Sunday, 8 September 2013

Why he keeps answering that question: Joss Whedon and Feminism as Marketing Strategy

Q: So, why do you write these strong female characters?

A: Because you’re still asking me that question. – Joss Whedon

If you haven’t seen this quote in some sort of a graphic bandied about Facebook in the past year or so, I congratulate you. Because I can’t seem to escape it.

Recently, there was an impressive piece making the rounds about the problems of Strong Female Characters. Also, the hit book of 2012, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, makes an excellent case against the Cool Girls. I am partially troubled by Whedon because, despite his talk (and to be fair, the fact he often overcomes the Smurffette principal), he seems to be writing a never-ending parade of Cool Girls and Strong Female Characters. They seem to be his concept of feminism's logical end.

What disturbs me more, however, is how Whedon has coopted the language of feminism into a form of self-aggrandizing marketing. He's the Feminist Comic/Nerd Writer. He deserves endless praise for how he dares to write Strong Female Characters. In the end, the above quote (which notably, never actually happened) in its meme form - and the dialogue around it in any Facebook comments section - becomes less a strong statement on the case of feminism and the problems of female representation and power in the media industry. Ultimately, it's more a case of basking in how awesome Joss Whedon is to say it.

[SIDE NOTE: Before I begin this entry, I should note that I am committing two of the major sins of paranoid reading. First and foremost, I’m critiquing something of which I’m not entirely versed. Secondly, I’m critiquing something I don't like much anyway. The first is the more grevious offense (but I have an excuse in a second), the second is more of a pet peeve. I get annoyed paranoid readings of things the writer dislikes because ultimately the thesis seems to be “and here is why I am right for hating it aesthetically, because it is politically bad.” Admittedly, I may be in the minority here.

As for these problems and my issues with Joss Whedon, I’ll try to excuse myself the best I can. Concerning the first, this critique is only about what I’ve seen of his (Avengers, the first eight or so episodes of Firefly, his X-Men run, Alien 3, Toy Story, and Doctor Horrible) and, much more importantly, about his self-presentation in the media. Therefore, this ccritqiue does not apply at all to Buffy or Dollhouse or anything else. That being said, having seen a few movies, about 5 or 6 hours of a television show, and some comics, I feel like I'm at least not a Whedon-virgin.

As for the second, I’ll at least be up front about it. I think Whedon’s work is forever hindered by the fact that all of his characters talk in the exact same register (i.e. like Joss Whedon). This problem prevents me from ever seeing his charactters as people – they can never become more than author avatars (Fiction Suits as Grant Morrison would say). There may be something intrinsically linked with this problem and the problem this blog addresses (i.e. Whedon writes women as men), but that's a topic for another entry I suppose.

Oh, and for anyone wanting to defend Whedon by saying that he did not write all of those Firefly eps, I’m invoking “show runner as TV auteur” theory. Whedon had a large amount of input in those episodes. He gets a fair share of the credit for them; thus he deserves any blame as well.]

I’m sure Whedon’s heart is in the right place. I know he does identify as feminist, which in and of itself is a good thing and not to be undervalued. So what bothers me? Perhaps the fact that his idea of feminism isn’t all too complicated of one…and yet he never shuts up about it. Most interviews with Whedon seem to be about how he’s a feminist…and a man (gasp!), but never really about any of the nitty gritties of feminism. Feminism for Whedon often does not seem to go beyond the point of “Let the lady kick ass.” In Firefly, we have a Strong Female Character (Zoe, playing into many of the stereotypes of Black Women and strength), two Cool Girls (Manic Pixie Dreamgirl Kaylee and Inara, a sexworker who is able to be dignified by Whedon only once he completely untangles sex work from its current reality and removes any complexities in the situation), and one Victim (River). Black Widow is the Cool Strong Female Character. Emma Frost and Kitty Pryde don’t fare much better. And I don’t even remember any details of the love interest form Doctor Horrible.

To be fair, sometimes Whedon evolves from this position to “Let the ladies kick ass, and let there be a more proportionate number of ladies to men as the ass-kicking commences,” and that’s a good thing. But he’s been playing the game this way for 20 years. Isn’t it about time someone who likes using feminism so much as he does starts thinking more deeply about the concept? This form of self-branding that’s probably gotten him a serious amount of cash by politically minded nerd-girls and socially-conscious nerd boys should be more than simply a marketing strategy, right?

Instead, what we get is a Whedon who continues to tout feminism in a reductive manner. This manner would be refreshing to hear from someone just starting his writing career or who up until now has not be reknowned for his takes on female characters. But for someone who has espoused it as long as Whedon, it feels lazy, perhaps even a bit disinterested.

When talking about Avengers, Whedon complains about the lack of female characters he could use. When asked about his being a male feminist, his response is less an attack on the men who would accuse him of playing traitor and more a defense against the imaginary women who think men can’t be feminists. There’s also an odd “transgender people complain too much” comment that weirdly sticks out. And, when asked about the rise of vampire fiction in contrast to his Buffy works, he said, “The Twilight thing and a lot of these franchise attempts coming out, everything rests on what this girl will do, but she’s completely passive, or not really knowing what the hell is going on...A lot of things aimed at the younger kids is just Choosing Boyfriends: The Movie.”

