The role of women in Joss Whedon's work

The role of women in film and television is one that has been discussed at length and is an issue that still needing work. Joss Whedon is a director who has been unafraid to share his views about feminism and female characters in his creative works. After being repeatedly asked why he continues to write strong female characters he responded, “Because you’re still asking me that question.” Whedon’s views have distinctly shaped his work as seen in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and The Avengers. The female roles in Whedon’s work do not follow traditional narratives or traditional roles.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Buffy) was Whedon’s first creation of his own. It has almost become a standard case study when one looks at feminism in television. This type of attention was in-fact by design. Whedon “designed Buffy to be an icon, not just a TV show.” Gwyn Symonds notes that the icon that has been created has been strongly linked with the terms “girl power”, “female empowerment”, and “feminism”. The character, Buffy, proves to be quite different from a traditional female lead in a televisions show. Buffy is a vampire slayer, a particularly violent position that isn’t a “normal” female occupation. She also happens to be the most powerful of them all. Romantic interests in shows are inevitable, but even Buffy’s is different. Hollywood has long been steeped in the view of "passive positioning of the woman as sexual spectacle…and the active protagonist as bearer of the look," a product of "masculine desire." Buffy’s romantic interest Spike is the one that gets objectified on the screen for the pleasure of the viewer. Spike also takes some traditionally feminine aspects of the relationships such as wanting to talk things over and trying to get Buffy to acknowledge their relationship. An important thing to note is that while Whedon has created a very strong female character he doesn’t go so far as to promote complete gender reversal or feminine superiority. Even though Spike is there to be looked at, Symonds points out that “we see little of her indulging the pleasure of contemplating the object of her desire.” Many times in the series male characters are the ones that save the day so Buffy seems to promote the idea that whoever is best suited/available for the task at hand should do it.

Firefly might be known as the best TV show to get cancelled so early, but all of the females in the show are incredibly strong and interesting. It follows a crew aboard a firefly class space ship and their adventures throughout the ‘verse. The character of Zoe Washburne is the second in command of the ship. During the civil war that happened before the start of the series she was a Corporal in the army and was one of two (the other being the captain of the ship Mal) that survived from their platoon. She is well skilled in combat and remains the calmest of all characters in tense situations. Zoe is seen as a leader and very well respected by everyone. On top of all of that she is happily married to the ships pilot Wash. Carol Smith says, “The use of the marriage narrative as a conservative and containing strategy against feminism is widely acknowledged.” In the movie My Best Friend’s Wedding we see that the career women loses out to 1950s style femininity and presumably becomes happily married. Zoe is Whedon’s way of showing that women can most certainly be happily married and have a successful career. Inara Serra was a Companion aboard the ship. She really only used the ship as a mode of transportation between destinations, but she is what really gave a sense of legitimacy to the ship’s smuggling crew. Companions in Whedon’s universe are high in social standing. Inara chooses who her customers are and they tend to be well off individuals from powerful families. In one episode, a son of a wealthy family is Inara’s next customer. He went because his father sent him so that he could transition into manhood. Inarra wasn’t just there so he could be with a woman but also helps him deal with pressures during that time of his life. Companions are well-trained individuals in physical and psychological practices and seemingly used not simply for sexual services. She is in control of her practice and never looked down upon. Almost everything about Inara is opposite today’s views on sex industry workers. The workers today are seen to be there only as a last resort and commonly because of addiction. Sex worker’s rights and safety also still needs to be addressed in law. Another character in the Firefly series is Kaylee Frye. She is a mechanical genius that regularly keeps the old ship going and routinely saves the day under dire circumstances. Frye became the ship’s mechanic when she and the old mechanic were caught having sex on the ship. The ship was broken and the mechanic said that it was unfixable but sure enough Frye said that the impossible could be done. She is a strong and self-confident woman, something that Whedon believes too many cultures try to restrict because of “womb envy,” which he studied in college.

The Avengers is interesting because it is a project that Whedon did not have full control over, as it was not his own creation. Most superhero movies could put classified as a Classical Hollywood. One that “tells its story through a singular protagonist or main causal agent. This protagonist is usually a male star, someone who has been marketed as a leading man. The protagonist is the target of any narrative restriction, although the audience can and often does know more than the protagonist in terms of clues given, and events that the protagonist may not directly witness.” Whedon didn’t have much room for change given the vast Marvel Cinematic Universe and that only one-sixth of The Avengers are female. Even so he wrote the role of Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) such that she is perfectly capable of holding her own while fending off an alien invasion. In fact, it was the Romanoff who eventually shut down the alien portal device after a man failed to complete the task. It could have been easy to have Romanoff become a damsel in distress as a way to bring the group of superheroes together but Whedon decided against that route. Romanoff is seen as an equal member of the group that consists of a demi-god, a highly advanced robotic suit fighting machine, a mutated man with strength un-matched in the universe and an archer that could split a hair if he wanted to. There is one other role of interest in The Avengers and that is of Agent Maria Hill. She is the second in command of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agency, the right hand women to Directory Fury. Even as a limited role she is a commanding presence throughout the film and has the skills to get the job done. Whedon says, "There is genuine, recalcitrant, intractable sexism, and old-fashioned quiet misogyny that goes on.” He even goes to say that there is always some excuse as to why the industry won’t make a female-led superhero movie. He looks at the massive success of The Hunger Games and evidence enough that people love the female-led action movie. After proving his superhero movie directorial worth we can only hope that he is given the opportunity to bring a super-heroine to life in a movie of her own.

Joss Whedon has consistently shown that people love television and movies that contain strong female characters. Virtually all of his work has become cult and/or mainstream hits and his influence on the female roles can be seen even in the biggest mainstream blockbuster in recent memory. He continually creates a wide variety of female roles that challenge popular views today such as women in the sex industry or a career woman in a successful marriage. Without Whedon’s views all of his creations may have turned out quite differently if he wasn’t as open about his stance. He is not afraid for his work to be moulded by the way he views the world and the world is a better place for it.

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