Is Joss Whedon a Feminist? Buffy and Female Empowerment

(The first entry in this series is “Is Joss Whedon a Feminist? The Women of Firefly/Serenity.” It is not required reading.)

This is an ongoing series in which I explore Joss Whedon’s treatment of female characters on his shows. These posts are extremely long and some rambling may occur, so be forewarned before you start reading that this will not be a quickie.

I’m like to start this entry in the series with a quote from Joss Whedon’s acceptance speech at the Nebula Awards, prizes awarded for luminaries in the science fiction world: (Joss is pointing at various people in the audience, many of whom are women) “…and that hot chick over there; why are you even here?” This quote just goes to illustrate that even self-proclaimed “feminists” can say incredibly stupid things. It stereotypes fans/creators of science fiction by suggesting that “hot chicks” can’t be involved, and it’s horrifically objectifying. This quote cuts to the core, in fact, of why so many feminists are uneasy about Joss.

Joss self-identifies very proudly as a feminist, which he is certainly entitled to do, but his outspoken support for the movement also entitles me to examine whether or not he walks the walk in his shows. Can you be a feminist and portray antifeminist characters? What makes a character antifeminist? And how have Joss’ female characters changed over time?

Firefly/Serenity takes place in a science fiction world, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer is firmly fantasy. The lead character, Buffy, is a Slayer, imbued with supernatural powers which allow her to fight the powers of darkness. Primarily, she’s focused on eliminating vampires, but she’s not choosy, and will slay other demons and nonhuman entities. She’s assisted by the rest of the “Scooby Gang,” a fluctuating crew which includes Willow Rosenburg, Alexander “Xander” Harris, Cordelia Chase, Daniel “Oz” Ozbourne, Tara Maclay, and Anya, a former vengeance demon turned human. Buffy also works with Angel, a vampire with a soul who later gets his own spinoff, and she has a special relationship with Rupert Giles, known as Giles, her “Watcher.”

In Buffy, an institution controls the Slayers. Each Slayer is appointed a Watcher, who can be male or female. The Watcher is responsible for training and protecting the Slayer, putting Giles in the position of a father figure to Buffy. Buffy’s father is, of course, absent, underscoring the importance of her connection with Giles, and in fact our longest interaction with Buffy’s biological father as viewers is in a nightmare in which he blames Buffy for his divorce, and essentially kicks her to the curb. Daddy issues, Joss? The entire system behind the Watcher’s Council is based on the control of women, their bodies, and their powers; we learn in the seventh season that the original Slayer’s powers were derived from a demon which was forcibly fused with her body, in an obvious rape allegory, and we learn in the fourth that the Slayer has the ability to share these powers with others, despite the fact that the Council does not want this to happen.

Buffy is often treated as a paragon of female empowerment, and it certainly broke a lot of ground when it aired between 1997-2003. However, there were some very problematic female characters on the show, and a few wrong notes were struck. It’s kind of inevitable, in a series which runs over seven seasons, and I still love Buffy despite its flaws, because it is a solid and incredibly awesome show, especially once it grows into itself. I also think that there are some great and very valid criticisms of the vision of female empowerment on the show; Joss himself says in the episode commentary on “Innocence” (Season Two) that this is a feminist show, but there are many kinds of feminism, and it’s hard to be consistently on message for 7 seasons. It just is, especially when you want to tell a story as well.

Buffy herself has the benefit of supernatural powers which make her strong, fast, and able to heal rapidly. Yet, she’s often depicted as a ditzy blonde who can’t manage the real world without the assistance of her friends, especially Giles, who rescues her from a perilous financial situation in the sixth season, among many other things. Yes, she’s the Slayer, so she shouldn’t be burdened with regular cares, but her regular failures in school and struggles with things like driving, managing money, and finding a job are totally stereotypical Valley Girl, and they’re very annoying. Also annoying is her very conventional beauty, by which I do not mean to cast aspersions on Sarah, but rather to ponder why it is that all of the characters on the show are so pretty, and whether or not people who look unusual or different will ever have a place in Hollywood, even “feminist” Hollywood.

Especially from an allegedly feminist creator like Joss, it’s kind of surprising to note that the female characters are all paragons of conventional beauty. There are very few women of color on the show, and nary a fat woman to be seen. The only fat character, in fact, is a grotesque demon who is a figure of horror because of his very size.

