Can we discuss, for a moment, Joss Whedon’s obsession with disturbed brunettes who wander around barefoot? I’m not actually asking for permission here, that’s a rhetorical question which is designed to establish the theme of this post, which is, as you may have guessed, Whedon’s obsession with disturbed brunettes who wander around barefoot.
It really does bear examining, because various permutations of the exact same character show up again and again in his work. And I think that tells us something about Joss, that he can’t seem to produce a creative work without this character. He inserts her again and again, setting up situations in which she can be saved, but in the end, she’s often doomed despite the best efforts of the other (usually male) characters.
The classic example of this character is, of course, River Tam on Firefly. We are introduced to her in a state of total vulnerability, naked and unconscious inside a transport capsule. As the series progresses, River seems almost more like set dressing than anything else. She creeps around, barefoot, of course. She mystifies and puzzles the other characters. Sometimes she shrieks in the night, mutters strings of gibberish.
She’s the Damaged Girl, and the other characters become intensely invested in her and highly protective of her, with Simon and Mal in particular being River’s champions and defenders. River Tam almost seems like the class pet more than anything else, but of course she also carries a whiff of danger, which is another aspect of the disturbed brunette theme. It’s not enough that the Disturbed Brunette be fragile and dependent on others, she must also be unstable, and that instability must reveal tremendous danger.
This is seen perhaps most spectacularly with Drusilla, whom we see on Buffy and Angel. Drusilla, of course, was driven into a very strange mental state by Angelus, who wanted to exploit her visions for his own purposes. She is, like all the brunettes, ethereal. Pale. Thin. Mysterious. She has an imperfect grasp of reality. Like the other brunettes, she floats instead of walking, unnerves other characters, even her friends, and sometimes speaks in riddles and rhymes.
Deadly, yet patronized by the characters around her, with other characters jumping in to protect her. This is really underscored in the scenes in which we see her playing with dollies, which are supposed to emphasize how “childlike” she is, as she murmurs to herself and cries to Spike because her birdie died. Spike literally calls her “pet,” emphasizing how disdainfully he views her, but Drusilla is in fact quite a deadly pet indeed. She is shown, on numerous occasions, to be incredibly lethal.
The Brunette appears again in Angel, when Fred is rescued from Pylea. Again, a theme; she’s shy, withdrawn, thin, and unstable. Other characters need to protect her, even as they are sexually attracted to her. She is, like the other Brunettes, neuroatypical and she’s depicted as incredibly fragile and in need of rescuing and protection, being pathetically grateful towards her rescuers, Gunn, Angel, and Wesley.
Fred’s also dangerous, as proved when she uses her innovative skills to evade Wesley and Gunn in “Billy.” Like the other Brunettes, it seems that despite her apparent fragility, she is able to muster up deep instincts from within to defend herself when the time comes before subsiding back into her state of enforced helplessness.
Tara, in Buffy, is another example of this recurrent character, who breaks out of the mold a bit by having primarily female protectors in the form of Willow and Buffy. (And, of course, Tara is dirty blonde, not brunette.) The other characters feel the need to protect her even while bringing her out of her shell. Most irritatingly of all, in “Tough Love” (Season Five), Tara is attacked by Glory, and brought to a state of total helplessness because Glory sucked her mind out. We are treated to a number of painful scenes in which characters care for the now-disabled Tara, spoonfeeding her applesauce and trying to calm her shrieks and mumblings. I don’t want to get into Joss Whedon and disability at this particular moment, but suffice it to say that Whedon’s treatment of disability is hardly enlightened, and the brunettes play heavily into that treatment, because all of them inhabit troped characterizations of mental illness.
Dollhouse features several of the brunettes, including a number of imprints which fit the brunette theme. Caroline and Whiskey both appear to be very troubled women who may experience mental illness on some level, and both of them are reduced to a state of profound helplessness in the Dollhouse. A state which also carries an edge of danger, of course. And look, Caroline has Ballard to rescue her, while Whiskey’s got Boyd Langton.
And what happens to all of these women?
River is abducted and must be rescued in Serenity. Underscoring the fact that she is fragile and helpless and needs the men to save her (even though she also holds back a pack of Reavers singlehanded at the end, go figure). Drusilla is allowed to remain at large, but we are repeatedly reminded that she suffers without having a protector around, whether it’s Spike, Darla, or someone else. Fred dies, with her body being overtaken by Illyria. Though Illyria is blue and a goddess, she’s got a bit of the brunette thing going on herself; strange, isolated, sad, and in need of guardians and protectors to help her navigate the world. Tara, of course, is murdered at the end of season six. Caroline’s story is still unfolding, and the last we saw of Whiskey in this season of Dollhouse, she was fleeing the Dollhouse after being confronted with the truth about her identity. (She also appears in “Epitaph One,” of course, but I don’t want to get into her characterization there because I know that not all of you have seen that episode.)
This recurring character perturbs me. I don’t like that the brunettes all seem to need to be rescued. I don’t like that they are all clearly mentally ill, and depicted in a way which I think is rather damaging for women with mental illness. They don’t need treatment, or an acknowledgment of what is happening in their brains, they just need some men around to protect and help them! They may be mentally ill and fragile and damaged, but watch out, they are also deadly and dangerous! And, in the end, they will all suffer because of who they are; they are not allowed to live rich, independent, happy lives.
It could be said that this is true of many of Whedon’s characters. Few of them get to live independent, happy lives, and thus it’s not that surprising that, in a small sampling of Whedonverse characters, none of them are really happy. But to see the same character coming up and facing the same things again and again says something. Something troubling.
The fact that many of these characters are also very popular also, in my opinion, says something troubling. It tells me that people feel interested in, engaged with, and attached to these characters. That some fans, perhaps, imagine themselves in the positions of the ones doing the saving, and maybe some fans imagine themselves being saved. There’s a reason that characters like Bella in the Twilight Saga are so compelling; it’s because many of us fantasize, to some degree or another, about being helpless and being rescued by someone big and strong who will make all our worries go away, or about being the rescuer. The brunettes are a realization of this.
Is Whedon projecting himself into the role of the saviour? I think he might be. Will he ever be able to tell a story without a disturbed brunette? Only time will tell.
ETA: Thanks to the flood of misogynist and ableist comments I’ve gotten on this post, I am closing comments. Sorry to all of you who actually wanted to engage and discuss, but I just cannot. Deal with this. Right now. I may reopen comments in the future. (Note: This is not an invitation to email me, leave comments on other posts, or otherwise harass me. My brainmeats are not in a good space right now and I really cannot engage/deal at the moment.)