Whedon’s Brunettes

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.)

10 Comments on Whedon’s Brunettes

  1. The damaged pretty girl is the symbol of tragedy. She’s so perfect in every way… except

    That’s why she’s always very thin, very pale, with striking features and beautiful hair. But looks can be deceiving!!! and she turns out to have a mental illness, or be possessed, or some other sort of issue which is meant to be clearly significant enough to completely negate her otherwise-perfection.

    And that’s what these sorts of characters communicate, in the end: that mental illness and disability are, despite what you might have thought beforehand, a Really Big Problem and totally ruins an otherwise desirable girl. Like dropping your perfectly-scooped ice cream cone face-down on the asphalt on a hot summer day. It renders her completely useless.

    You see this a lot in older movies, too, or at least a more general manifestation of this character — the pretty white lady, with the skinny waist and the perfectly-coiffed blond hair, who turns out to be damaged in some way or another. And the message it is supposed to drive home is: Isn’t it awful? Not that she’s not happy, but that now her beauty and perfection can’t serve other people’s purposes anymore!

    There’s supposed to be that enormous dissonance created in the audience’s mind between her visible perfection and her actual humanity. It’s supposed to make them feel that sense of regret. That sense of “if only.” That sense of loss.

    Because she would have been theirs to consume … except

  2. Agreed, though one thing: Drusilla was sick when she first appeared. I don’t think it was ever fully described, but she was physically weakened by an illness. After she was cured, she was considered a great threat on her own, and she was often seen being the one who had the power. Spike wanting to rescue her afterwards is a statement on his character, not on hers.

    And I may be wrong about this, but doesn’t Spike call Buffy (and perhaps Dawn as well) ‘pet’? I just figured it was a term of endearment to him.

  3. Drusilla was weakened by (oh, fuckles, I can’t remember, it was explained, briefly, and now I am going to want to go watch Buffy to figure it out.) an illness and it was only cured by her sire’s blood. I thought Spike’s use of ‘pet’ was a term of endearment, I’ve been called that by other people in such a manner.

    I looked at River as sort of damaged and yet in a twisted way aiding in her rescue. She was the one who figured out what ‘Miranda’ was. She did the puzzle solving (go figure, the girl did the smart stuff) and she needed good ol’ Captain to get all tough guy and blast them through to it. I also find it odd that Summer Glau always seems to play that sort of character (I haven’t seen Dollhouse, so I don’t know there), as it she is always damaged in some way. She was schizophrenic on The 4400, and I don’t know that I would consider her role on Sarah Conner Chronicles not damaged because she still needed someone to guide her.

    You should consider adding Faith to this list. Faith is incredibly damaged, first by the class difference between her and Buffy, then by killing that deputy Mayor. Her damage strings across the arc of two shows until Angel finally selflessly saves her, even though all of his friends hate him for it. It is one of my favorite arcs on AtS, but maybe that says something about me…being brunette.

  4. I hate to say it, but one could certainly make a case for blondes and the lone redhead on his shows having a rough go of it as well…it’s pretty females in general, of any hair color.

  5. 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! … And, in the end, they will all suffer because of who they are; they are not allowed to live rich, independent, happy lives.

    I don’t dispute your greater point, but this is actually the antithesis of River’s story. Simon, a doctor, spends most of the series searching for ways to diagnose and treat River’s illness. Eventually the crew comes to realize that River is not actually seeing/hearing things that aren’t there; in fact she has psychic abilities that allow her to see and hear more than other people can, and what seems like insane ramblings to everyone else is her way of trying to process the excess data–both they and the show acknowledge what is happening in River’s brain, and in fact we’re often shown scenes from River’s point of view to emphasize the reality of what she sees (such as in, I believe, “Objects in Space” when we see the thoughts that the rest of the crew try to hide from her, but that she can’t help but hear).

    At the end of the movie, River has attained some level of mental stability and become the new pilot of Serenity, and gives every indication that she will live a rich and happy life in the future. It doesn’t erase the portrayal of her mental illness that pervades the rest of the series, but despite being the exemplar of this trope (imo, anyway, since unlike the other brunettes River is primarily defined by her mental illness) she breaks the mold in some ways as well.

    As for Whiskey from Dollhouse, *spoiler warning for an unaired season one episode*, you can actually see that she becomes much more of an exemplar of this trope in the unaired season one episode, “Epitaph One”, that takes place in the future. In that episode the Saunders identity has been wiped from her, and she’s essentially a tragic blank, wandering around the empty Dollhouse like a ghost. She provides the heroes with some useful information, and then fills the building with gas to kill a bunch of intruders as well as herself. (Echo, on the other hand, is not actually rendered helpless by the Dollhouse at this point in the series–she’s turned what seemed to be a weakness, her multiple personalities, into a strength by integrating them into her own personality, and is working to bring down the Dollhouse.)

    I also agree with Eraymor above that Spike’s use of “pet” isn’t actually an indication of disdain so much as somewhat patronizing benevolent sexism. It’s a fairly common British term of endearment, like “honey” in the US.

