Dear Joss: Please Get Better AKA How ‘Buffy’ Failed Us

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Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Photo via 20th Century Fox and Mutant Enemy Productions

Yesterday, the Wonder Woman script written by Joss Whedon was released, to much criticism for its treatment of Diana of Themyscira. It’s not the first time Joss Whedon has faced criticism that his writing, widely believed to be feminist, is, instead, anti-feminist or, at least, feminism that doesn’t go far enough.

My oldest daughter, Erin, now 24, grew up watching Buffy The Vampire SlayerBut instead of being excited about the news that Whedon will helm an upcoming Batgirl film, Erin’s unhappy with the idea, especially given Whedon’s interview where he talked about Barbara Gordon’s “damage.” I’ll get out of the way and let her explain:

Dear Joss Whedon, Please Get Better
Or: How Buffy Failed Us

By Erin Lavitt

First, before we get started, I don’t want to diminish how important, how special, a show Buffy the Vampire Slayer was when it came out.

I, too, am a fan of Buffy. I own the DVDs. I know every word to the Season 6 musical episode’s songs. I used to play Slayers with my next to eldest brother. And, yes, I have written fanfiction on the scale of really bad to passable.

I love Buffy, the show and the character. But just as family members can criticize one another, and just as coaches are often hard on their best students, I say these things because I care. I will never write an editorial about Michael Bay’s lousy writing of his female characters because there’s very little evidence Michael Bay is capable of anything better. But Joss Whedon, episodes like “The Body”, “Prophecy Girl”, and “Anne” prove you can do this. My question is… why don’t you do it more often?

No, this is not just about Black Widow‘s treatment in Avengers: Age of Ultron. It is about a pattern in Joss Whedon’s work where he enjoys torturing female characters. And before you say, “But he tortures the male ones too!” I will reply: yes. It is also the role of a good writer, arguably, to torture characters. But there’s a difference in how he tortures his female characters, and it reveals a very troubling pattern.

After you read this, I hope you’ll realize. why I’m concerned about Whedon’s announced Batgirl movie.

But before we can talk about that, let’s rewind.

The first big public red flag against Whedon was Black Widow’s arc in Age of Ultron. It shocked a lot of people with its insensitivity but those who were paying attention would not have been surprised. The sins were in there from the beginning.

Sin one is Drusilla, one of Buffy‘s more fascinating recurring villains. Arguably, she’s one of the best villains of the series; I think she’s the best. But her backstory is proof of something quite troubling.

While Spike, initially introduced as at least as villainous, and Angelus, apparently didn’t need a terribly tragic backstory (getting dumped for writing bad poetry is not a tragic backstory, it is a Tuesday) to justify their villainy as vampires, Drusilla was a human gifted/cursed with prophecy. Darla, two hundred years prior to the start of the show, offers her to Angelus as a “gift”–a prize to hunt who will always know he’s coming for her, yet will continue to fight anyway. She evades Angelus for years, despite his murder of her family and his rapes of her, and he finally drives her mad by turning her into a demon on the day she took her holy orders as a nun, just when she thought she was safe.

In the show’s present, she has a creepy devotion to her “Daddy”, a delight in mind games, severe mental instability, and psychic powers.

There is nothing wrong with a backstory like this, in and of itself. It’s even cool, and it offers a handy explanation as to why Buffy and Angel don’t just kill her. But Drusilla, while clearly intended to be a major villain, never reaches that role due to off-screen issues such as the brilliant Juliet Landau’s extensive theater commitments and punishing schedule. As painful as it would have been to recast, leaving Drusilla as an occasional guest star robs her backstory of its power. It’s used to make Angel feel guilty, or to motivate Spike, or to titillate the viewer, but not to enhance Dru’s emotional life or add depth to her character. And frankly, something as serious as what happened to Dru as a human should do more to affect the show.

What could have been a fantastic set-up is left as mere emotional wallpaper.

