Monday, September 26, 2016

Has Whedon Changed, Or Have We Done Changed?

Of late, I think it's safe to say that there's been something of a fan backlash against Joss Whedon. His last work of note was 'Avengers 2: Age of Ultron', after which he more or less quit doing big studio movies in despair and hasn't had a major project since. Meaning that to some extent, he's been judged by 'Age of Ultron', which...

Okay, let's get this out of the way. I liked 'Age of Ultron'. I know the criticisms against it and they're not without merit, but I do think that they are sometimes overemphasized in relation to the film's virtues. Whedon had a murderously tricky balancing act to pull off--making a movie that was simultaneously the beginning of Tony Stark's big hubris arc while still making him relatable, advancing the metaplot of the Infinity Stones while still making a movie about Ultron, advancing the stories of Black Widow, Hulk and Hawkeye who aren't getting features of their own for internal studio-politics related-reasons that are pretty much why he quit in despair, introducing Vision, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, setting up Wakanda for future films, and oh by the way rebutting 'Man of Steel' and Zack Snyder's dystopian Objectivist vision of superheroism. The fact that he made a film that was watchable is, I think, something of an achievement even if I can also agree with the people who have specific and legitimate complaints about it.

There. Now as I was saying, he's been judged to some extent by 'Age of Ultron'...but I also think that we're beginning to see the first reappraisal of Whdeon's overall body of work as we get a bit of distance and perspective from it. And some of the things that people are seeing are things they're not happy about. For the first time, Joss Whedon is being viewed not as "the feminist writer guy", but as "the problematic writer guy". So what's changed?

I don't think that Whdeon himself has changed. I think he has always been a committed ally to feminism, but I think he's also, like a lot of guys who see themselves as committed allies to feminism, not really used to having to adjust to the fact that a committed male ally to feminism is playing a supporting role and not being a star. It's difficult, I think, for him to accept the fact that as a major Hollywood writer/director/producer, he is fundamentally sucking up some of the oxygen in the room away from feminism no matter how hard he tries to do otherwise simply because his voice is so much louder than that of the women he's ostensibly supporting. I think we've seen this overtly a few times when he's gotten into verbal dust-ups and been very upset that his "feminist cred" was being challenged by women--surely he'd done the work by now, right? Surely he would get the benefit of the doubt?

He doesn't and shouldn't. As much as I can say that I understand what he was getting at with the Black Widow scene in 'Age of Ultron', I can also say that I fully understand why a lot of people thought he failed at conveying what he was trying to say and failed in ways that reaffirmed some very sexist tropes in fiction. He does not get a "feminist pass" on those things, and he shouldn't behave as though he's earned one. And I can understand as well how that issue and his response to it has made him lose a lot of trust from feminists in the forefront of the discussion, even though he's said he'd like to try to write a story that would make amends for it. Because...

Well, honestly, because even if you ignore some of his recent tantrums over being called on his feminist credibility, it's still worth reappraising his work in the light of a good decade or so of distance. It's okay to say that while 'Buffy' and 'Angel' were very progressive for 1997 when they started, or even for 2004 when they left the air, that they're not that progressive for now and it's okay to examine them from the point of view of here and now and say that Tara getting killed off was a major example of a very unpleasant and homophobic trope that LGBTQ fans have gotten thoroughly sick of, or that killing off Charisma Carpenter's character because the actress got pregnant was shockingly petty and sexist, or that while we got some big moments of Buffy throwing off the shackles of the patriarchy over the years, we also got a whole season of her screwing up the basic functions of adult life so badly that her father figure had to come back and help her put her life in order.

And that Mal Reynolds is a misogynist jackass to Inara whose lack of respect for her is palpable in every scene between them, despite the chemistry the two actors had together, and that had the series gone another season we would have probably gotten the most profoundly horrible sexist episode of a Whedon series ever. (If you don't know about this one, be kind of glad. It doesn't get much better when you describe it in detail.)

Oh yes, and that in pretty much all his series he describes "physical strength" with agency and romanticizes abusive relationships. The point is, while Whdeon was progressive for the 90s, it's okay to say that it's not the 90s anymore (yes, I feel old too!) and we expect more from creators than just "look, there's a female protagonist here who's not the damsel in distress!" It's okay to say that looking back, these series seemed great to us because we were getting so little from our media in terms of representation that just having a lesbian couple who were openly in a relationship for a full two seasons was ground-breaking. It's okay to say that even though we respect Whedon's efforts to shift the conversation forward, he's not a flawless saint and he can be criticized without tearing down the entire edifice of feminism. It's okay to say that he's a feminist and that he's problematic. You can be both things at once. Lord knows that as a white dude myself, I've probably fallen into that trap more than a few times.

Joss Whedon has not become less feminist. He is still who he always was. But it's okay to want more than that now.

2 comments:

Jim S said...

Interesting points John. But I'd like to point out a coupe of things. First, Whedon didn't create the tough women of the 1990s zeitgeist. If anything, it can be attributed to Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert.

Xena was first seen as a character in early 1995 in Hercules. Her spin-off made its debut in September of 1995, about a year before Buffy started filming.

In January of 1997, the USA Network show La Femme Nikita made its debut. That's about two months before Buffy was broadcast on the old WB. Obviously, both shows went into production about the same time, so I won't make the claim that Nikita inspired the WB to make Buffy. Star Trek Voyager (a show I dislike for a variety of reasons, not the least for its treatment of American Indian culture) debuted with a female captain in January of 1995.

But I believe my larger point stands. Heroic women kicking ass on TV in the 1990s didn't start with Buffy, but Buffy was part of a slightly larger trend.

And all the things you cite about Buffy as problematic now were cited as problematic then. I will go even so far as to say making Willow gay was meant to please fans, but was problematic. I say this because the character was originally written as hetro. In fact a plot line was built around her attraction to Xander being so strong that both cheated on their respective hetro partners.

If you're going to have a gay teen in your show, have a gay teen. Actually show the difficulty of being gay. The fear of being outed, the fear of losing the love of friends and family. The feeling that you're a freak (though to be fair, all teens feel like freaks in one way or another). And you might get points for showing that even well-meaning people can react badly or not live up to their own words.

And, oh by the way, don't break your arm patting yourself on the back for being a feminist and talking about being a feminist, etc. Just write well-written characters. Don't write Giles being a nerd and having Ms. Calander being the one who puts the moves on the nerd. (That's the ultimate nerd fantasy and happens like never. Also Anthony Head is way too sexy to be a nerd).

Also, the issue of teen mass shootings and teen suicides aren't solved by Buffy yelling at Jonathan and telling him to suck it up. Treatment of mental illness and depression was beyond "gut it out" even back in the 1990s.

As to office politics, Joss was never very good at that. David Greenwalt left Angel after season three. The reason I heard was that he asked for too much money. That may be true, but doesn't pass the smell test to me. Did he have a better paying job lined up? No. Was he in demand? Just look at the two shows he ran before Grimm. Not great hits or what you would call high prestige. Again, I don't know, but the official story sounds fishy.

Don't get me started on how he portrayed the military. It's like all he knew about the military is what he learned from watching Dr. Stranglove.

My point is that when you put yourself up on a high pedestal, the fall will be brutal.

Better off just doing your best and let the work speak for itself.

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