Published: Jun 2, 2016 12:00:00 PM

black-widow-snl.pngDoes our damage define us? If so, then women are wriggling balls of nerves and erupting neuroses, according to Joss Whedon.

It's rightfully recognized that Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, and director of two Avengers movies, is an active feminist. He talks about giving strong women visible roles in his worlds. He built an entire vampire-slaying show about a young lady. It's right there in the title! These shows drill further into the female characters than any other in recent pop-culture, combining shit that boys like—action, winged freak-beasts, space cowboys, sex—with women in layered, leading roles.

That's progress!

Somehow—that's progress. It's sickening that hundreds of years in western history have passed since Shakespeare (or you can argue as far back as Chaucer's The Knight's Tale), made humans with lady-bits thinking, feeling, talking, and scheming individuals worthy of crafted drama. It's progress that we can point to a character like Inara on Firefly and say, "that character is feminine, and wasn't instructed to trip over her ovaries getting out of bed for a laugh."

Yes, bothering to give the female character's dialog and back-story a punch-up, unfortunately, is progress. That's progress. And that's sad.

We carry phones, which are not only screens, but conduits to a millennium's worth of stories, and Joss Whedon's Firefly bothering to put a mentally-traumatized pre-teen in a box, again, is progress. What comes out of the box is something entirely different.

He writes the women characters, giving them the attention a good comedian gives to writing, and re-writing a joke, phrasing the scenario, and describing it just thusly, to make it work for maximum timing and impact.

And after all that, some jokes still come out wrong. Some of Joss Whedon's characters come out wrong. Some of his female characters come out wrong.

It's progress that he's trying—that he's bothering to GO THERE when others rarely will.

Are Whedon's Female Characters Only Worth Talking About Because Of Their Trauma?

There's a part of the classic, final Firefly episode "Objects In Space," where the eerie bounty hunter Jubal Early stealthily invades the starship Serenity. Early, who is black, is named for a Confederate Civil War general. Whedon toys with character names for tickling irony sometimes. On board, Early confronts Simon, the ship's logical doctor. Early suggests to Simon that he should be shot at some point in his life, to truly understand his profession, the way psychiatrists must get psychoanalyzed before they "make the cut."

Early is pointing out the irony that a doctor may not have been wounded badly enough to understand his job. That's quite the slight at Simon's identity as a doctor. He hasn't been enough of a doctor to be a full-doctor.

Previously, Early had confronted Kaylee, the ship's mechanic. Kaylee is a bright-spot of unending happiness. Captain Mal once mentioned that "there isn't a power in the 'verse that could keep our Kaylee from being cheerful." When Early confronts Kaylee, he her if she's ever been raped.

Kaylee can barely answer. She's terrified. It grows worse as Early makes Kaylee admit out-loud that nobody can help her. The look on her face, directed by Whedon himself, is impressing that not only is Kaylee damn-frightened, but one could interpret it as old thoughts going through her head while Early is describing what is going to happen. No, we don't know that Kaylee was once raped, nor is the topic ever explored, as this was the final episode.

The question was leveled. What is the motivation for Kayelee's bright demeanor?

What parallels are meant to be summoned here? Cheerful girls are just compensating for old sexual assaults? Trauma will make us who we are?

It's a regular occurrence across Whedon's shows.

On Angel, the resident waif was Winnifred, aka, Fred, played by Amy Acker. Adept and intelligent, but beaming with girl-next-door cuteness, she is was recovered from a demon dimension by Angel. Joining the team and recovering little by little from the trauma she experienced in the alternate dimension, she is used, abused, passed around between Wesley and Gunn a few times, tortured, and eventually killed as her reward for completing a character arc. Her death was particularly painful to watch, asking, "Why can't I stay?" as her last words.

When talking about the episode, Whedon stated, "I thought it'd be really fun to kill Amy."