There are some big problems with many of the major life events which Buffy experiences. When she loses her virginity, her boyfriend literally becomes a different person (well, vampire), in a classic “punishing the girl for having sex” episode. Now, Whedon claims, very strenuously, that this was not the intention of that episode, but this is how it played. And there were legitimate storytelling reasons for making it happen: if Buffy and Angel had gotten together and been happy, it would have been the end of the show. There had to be a reason for the two to never be able to be together, but that doesn’t make the events of “Surprise” and “Innocence” any less wrenching. They are, of course, very realistic for many women (and probably men), but it hurt me to the core to see Buffy punished for exploring her sexuality.

And to see her punished again in season four when she has a one night stand. Her experiences with Parker in “The Harsh Light of Day” (season four) do mirror the experiences had by many women in college, but again, they are also very disempowering. Your lesson as a viewer is not “things like this happen, and they are really terrible,” but “if you have sex, you will be punished.” I’m pretty sure that Joss didn’t mean it this way, but I do find it interesting that Buffy’s physical relationships and sexuality are extremely problematic, especially since so many tender and beautiful images of sexuality are depicted on the show, like Willow and Oz in “Graduation Day: Part One” (season three). Or, for that matter, Willow and Tara in “A New Man” and “Restless” (season four).

Yes, Buffy grows with the show, learning to battle her demons and to navigate the world. She eventually breaks free of the Council and asserts her own power, which is excellent. But she’s also portrayed as emotionally withdrawn, despite being surrounded by friends (and lovers). In the sixth season, she’s brought back from the dead, and she struggles with life on Earth after her time in Heaven. Her response to her emotional strain is to develop a very problematic relationship with Spike, a recurring vampire character, and the “problematic” nature of the relationship is underscored for viewers by physical violence.

Yet, Buffy and Spike aren’t abusive, they just have a different approach to their sexuality. I would argue that their relationship is much closer to a BDSM relationship, and that the violence is often consensual and mutually enjoyed, with the grave exception of the rape scene, which is designed to remind viewers that Spike is a vampire at heart, and he doesn’t have a soul, no matter how attached viewers are to him. This scene is what drives Spike to seek out his soul and explore the possibility of redemption, and I would say that it is one of the most uncomfortable, intense, and powerful scenes in the series, underscoring for viewers that even powerful, strong women can be victims of sexual assault.

Buffy is a heroine, and she’s also deeply flawed, and it’s what makes her character so appealing to so many viewers. It is kind of the fate of heroes to be punished and to constantly encounter difficulties in their lives, but as a feminist viewer, it’s frustrating for me to see Buffy being put into some very classic victim positions, and dealing with them poorly. Yes, she can’t be perfect all the time, and that would be more annoying, but sometimes I think that Joss made some very bad choices for Buffy.

One of Buffy’s greatest moments, for me, comes at the end of the series, when her friends turn on her because they think that she is making bad choices and being a poor leader. As Buffy herself says, leading is extremely difficult, and sometimes you do have to make hard choices and sometimes those choices isolate you. But those final episodes were the payoff: we saw Buffy built up over the course of seven seasons, and then we saw her heartlessly torn down by the people who were supposed to be there for her. The scene in “Touched” in which she seeks comfort from Spike is heartbreaking, but also oddly empowering, because one of the greatest things that a hero can do is admit that something cannot (and should not) be done alone. The fact that Buffy can go from that rock bottom of sheer isolation, betrayal, and misery to once again saving her friends is beautiful.

In a way, Willow is a much more interesting and self actualized character, even though she spends most of her time as the sidekick. She’s very intelligent, with a lot of skills including book smarts and computer skills, and she also develops powerful magic skills as a witch. However, like Buffy at times, she finds herself overwhelmed and isolated by her power, almost ending the world as she struggles to come to terms with it and control it. Willow starts out shy and nerdy, and blossoms into an amazing woman, which is a great message to be sending to viewers.

Willow is also famous, of course, for her sexual relationship with Tara, one of the few openly gay relationships on television at the time. Willow and Tara obviously developed a very deep and intense love, and one of the things that I really like about Buffy is Whedon’s displays of different kinds of love and affection. Willow could more accurately be termed bi than lesbian, because she is also very attached to Oz, but I understand the temptation to erase this distinction in the interests of keeping viewers connected.

Joyce, Buffy’s mother, also plays a very prominent role in the series, especially in the fifth season episode “The Body,” when she dies. I think that Joyce could tell us a lot about Whedon’s own mother: she’s supportive, strong, intelligent, and fundamentally gentle and kind to everyone. Buffy often keeps her in the dark for her own protection, but even when she finds out the truth, she’s supportive, if sometimes confused. It’s easy to write Joyce off as the Leave it to Beaver mother, but she runs an art gallery and clearly has an independent life. She’s not perfect, as evidenced in “Ted,” (season two) and is in fact very human and very feminist. I suspect I’m not the only Buffy viewer who longs for a figure like Joyce in my own life.