While Angel and Spike, among the male characters, do suffer, their suffering advances the plot, and is about them. When Angel gets his soul re-implanted, it leads him on a centuries-long quest to seek redemption and is the basis for his entire character. No one can say that even with the implications that soul shoving = rape, that Angel’s pain is there to make another character feel bad. Spike voluntarily undergoes torture to regain his soul, which opens the door for some of the very best writing of later seasons of Buffy and Angel and feels like an authentic extension of the work done with the character. The difference between Drusilla and Spike as characters with rich emotional lives couldn’t be more stark.

But, okay, Drusilla’s only one example, right? To which I say: there is hardly a single female character in Joss Whedon’s entire works of fiction that does not undergo some form of gendered pain.

Buffy is stalked by Angelus after sleeping with Angel, leading to the squicky implication that sex makes you evil. She’s assaulted by Spike, a scene many viewers, myself included, decry as unrealistic. Dawn, in the later comics, becomes a giant after “boning a Thricewise”–a whiny, unappealing giant. Joyce is repeatedly punished for seeming to want a dating life when her boyfriends turn out to be evil robots or her dying as soon as she meets a nice guy. Anya is killed to save a flawed, unpopular male character. Tara is mind raped, first by Glory, then by her supposedly loving girlfriend–twice. Jenny Calendar’s death is used solely to motivate Giles to call for Angelus’ death and to cause him grief.

As for the scene Joss Whedon planned with Inara on Firefly, where she injects herself with a fluid that will cause her vagina to murder any attacker if it is penetrated–yet not save her from rape and likely leave her with a man in his death throes on top of her, can we all say we’re profoundly grateful for the studio executives who killed that decision? Cordelia on Angel is repeatedly inseminated, harassed, impregnated, and finally absorbed and taken over by another entity, to the point where it’s a not very funny running joke and she ends up sleeping with her adopted son.

Fred is literally fridged.

In his obscure and frankly poor Runaways comics run, Whedon spends five pages of a very short comic run making sure the reader knows Nico Minoru, a teenage girl and leader of her friend group, is tied up and tortured, psychically, physically, and mentally, by her great-grandmother. This has no effect whatsoever on the plot, other than to supposedly increase her powers—and how incredibly squicky is it that Whedon seems to think a woman can’t be powerful without being in pain first?

Why else would he express his interest in “what’s Batgirl’s damage” when describing his excitement about the new movie he’s directing?

After all, she had no childhood tragedy to lead her into the life of a caped crusader, so why is she a vigilante? The idea that Batgirl wants to make a difference in her community, better Gotham, and learn from Batman apparently is not sufficient reason for her to don a cape and tights for Whedon, even though literally every other writer and reader of Batgirl for half a century have found this completely believable.

Feminism is about much more than giving women traditionally male roles or watching girls kick ass. It is about women getting the same opportunities as men. It’s about avoiding dichotomies like dressing all your “evil” female characters in leather and making your “good” female characters wear sweaters and turtlenecks like it’s not Southern California.

It’s not calling Amber Benson fat, or act like casting her instead of a slightly skinnier actress was an act of charity on your party. It’s about not asking Charisma Carpenter to delay pregnancy and just writing the show around it instead of punishing her for choosing to be a mother while you’re on a TV schedule. It is about not using Black Widow’s infertility as a thing that separates her from others and understanding the full scope of what forced sterilization means before you write it into an action movie.

It’s about allowing Batgirl to be the hero because she wants to be, and not because some tragedy forced her to. It is about not writing Wonder Woman, almost always written as a fully grown, confident, and not-from-here woman as a naive girl who knows pop culture references.

Buffy was a step in the right direction, but like many artists, Whedon seems to think giving us one hit twenty years ago is sufficient to insulate himself from any and all accusations of sexist writing ever. I don’t believe the misogyny in these writing choices is intentional, but misogyny need not be intentional to be harmful.

Joss Whedon, the world needs more strong female characters. It does not need more Strong Female Characters (TM).

Please write something I can enjoy watching or reading. I want you to succeed because I believe you want to be an ally for women. But good allyship means thinking for one split second about whether it’s a good idea to write a woman in pain, every time, all the time. Gendered pain such as rape has its place in fiction, even speculative fiction. But it cannot be the only tool you use to motivate your heroines.