What weird emotion is Whedon grappling with? Yes, he's a known joker when speaking about his craft. He said wanted to open the door to let Acker play a different character, which she did in Illyria. Unfortunately, she only had 7 episodes to do so before Angel was canceled. Nevertheless, here again is a woman he dragged up into the light from trauma, given room to be bizarrely fun and quirky, and then summarily killed for the sake of drama.

His background in Shakespearean drama is pronounced. However, everybody dies in the end of Hamlet, that's the tragedy, and not every woman in his plays are as mad as Ophelia.

Ophelia is in every half-sane, gibbering she-jester Whedon's ever made. Fred on Angel, River no Firefly, Ripley in Alien Resurrection (written by Whedon, it's interesting how much she acts like River in the first act). He summons Shakespearean shrews like Rosalind when he conceived of Skye on Agents of SHIELD, or Buffy way back when. So why is Adelle on Dollhouse the closest he's ever come to Lady MacBeth, and even she had to become a manipulative alcoholic to find her redemption. Why is psychosis the main driving force for these women?

They need to have their very presence at center stage justified. You gotta be crazy and mean to tangle with the boys!


Whendon positions these strong women characters always as underdogs. It's a semi-outdated slant on feminism, planting feet in the current landscape. Whedon wants the underdog girls to hang with the boys. He tells that story instead of one where the girls smash the system that makes this strange.

Whedon reiterates that the underdogs, the people that have no place making a difference in these big, scary universes suddenly changing it (see: everybody in Serenity, Coulson in Avengers), are the most fun to root for.

Most pointed is Black Widow in Avengers: Age of Ultron. She's an out-classed human among demi-god boys. She manages to hang with them for the whole movie, and other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But not before her traumatic past is explored and the audience is directed to feel for her.

So, women? Is that what he's saying? His women are so often underdogs because they are conceived singularly as trauma-victims.

What's a justifiable way to motivate a powerful move from an atypical underdog character?

For a man, easy: give him daddy issues. Or any old complex will do. They're warriors. They'll suppression emotions like men are wont to do.

Go down the list of male characters Whedon has written, and you can explain away most of them as, "they're guys." Mal is Whedon's best male character by magnitudes, while Angel is the most layered.

What are their motivations? For Angel, atonement. He's a real fuck-up of a vampire that wobbles between brooding protagonist and occasionally, fantastically conniving villain. For Mal, well, again, he's merely a man, and in Firefly's environment, that's all he needs to be, no embellishment required. Straight talk will get you far in a universe of weirdos. He just keeps on trucking, hung up on a bit of survivor's guilt and paternal protectiveness. No mental defects required.

For a woman, it's trauma. Sexual (Kaylee), war (Zoe), abandonment (Fred), death (Willow), guilt (Adelle), identity (Echo), identity (Skye), identity (Cordelia), identity (Whiskey). Black Widow is all of the above.

Women: when in doubt, there's probably an identity-crisis, per Whedon. Because it's gotta be something! A character can't just walk off the assembly line, stepping straight from Zeus' brain into motivation.

Joss Whedon Writes About Women And Rage

Joss Whedon doesn't necessarily write strong women. He writes avatars, emotional manifestations. He writes womens' rage. He writes his own rage that women in television and movies are usually just load-bearing columns, holding up the men's playhouse.

That's noble. Nobody else is shouldering that burden. He shows the damage done as a message.

Ironically, Ultron states in the second Avengers movie, "you want to save the world, but you don't want it to change."

And that's Whedon's hang-up. He'd rather be the storyteller than the world-mover.

It's a fantastic feat that he manages to create characters that aren't JUST girls. Characters that don't get along with their parents. Characters that just are mad about boys, or whatever trait might pass for femininity on network TV (usually just eye-rolling ("Oh, you men!"), or shrewishness). He writes well-rounded, thorough, layered, women, each embodying something that, hey, women have got emotions about, and I bet you didn't even realize how it makes you feel.

Some attempts are clumsy. Others are bad.

