Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Joss Whedon is a misogynist homophobe

From the moment its theme in off-tune punk hit the air in 1997, television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer has inspired a fanatical following rivaled only by shows with pointy-eared aliens. The uninitiated see why after just a few episodes. Written and created by Hollywood outsider and relative unknown Joss Whedon, Buffy features a deep, intelligent, character-driven style of writing rarely seen on television. The show tackles dark, heavy themes seemingly without fear, approaching difficult issues in an intricate, innovative way more characteristic of Russian novel than American teledrama. The fan base flocks to the show because of the honest treatment of its recurrent themes—the peril of love, the failure of modern paternalism, the pains of despised childhood, and, more than anything, the untapped power of strong, complex women.

This last arguably is the theme central to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In a television genre known more for super-short miniskirts and big-breasted women in spandex, Buffy gives us an all-new form of girl power. It becomes clear within the first moments of the series opener that title character Buffy Summers kicks ass. A fifteen-year-old high school girl in a cheerleader’s body, Buffy is all brains and brawn. Though backed by a stuffy but lovable father figure, a hottie good-guy vampire with a non-beating heart of gold, and an idiot geek boy, Buffy quickly shows us she has everything she needs to handle the Big Bad all by herself. Maybe a little hacker help from mega-brain gal pal Willow in a pinch, but otherwise Buffy has it taken care of.

Yet this great and admirable strength hides Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s greatest weakness. Sure, the Buff’s all bad-ass on the surface, but scrape a few layers below and it soon becomes obvious that the slayer wears no clothes. Despite its Girl Power pretensions, despite all Whedon’s valiant efforts, Buffy is written by a guy, and it shows. The show’s rebellion against the patriarchy is built on a patriarchal foundation that, consciously or not, undermines many of the themes the show wanted us to think we were seeing. As strong as she is, Buffy’s girl power is unplugged time and again by hot guys with weird hair.

Consider Buffy’s overarching mythos. The deal is that into every generation, some mystical and mostly unexplored power calls forth a “slayer,” a young woman who’s job it is to protect the world from demons and dark things. Once called, the slayer is given great powers—supernatural strength, incredible stealth, and a bitchin’ wardrobe. Buffy suddenly has abs of steel and fists of fury. She’s faster than trains and leaps tall buildings and all that jazz. Buffy has everything mortal men dream of having.

Wow, the progressive is tempted to say. A girl superhero. How totally awesome! But wait. There’s a catch. The first failure of Whedon’s girl power is that Buffy has a watcher. In fact, all slayers everywhere have always had watchers. Slayers tend to be called young and die early, after all, and there’s a lot to learn in their short lives. They need somebody to guide them, to help explain their power, to help them understand just what it is they’re fighting.

This begs the question, though, why she needs to be “watched.” Why a “watcher” and not a “helper” or a “teacher”? And if she has to be watched, why must she be watched by a stuffy white guy like Rupert Giles? In fact, we meet several watchers in the course of the series, and all but three are stuffy, middle-aged white men, the very definition of Western paternalism. The only exceptions are a recurring Indian man who has no lines but looks tough, a snotty Brit woman who turns evil when offered supernatural powers of her own (season 3, “Revelations”), and a scared little blond woman who spends a few minutes trembling under the bemused eyes of the Cheney-like head watcher before being blown to bits (season 7, “Never Leave Me”).

All this seems to suggest, at least subconsciously, that girl power is fine and dandy as long as there’s a strong father figure around to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand. And it must be a father figure, because a mother just isn’t up to the job. She’ll either fall to the temptation of power and betray the good guys or be rendered useless and annoying by fear.

