Reporter: So, why do you write these strong female characters?
Joss Whedon: Because you’re still asking me that question.
The question should be “Why do you write seemingly strong women and then punish them for that strength?” I see a lot of characters in this set who got shit on by Joss not to mention at least one actress he fired for the crime of getting pregnant.
A friend of mine likes to challenge “Joss Whedon, Feminist” acolytes to name a female character on Buffy who doesn’t die or go crazy.
I feel like this game could be expanded to find lead female characters who don’t die, go crazy, or lose a loved one in a gruesome way as part of their suffering. Bonus points if they get to the end without anyone threatening to rape them or trying to rape them. There has to be at least one right?
If we include those, we may as well be playing bingo. Joss Whedon’s female characters’ punishments: collect them all!
Who gets mind wiped? Who gets beaten? Who watches everything she ever loved burn? It’s a game for all ages! Bonus points for the ones who die without ever having gotten to live!
I might have feelings about Kendra. A lot of them.
Goddamit, and now I feel compelled to do an actual tally of his original female characters, albeit offhand and from memory. So:
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy - two deaths, one rape threat, one attempted rape, two sexual assaults, one dead parent.
Willow - one rape threat, two breaks with sanity, one dead girlfriend.
Cordelia - damselled about a billion times, one attempted forced marriage.
Anya - one rape threat, dead.
Tara - dead.
Kendra - dead.
Faith - multiple breaks with sanity.
Ms Calender - dead.
Joyce - dead.
Dawn - one attempted forced marriage, one dead parent.
Darla - dead.
Drusilla - multiple breaks with sanity.
[I don’t know enough about angel, I cut this part]
Kaylee - one rape threat.
River - multiple breaks with sanity.
Zoe - one dead husband.
Inara - one threat of sexual assault.
[I don’t know enough about doll house, I cut this part]
I should probably leave this hornet’s nest alone. But I’m pissed off right now, because today I learned people think Joss Whedon is sexist for putting his female characters through the wringer.
As if a fundamental part of the hero’s journey isn’t suffering, having loved ones die, or dying themselves. As if he doesn’t do that to EVERYONE he writes. Here are some of his male characters’ trials, in the same form as above (and this is just the stuff I remember off the top of my head):
Giles - one dead lover/dear friend, brutally tortured at least once
Xander - one threat of sexual assault, implied childhood abuse, at least one break with reality (that made him leave Anya at the altar), one dead lover, loses an eye
Spike - sexually assaulted by his mother, attempted forced marriage (the same spell that got Buffy), brutally tortured, at least one break with sanity, one death
Riley - turned into a meat puppet by
Angel - tortured in hell, at least one death, lots of other stuff I don’t remember because Angel bores me
Wash - brutally tortured, dead
Mal - brutally tortured
Book - dead
And what do I see when I look at the female characters listed above?
Buffy - survives the series with a hopeful heart, comes up with a plan to break an explicitly patriarchal tradition, saves the world a lot, allowed to be flawed and messy and still strong
Willow - survives the series, finds love again after the death of her soulmate, grows from an awkward high school girl to a junkie to the most powerful witch in history
Dawn - survives the series, grows from an annoying little sister to a competent young woman
Faith - survives the series, seemingly a “bad girl” stereotype who actually has depth and a compelling misled-by-evil-(and-love) —> redemption arc
Cordelia - seemingly a “shallow girl” stereotype who actually has depth and comes through when her friends need her despite being out of her element
Anya - a former monster who switches sides, finds and loses love but consciously steps away from deadly coping mechanisms, can run a store better than Giles, illuminates humanity in compelling ways
Tara - shy and unassuming, wise and compassionate and forgiving. She can’t beat up monsters, but that’s okay, she’s still part of the team.
For fuck’s sake. It’s supernatural genre television, not tiptoeing through fields of daisies. People will die. People will be threatened. Sometimes it will happen as a plot device. If you write a lot of female characters (I saw something earlier like the percentage of women in primetime shows is like 17%, which Whedon obviously blows out of the water), a lot of them are going to have horrible things happen to them.
But what Whedon does that’s so different from most is he writes female characters as people. He doesn’t portray stereotypical femininity and strength as mutually exclusive. He shows that physical strength isn’t the only “real” strength they can have. He gives them diverse personalities and shows how they’re all powerful and weak in their own way. He lets them grow and evolve organically. He lets them be compelling villains. He lets them be sympathetic victims. He lets them be fearless warriors for good. Sometimes all three. He lets them make horrible mistakes and successfully atone for them. He shows them suffering for plot-related reasons, doesn’t shy away from the after-effects (versus, say, Deanna Troi in TNG - so much of the stuff that happened to her was gratuitous) and shows them getting back up.
Also, don’t you dare pretend Joyce’s death can be reduced to part of some anti-feminist pattern (for three separate characters, no less. And the fact that Buffy even had a parent in the first place is unusual for the hero archetype). That kind of thing actually happens in the real world, it was handled with incredible sensitivity and realism, and watching Buffy and Dawn go through the grieving process is something many people relate to intensely. It’s fantastic writing. It’s good conflict. It’s good television.
If anyone is writing off Joss’ female characters, it’s you. It’s the people who act like these characters are little more than a list of tragic and biased casualties, and fuck everything else they accomplish.