(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.