The end of the series seems to recognize this subtext, at least, and makes an attempt or two to correct it, though these corrections almost are more screwed than the original storyline. Through a series of visions and multi-dimensional travel, Buffy learns that slayer power first found its way to young girls in the early days of demonology, when a group of grumpy tribal chieftains—an African prequel to Europe’s stuffy white guys, perhaps?—force their mystical superpower on a fearful girl who would rather be left alone (season 7, “Get it Done”). In other words, the first slayer was metaphorically raped and forced to bear the burden of that rape, which we the viewers take pleasure in watching week after week. Instead of being the most recent of a glorious line of worthy warriors, Buffy is merely the latest victim of male arrogance. Rupert Giles and the other watchers are merely the latest perpetrators, always keeping watch over their slave girls.

In a final, last-ditch effort at redemption, Whedon briefly presents us in the second-to-last episode with the watcher of the watchers, an ancient, all-powerful female overlord who oversees the ignorant meddling of the stuffy male watchers. But what comes of this all-powerful woman? During a three-minute exposition speech about female liberation—in mid-sentence, in fact—this superwoman is killed, stabbed in the back by Caleb, the most unsubtle misogynist (“Look at me. I hate women. I’m eeeeeevil!”) in the history of television (season 7, “End of Days”).


Of course, the watcher dynamic is only part of the problem with Buffy. We also have the title character’s horrendous taste in men.

A large part of the premise of the series is that Buffy is smarter than the rest of us. Each week, she manages to outwit demons and supernatural beasties who automatically assume she lacks in the brains department. And yet when it comes to Buffy’s personal life, she proves to be little more than the typical dumb, pretty blond who always falls for the bad boy.

First, there’s Angel, a vampire who represents everything Buffy fights against. Angel is different, though. Angel is special. Don’t let those bad-boy good looks and dark trench coats fool you. Angel has a soul.

The problem with Angel, though, is that his soul vanishes the moment he comes in contact with Buffy’s dirty parts. He sleeps with Buffy in the middle of season 2 and as a result transforms into a murderous creature without a conscience who effortlessly slaughters dozens (season 2, “Innocence”). That’s right: Buffy’s sex turns Angel evil, so that immediately afterward he spends half a season stalking Buffy and her family and friends, killing supercool teacher Jenny Calendar, and plotting the destruction of the world.

And yet, throughout this sequence, Buffy still maintains her tragic love for her tormenter. She is not the strong woman who learns to stand up for herself against the cruelty of an evil man. She becomes the classic abused enabler. “It’s not Angel’s fault he killed Miss Calendar,” she seems to say. “Maybe she broke her neck on a door knob. Maybe she fell down the stairs. And anyway, it’s my fault Angel lost his soul. The foul Buff muff made him do it.” In the end, Buffy forgives Angel his trespasses, despite the fact that her own friends are far less forgiving of her simply for leaving town (season 3, “Anne”) to take a much needed vacation (during which she leads a workers’ revolt against literal demon capitalists, vanquishing the elite with a literal hammer and sickle as weapons … but that’s another analysis).

There doesn’t seem to be much wrong with Riley, Buffy’s second boyfriend, at least not at first. He’s a nice enough guy, but he has severe inferiority issues. Buffy’s a superhero, after all, and after season four Riley is little more than a fired government agent, a pitiful human, a boy. Buffy makes the unpardonable sin of looking stronger than Riley, so Riley responds in season five by “cheating” with vampire women, then leaves town (season 5, “Into the Sky”). And in the end, in the Whedon narrative according to idiot boy Xander Harris, whose fault is this? Certainly not Riley’s. Riley goes off, jumps back into the secret agent biz, and marries a supermodel. Buffy is left to mope alone, presumably as punishment for her uppitiness.

If Angel and Riley abuse Buffy’s girl power myths, though, Spike beats them wholly into submission. Perhaps Buffy’s cavorting with Spike in season six is understandable from a character standpoint. Buffy did die at the end of season 5, spend a summer hiatus in Heaven, and get pulled back into the hell of Sunnydale, after all. Unlike most of her friends, Spike seems willing to cut her some slack and understanding. But the series had spent seasons emphasizing Spike’s uselessness, his impotence. Although one of the show’s most admired characters, Spike is its most pathetic. His is a worthless life of self-torture and self-loathing. The idea that Buffy would stoop to that level for comfort rather than simply taking a break from guys is insulting at best.

