Feminism and Joss Whedon: Misogynist Villains in the Whedonverse

(The earlier entries in this series are “Is Joss Whedon a Feminist? The Women of Firefly/Serenity,” “Is Joss Whedon a Feminist? Buffy and Female Empowerment,” and “Joss Whedon and Feminism: The Demon Women and Slayers of Buffy.” They are not required reading, although please note that these posts are very, very, very long, so you may want to set aside some time to read/digest them if you’re interested in the topic.)

Now that we’ve had a chance to explore some of the women of the Whedonverse, I wanted to talk about some of Joss Whedon’s most memorable misogynist villains. These villains are something which really sets Joss aside from a lot of other people working in television, because he confronts viewers with very real examples of anti-feminist villainy. I can’t think of a lot of other examples of shows in which villains are explicitly misogynist, and in which their misogyny becomes a critical aspect of their characterization and eventual fate.

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you have Caleb (season seven) and Warren (season six), part of the overall turn towards darkness which occurs over the course of the series as our characters mature and the story matures with them. Angel also has a very chilling cameo with Billy (season three), and Firefly features its very own misogynist, Rance Burgess, in “Heart of Gold.” Hearn, in Dollhouse, is another woman-hating character (within the context of a larger organization which is deeply troubling from a feminist perspective). All of these characters are very different, and while they may occur in fantasy/science fiction contexts, they are also chillingly real.

When Whedon introduced Warren (“I Was Made to Love You,” season 5), he was initially a fairly minor character. He builds a sex robot, which we see as rather repulsive, especially since he abandons her and leaves her to run down, rather than addressing his issues with her. But, as it turns out, there’s a lot more to Warren than meets the eye, and our initial decision to write him off as a minor geek turns out to be a fatal mistake.

Warren forms part of the Trio, a group which explicitly wants to bring Buffy down. The Trio’s antics are amusing at first, and they steadily grow more sinister, culminating with the very creepy “Dead Things” (season six), in which Warren enchants his former girlfriend to turn her into a sex slave, and when she attempts to break free, she is killed. It is at this point that we understand that the Trio has taken a very dire tack, and we start to take them seriously as enemies as Warren frames Buffy for the murder and has a generally callous attitude, viewing Katrina as an object without meaning or intrinsic value.

Warren is also, of course, the architect of the Buffybot, the robotic version of Buffy which Spike orders from him in the fifth season. The Buffybot is a disturbing manifestation of Spike’s obsession with Buffy, and of the idea that a living, breathing woman whom we know and are familiar with could be turned into a robotic version which could be programmed (hello, Dollhouse) to do exactly what the controller desires. The ultimate misogynist fantasy.

He travels down a darker and darker path, ultimately being foiled by Buffy and storming to her house to shoot her. Buffy doesn’t die, but Willow’s girlfriend Tara does, propelling her into a murderous rage. Whedon gives us our first taste of vicious and truly horrific revenge when Willow flays Warren alive after tormenting him; it’s an uncomfortable scene, because it shows us that Willow’s magic is totally out of control, and we want to be horrified, but some of us are also secretly congratulating her for meting out such a harsh and apropos punishment.

One of the things about the characterization of Warren that intrigues me is that it touches on misogyny in the geek community. Now, I know lots of feminist geeks, but I also know a fair number of geeks, male and female, who have very antifeminist attitudes, and these attitudes are regularly reinforced in media aimed at geeks which features heavy objectification and vilification of women. I think that Whedon really highlighted a major issue here, which is that people tend to ignore geeks at their own peril, and that there is a lot of tolerance for antifeminist (and racism, though not brought up in Buffy) within the geek community.

Caleb debuts in “Dirty Girls,” and we know right from the start that he is Bad News Bears. Giving a young girl a ride, he gives off an entirely creepy vibe, heavily tinged with religious overtones (his priest’s collar adds a note of disturbance to the scene) which culminates with a violent attack on the girl. The scene sums up the use of religion to oppress women, and the very real core of violence which underlies a lot of hatred of women; in that scene with Caleb, you see the active desire of many people to punish women simply for being women.

