Feminism and Joss Whedon: Contextualization

Welcome to the next post in the Feminism and Joss Whedon series! Since there have been some problems with this before: this is a series about viewing Joss Whedon through a feminist lens. You do not need to be a feminist to comment on posts in this series, but you do need to have a basic grasp of feminist theory. Comments indicating a lack of said grasp will not be published, because this series is not about feminist education. Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog, is a great resource to use if you aren’t very familiar with feminism. Don’t let this scare you from commenting; if you don’t know much about feminism, you may not be aware that you are making a 101 mistake, and I’m not going to be mean about it. Unless you keep doing it. I also want to note that these posts are part of a series, in which posts are building on each other. This means that they reference ideas/concepts which have been discussed before, so if you come to this series via a link to a single post and you think it’s superficial or is drawing false assumptions, that might have more to do with the fact that you haven’t read prior posts in the series than my abilities as an essayist.

One thing which I haven’t devoted very much attention to in my discussions about Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the context of the show. I’ve been accused of focusing too much on the negative and problematic aspects of the show, which is something I’m not going to deny, because my goal with this series has been to discuss the problematic content, not to review the unproblematic content. People who want fawning reviews of Whedon’s shows which don’t call problematic aspects of them into question can find those reviews elsewhere. But, eventually, as this series moves along, I am going to talk about some of the groundbreaking and amazing aspects of Whedon’s shows.

And Buffy is a good show to start with, because it was groundbreaking and it continues to be. It is important to examine Buffy in context, because some very important things were going on socially and in television which definitely shaped the nature and direction of the show. And Buffy the Vampire Slayer didn’t air in a vacuum.

Feminist television is pretty thin on the ground now, in 2009, but it was basically unheard of in 1997, when Buffy debuted as a mid-season pickup. Some of the most top rated shows of 1997 were 60 Minutes, CBS Sunday Movie, Monday Night Football, Frasier, Friends, Union Square, Veronica’s Closet, ER, and Touched By an Angel. Not exactly shows known for their groundbreaking feminist content or social commentary. By the time Buffy’s final season was airing in 2002-2003, the television landscape was shifting significantly, with reality television shows like  American Idol, Survivor: Amazon, Joe Millionaire, and Survivor: Thailand nabbing some of the highest ratings, along with shows like Law and Order, ER, Everybody Loves Raymond, and, of course, Friends. (Source for ratings information is Wikipedia, incidentally.)

You’ll note something significant in this ratings shift: even after seven seasons of a feminist television show on the airwaves and seven seasons of a powerful female lead, we didn’t see a single show in the top ratings with feminist sensibilities, let alone a female lead. Buffy didn’t capture major ratings for a whole assortment of reasons which I don’t want to go into at this particular moment, but it’s important to note that it was very much a part of the pop culture consciousness, and many people were aware of the show, even if they weren’t watching it. Yet, even with a model like Buffy Summers, networks were reluctant to go out on the limb with a show featuring a female lead.

Does this mean that Whedon failed, somehow? No. On the contrary, it means that Whedon persisted in making feminist television against significant odds. Despite the fact that the ratings suggested there wasn’t a huge popular interest in the kind of work he was doing, Whedon kept making feminist television, and kept embedding social commentary in his work. He was content with making a cult favourite, rather than trying to play to the lowest common denominator. In other words, he thought that art (and possibly social commentary) was more important than the bottom line.

Few shows have approached Buffy in terms of content; shows like Grey’s Anatomy may feature female leads, but they aren’t in the same class  (not least because Buffy could kick McDreamy/Steamy/whoever’s smarmy arse without breaking a sweat). Veronica Mars comes close, with a strong female lead and some definite discussions about social issues and an embedded message of female empowerment. Gilmore Girls, which I haven’t watched, supposedly contains some trenchant observations on social issues, but I have a hard time imagining it holding a candle to Buffy. Mars definitely fell on its face sometimes, and was often heavily criticized for the obsession with love lives. Buffy may have had a tangled love life, but it wasn’t the sole focus of the show and wasn’t meant to be. Mars may have had more minority characters, but they were still firmly seated in supporting roles, which means that the show sometimes wasn’t that much more progressive in that area than Buffy was. (Aside: do I need to watch Gilmore Girls, gentle readers? I’m putting this up for vote. If you think I really need to, I will. And then, I’ll write about it! Win win for everyone.)