And Buffy is not the only supposedly strong woman in the Buffyverse who lets her life be derailed by men not worth the effort. Cordelia and Anya both waste seasons on the arrogant boor Xander Harris, only to be left in shambles when he dumps them. And Willow Rosenberg falls to pieces after being cheated on then dumped by her werewolf boyfriend. She even goes so far as to turn lesbian because a boy broke up with her. The loss of a boy will do that to you, you know.


Which leads us to Whedon’s supposedly progressive views on sexuality. Despite Hollywood’s supposed liberal agenda, television was remarkably slow to accept homosexual characters. Melrose Place never used their gay housemate for anything more than a set piece. Ellen Degeneres lost her show when her character came out. Homosexuality is still anathema in the TV universe when Willow Rosenberg falls in love with Tara during Buffy’s season four.

Because of this, Whedon can’t completely embrace Willow’s sexuality. He has to couch it in metaphor, hide Willow’s exploration of sexuality behind her exploration of magic. Willow wants to become a witch, after all. Her relationship with Tara is as much about that shared desire as it is about finding her true self.

This leads to a stilted coming out, in that Willow never actually says who she is and what she’s become. Encounters between Willow and Tara are hidden behind special effects, glowing lights and sparkles and levitations that involve no touching or intimacy but inevitably lead to simulated orgasmic response. It is five or six episodes—an eternity in the Buffyverse—before we even see Willow and Tara kiss. We rarely see them hold hands. Only in the end do we see any real affection between the characters, but even then they can’t just be two people in love. They have to be LESBIANS! Everywhere they go, they have to dance and sing and hold up flags—“Hey, hey, look at us, we’re progressive, we’re open-minded lesbians, we’re all about the levitating oral, hey, hey, we’re lesbians!!!”

Willow’s coming out also seems to suggest a black and white view of sexuality. A woman is either gay or straight, and making a decision for one permanently flips the switch on the other. We had seen Willow attracted—sexually and otherwise—to both Xander and Oz. We know she liked men at one point. After Tara, though, that response evaporates completely. The series seems to suggest that she can’t make that choice anymore. She’s not allowed. Rather than liberated to be whatever she chooses, Willow is trapped in yet another societally imposed role. “Remember,” she’d say. “Gay now.”

Worse than this, though, is what Whedon does with his metaphor of magic and homosexuality. Over the course of season six, the metaphor changes, so that the magic once symbolizing Willow’s sexuality becomes something dangerous if embraced too much. It is as if Willow falls under the spell of some drug (read “magic” drug or “homosexual” drug) that eventually comes to rule her and slowly destroy her. In the end, the magic consumes her as she uses it to avenge her lover’s death at the hands of yet another misogynist (season 6, “Villains”). Willow uses her magic to flay a man alive—the true goal of lesbians in the Buffyverse?—then lash out and threaten to destroy the world. Willow’s magic eventually makes her the Big Bad of the year.

Is this really what Whedon means to say by tying magic to homosexuality? Is Whedon really suggesting that in the end, homosexuality consumes you, destroys you and threatens the stability of the world? Is this the statement of a true progressive?


Even in the face of patronizing paternalists and bad boyfriend decisions, though, Buffy still is a strong, independent superwoman, right? Right?

Not really. What is Buffy without her superpowers—superpowers given to her by men, remember? We see the answer in the third season episode “Helpless.” In their infinite wisdom, the council of stuffy European watchers decides to strip Buffy’s powers and test her response. And what does Buffy become? She becomes yet another scared little girl unable to make her own way in a big bad world. She becomes a sobbing weakling, a pitiful, pathetic, simpering fool who runs to her bad boy lover for help. Buffy is strong when the men let her have their power, the show seems to say. When the men choose to remove it, Buffy is nothing.