Find some others; I know you’re capable of more, I know you can evolve. If you don’t, the public could hate you with the intensity it hates Adam Sandler, and for the same reason: not evolving alongside your audience.

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18 thoughts on “Dear Joss: Please Get Better AKA How ‘Buffy’ Failed Us

  1. This essay is an ambitious look at Whedon’s work across multiple media. Even if Whedon doesn’t learn from the insights here, other writers will. I look forward to reading more from Ms. Lavitt.

  2. As pointed out in the article: this isn’t only Whedon’s fault. It is indicative of the female-centric writing throughout society. It’s more that Whedon has been far more vocal about his feminist views and previously been such a catalyst for change, it is disappointing to see his latest work become more susceptible to gender-based tragedies.

    While I recognise tragedy is often motivator for most superheroes (male and female), the difference comes from who the tragedy directly happened too. Batman; Superman; The Flash – lots of examples of happening to someone else to motivate the hero (with a few exceptions but very few). Batgirl, however, had The Killing Joke – a tragedy directly on her, with gender-based torture not used on many male characters, and then it wasn’t even used as HER motivation!! It was for someone else!!

    Please don’t let Batgirl’s “tragedy-motivator” be The Killing Joke. And please, Whedon – progress with the change you motivated.

  3. So glad you and your daughter understand Joss’s writing more than anyone on the planet. You’re over reaching with your analogies and opinions. Angel and Spike continued story lines because they were love interests of Buffy. You know, the leading character. And when it came down to it, Buffy (a very strong female lead) was ready to sacrifice everything to save the world. It wasn’t their back story. There were plenty of men with horrible back stories. Buffy dated several (remember Parker? He was an awful human being). Then you have other strong female characters in the show. Willow and Tara were one of the most loved characters with an awesome story between the two of them. Sorry but your opinion is way off and you should continue to watch more than just Buffy and Avengers. There is Dollhouse, Firefly, A Cabin in the Woods, Much Ado About Nothing (was brilliantly done). There is also the movie In Your Eyes which was amazing.

    1. I wouldn’t use Tara as an example to the positive, given her death has become a verb (Markov’d) now used for lesbians that have been killed off in numerous shows. (See: Lexa, the 100.)

  4. I think that you can appreciate Whedon while recognizing his flaws. There are things he does well. As someone who ihas published academic work on the Whedonverse, I can appreciate that I love his use of linguistic gymnastics, if not always his character represenations.

    I think that there were several missteps in Buffy (“Seeing Red” comes to mind, particularly the aftermath). I think that if you extrapolate problems, having Dollhouse be based around female characters that men use for their pleasure (and, y’know, Dushku in that role) while the women are unconscious.. that feels rather rape druggy albeit I get the underlying attempt. I think appropriating another culture to seem progressive undermines the goals of using it.

    There are many problematic aspects to Whedon. Denying them leads to pop culture idolatry. I think that what Ms. Lavitt says and her examples are important aspects of the work. Even many Whedonists (and yes, that is a “thing” and a line of academic pop culture research) agree that his works are problematic.

    To ignore the problems and praise the ideal sets people up to be lazy and allow sexism/racism/transphobia/homophobia to continue. It is because we have people like Ms. Lavitt that we keep in mind no one is perfect and that we get better.

  5. The backgrounds that Whedon created are exactly what people needed. It gives not just females, but all people the courage to not let where they came from and what has happen to them to define who they are. There is no such thing as a perfect upbringing and background. People chose to become hero’s, to make a difference and change the world, because of their experiences and the evil that they have have seen.

    I am excited to see what Whedon does with Batgirl. The are multiple origin stories and routes that can be taken and I have no doubt in my mind he will do a great job.

    You seem so concerned that Whedon is not feminist enough or the characters that he creates are not. You looking at it wrong, it’s not just his femail characters it’s the males ones as well. In BTVS, all characters blindly follow Buffy into battle, support her, and follow her commands. They accept the fact that this women is stronger, faster and more incontroll then they will ever be. Firefly is riddled with female charters that are stronger and smarter than them. The male characters do not question, become over barring or try and stop them. They give them support and opportunity to strive. He surrounds strong female characters with men and others who not only accept them, but like it.

