Feminism and Joss Whedon: Sex and Punishment

(Earlier entries in the Joss Whedon and Feminism series are: “Is Joss Whedon a Feminist? The Women of Firefly/Serenity,” “Is Joss Whedon a Feminist? Buffy and Female Empowerment,” “Feminism and Joss Whedon: The Demon Women & Slayers of Buffy,” Feminism and Joss Whedon: Misogynist Villains in the Whedonverse,” “Joss Whedon and Feminism: Angel (Part One),” and “Feminism and Joss Whedon: Angel (Part Two).”)

In one of the episode commentaries on Buffy (“Innocence,” Season Two) Joss Whedon talks about the fact that one of the most troubling tropes in the horror genre is the routine punishment of characters who are sexual. The blonde girl in the alley who dies is selected to die because she is sexual, and viewers of the horror genre are routinely subjected to the idea that sexuality can and will be punished, that happy relationships never persist because their participants must be punished for their sexuality, and that women in particular are not allowed to be sexual without facing serious consequences.

This in the commentary for a television episode in which a girl loses her virginity, and her sexual partner loses his soul and turns into a sadistic stalker who terrorizes her, kills her friends, and explores the depths of evil. (And manages to punish Jenny Calendar and Rupert Giles for their sexuality in the process.) Whedon recognizes the irony in the commentary, but I don’t think that this necessarily excuses his routine punishment of sexuality, and the particularly egregious use of rape as a plot device (“Seeing Red,” Season Six) in Buffy and later in Dollhouse.

Whedon is absolutely right. The oldest rule of the horror genre is that a woman who is sexual will be punished for it, whether she’s beautiful and highly sexual Lucy Westenra in Dracula or any number of blonde scream queens on the big screen. As someone who explicitly identifies as feminist and tries to turn a lot of antifeminist narrative devices and beliefs on their heads, Whedon fails miserably in this respect, only underscoring the penalties for sexuality, rather than refuting them.

Nowhere is this more obvious than with Buffy herself, who endures a series of tormented relationships. Whether she’s ashamed about sleeping with Spike, humiliated by a one night stand with Parker, or betrayed by Riley, she is consistently punished for being sexual. And the punishments on Buffy don’t stop with her. Cordelia, ashamed of her relationship with Xander*, is punished by falling on a piece of rebar (oh, the penetration metaphors) when she discovers him cheating on her with Willow. Willow may enjoy a relatively sweet relationship with Oz, but she is also betrayed, and when she finds love with Tara, she is punished by Warren, who shoots Tara in the heart. On Dawn’s first foray into sexuality, her date turns out to be a vampire.

In Firefly, we see Inara struggling with her sexuality and being punished for it by being routinely called a whore and treated like someone’s property. Mal is punished for his brief liaison with Nandy by her murder, which is part of a larger plot which involves the punishment of a sex worker in Nandy’s establishment who had a child and decided to keep it. Angel is rife with punishments for sexual activity, including death for Cordelia and Fred, and Dollhouse features rape-as-plot-device along with mockery of clients who seek sexual affection, and (again) the explicit punishment of a woman who tries to exercise autonomy over her own body.

There are very few examples of functional, balanced relationships in Whedon’s shows. In part, this is because balanced relationships do not make for interesting stories and television, which requires a consistent push to keep relationships unbalanced. Yet, I find it interesting to see how many of Whedon’s characters are punished for sexuality and the exercise of personal autonomy and choice in the name of plot advancement.

One could argue that he is playing with the idea of punishment for sexuality, except that it’s too serious within the context of his shows. He’s not exploring it, or suggesting that people should not be punished for being sexual, but rather routinely punishing characters who are sexual, reinforcing the idea that sexuality is bad, and that people who participate in sexual activities should be punished for it. Sex in the Whedonverse means that punishment will not be far behind, and viewers know and to some extent expect this.

Area of ignorance, or the willingness to sacrifice supposedly feminist values to the interest of plot? I would argue that tropes surrounding sexuality are definitely not an area of ignorance for Whedon, since he recognizes them and discusses them, which evidently means that he feels it is acceptable to use antifeminist devices to advance plot. Especially when these devices include rape, I find it rather repugnant. Surely there are more interesting ways to explore characters and push the plot forward than to fall back on one of the oldest patriarchal plot devices ever.

8 Replies to “Feminism and Joss Whedon: Sex and Punishment”

  1. I note that this post, for some reason, appears to be extremely popular, and that a huge number of people have subscribed to the comments, even though there aren’t any (yet). How’s about hearing from some of those people?

  2. You bring up an interesting point here, in essence, the question of whether Whedon is basically having his cake and eating it by both condemning the “sex=punishment” stereotype and indulging in it. I have always been disturbed by this very idea during s.2 of Buffy in which sex results in a loss of soul for the man and subsequent punishment of the woman. I would, however, argue that your readings of a couple of plot points are overly simplistic. For example, I don’t believe that Willow is ever “punished” for her happy relationship with Tara. Tara’s death is rather treated as a senseless tragedy, and therefore a condemnation of violence (ironic in Buffy’s world, don’t you think?), rather than a punishment of either of the women. Likewise, Spike’s attempted rape of Buffy is meant to be horrific and repugnant and ultimately more a punishment for Spike than for Buffy (another irony). Also, I think that Buffy’s troubled relationships stem more from her experiences as an individual than as metaphor for the disempowerment of women. As a character she constantly struggles with the meaning of her powers and role as leader of the group, and this dynamic plays into her relationships with men as well.
    That being said, I am very interested in seeing how Whedon and company will deal with sex in the context of Dollhouse, a show which exploits this very issue. The jury is still out on that.