He is actually trained as a priest, although we learn that he has been defrocked, and he also has a past as a serial killer. He is also closely interconnected with the First Evil, even going so far as to actively fuse with it in a strangely sexual scene. Caleb controls the Bringers, shaping the events of season seven long before we meet him, and he commands tremendous power; he’s a great allegory for misogynists who take advantage of structural systems to reinforce their will and subjugate women.

His end is also uniquely feminist and quite graphic. First, Buffy attempts to counter him and makes a fatal tactical mistake which costs the lives of several Slayers, along with Xander’s eye. This becomes the catalyst for the overthrow of Buffy, who later rejoins the team, steals the Scythe from Caleb, and cuts Caleb in half. From the groin up. If that’s not a powerful metaphor, I don’t know what is.

Caleb spends much of his time on screen mocking and belittling Buffy, and assuming that she is largely powerless. He discounts her power as a woman and as a Slayer, failing to understand the implications of her theft of the Scythe, and he pays a price for it. While Caleb may be infused with supernatural power, there’s a lot of about him which reminds viewers of real-world people who treat women as worthless objects which can be safely ignored.

The deaths of both Warren and Caleb are necessary within the context of Buffy because this is how she defeats her enemies, but they are also more layered than that. Both are actual human beings, in a marked contrast with her enemies in early seasons, and this really underscores the fact that the show is growing darker and more complex. From believing that no human killing is justified, Buffy goes to realizing that sometimes it is necessary in order to conquer sheer, unadulterated evil. And the only reason that we buy and accept these extremely violent deaths is that these characters are both rabid misogynists, going against everything that Buffy is, and thereby we find it personally redeeming, as viewers, to see them cut down so savagely.

Billy, introduced in “That Vision Thing” (Angel season three) is a relatively minor character, but also an important one. He’s also a standout in a show which is pretty antifeminist in a lot of ways.

We are initially introduced to him as someone who is trapped in a hell dimension. We assume he can’t be all good, because Wolfram and Hart manipulates Angel into rescuing him, but we also can’t imagine what circumstances would make someone deserve such a fate. We learn why a few episodes later in “Billy,” when characters begin to develop violent attitudes toward women after coming into contact with Billy. As it turns out, he can literally infect people with misogyny. Angel remains relatively unaffected, but the gentle and loving Gunn and Wesley turn into woman-hating monsters who attack Fred in the hotel.

The women of the series rise to save the day. We have Lilah Morgan viciously attacked by Billy, and at first insisting that he cannot be tracked and taken into custody because of political issues, and ultimately pursuing and shooting him as Cordelia goads her into fighting back. Cordelia also helps to track down and fight Billy, aided by the fighting skills she has started to acquire, while Fred develops ingenious ways to fend off Gunn and Wesley without actively hurting them, as she realizes that their mania must be temporary.

This episode raises a lot of issues. It points out that misogynistic attitudes often are contagious, even if they aren’t literally so. People are shaped by the people and media around them, and many people do learn to hate, fear, and resent women from others, just like people were infected by Billy’s hatred. Wesley in particular struggles with the discovery that he has the capacity for such violence and hatred within him, even as Fred assures him that what he did wasn’t really a part of him. In fact, Wesley is so broken by the incident that he experiences a form of life crisis, and is heard crying as he struggles to reconcile his experiences; tears are generally viewed as something which takes away from masculinity, underscoring Wesley’s struggles with his gender and the harsh reality of being male.

Rance Burgess is another relatively minor character who carries serious implications. In “Heart of Gold,” we learn that he is tormenting the occupants of a brothel, trying to gain control of a pregnant whore who is believed to be carrying his child. He will stop at nothing, treating the women as his property, until Mal and the gang swoop in to save the day. He organizes a defense of the brothel, while the pregnant woman gives birth, and of course one of the women of the brothel (Whedon’s obligatory Duplicitous Woman) sells out and sneaks Burgess into the building to steal the child.