Dawn, Buffy’s little sister, is a very problematic character in the series. She tends to polarize fans. I personally loathe her, although I know that many people like her, and I think that I loathe her because she is such a perfect depiction. She’s a bit of a one note character, but that’s because teenage girls are one note. They do spend a lot of time screaming and wailing and not really thinking about the world beyond them, and just because Dawn was created by supernatural means doesn’t mean she’s exempt. The very traits which make me hate her make me hold her up as a great feminist character, because even I have to grudgingly admit that she does mature and grow over the course of the show.

And Dawn struggles with her position in life. Surrounded by people with sacred mandates and supernatural powers, she’s just an ordinary girl. She doesn’t seem to distinguish herself in school, like Willow did, but she does apply herself with a vengeance to studying the texts used as research by Buffy and the Scooby Gang. Yet, even when she demonstrates a formidable knowledge of a topic or a foreign language, she’s often ignored, and she’s very much a marginalized character. Yes, she’s annoying, but she’s also a very tragic figure trying to navigate a world in which doors are constantly slammed in her face.

Another tragic (and brief) character is Jenny/Janna, Whedon’s obligatory duplicitous woman who basically ruins everything with her deception. She is introduced to us as Jenny Calendar, teacher of computer skills and witch extraordinaire, and she bears some responsibility for introducing Willow to magic. But she’s really Janna of the Kalderash, a gypsy woman sent to ensure that Angel never achieves his moment of true happiness and loses his soul. Of course, this is exactly what happens in season two, when all hell breaks loose and Jenny ends up dead in “Passions,” one of the greatest Buffy episodes of all time.

It’s unfortunate to see one of the few “ethnic-looking” women in Buffy put into a role like this. She’s dark and mysterious and secretive, and her secret ends up costing lives. She does a lot of good things for the characters, like giving Willow more confidence and a grounding in magic, and showing Giles a little happiness, but it’s hard to totally forgive Whedon for this character. Not least because she’s a glaringly obvious plot device, introduced so that she can be killed by Angelus and we can be shocked and horrified. The structure of what happened to Jenny just wouldn’t have worked with a male character, it’s true, and this is another case of a situation in which feminism had to take a back seat to storytelling.

Buffy also carries its share of stereotypical valley girls, exemplified by Cordelia Chase and Harmony Kendall. Yet, Whedon gives us a twist with these characters. Cordelia may be superficial on the surface, but she actually has a great deal of depth, and a capacity for immense emotional hurt. She really comes into her own on Angel, but in this show, we are asked to challenge our beliefs about girls like Cordelia, and the culture which spawns them. Buffy shows us the danger in writing off girls like that, instead of exploring them and putting in some effort to know them.

Buffy is often heralded as a show which celebrates female empowerment and strong women, and it also celebrates the men who work with and support strong women. I would argue that many of the men in the series are very feminist, even when they are being problematic. Xander, for example, definitely plays second fiddle to the ladies, but he’s also the heart of the Scooby Gang, and he often provides useful information, advice, or a shoulder to lean on while watching television. He struggles to find his identity, but he doesn’t need to step on women to get there. And he does eventually develop a very classically male skill, construction, but that doesn’t take away from his character in the least.

He also makes really stupid mistakes, like leaving Anya at the altar, and lashing out at Buffy in season seven when he loses his eye. But you can’t say that a male character who makes mistakes is antifeminist. Those mistakes are part of what makes Xander who he is, as is the hard work to mend those mistakes which he undertakes.

Giles, in his own way, is also a very feminist character, although his relationship with Buffy can be troubling at times. He’s entrenched in a very sexist system through the Council, and he even participates in the disempowerment of Buffy in “Helpless,” (season three) but he hates doing it. And this is also the event which starts to turn him on to the idea of helping Buffy turn against the Council.

As a father figure, Giles offers advice and support to Buffy, even when he throws up his hands in frustration. He also has his own dark and complex past, and he struggles for redemption throughout the series to compensate for his actions as a youth. And when Giles returns with tremendous power to defeat Willow in the sixth season, where does he get it? From a circle of women. Much of Giles’ life in Buffy is subverted to the service of the Slayer, and to his support of Buffy even when he is no longer obligated to be there for her. Giles is a strong, feminist man.

