Sunday, March 29, 2009

"Joss Whedon and the Real Girl"

Culled from the Feministing Weekly Feminist Reader is this article about Joss Whedon, and what it means to be human. I think it's interesting, partially from the selfish glee I got when I realized the article went to the same place I did in the "Dawn-Echo" comparison in the 'what does it mean to be human' question that continually permeates Whedon's work. But also because it is truly a piece that acknowledges what Dollhouse can be, and what it is lacking.

I also love the title, which is the title of this post. One of my favorite lines from Buffy the Vampire Slayer was, "All right, yes, date and shop and hang out and go to school and save the world from unspeakable demons. You know, I wanna do girlie stuff!" The juxtaposition with dating and shopping with saving the world, all falling under the category of 'girlie stuff' in such a mundane way, encapsulated not only what the show was for me but also what I think Whedon's best weapon in terms of a feminist message is. Girlie stuff, far from being a minute list of activities filled with pink and bows and skirts, encompasses what girls do. Girls can save the world; girls saving the world is cool. Girls saving the world aren't becoming "masculine"; they are eschewing gender norms, but that doesn't mean letting go of being a 'girl'. It means changing the definition of what is meant by being a girl. It means changing the perimeters of what we allow ourselves to think of as girlish behavior. Whedon does it again and again. We are told at various points in the series that Buffy is "just a girl", usually right before she does something to save the world. In the season finale of season five, right before heading off to battle a hell goddess, Buffy saves a teen from a vampire attack, ending with this exchange:
BOY: But... you're just a girl.
BUFFY: That's what I keep saying.
Buffy is just a girl, albeit a super powered one. But what Whedon does so deftly is to change the meaning of that phrase. Usually used as a diminution of girls and women, Whedon uses the phrase almost as a call to power.

If Buffy is just a girl and wears that proudly, then she isn't an example of the extraordinary female. She isn't someone who transcends her gender in order to perform heroic feats. Instead, she is a girl who performs heroic feats. Her girlness is a key part of who she is. Whedon's brilliance in creating Buffy Summers is partially the fact that he allows her to be a girlie girl, without having that part of her be any less than the rest of her. Aspects of girls that are traditionally considered frivolous, and yet ironically things we as a society expect girls to take part in, become an aspect of strength. The knowledge Buffy gains from her love of fashion, for example, helps just as much in picking vampires out of a crowd as Giles' more respectable book-learning does. Buffy's consumption of pop culture, her quips, her heels, her dating, all mesh with her knowledge of beheading techniques, her fighting, and her ability to continually save the world from certain doom; and what comes out is a girl no less real than one who isn't thinking about beheading techniques and ambush tactics, who, in turn, is just as much a 'real girl' as the girl who thinks of nothing but. Likewise, Kaylee is no less a girl because she is an excellent mechanic; her mechanical skills are no less because she loves sex and pink pouffy dresses. Willow is no less of a girl because she has seen "the softer side of Sears" and doesn't wear make-up, preferring instead to hack computers in her spare time; she is no less a computer whiz once she gets a boyfriend.

And in conjunction with that is how Whedon tackles different aspects of humanity, generally through women. His men, even though they are powerful, wonderful, three-dimensional characters in their own rights, are rarely utilized to answer the question "what does it mean to be human?" Even when the men exist in the same space as the women, like in Dollhouse, women are still the focus. Buffy, with her superpowers; Dawn, with her spontaneous 14 year oldness; River, with her government-imposed craziness; Echo, with her blank slate life. It certainly opens up the question of 'why always the women, Joss?!'; but I think that question is easily answered. One, Whedon has said that the powerful woman is his "identification figure", going farther to say:
Those characters are the person I am in my fiction. They're like my avatars. I really hadn't realized that and it's weird for me not to. All those years of writing Buffy, I'd say, 'Well, I relate to Xander.' And it was always Buffy. Buffy was always the person that I was in that story because I'm not in every way. Why my identification figure is female, I'm not exactly sure but she is.
 Yet, he also because seems to want to explore this:
What is wrong with women?

I mean wrong. Physically. Spiritually. Something unnatural, something destructive, something that needs to be corrected.

How did more than half the people in the world come out incorrectly? I have spent a good part of my life trying to do that math, and I’m no closer to a viable equation. And I have yet to find a culture that doesn’t buy into it. Women’s inferiority – in fact, their malevolence -- is as ingrained in American popular culture as it is anywhere they’re sporting burkhas. I find it in movies, I hear it in the jokes of colleagues, I see it plastered on billboards, and not just the ones for horror movies. Women are weak. Women are manipulative. Women are somehow morally unfinished. (Objectification: another tangential rant avoided.) And the logical extension of this line of thinking is that women are, at the very least, expendable.
His writing generally starts with this premise. Who is sent out to fight the vampires? A young girl. Who is utilized by the government? A young girl. He starts from there, because that is where the thinking is. Because we as a culture do see women as something other than the norm, as something less, as objects to be used. But that is not where he stays. He creates worlds to illuminate his perception of where we are, and then he seeks to demonstrate why this thinking is harmful, and why it is wrong. In an odd way, Whedon seems to like to take what I consider the end product from works like The Yellow Wallpaper or The Awakening, and brings them back. Society breaks them, but they - with help from their friends - fix themselves. He also balances those women out with a variety of other women and men. And what comes out at the end of the day is the conclusion that all of this women are 'real girls', and the men are real too. That they are precious and unique, "actual and whole", and far from expendable.

I don't think Dollhouse is there yet; I don't know if it will ever get there, or if it will be allowed to get there. I see the formation of these ideas shining through, like beacons. It is there when Boyd moves from seeing Echo as something other than a person to someone he cares about, even if every time they meet he is a stranger to her - and in a strange way, her to him. But I do think that no matter what, Echo is being presented as a real girl, just a different kind of one. And that difference doesn't make her any more expendable than any of the others.

On another note, I'm going to try to not post on Whedon for at least 6 days, and post on other stuff in that time. Every day! Let's see if I can do it, shall we?


Rebekah said...

Haha- how about a post on tonight's Family Guy? When Brian's athiesm became a theme I immediately bought of you.

petpluto said...

how about a post on tonight's Family Guy? When Brian's athiesm became a theme I immediately bought of you.

Cool! I don't actually watch Family Guy, but I do love Brian (and Stewie). I'll have to catch it on Hulu.

John said...

and here I thought the title was taken from the indie film "Lars and the Real Girl." Shows how much I know.

I appreciate Joss's story writing process a bit more now, considering that his starting point - his null hypothesis, if you will - is so fundamentally ridiculous, while at the same time is a reflection of what the societies of today seem to believe.