But while Mal may organize the response to the threat, Whedon ultimately allows a woman to have the coup de grace. Mal drags Burgess back to the brothel, and allows the baby’s mother to shoot him. It’s another scene of violent vengeance, with viewers being worked up by Burgess’ abusive and violent treatment of women, and the deaths of some of the occupants of the brothel as Burgess’ men attack it. And it seems wholly appropriate that the woman who fought for custody and control of her child should be the one who decides what to do with Burgess, and decides to shoot him.

Many of Whedon’s misogynist characters give the women of his shows a chance to assert themselves, and to mete out justice, no matter how simplistic it is. Their characters and deaths are crude, violent, and awful, but Whedon doesn’t necessarily shove them in the faces of the viewers. Instead, they arise naturally within the context of the series they appear in, not feeling forced at all. It’s a great way to create positive feminist television without shoving feminism in the face of the viewers, although it does kind of go against Whedon’s theme that everyone is capable of redemption, by suggesting that some people really are so dreadful that they should just go away.

Hearn is a bit of an exception to the rule, because his character does not contribute to female empowerment, although he is definitely antifeminist, and that makes his depiction interesting for me, as a feminist watching Dollhouse. As Sierra’s handler, he sexually abuses and rapes her repeatedly (“Man on the Street”), justifying his actions within the larger context of the Dollhouse. As viewers, of course, we disagree and believe that what he is doing is definitely wrong.

But because the women of the show, including his victim, are disempowered, Hearn is actually punished by Boyd, the big strong male hero. Sierra’s rape, as I have dicussed elsewhere, sets up an interesting question and dichotomy in the show, as viewers learn that it is horrific and wrong, but the question of what happens to the Actives when they are on engagements is left in the air. We have Sierra’s rape confronting us and making us uncomfortable as viewers, but the same sour taste is not present in scenes where we see the actives engaged in sexual behavior.

Most tragically, Sierra’s memory of the abuse is wiped away afterwards. It’s the ultimate in disempowerment: she is sexually abused and used, and she isn’t even allowed to retain the memory of the event. In a way, the writers of the story are the misogynist villains, because they are the ones who are making the choice to disempower the characters and deny their experiences.

And this makes me curious to see Dollhouse in the coming season, because I want to see how the writers react to the criticism of the show, and how/if the characters have a chance to grow and mature into their own  beings with the capability of fighting back, defending themselves, and overcoming the system in which they are trapped.

6 Replies to “Feminism and Joss Whedon: Misogynist Villains in the Whedonverse”

  1. I don’t agree with the writers being the “misogynist villains” in regards to the Sierra plot. You repeatedly pointed out how the violent deaths of certain misogynist villains fell naturally in line with the plots and settings of the shows in question. Similarly, in the context of the Dollhouse, Sierra’s memory is going to get wiped. It’s inevitable. She is too valuable an asset to be compromised by such memories.

    I do agree that it’s horrible, and I also agree that Dollhouse will need to become more self aware about the issues it is exploring. I really think it will, though. Season One was all about Echo kind of stumbling to being aware of who she was, but she never really quite got there. I think that as Echo realizes who she is and subsequently begins to understand the implications of her situation, so too will the show grow more self aware.

    At least, that’s my hope. It would make sense.

  2. Well, it may be necessary within the framework of the plot to wipe Sierra’s memories, but the writers still disempower Sierra’s character by making that choice, through their agents in the form of the staff of the Dollhouse who do the actual wiping. (Well, as actual as an action can be when depicted in the fictional environment of a television show, of course.) Whether or not you want to be as extreme as calling the writers “misogynist villains” (I was kind of shocked when I realized that I actually went that far), I think that it raises some interesting points about the culpability of the writers: can we hold writers responsible for what they do to their characters? Even if what they do to their characters totally falls in line with the mythology of the show? What about when writers abuse the integrity of characters in the service of plot (i.e. Cordelia in Angel)?

  3. I disagree with saying that the writers disempower Sierra by making that choice. All actives are effectively helpless. Their very existence is subject to the whims of those who control the dollhouse. Her memories being wiped underscores this state of affairs; it does not exacerbate it. I’d say it is pretty much impossible to exacerbate.