The relationships between Angel and Buffy and later Spike and Buffy are also very interesting, because the physical power of the players in the relationship is equal, and the men are clearly devoted to Buffy. Indeed, in the Spike relationship, the normal dynamic is flipped, with Buffy explicitly stating on numerous occasions that she’s just using Spike. She verbally torments him as a “thing” and Spike clearly writhes even as he keeps returning.For all who wonder why people in abusive relationships “don’t just leave,” Spike provides a powerful object lesson.

Riley is another character who showcases the flipping of the traditional paradigm. He’s weaker than Buffy, at first finding this appealing as he goes out with a strong, sexy woman, and ultimately being frustrated by it. Riley is also used as a tool by Buffy in some senses, but he’s the one who ultimately seeks out other means of fulfilling his needs, because he is intimidated by Buffy. If this isn’t a classic depiction of what happens to so many strong women in heterosexual relationships, I don’t know what is.

The human women of Buffy run a gamut of personalities, and many of them are very dynamic characters, some of whom challenge traditional beliefs about women and female empowerment. There’s a reason Buffy is used as an example of a feminist show: problems and all, it has a lot going on.

(Where are Faith, Darla, Anya, Drusilla, and the Potentials, you ask? They’re getting their very own post in the near future, that’s where.)

8 Comments on Is Joss Whedon a Feminist? Buffy and Female Empowerment

  1. dregina // 2 May, 2009 at 1:32 pm //

    I have to point out that no one person has the ability to determine whether or not another person is or isn’t a feminist. You are definitely entitled to your opinion, but there is almost as much difference of opinion within the feminist community as there is outside of it!

  2. meloukhia // 2 May, 2009 at 2:34 pm //

    I’m starting to find it highly amusing that in every single post in this series, someone feels obliged to jump all over me for questioning Joss Whedon’s feminist street cred.

    So…for the 1,567th time:

    I am not questioning whether or not Joss is allowed to call himself a feminist, because I don’t believe in silencing people when they choose to take on labels. What I am questioning is whether or not he is producing feminist television, and, yes, I am also asking if his treatment of female characters bears out his claim that he is a feminist.

    As I said last week: “I also think that there is no one right way to be a feminist, and I’m not a big fan of taking people’s self-claimed titles away. And that anyone in any activist movement can always stand to be more educated, whether we’re talking about a feminist, a disabled rights activist, or anything else. This is especially important when someone is involved in a movement to achieve rights for a group they are not a member of.”

    Rather than attacking me, why don’t people actually try and engage with the posts? I am much more interested in hearing people’s reads on whether or not Joss is producing feminist television than I am in people who are clearly not reading these posts or indeed a lot of my discussions on feminism, in which I repeatedly iterate that feminism is not one size fits all, and that no one has the right to disenfranchise people by stripping them of their self-claimed labels. Especially since “feminist” gets used like a dirty word, I am really pleased to see a man claiming it, publicly and repeatedly.

    But, as I have said again and again, when you lead a public life, you have to prepared to see your work challenged, examined, and questioned. Which I personally think is good, because challenges mean that people are thinking about and engaging with your work.

    So, yeah, if you have a comment which adds to the discussion, by all means, join in, but if you’re not going to bother to actually read the material, than please, don’t bother.

  3. dregina // 3 May, 2009 at 4:32 pm //

    I’m sorry you felt attacked. It wasn’t my intent, and I’m really sorry that I came across in that way. I’ve never watched any of Joss’ shows! It would be insane for me to challenge any of the detailed points you’ve made as to his depictions of gender. My thought was just that I’m a feminist, but don’t agree 100% with all your thoughts as to what is or isn’t a feminist act/depiction. So I wanted to throw that out there. I apologize for sounding flip – I was actually going for friendly. Thank you for your detailed reply and I apologize again for the misunderstanding!

  4. meloukhia // 3 May, 2009 at 4:34 pm //

    Dregina, instead of making vague references to my feminist street cred, why don’t you explain more explicitly what you don’t agree with? The whole point of this series is to explore the many facets of feminism, so I’m curious to see you expand upon your comment a bit more.

  5. dregina // 3 May, 2009 at 7:49 pm //

    Meloukhia – Could we move this conversation to email? I’m feeling a little intimidated and I’m also feeling some hostility, which may just be a function of the difficulty of parsing tone on the internet. I’d love to have a conversation; I’m not so good at no-holds bared debate. Let me know if that’s ok, and if not, I understand. I apologize again for upsetting you, it wasn’t my intent.

