometimes I find that someone else has put out an essay that says exactly what I wanted, only better, and I’ll simply abandon my idea. Other times, I’ll find an article arguing the opposite of what I want to say, but in a way that allows me to write my opinions as a rebuttal (this worked really well for my Star Wars prequel analysis). It’s important to read a variety of opinions, because challenging ourselves is the best way to grow, both as a writer/blogger and as a person.
But something different happened to me when I started searching for articles about Joss Whedon and sex. I still have a lot to say, and maybe I’ll write that analysis soon, but for the moment I’m giving up on it. The selection of essays and articles I read were so off-putting that it’s killed my enthusiasm for the project. No one likes to see something they love criticized, especially when it’s something that speaks to you on a personal level the way Joss’s works speak to me, and when it’s something that you feel does good in the world. I’m no fool, and I know every topic/person/work of art has a corner of the internet filled with people who hate it, but this was all on a level that bothered me.
I love it when people disagree with me. Or, maybe I should say that I love it when people who disagree with me have well thought out reasons as to why, are able to articulate those reasons and can discuss the disagreement in a non-judgmental way. And I can find good fodder from my blog even from counterarguments that are not well reasoned. But what I found online was a boatload of passionately written criticisms that were so blind to the subject of their criticisms and were so self-righteous in their fiery tirades that it makes any response extremely difficult.
Joss Whedon has been proclaimed by many, including me, to be not only a feminist, but one of the strongest writers of rich and interesting female characters working today. It’s impossible to discuss his treatment of sex in his shows without also talking about his treatment of women, and most of the articles I stumbled upon were focused much more on the feminism aspect than on the sex. That’s fine, because I planned to talk about that too, but the anger and indignation I found were shocking.
I’m a man, and I see a lot of Joss Whedon in myself (in attitude at least, but minus the talent and success), and I realize it can seem pretty insincere for a man to write about women’s issues, but it’s something I truly care about. The criticisms of Joss’s feminist credentials basically boiled down to two main points:
1) Feminism in a man isn’t something that should be celebrated. It should simply be the norm.
2) Joss Whedon isn’t a feminist, anyway. In fact, he’s misogynistic.
I certainly agree wholeheartedly with point number 1 in an ideal world. We shouldn’t feel the need to celebrate behavior and attitudes that ought to be the standard. We don’t send out cards to people saying, “Congratulations on not being an asshole!” However, we don’t live in that world yet. Many of us are trying to push it in that direction, but we’re a long way from that. There is a benefit to holding people up as role models for doing something that you feel everyone should be doing, especially when the default state of the world is so far beneath that level. It’s easy to see from Joss’s interviews that he is uncomfortable when it’s pointed out how ground-breaking his work has been, because he feels like it should simply be the norm.
(I saw a lot of criticism specifically directed at one of my favorite videos, which you can see here, which the authors of these articles took to be Joss praising himself. I think this was a clear misreading of his speech, especially considering he was accepting an award that he was being given because of his writing of women characters. His speech is actually all about point #1, and how he feels he shouldn’t be getting an award for simply doing what everyone should be doing.)
So, fair to say that I totally understand that sort of anger. The people in this world often suck (“People are mostly crap,” as Victor from Dollhouse says), and the fact that the ideal “normal” is celebrated as something unusual is immensely frustrating, even if I think it’s still important to do. But what I think is grossly unfair is to use that frustration to attack someone. It comes off as jealousy, in the manner of, “I’m just as good a feminist as him, but no one is giving me an award.” Some of this likely comes because he’s male, and the praise he gets feels like male privilege, in the sense that women are expected to be feminists but male feminists get a bonus “feminist cookie”. I highly doubt that Joss does what he does because he wants to be praised for it, and I know I don’t, so don’t criticize him simply because others choose to praise him.
But point #2 is the big one. Especially when you add “racist” or “homophobic” to “misogynistic”, as many writers online seem to have done. I feel like many of the articles I came across were so angry about #1 that they went straight into #2 with a bunch of emotion and not much perspective. So many examples of Joss’s supposed anti-feminism were taken out of context with regards to character development, storylines or his entire body of work. For example, it’s one thing to say that female characters in Joss’s shows get punished for sex by citing Buffy and Angel as an example, but to then ignore the other, positive sexual relationships in the show is misleading. Not to mention the fact that men in the show have negative consequences of sex also.
Many of the articles complain about Buffy, Willow and other characters not being “strong enough feminist role models” without explaining what they want, though the impression they give from this complaint often makes it seem that they want a one-dimensional, faultless, female superhero. Yet they then complain about Buffy’s strong moments as being too one-dimensional. It’s hard for me to take any criticism of Buffy as a shallowly-written character seriously, but so many articles criticized her for being too shallow one moment and too complicated in another that any rational argument got lost. I’m of the opinion that a character whose purpose is to uphold a perfect ideal version of a particular attribute is probably not going to make for interesting viewing. There are no perfect human beings, so I don’t want to watch perfect characters.
It’s like the writers of these articles don’t know what they want. They take anything that’s not overtly and explicitly feminist as anti-feminist, and anything that is overtly and explicitly feminist as pandering and insincere. Not every episode of Buffy is perfect (though I would say every episode of Firefly is), but if you go into something looking for reasons to hate it, you’ll have no trouble finding them. It’s all to easy to take things out of context in order to justify your pre-existing views, especially when you take into consideration the desire to go against the masses out of frustration.
(One thing that’s particularly frustrating is people’s anger over rape being included as a plot point in many of Joss’s shows. Yes, Joss has used rape as a storytelling device, but it’s never been treated poorly or made light of. Rape is a horrible and traumatizing act, one of the worst things a human being can do, yet it’s not something that should be off limits in storytelling. To pretend like rape doesn’t happen is a far more grievous crime than to use it in a show. I have a lot more to say about rape in Joss Whedon shows, if I ever write the article I had planned to, so I’ll just leave this topic here for now.)
It was also very telling that a good number of the blogs had heavily censored their comments sections. I can understand this with regards both to the fan hate that inevitably comes from criticizing something with a huge cult following and to the horribly sexist and disgusting comments that seem to pop up whenever a woman writes about feminism. (Most of the articles were written by women.) However, as I looked into it a bit more, I started to notice people commenting to say that their previous comments had been deleted, with the author of the piece admitting that they were not interested in listening to the other point of view. To me, that sheds a lot of light on the views that they expressed in their articles, and they don’t come out looking particularly favorable.
My goal in this was not to argue that Joss Whedon is a feminist (though I think he is), nor to say that I am (though I try to be), but to vent my frustration with the attitudes I found online. It’s impossible to know how prevalent those opinions are, though their voices certainly are loud. I have little patience with people who experience something with the intention of using it to prove a point, going in with preformed opinions, rather than watching it and then forming a view. At this point, I don’t know that I’ll ever write that analysis I had planned, though the mere act of writing this has been pretty cathartic. So instead of my normal variety of questions that I sometimes end my posts with, I’ll just leave you with one. Have you ever had people’s responses to an issue kill your enthusiasm for even discussing that issue anymore?
(It should be noted that it seems like no one online understands the themes, messages or characters of Dollhouse. That’s disappointing.)