  3. Well, as long as you only “think” you disagree…I jest. I think you make some interesting points, especially about the reasoning behind that totally egregious scene in “Seeing Red.” I haven’t heard that explanation for it before, and it’s an interesting one.

    I do agree that Buffy is very much an allegory dealing with the difficulty of growing up and the pratfalls and mistakes we all make, including choosing monumentally bad relationship partners. I tried to at least reference the fact that sexuality was presented with some balance; Willow and Oz, for example, have a primarily positive experience when she loses her virginity, in contrast with Buffy’s experience. And the punishment for sexuality isn’t limited to female characters, which I appreciate; Xander and Oz are both punished for their sexuality on occasion. But I still think overall that Buffy in particular is repeatedly punished for her sexuality in a way which I find offputting, and I’m not the only one who thinks this.

    I also think that you’re absolutely right (and I said as much in the essay), when you say that there’s no conflict in stable relationships, which is why they don’t last on television. Not just Whedon’s television, but any version of television; there are very few examples of stable, healthy, lasting relationships airing on television right now, and that’s obviously because creative teams know that they are boring. But the way in which those relationships are framed is very telling, and I find it interesting that on Buffy, Whedon definitely references the idea of “oooh, female sexuality is scary,” even if he was actually trying to debunk that, not prop it up.

  4. I think I disagree with our essay. Not in regards to Firefly, but when it comes to Buffy. Buffy deals with the pains of growing up, and relationship pains are a big part of that. Coupled with the fact that it’s a show with demons and vampires, and with the fact that when our hero_ines suffer emotionally, we as the audience suffer along with them – which binds us closer to the show – I think it becomes a recipe for the things you decry.

    Of course the first date turns out to be a vampire. Or a mantis. Or a mummy. Or a sick-to-death guy trying to become a vampire.

    Just because something bad happens on a date or in a relationship doesn’t make it a punishment for sex – Tara’s death for example I don’t count because she and Willow had been having sex for a long time, and punishment for that sure was long in coming. Was Anya’s death a punishment for her having sex with Xander? Was Xander losing his eye punishment for having sex with Faith? No.

    The same with Riley. Him betraying Buffy was not a punishment for sex; it was emblematic of their relationship troubles and his inability to deal with them.

    So sure, Buffy and friends could have stable relationships – and for some time, they all did. But when push comes to shove, where’s the conflict in that, and “Hells Bells” alone shows that Whedon and crew don’t go for the happily ever after.

    And Seeing Red, to me, will always be a panicked attempt at turning the tides against those who saw Buffy as the abuser in the relationship with Spike, and it was a horrible thing to do especially because of this (perceived) reasoning behind it.

  5. I’d agree about Buffy. Heck, I agree with most of what you say, but the essay read a little like overgeneralization to me, i.e. something bad happens = punishment for sex. But I wouldn’t say it doesn’t happen. Even in the comics, it does…

  6. Well, no, actually, I cited some very concrete examples which were definitely not generalized (and I missed plenty more). I fail to see how citing specific instances and referring to others is “over-generalization.” I never thought that I would say this, in all seriousness, but you totally missed the point. I’m not going to speculate on why, but I do find it fascinating that your response to opinion which disagrees with your own is to decide that someone else should do your work for you. I don’t know how much feminist theory/feminist critique of Whedon (specifically his treatment of sexuality) you have read, but sexuality in his work is sometimes highly problematic.

  7. I really don’t know if I agree. I think Joss has a thing for punishing love. Well, maybe not punishing it, but he is totally enraptured with love stories ending in horrible tragedy. I think that is the primary impetus behind a lot of the events you mentioned. Ms. Calendar doesn’t die because she had sex with Giles but rather because their close relationship makes her death that much more of a punch in the gut. The breakups of Oz and Will, and also of Riley and Buffy seem way too far from their when they start sexual relations to draw that link.

    As for the times Buffy was certainly punished for sex, I thought they made perfect sense given the allegory of growing up. It’s sad that such punishment being incorporated makes the series feel so much more real and resonate so much more, but that’s not Whedon’s fault.

    In short, I think Whedon has a thing for romantic relationships going very, very wrong, and he doesn’t have a thing for punishing sex.

    As a canon nitpick, Cordelia and Xander never slept together.

  8. You’re right; I can’t believe I said that! It has been corrected. It’s hardly a nitpick, I would argue that it’s actually pretty darn important because Xander actually loses his virginity to Faith, which brings up a whole separate can of worms I didn’t even bring up here.

    Also, I think you touch on a really interesting point when you bring up the theme of love. Disaster in love is kind of an ancient narrative device, and it’s something that we have almost come to expect from love stories. Love doesn’t feel gratifying or interesting without pain and a sometimes horrific ending. I mean, how boring would it have been if Giles and Jenny had gotten married and had lots of little children? Blech.

    I’m not necessarily sure that Whedon’s punishment of his characters is necessarily always wrong, it’s just that I sometimes feel very uneasy with the way he handles the sexuality of female characters. The fact that relationships are not simple and happy is what makes Whedon’s work enjoyable, but by the same token, it can sometimes set up some awkward situations.

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