    (here from FWD)

  6. Just to add the POV of a viewer who does enjoy the character of River – I am drawn to her, not because I want to save her or be saved, but because she is interesting. This is usually why I like a given character. I don’t always use them as tools to fantasize having what they have or being what they are or using them somehow.

    I do see the victim- and young girl -themes in Whedon and how they tie in with the protector-victim dynamic which goes way back in the hero myths of our Western culture, though 50s alpha males and virtuous ladies menaced by villains to Catholic martyrs and maidens locked in towers. The “fragility of mind” is a staple of horror movies, which have been merrily making mental disability scary since, oh, I don’t know, ever? Especially female mental disability. It’s no wonder Whedon feels happy continuing on these lines when “mental disability is evil” and “girls make the best victims” are huge tropes in horror films. He couldn’t/didn’t completely overturn them just by making one of the little blonde girls kick the monsters’ ass. I think he may have given himself a little too much credit for that.

    It’s good that this is being examined and looked at and criticized. Thanks for this post!

  7. @OuyangDan

    The character Summer Glau plays on Dollhouse fits right in with her other characters you mentioned. One of Bennett’s arms is in a sling, it seems permanently. She, like Topher, seems to view the Actives in her care more as puzzles than as people, but she’s more sadistic than he is. She looks older than River, but the clothes she wears (plaid dress, cute little cardigan, hair barrette) make her seem much younger in what must be a deliberately created dissonance; this isn’t college-student-playing-a-teenager actor/character dissonance, it’s disturbingly-childlike-adult-woman in the character itself. It’s unclear whether these were elements of her character before her accident or if it’s another “driven to madness” story line.

    There have been multiple insinuations over the course of the show that you have to be “damaged” somehow to want to work in a Dollhouse (unless you’re a Doll), so I suppose Bennett’s just another example.

  8. I’m not sure I agree with all this. I mean, I agree with most of your specific criticisms of the characters, but I don’t know that it is a type, I feel like you’re trying to make more of a pattern than there is. Especially including Tara who isn’t thin (by TV standards–I find the character annoying, but as a 13- and 14-year-old watching the show, just seeing someone who looked like that had a huge positive effect on me). She isn’t really the same physical type as River and Fred.

    Also, I think that River is a positive, if trope-y, character. She is really much more competent than the other characters think she is. Now I feel weird and like I’m sounding like a big Whedon apologist which isn’t my intent at all. But I think that while River’s illness is portrayed in a cliched and unrealistic way, she’s not a helpless or dangerous character, not the way people think. I haven’t watched Angel much but I thought that Fred did seem annoyingly helpless.

  9. I agree with DDog about Glau’s character on Dollhouse (although I think she’s quite a bit more “damaged” than any of the other DH employees we’ve seen). And I was really, really grossed out by Topher sexually fetishizing her damaged arm (which appears to be a…non-functional metal prosthetic? She was pinned under a concrete block, so amputation seems to be likely). But almost everything Topher does really, really grosses me out, not least the fact that I think we’re supposed to find him charming or something.

    Anyway, I do think Drusilla (to a lesser extent), Fred at first, River, Bennett in Dollhouse, and maybe Whiskey, all fit into some kind of archetype or trope Whedon has a fixation on. I’m not so sure I’d include Faith and Echo and I definitely wouldn’t include Tara–not that both characters don’t have problems, but I think they’re not in the same pattern (Tara in particular–I think Whedon has a Thing for fragile skinny brunettes, and Tara is not the physical type he seems to find attractive). Dawn at times might fit in.

    At the same time, though, I do like River quite a lot, not because I want to be her or protect her (I pretty much never identify with characters), but because she is brilliant and can see and understand things other characters don’t. One of the few things I did like about Serenity the movie was that River figured out part of what was going on with her brain, achieved a level of peace, and found a role–a job–in the crew, which she hadn’t done yet on the show. And she does this all without becoming “normal”; she doesn’t change how she thinks or communicates, but everyone else learns how to understand her better. So I agree with AWV that River’s illness/brain damage/whatever it is is portrayed portrayed in an unrealistic way, but she’s a positive character overall.

    Actually, in general I think most of Whedon’s “damaged brunettes” could be interesting if problematic characters on their own, but the *pattern* is disturbing.

    (And I’m with everyone who commented that Spike’s use of ‘pet’ is a generic mildly sexist British endearment that I’m pretty sure he uses with all the women he cares about except maybe Dawn (who gets “Little Bit” or “Niblet”). Spike’s relationship with Dru is more codependent and abusive, with him taking most of the abuse, I think. Which is its own problem!)

  10. I think that the real danger that the brunettes portray is knowledge. All the damaged women here are hurt by knowledge and intelligence. River is taken and tortured because she is an unparalleled genius, Fred is antisocial because she smarter than most people, Drusilla is a seerer and cursed by what she knows. Echo is under the same threat in a way because she is special for a doll and seems to have knowledge dangerous to the company before becoming a doll. Yes they are shown as needing protectors too often, but they are also the smartest characters, and that is what endangers them to begin with.

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