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The Joss Whedon post we-had-to-have, or Joss Whedon and feminism - part one

By Deborah Kate - posted Tuesday, 16 January 2007

I don’t mean for this post to stand as the be-all and end-all of the way feminism views the oeuvre of Joss Whedon. Rather, there’s been a few thought-provoking posts out there in the blogosphere about Whedon’s depictions of women, his female heroines, and their relationships with the men around them.

So here's part one: the good.

Feminists love Joss Whedon (mostly) because he basically gave us a TV show we could call our own. The hero, Buffy, was a complex female character who fought off the allegorical dangers of adolescence and “being female” in the form of vampires and other monsters.


Whedon created the character of Buffy specifically as a mixture of weakness and strength. He has stated explicity that he wanted Buffy to be one of society’s most vulnerable - a young girl - and yet also a superhero: the inversion of the scared young woman who usually meets her fate early in a horror film by being eaten or chopped to bits and so on.

And this works brilliantly within the horror genre, because unlike the conventional realism of say, a cop show, horror allows a much more metaphorical reading of daily life.

Horror has long confronted us with our fears in a mitigated, metaphorical form: a fictional monster almost always functions on some commentary on what a culture or a society finds most terrifying. Monsters also tells us - as does horror - about our bodies and the dark fears we have about them, exploring what Julia Kristeva called “the abject”: the fears of being cut and penetrated and drained and so on.

The first couple of seasons of Buffy dealt with the real concerns of most adolescents - fitting in, making friends, family problems, relationships and so on, by reflecting them in this allegorical mirror.

Take the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BtVS) called “The Pack” in which a group of teenagers go on a murderous rampage after being possessed by hyena demons. It captured perfectly just how threatening a tight-knit gang of young people can be to any outsider; especially their peers.

Within the show, Willow and Xander are both interesting and I’d say feminist characters. Xander is a male character, but one who reads as feminised, and despite his attempts to enact a certain sort of masculine behaviour, he comes across as being a “nice” guy instead of a jerk, and he suffers for it. He is effectively exiled within the school for his lack of masculine conformity. He also functions as the moral centre of the show, especially in later series, and his sense of fair play and equality usually wins out (with some slippages): see, for example, when he buys Cordelia the prom dress she desperately wants but can’t afford.


Conversely Willow is the girl that we (we geeky, nerdy, feminist types, anyway) all identify with. Buffy is who we sometimes wish we were, but Willow is who we feel the deepest empathy and identification with. And as the show developed over the seven seasons, Willow became the most interesting, and powerful, character.

Like many long-time fans of Buffy, I became increasingly frustrated by the way the show stymied her character, especially in the sixth and seventh series. But I’ll save that for the bad.

Of course, as the series evolved character roles changed and the monsters changed to reflect different issues and realities. I don’t have time/space/patience to do a blow-by-blow exploration of the whole seven series and the way feminist themes were teased out.

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First published on Moment to Moment on March 27, 2006. It is republished as part of "Best Blogs of 2006" a feature in collaboration with Club Troppo, and edited by Ken Parish, Nicholas Gruen et al.

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About the Author

Deborah Kate blogs at Moment to Moment.

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