    As for the culpability of writers, I would say that we absolutely can not hold them culpable for what they do to their characters. If we could, a whole lot of writers would be up on murder charges. What we can hold writers culpable for is their message. If writers abuse the integrity of the characters in service of the plot, they are almost certainly forcing something. That makes an agenda or message appear where it otherwise might not.

    Now, is the message of dollhouse that women are objects or that it’s OK to disempower or subjugate them? I would say that it is not. It’s true that certain implications of what the dollhouse is doing are yet to be explored. However, there are two reasons that I don’t think that those issues, when explored, are going to end up being used to support a message that is anti-women.

    The first is that there the show isn’t that gender unequal, role wise. There are four major non doll characters. One is a woman, but she’s also kind of the majorest. In many ways, she is ultimately powerful while the dolls are ultimately helpless. There are male dolls, and they are used for all the same things the female dolls are.

    The second and more important reason is that the fundamental question of Dollhouse has nothing to do with gender. It is, “What is it to be a person?” While looking at the gender issues is interesting and probably productive, I don’t think that the show cares about gender all that much. For example, I found the Sierra rape storyline to be far more evocative of the rape of a child than the rape of a woman. It was about a helpless innocent being abused by someone who was supposed to take care of her, NOT about a man taking advantage of a woman.

    At least, that’s how it played to me.

  4. Yeah, honestly, I am not really sure where I was going with that “writers as misogynist villains” line, because it really does not hold up under even the most glancing of scrutiny. I think that there was a germ of an idea there…but I have no idea what it was. So allow me to stand corrected: I didn’t mean that! (And I shouldn’t have even bothered to try justifying/defending it.)

    I definitely do not think that the message of Dollhouse is that women should be disempowered/that it’s ok to disempower women/that women are dolls or toys to be played with. On the contrary, I think that the show is exploring the disempowerment of people in general, and how that is definitely not ok, and it’s playing with some very interesting moral and ethical issues. (Like, it is ok to disempower someone when they sign a contract saying that they are willing to be disempowered? Can people consent to their own disempowerment? What are the real-world parallels between the situations of people in the Dollhouse who are disempowered in a very graphic way, and disempowered/marginalized populations?)

    I also agree with you that Dollhouse is definitely not trying to focus on gender issues, although some gendered topics definitely come up. As you say, it’s exploring the nature of what makes us human, and it’s challenging us with questions about how we define humanity. I actually think that a sole focus on gender issues would be a disservice to the show; although I have primarily discussed it from a feminist perspective, there’s a lot more to explore there, I just don’t really feel qualified to delve into some of the philosophical issues.

    I think there’s also an important distinction between disempowerment which needs to happen as part of the story, and situations in which writers genuinely abuse characters. Sierra’s disempowerment was most definitely appropriate for the setting. However, one lasting semantic quibble: the writers did disempower Sierra, but they were only following orders, so (and I never thought I would say something like this), the disempowerment was acceptable. It served the character, it served the story, and it was totally appropriate. I also obviously think that there is a tremendous difference between disempowering a fictional person because it is necessary to do so, and disempowering an actual person. (Or disempowering a fictional character in a way which could be considered abuse of the character’s integrity and the story, as, in my example above, Cordelia.)

    To bring things back to myself, because this is, after all, my website, I really do think that feminism is ultimately about humanity. And while feminism is currently really focused on the gendered issues which involve women, I actually find Dollhouse a very feminist show, even though it’s not supposed to be (or trying to be, and doesn’t need to be), and even though it makes some glaring mistakes, because it’s exploring issues which damage all of humanity, and because it’s talking more generally about subjugation, evil, and the ways in which people justify truly terrible behavior.

  5. I find myself in more or less full agreement with you. Thank you very much for the interesting article and the interesting discussion that followed.

  6. Thank you! I’ve really appreciated your thoughts/challenges, and the conversation we had was exactly the kind of dialogue I am trying to spark with this series.

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