Notice how he handled Beatrice in his adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. Amy Acker plays the role as somebody that will not be needlessly exploited. She stays rooted and rational even when Benedick is laboring to tell her, honestly, about how he loves her, and she, him. She didn't wilt. In the face of her father, the king's wrath, and the prospect of her cousin's death, she doesn't jump down a well and die.

Beatrice handles it and won't be influenced by outside forces. Unfortunately, Joss didn't write Much Ado About Nothing. He can identify powerful women in drama (comedy, technically, in Much Ado's case), but still he struggles with manifesting his feelings on what truly MAKES a woman powerful.

As mentioned before, Mal is one of his greatest characters. Like a man should be, he is strengthened by his relationship with Inara. Inara is the most sane women Whedon has created. That's why Mal and Inara are such a great match—they're actually thorough human members of their respective genders that aren't waffling about who they are.

Inara's flirting and sexual tension with Mal doesn't twerk, it waltzes.

So some of his characters just work, and that's great. Maybe Joss has more trouble writing teenagers, like Fred and River, and is better at writing mature women in command of their emotions, such as Zoe, and Inara?

Adelle, over on Dollhouse, almost falls into that same camp. First, she has to suffer tremendous guilt though. And don't get up in arms about how she faked the downward spiral as an elaborate ruse, that was some real-deal alcoholism.

Oh, Dollhouse! What a disasterpiece.

Dollhouse is a bad show with a shit-eating name and a stagnant premise that attempted to demonstrate that as much as men want to play with women and dress them up as vessels for an imprinted personality, Eliza Dushku will beat back your manipulations! Midway through Dollhouse's brief run, Dushku's Echo character eventually becomes an amalgamation of every false identity that's ever been fused into her empty-shell body. She suddenly has a lot of women, and personalities, and bad accents rattling around in her head. Once all that fuses into a fully manifested and functioning personality, she still does not become a person. She becomes this seething, central-casting everywoman's thrashing fear that she'll be locked in a box, loathing every other person around her. She hates her old, pre-brainwashed self, Caroline. She doesn't develop into a caring personality like Priya, another "doll" character on the show. She doesn't become a forward-thinking healer like Adelle, who is the best character on that show. Adelle has a horrifying and beautiful arc.

Echo is the show's lead and she is played as a Whedon arch. It's a miscalculation.

Add up all the female personalities in the world, and you get Echo: hell in high heels. Trembling eyes and anger that throws a tantrum when her boyfriend, Paul, is randomly shot in battle. In the years that she had known him, she wasn't able to tell him she loved him (maybe ('ish)). That isn't drama, that's Echo and Whedon's writing going in circles.

That is not great growth from Echo's origins as the lameass, Caroline.

Dollhouse is a tragedy, both in concept and narrative execution. It could have been the magnum opus that united everything great about Whedon's shows.

Whedon Is A Talent, He Is A Noble Failure, Cementing His Place As One Of The Best

Joss didn't quit though. By the grace of some weird cloud-man, he got The Avengers gig. He staged Black Widow as a capable manipulator in the first film, out-maneuvering even the master trickster Loki. Almost as self-parody, Whedon had ScarJo play the character as somebody pretending to be a scared secret agent-girl, while actually being incredibly calculating and brave.

As an auteur, Whedon brings up questions most wouldn't whenever possible, especially with women. He let Willow and Tara be happy in a real relationship, a first for gay characters. For about two seconds. Then he killed Tara. Then Willow went crazy.

Is Whedon not capable of living in the world he wants to create, exactly the words of the villainous Operative in Serenity? "I'm not going to live there... I'm a monster. What I do is evil."

Okay, it was early in Whedon's career. We keep moving on, hoping to do better. Hoping to progress. Maturation is a painful process and his discovery of how to craft compelling characters, male and female, is raising a generation of artists attempting to outdo him. That is not something that can be understated. He's a forward-thinking feminist creating edgy shows.

If you don't like that, you can watch CBS.

-- Alex Crumb
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