Buffy came of age as some major changes were happening in American television. The biggest change, probably, was the proliferation of reality programming. While some type of reality programming has always been around, Survivor and American Idol exploded the charts, and showed networks how appealing this type of programming was. Today, we have networks actively structuring their programming around reality content, abandoning more traditional shows to make room. Buffy is pretty much the anti-reality, but it’s interesting to see that the only really positive portrayal of women and feminism on television often took place in a fantasy world, while women on reality shows were goaded into catfighting and boorishness for high ratings.

Politically, women were making huge advances at the same time that Buffy was airing. A number of companies appointed their first female CEOs during Buffy’s run, which obviously isn’t directly attributable to Buffy (as far as I know), we saw an explosion of female heads of state elected around the world between 1997-2003, and here in the United States, we saw growing representation of women in Congress. Clearly, the feminist movement laid the groundwork for this, but it is interesting to note the political parallels with Buffy; at the same time that an ass-kicking female heroine was taking to the small screen once a week, women in the real world were becoming more empowered, more assertive, more aggressive.

Not that these gains were necessarily steady, or without their fair share of ugliness. But shifts were happening in society. Whedon was mirroring those shifts in his own work, and in some cases, advancing ahead of the curve. Even as women like Hillary Clinton fought to be accepted in a man’s world, Buffy was fighting her own misogynist villains and dealing with her own social problems, including problems which stemmed from people who devalued her because she was a woman. Buffy was a feminist heroine precisely because many women saw themselves in her, on some level, and I doubt I’m the only feminist who dealt with a tough situation at work by asking myself what Buffy would do if she were in my situation.

The social impact of a positive, empowered female role model appearing on television every week cannot be underestimated, for men and women alike. I think that for men, Buffy was a reminder that, well, women can do anything, and the teamwork of the Scoobies showed that it’s possible for a mixed group of people to cooperate and to maintain egalitarian relationships. Talking with younger folks who practically grew up watching Buffy, it seems like the show had a profound effect on their lives and the way that they thought about men, women, and human interactions, and that some of this effect may have been entirely subconscious. Pretty neat, if you ask me.

What Whedon made with Buffy, in particular, is nothing short of astonishing when compared to other programming. He wasn’t afraid to put a woman in the lead, and to make her characterization extremely complexed and heavily nuanced. He definitely didn’t create an idealized superhero with Buffy, giving her a human side and an equally complex supporting cast. It was a show which demanded dedication from viewers; you had to watch, and keep watching, to keep up with what was going on, something which has often been viewed as dicey in the world of television.

It was also a show in which you had to be willing to follow a heroine into a dark place, and to find empathy with her even when you were condemning her actions. The decision to make her character complex was a tremendously humanizing one for very many real world women. Even Buffy, they could see, wasn’t perfect, didn’t always make the best choices, couldn’t fix everything. For young women, Buffy was also someone to grow up with; even as you experienced changes in your own life, Buffy was dealing with her own.

Without Buffy, would there have been a Veronica Mars? Did Buffy lay the groundwork for Bones, showing that television viewers might be ready to accept an empowered and unconventional woman at the helm of a television series? We’ll never know for sure, but I think it’s safe to say that Joss definitely did some trailblazing with Buffy, and there’s a reason people are still watching and talking about the show even after all this time. It stands out (and not just because of the painful costuming in early seasons). It stands out because it’s still remarkable to see a show of this nature, it’s still remarkable to see a female heroine, it’s still remarkable to see a show in which gender norms are occasionally subverted and outright defied.

