Posted by : Unknown Sunday, 20 May 2012

Joss Whedon is a brilliant and manipulative writer who knows his audience. He uses the power of the female - in all its forms - as an incredible plot device. There is nothing about what Joss does in his work that is not about advancing the plot and motivating characters. We know this of him killing favourite characters, but boy how he's fooled us into not realizing that this is the same thing he does with his "strong female characters."
The Avenger's Black Widow and her "skill sets" are the epitome of this trickery. The scene with Loki and Black Widow is a prime example, and before that, her scene with Bruce Banner. In both cases, she is called upon because of her "skill sets."   Let us not be naive. The assumption with that line is that her skill sets are based on her sex. Of course we know she's far more than that, especially if we've seen her in Iron Man 2 where she already proved herself to be more than a pretty face, but let's not be stupid enough to believe that an international spy and assassin does not use everything in her arsenal, as necessary, including her gender and the prejudices associated with it.

So does Joss.

Black Widow, Avengers
Those scenes are as much about her playing Loki and Banner as they are about Joss playing the audience. Because Joss takes our prejudices and hypocrisy and uses them against us.

Which is all well and good for plot development, but I'm tired of the "strong female character" label. What he writes are interesting characters, and I think, for the most part, he does it well. He seems to have a  preference for female leads specifically because he can use these prejudices to bring more drama, but people seem to equate this "strong female characters" concept with role models. More so in comparison to women from other films and TV shows. Those women are also interesting and flawed, but tend to overcome their flaws far better than Joss' women do. And they aren't necessarily interesting and flawed because of their relationship with males, or require males to rescue them for their plights.

As for Joss' women, let us review:

River? Neglected by her parents, mindfucked and requires her brother for support. Buffy? Requires the support of her friends and boyfriends and remains a petulant, self-centred girl who isn't all that happy about the responsibilities thrust on her and often accepts escape from them (sometimes in the form of lots of boyfriend sex), until guilt makes her return. Faith? Fucked up gal with daddy issues, currently seeking redemption through Angel. Cordelia? No clue what Joss did with her. Fred? Love interest for two male characters. Killed just when she was coming into her own. Tara, Penny, Darla and Jenny? Refrigerated. Darla and Dru? Girlfriends. Harmony? lol. Willow? Continues to define herself by her skills and conforms to whomever she befriends. Echo? Selfish bitch who turned her back on a friend and sought to erase her past with the Dollhouse where she now is "strong" because of all the imprints - after she's beaten and fucked by all the men who rent her. Stalked by Alpha. Kaylee? Introduced on her back and fulfills the fantasies of men who like cars and a woman (with a childlike personality) who can fix them. Inara? A glorified prostitute, constantly reminded by Mal of her whoring ways.

None of these characters are ones I would want my daughters to consider role models, and, in the grand scheme of great representatives of empowering feminist characters? Nope.

Zoe, Firefly/Serenity
Of the women in Joss' collection that I can truly consider worthy as a role model, I can name only one:  Zoe.

Black Widow? Not Joss' character.

Believe it or not, I don't hate him for this any more than I would hate him for his grim reaping. His manipulations mean I  get to see more women (and now people of colour) in his works. Hopefully, because of this, the less crafty directors and writers will be tricked into casting more women and people of colour in prominent roles like these, but not as plot and media devices as they are with Joss.

What I dislike is the feminist label that has been hung on him as if he was the first and is the only male giving us good female characters. Men like Greg Rucka and Ridley Scott have been around for a while, and I can truly consider their characters "strong" and written without manipulating stereotypes or requiring their victimization or binding to males.

One day, we won’t need 11 reasons to show how awesome a female character is in a film and how she holds her own alongside the boys. We won’t need scenes where directors use our prejudices to trick us (and Loki) into believing Black Widow is “just a woman" or a "mewling quim" to give her the opportunity to prove that she is, in fact, a human being with agency.

One day, we'll watch a movie or a TV show or read a book and not be amazed by the strength of its female characters. We'll just read or watch it and appreciate it. Because one day, that will just be completely normal.

One Response so far.

  1. It is funny and such an odd duality that we somehow cant shake. We want to, well lots of us do, but without thinking we reinforce lots of those stereotypes. Its like race. We want to see things gender neutral (or colorblind) but sometimes it is important, and knowing when it is and when its not is very hard. You can acknowledge without making that be the only thing but that too is an epic balancing act. From playing RPGs and writing myself, I know that I like interesting characters. I like underdogs and like it or not, women are underdogs in lots of situations. So even though i flip a coin in most games on gender, I tend to really like my female characters. Lets face it, we have also seen for years all the stories from the mans point of view, and sometimes it is nice and interesting to see that twisted. But as soon as you do that, it falls into that area and what is simply an interesting character suddenly becomes a "strong female character".

    I agree with you, Joss knew he could get more mileage out of lots of the problems that female high schoolers had over male ones. True, he didnt invent Buffy, but the scooby gang and such was stocked full of stories ready to go with Willow and later Anya. I appreciate that and I am a fan of all of his work. But the guy is smart and why do something everybody else has already done? When you set out to invent something new you take things people are familiar with and tweak them so they have a point of reference. The story of "boy inherits incredible power and fights evil has been done, but switch that to girl inherits power and deals with self image issues and you have a new twist that will get people interested in the end.

    To me, in the end we all want to own something and when somebody does good if we can somehow attach it to a larger group that we are a part of then we do it. Obama becomes president, and he did it for all Black people. Katniss takes out some kids in the Hunger Games, she did it for all girls everywhere. It happens all the time.


This is my mindspill. Mostly about comics, books, video games, movies of the science fiction and fantasy leanings. Sometimes recipes and parenting stuff will sneak in, along with a real world rant or two.

I also write about geek culture at Women Write About Comics, and I review genre fiction at The BiblioSanctum.




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