Whedon wants to play Feminist but doesn’t want to get his hands dirty. His confrontations with anything resembling a patriarchy (comic fans' expectations, movie execs) feel just as staged as any of the fights he’s written in which a tall, statuesque woman defeats ten men. He acts as if complaining about the lack of women in the movie he wrote and directed completely exculpates him from any accountability. Again, it'd be one issue coming from an up-and-comer. But Whedon's in a position now where a real feminist would ask himself: "Well, now what am I gonna do about it?"

Currently it sounds like we’ll be getting three new characters in Avengers: Ultron, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver. Once more the numbers don’t look all that good for representation. In fact, despite his huffing and puffing, his sequel has the gender makeup of the average summer blockbuster (the Smurffette principal is slowly becoming the Smurfette and Friend one). But couldn’t Whedon, if he cared, do something about it? Rumors existed that Whedon is getting paid 100 million dollars for the next Avengers. He fervently denies this number, but I imagine it’s not too far off. In short, Whedon is a desireable commodity for Disney/Marvel. Why not use that leverage? Ask for more ladies, a lot more, or he walks? Again, not every director needs to do these things. But ones who like to talk on and on about their politics are more accountable.

His male feminist response is almost too odd for response. It feels as if Whedon’s foe there is a branch of feminism that seems more or less gone: i.e. the separatist movement. Not only that, that movement has really not contributed all too much since Whedon started his career. It has and had occasional gasps, but by now the current strain feels more in the root of men acknowledging their privilege before enterting discussion. Why in his answer does he position himself against women even though there's tons of imaginary men against whom he could pitch his answer?

My knowledge of Whedon’s own queer-politics is admittedly too limited to go into here, so I won’t approach that angle for now...except to say it sounded not incredibly ally-like.

And then there’s Twilight. What can be more feminist than hating Twilight, right? Right? Everyone hates Twilight! Except, you know, its fans…most of which are female.

While admittedly Twilight has many problems and is by no means the most exemplary case of feminism, I always find myself a bit unnerved by all the hate it gets. A lot of this goes back to issues of genre/gender that I won’t go into much here, so I’ll just focus on the attacks on it from the Whedonesque POV – i.e. those that are trying to appear feminist.

The issue with these critiques is that they never really take anything resembling sexism or anything resembling a patriarchy to task. They often come down to “Look at the dumb female [fans/writer/protagonist]. [Aren’t they/isn’t she] silly for [liking this book/writing this book/not fighting for herself]?” It’s a criticism that never extends its contempt beyond the female sphere and is content with making women the object of scorn and ridicule. It never questions the larger structures that may create this issue, never wonders why these books are appealing to girls, and how else we may work to improve entertainment beyond shaming the readers and the writer. Whedon's argument sadly seems to be "Ladies, time to man up!"

As for “Choosing Boyfriends: The Movie”…why is choosing a boyfriend necessarily a bad plot? Despite the fact that Whedon adapted a Shakespearean comedy (and that’s all any of them are really - how to pick a mate), he somehow assumes that reducing a female-aimed YA down to one plot becomes immediate shorthand for its inadequacy compared to the endless kicking and world-saving of his narratives. Last time I checked, picking a boyfriend is tough – it’s filled with emotional struggles and self-interrogation and lots of meaty twists and drama. Sure, Twilight or its ilk may not always provide that deepness, but neither does a much of YA literature fully explore such concepts in the same manner that adult literary fiction would (nor does really it need to).

Whedon’s equation of romance with worthless storytelling brings to mind a Virginia Woolf quote:

Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop — everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.

And this quote really sums up my issue with Whedon as a feminist. His buttkikcing blonde may have been a great first step – but since then he seems to have, in various ways, coasted and boasted. Were he committed to feminism, really committed to it, he would have to take the time to not only consider how to put women into the roles typically inhabited by men, but perhaps to valorize typically feminine attributes. How could he make a sex worker a compelling, dignified character without elevating her to an ambassador? How can he work on less masculine genres and give them the same dignity and nerd-cred that he’s gotten for his other works?

Admitteldy, I am asking a lot of Whedon. But I ask it to him particularly because he truly does seem to want to be a feminist. In twenty years, you would think a feminist writer would have come across this Woolf quote. Or have picked up one of the hundreds of books of theory which try to push past simply the Strong Female Character. So much of writing is research and yet in his interviews and recent works, Whedon shows very little of his, if he’s even doing it.

Of course, there’s always a more paranoid reading. That Whedon really is just branding himself as the Feminist Nerd Writer. It’s possible, and very possibly an aspect, intentionally or not, though even I’m inclined to think he’s being sincere. If so though, I’ll end this essay undercutting my own reading. In this age where feminism is becoming a dirty word, where we have less Leslie Gores singing against male ownership and more Lady Gagas talking about worshipping men and avidly denying the label of feminism, maybe there’s something not entirely awful in even being willing to use feminism as a marketing strategy. Maybe it’s like the ads with same-sex couples in them: certainly a bit of a clever move to tug on the heartstrings of the liberals and get them to open their wallets…but I suppose it’s better than the alternative.

And that’s the concession I’ll give Whedon. If nothing else, at least he thinks feminism can be a marketing strategy. And we could use more of that.

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