And it’s a show which has had a tremendous impact on pop culture and society in general. Buffy is routinely referenced, sometimes in some surprising places. Buffy Summers is routinely held up as an example of a strong female character leading a television series very successfully, illustrating that such a thing is possible. The fact that there’s an entire academic field of Buffy Studies says something about what Buffy the Vampire Slayer has done for society, and for women navigating in modern society.

7 Replies to “Feminism and Joss Whedon: Contextualization”

  1. Yeah, one would hope that a show which revolves around the lives of young women might touch upon, you know, some women’s issues, but I’ve been disappointed in this hope before!

    Also, on an unrelated note: is it just me, or is ABC Family more culturally diverse than other networks? (ABC itself seems to be more diverse; only show I can think of with a nonwhite lead (Ugly Betty) airs on ABC, for example.) Since you watch a couple of shows on ABC Family, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on that.

  2. Great post, as always! As for Gilmore Girls…I love the show, personally, but it definitely does not hold a candle to Buffy. It thrives off of obscure pop culture references, which I love. I think that there is definitely some feminist content. Rory and Lorelai, I would say, are feminists. Rory’s room shows signs of pro-choice and women’s rights activism, but it’s not really discussed in depth a whole lot. I would recommend the show, but I don’t know if it’s as groundbreaking or social issues-oriented as you might think…

  3. It’s interesting to note that a similar fantasy show, Sailor Moon, hit the airwaves two years prior to the introduction of Buffy Summers’ tv persona. Though this was one of the first anime series to be brought to children in the 90’s, creating the anime revolution we still see today, it was one of the first children’s shows featuring an all heroine lead. Though it’s feminist qualities may be even farther removed than that of Buffy due to its Japanese authorship, it’s effect on those who watched it consistently (just like Buffy) has been profound. Many of those fans who started by watching Sailor Moon on a daily basis soon grew up to become the cult fans of the remarkably similar and complex Buffy. Like you said, none of these shows are in a vacuum, each building upon past shows and exposing us to stronger feminist leads and ideals.

  4. Thanks for bringing up Sailor Moon! I have to admit that I have never been a huge anime fan, and I may have short-shrifted it on some of its duly deserved cultural credit. Having an empowered female cartoon leader would have been undoubtedly influential on young girls and boys watching the show (along with teen and adult fans).

  5. This one is my favorite in the series by far. You give a great sweeping view of the changes in television. When you first mentioned the lack of feminine heroines we still have today I wondered myself if Joss had an impact, but then your explanation really made me realize that Buffy maybe didn’t revolutionize tv like the reality shows of its time, but it dug deeper under the skin of certain viewers and the dignity of the show was never (or, rarely) compromised. A truly great post!

  6. Well now, I don’t know about a sweeping view; this is pretty truncated out of the desire to keep it from sprawling. It’s more like a broad, quick overview?

    I also think that Buffy did revolutionize TV, in a quiet way. No, television isn’t filled with female heroines kicking ass and taking names. But there are more positive depictions of women on television, thanks to groundbreaking heroines like Buffy, and science fiction/fantasy has gotten a lot more respect. It will always be a niche genre, but it’s been demonstrated that it’s not just for nerds, and that’s a good thing.

  7. Did Buffy lay the groundwork for Bones, showing that television viewers might be ready to accept an empowered and unconventional woman at the helm of a television series?

    I’m really happy to see this line drawn. I watch Bones consistently partially because I <3 my cheesy detective shows, but also because it's so refreshing to see not just a strong female character on TV, but for specifically feminist reasons. Bones isn't just a strong lady person, she's a seriously weird lady. The outspoken, sex-positive, atheist genius is always a dude! And a weird dude at that! (See: House, Gregory.) Buffy was so worried about how she presented to other people – Bones doesn’t even know how to worry about that. But it’s such a leap from traditional feminine behavior that there would’ve been no going from zero to Temperance for television.

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