Joss Whedon’s Women. (Or: Why I’m tired of giving a pass on feminism.)

Dear Joss:

(I hope I can call you Joss, instead of Mr. Whedon.  You promote a jocular familiarity with your fans that has become the standard of nerd-core, and I’d like to think that you wouldn’t mind.  I don’t know if you’ll ever read this, but I’m hoping if you do that it’s okay.)

I have a question for you.  It’s probably not a question you get very often, but it’s one that’s very important to me.  When did you give up on strong women characters?  When did you decide that behind the hand, hipster-ironic sexism was okay with you?  (Okay, I admit, that’s two questions.)

You started off great.  Ellen Ripley was a woman I could get behind.  Maybe she was a product of her time, but she represented a great many things that I, as a woman, wanted to see in my stories.  She helped me address the body horror of pregnancy (and, FWIW, I am not ever having children because part of my dealing with it was deciding I wasn’t strong enough to go there).

You gave me Original Buffy.  She was bad-ass and yet vulnerable, confused and yet purposeful.  She was growing up, without knowing what that was going to mean, but instead of getting lost in some sort of diet fad, teen craziness, she explored the confusion of being a highschooler by learning what it meant to slay vampires.  And she looked good doing it, even if Kristy Swanson’s hair choices are now…shall we say…regrettable.

Then…TV Buffy happened, and things started falling apart.  I don’t blame you for this, at least not entirely.  I don’t think sex positivism without consequences would ever have gotten through Hollywood in a teen show in the 90s, so I get why Angel had to lose his soul, and Faith had to be an amoral crazy girl, ripped right from Girl, Interrupted and updated to the millenials.  I don’t love it, but I can forgive it.  After all, we had Willow, and she was totally awesome…

Until being a lesbian drove her crazy.  Ahem.  Maybe we’ll skip over that.

I’m going to take a pass on Angel, because I never watched it, and skip right to Firefly.  We got Kaylee, who really just dreamed of being a pretty pretty princess.  Well, fair enough, so do I, and her problems with Simon look a lot like some of my relationships.  And we had Inara, the magical sex worker who heals you with her ladybits.  You don’t see something problematic there?  Because I’m seeing a real “let’s turn the whore into a madonna” thing, without addressing that yes, she is a sex worker, and yes, there are emotional and social complications from that.

It’s a sci-fi utopia you say?  Where China became the dominant power?  Then where were all the Asians in the casting?  (Note: I’m a white girl, or at least I pass for one, so I’m not sure I can really address all your messed up colonialism in that show.  I’m aware of it, but probably not the best one to speak on it.)

Then we get Dollhouse.  Where the women have literally become props for other people’s projections and fantasies.  Even the one character I wanted to identify with broke my heart, in the end, because Mellie, too, was a Doll.  Can you understand how hurtful it is to think you see your truths reflected in a story and then find out that, no, in the end you are created to appeal to a man?  That show was full of little jabs, and tiny cuts, and by episode six I couldn’t watch any more because I didn’t want to see a show that Joss “Strong Women” Whedon had made about his own id, and the manic pixie dream girls he wanted to rescue from themselves.

In Dr. Horrible two men (who are both conventionally good looking) play a literal tug-of-war out over a woman.  Did I laugh at “This is the hammer?”  Sure.  But part of me wondered what Capt. Hammer’s genitals had to do with the moral of the bad guy really being emotional and having a complex inner life.  It was, ultimately, a boy’s story with no place for me in it.  (And that’s fine.  I’ve been carving out my own place in boys’ stories for a while, I’m pretty used to it now and I have a finely honed chisel.)

…all of this brings me to The Avengers.  It was, I thought, a pretty entertaining movie.  The dialogue was snappy, and I enjoyed the plot by and large.  But where were the women?  Jane Foster gets sent away so she won’t be in harm’s way (even though she probably would have known how to shut that gateway down long before all those things destroyed midtown), Pepper is relegated to a plane and 12% of the credit…and Natasha.  Oh Natasha.

See.  I’m a feisty redhead.  I love Natasha, and I thought the interrogation scene was rather splendid!  Women have, in the past, used men’s underestimation of them for all kinds of things.  And it was clear that Coulson took her seriously.  So why, why was the only person she had any kind of emotional moment with Barton?  But that wasn’t even the worst.

The worst was your hipster-ironic, laugh behind your hand because you put it in the mouth of the bad guy seixst dialogue.  You used the words “mewling quim” so your audience wouldn’t catch on that what Loki was really calling Natasha was a “pathetic c**t.”  And that, Joss…that hurt a lot.  It felt like every time a nerd guy has told me “girls suck, but not you, you’re special.”  It hurt like every time a geek guy has told me, “you’re really smart, but most girls wouldn’t understand what I’m talking about.”  It hurt like every single time I was told there was a place at the table for me, and then there wasn’t, because the boys put up a big no girls allowed sign, and told me that it wasn’t personal but if they let me in they’d have to let those other girls in too.

That was a sexist piece of dialogue, on top of a recent history of sexism, and I don’t really know what to say to you anymore.  I want the old days back, women like Ripley and original Buffy.  And I’m tired of giving you a pass because your women are strong on the surface.  A pretty veneer isn’t enough any more.  I need substance.  I need women who have emotions and kick ass.  I need women who reflect me.  I need women who tell stories about more than what boys project on them.

So.  I guess what I’m saying is, if you want to keep writing stories for boys I won’t begrudge you, but I will start looking elsewhere for stuff that says I have a place at the table.  I hear Chuck Wendig has a couple of awesome strong ladies, like Miriam Black and Atlanta Burns.  If, however, you want to get back to doing real feminist work, give me a call.  I’d love to be able to love you again.

– Sweet Pavement


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