This is what happens to girls without superpowers in Whedon’s world. They run and scream and hide and die. They spend their time like Cordelia or Harmony, worrying about clothes and hair until they’re attacked, when they come out screaming. Buffy’s sister, Dawn, is helpless until Spike or Xander comes to save her. Anya—a woman of strong character, at least—is useless in a fight without her demon powers, and in the show’s final episode is cleaved in half while protecting a pathetic, sniveling little boy who somehow still survives (season 7, “Chosen”).

In the end, Whedon tries to correct this, too, by spreading the slayer powers throughout the populace. Thousands of little girls around the world are potential slayers, after all. Their power lies dormant inside them, but Buffy changes that. All the potential slayers are made real and strong, represented in montage by a little girl on a softball field about to whack the hell out of a ball pitched by some slimy boy. The little girl smiles slyly in what we are meant to see as a moment of glory, a moment of empowerment (season 7, “Chosen”). Girls can be anything they want, we are supposed to think. They’re just as strong as the rest of us now.

Only they’re not. What is unspoken in this moment is the suggestion that equality isn’t possible in the real world. Women aren’t able to hold their own without supernatural interference. Yes, thousands of little girls suddenly have superpowers, but millions more do not. Millions are left weak and wanting, and we wonder what is to become of them? They’re worthless, the show seems to say. Without superpowers, they’re weak, doomed to live in fear. They’re still pitiful creatures in need of protection.


Of course, all this sums up the danger of heavy dependence on metaphor in literature and television, both to writers and to critics, as metaphor is open to a million interpretations. Did Whedon mean to imply that girls are weak and that unbridled homosexuality can destroy the world? Is Whedon really a homophobic misogynist? Surely not. He simply failed by not thinking through the implications of his work and everything it said—much the same way many feminists, male and female, have failed since the days of Gloria Steinem. For all its complexity, Buffy the Vampire Slayer didn’t dig far enough beneath the surface. The show spent too much time on one side of the issue, trying to look like it was saying the right thing but never actually saying what it meant to say.

Of course, the very fact that these questions exist point to the superiority of the series. One never debates the sociological ramifications of Laverne & Shirley, after all. Buffy the Vampire Slayer presented us with well-drawn characters and attempted the big issues, and for that alone it should be applauded. In the end, the problem may be that we’re asking too much of Buffy. The problem may be that we’re asking Buffy to save an entire gender all by herself, and that just isn’t fair to her. We should simplify things and just trust her to save everybody, male or female.

Update, February, 2009: I'm curious how the progressive Whedon fan would respond to this now that Whedon has created Dollhouse, a show about an organization that rents out super-hot mind-wiped sex slaves who have to be watched and continually rescued by men. Of course, we're only two episodes in. I'll reserve judgement until we see the whole ... though Wedon better hope the thing doesn't get cancelled first.

Author's Note, January, 2009: I wrote this article a few years back with the intention of making it the first of several semi-academic, mostly navel-gazing explorations of the Buffyverse and other pieces of pop culture. I wanted to do an in-depth look at Angel's Los Angeles, for instance, and compare it with the city as presented in other noir works, or I wanted to explain my belief that Buffy season 6 is the best character season of the series. You know, that sort of thing. But I never got around to any of that, and other projects occupied the limited space in my mind. I decided to leave this article where it was, though, because I liked it, and because it still generated the occassional response.

The thing is, I only remember this is here about once every three months or so and therefore don't check the comments much. When I do, I delete any spam, but leave everything else, whether it agrees or disagrees with my postulations. I welcome a good debate on this, and I welcome you to leave your comments for those who come after. And if you feel strongly enough about what I've written here that you want to discuss it with me in a timely fashion, drop me an email at As long as you have reasoned discussion rather than mere flame to offer, there's a good chance I'll get back to you.

Either way, thanks for dropping by.