  6. meloukhia // 3 May, 2009 at 8:02 pm //

    I think that you’re not quite getting that I want people to engage with the content of these posts (and with this website in general). I want people to challenge the assertions I make, and I want people to talk about differing views of feminism/portrayal of feminism in the media. What I initially objected to was your extremely snide tone, which has actually been a pretty consistent issue with a lot of your comments on this site; if you don’t want to engage in the conversation, that’s fine, but I think that conversations about feminism need to happen in the open, not in the shadows of email. I don’t do backroom deals, especially in the case of a conversation which starts in public, although a lot of readers do communicate primarily through email, which is fine, especially since a lot of them want to talk about very personal issues which they do not feel like smearing across the Internet.

    And let me tell you, you ain’t seen hostile yet.

  7. dregina // 3 May, 2009 at 8:34 pm //

    Thank you, and I apologize again.

  8. Popped in here from an unrelated web search. I’m not a huge expert on feminism, but I get the general idea about empowerment and such, and I’m a big fan of Buffy. I’ve been rewatching the series, thinking about writing episode reviews, and I’ve been noticing that there is a girl power element to each of the episodes (I think). I don’t know if Joss is technically a feminist, but I describe him and his work as such because it seems accurate enough for communication purposes. If someone asks why there’s so many misogynist villains, why a manly man’s named Jayne, why there’s so many female fighters, I can say “Joss is a feminist and is trying to promote gender equality” and it gets summed up pretty well even if I’m only using “feminist” as a layperson for laypeople and it wouldn’t hold up under technical evaluation.

    I agree that Buffy is at times annoyingly Valley Girl-esque. I think that improves in the later seasons. The trouble with holding down a job, though, is more due to her Slayer life. In “Life Serial” it’s the Trio hassling her that’s really responsible for her bad career hunt.

    Definitely agree that there’s a less than decent portrayal of fat people, if not outright bad. I think the original point behind Balthazar is that they wanted a fat demon to contrast with the pretty boy vampires, but when he’s the only fat character it doesn’t come out okay. I know Riff Regan, the actress they got to play Willow in the unaired pilot, while not really fat was larger than Alyson Hannigan. I would say, knowing what Alyson Hannigan did with the character, that it was a great decision to cast her for the part in comparison to Riff Regan’s performance of the character. Everyone’s acting was pretty bad, though, and even Joss admits the pilot’s terrible, so who knows what could have been done.

    As for Buffy getting punished for having sex, I’m probably too much of a layperson to fully appreciate what you’re saying. My impression of the situation, though, was that instead of condemning female sexuality it was saying that sometimes men are bad and they may seem perfect but are truly just manipulators. That’s the allegory, anyway. Obviously, Angel is literally Jekyll-Hyde-ing it, but the metaphor extends beyond explicit narrative. Parker’s just a jerk, and Cave Buffy beats him up. I apologize if I’m missing something obvious here, but I thought I’d share my thoughts.

    I agree that Buffy and Spike’s relationship is BDSM-ish, and physical violence is often their foreplay. I would say it is abusive, however, even before the explicit rape attempt. “Dead Things” had Buffy beating the hell out of Spike because she was angry at him and at herself, and Spike just laid there. If he wasn’t struggling, I don’t think that was play. It just seems abusive to me. I don’t think he’d complain because Buffy’s paying him attention, but it doesn’t seem like a healthy relationship even with the BDSM-ish context.

    I am very much annoyed at the portrayal of Willow as “gay now” instead of bisexual like she should be. There was very real attraction to guys, and her being attracted to Tara shouldn’t negate that. Vampire Willow was attracted to both genders in the same episode (“Doppelgangland”), even. There’s enough trouble with bisexuality being respected even within the LGBT community that it seems bad that bisexuality isn’t even mentioned in Buffy despite having a character for which the description of bisexuality applies.

    I love Dawn because I can empathize with her. I self-injure, and so does she. After realizing her life is a lie, she cuts herself to feel real from the blood. I get that. It’s nice having a character I can relate to. So often self-injurers are portrayed as crazy, trendy, or are sexualized. Dawn’s a more realistic depiction. Of course, I’ve had to tape a piece of paper over the image of her cutting on the DVD box ’cause it was triggering, and haven’t watched “Blood Ties” in forever for the same reason… When I watch Buffy, Dawn is usually the character I visualize myself as.

    Anyway, you’ve written a lot here and I agree with most of it. I’ll be reading what else you’ve posted about Joss.

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