    If you don’t believe me, please read this interview of Joss Whedon. It says all I need to.

    “So, why do you always write these strong women characters?”

    Because equality is not a concept. It’s not something we should be striving for. It’s a necessity. Equality is like gravity. We need it to stand on this earth as men and women. And the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and woman who is confronted with it.

    We need equality. Kinda now.

    “So, why do you always write these strong women characters?”

    Because you’re still asking me that question.

  6. I thought this was going to be thoughtful, but it reads like someone Googled “Joss Whedon anti-feminist” and compiled the results into an essay.

    1. I’ll point out that she has read one of Whedon’s most obscure works, The Runaways run for Marvel back about..a decade ago now. She wrote a guest post about her issues with that too, back in the day.

      Ya’ll could google it.

  7. What a nonsense…

    Just the fact that you could reduce the death of Jenny Calendar to something meant ‘solely to motivate Giles’ demonstrates how lacking this analysis is.

    Calendar’s death was in many ways a defining moment not only of that season but of the entire show, in that it cements the reality of death/loss and the destructiveness of male violence as key motivators for every character in the series. The scene hinges on the performances of Hannigan and Gellar receiving the news of her murder. It is more than anything about confronting male violence.

    The show is not perfect in its handling of gender identity, but no show is. I don’t know that it is a topic that can be handled perfectly. Buffy went farther than most in trying to right the balance, though.

    1. There are things I love about Buffy and what Whedon has written in his numerous shows and some things I don’t. But because he created something better than it’s time doesn’t mean it’s exempt from criticism now. Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek, and I ADORE the original series but the treatment of female characters is an issue. Original Trek is like….halfway there. There’s Uhura but then there are the short skirts–and there’s also Yeoman Rand. These things are worth mentioning because they’re still happening today, like Carol Marcus running around in her underwear and the short skirts somehow still being Starfleet uniforms in a modernized Trek. (Thankfully, the new Trek series looks to be much improved in this.)

      There is also criticism of Whedon that points out that he killed the only slayer of color–and we still have women of color in genre shows being killed off–see: Abbie Mills on Sleepy Hollow or the end of Into the Badlands recently.

      It’s not that “well, it was good for its time and we have to accept that.” It’s more like “It was good for its time but had issues and we are still having those issues today and that should not be ignored.”

  8. Wow o wow really and how long have people been fighting equality and the fact that the show aired 20 years ago is astonishing so you also must remember you comparing something from 20 years ago to this date in time rly…do you ever consider that perhaps that time period women themselves were ok with feminists behaviour as they were subject to it so often it become second nature and the fact he wheedon,ed in equality in his shows …do you think also he could just go all out equality and still get as many viewers to keep the show alive 1 person can only do so much the fact he is trying in the first place should bring him praise and not biased tat you sprout out . You talk about equality but each and everyone in that show had their own problems wether it was women or men it makes no difference and equality is 50/50 male vs female your always going to have an imbalance wether it’s against the man or woman ! I think you need to rethink your opinions and take a hard think.

    1. You also seem to miss the point of the article. Yes, he did these things 20 years ago, but he should not still be doing this NOW. His writing should have matured in 20 years.

  9. “It’s about avoiding dichotomies like dressing all your “evil” female characters in leather and making your “good” female characters wear sweaters and turtlenecks like it’s not Southern California.”

    Since do the good female characters all walk around in sweaters and turtlenecks on Buffy? Buffy Summers herself was constantly in very short and tight skirts in the high school years? She wore quite a few skintight pairs of leather pants as well, here was the red ones in Graduation Day for starters, the pink ones in Buffy Vs Dracula etc etc

      1. Author here. I was actually thinking of that appalling scene in Angel where Connor is pressured by the ghost of Darla in a pink sweater and Cordelia in leather, and dark Willow in Season 6. But yeah I’m always surprised Buffy isn’t in shorts 100% of the time.

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