Feminism and Joss Whedon: The Contagion of Misogyny

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Angel episode ‘Billy’ and the embedded messages therein. This third season episode was kind of a one-off, but it raised some interesting questions. For those not familiar with the plot (or those who can’t remember back that far), the basic storyline is that Angel is forced to rescue someone from a hell dimension. That person turns out to be Billy, a man capable of infecting men with vicious misogyny when he comes into contact with them. He’s been freed through the machinations of Wolfram and Hart and he’s got some powerful political connections.

As the episode proceeds, we see him threatening Cordelia, Lilah, and Fred indirectly, through tainting the men who interact with them. The culmination of the episode involves a battered Lilah shooting him while Cordelia’s trying to get a bead on him with the crossbow. Ladies for the win, exit stage right, fade to black. It’s one of the few times when we get to see mortal women on Angel kicking ass and taking names and the episode is definitely designed to have a girl power feel, which is, I think, what Whedon would define as ‘feminist,’ judging from the way he talks about feminism and the depiction of women on television.

Whedon was on to something with this episode, though, and it wasn’t the girl power. It was the incredible power misogyny has to taint, corrupt, and influence people. It really is, in many senses, contagious. Not quite as blatantly as it is in Angel, but this is a show that revolves around the supernatural, and when you have one episode to show viewers how harmful misogyny can be, you can’t go for the subtle. When you’ve got 42 minutes with commercial breaks, you kind of need to cut to the chase, so I can forgive the show some pretty blatant symbolism here. I’m not sure I would have done much better[1. Oh, who am I kidding, my feminist action hero television show would be 100% rad 100% of the time and I wouldn’t have to sneak in one-off feminist message episodes because the whole series would be so feminist, it would be instantly picketed by every anti-feminist conservative organisation on earth.].

Misogyny begets misogyny, and one of the ways it thrives is in environments where it occurs unchallenged. Billy didn’t even need to actively be misogynist for it to rub off, but it is notable that people who spend a lot of time in misogynist spaces tend to become a bit misogynist themselves. They internalise what they hear and interact with and they express it in the way they interact with women. And while the violence isn’t always as obvious as it is in ‘Billy,’ it’s pretty clear that tolerance for misogyny definitely contributes to violence against women; as people learn to view women like objects, it’s not a big step to treating them as punching bags and targets for physical abuse. Touching a misogynist in the real world won’t turn you into one like it does on Angel, but the contagion of misogyny is a very real thing.

Angel frees Billy because he’s presented with no choice; he has to liberate him. And it’s clear that he feels guilty for it and spends the episode trying to repair the situation. He also, in his defense, didn’t know exactly who or what he was releasing, until Lilah told him, although it’s a safe bet that any person Wolfram and Hart is eager to have freed from a hell dimension is probably bad news bears. But it kind of reminds me of how often people free misogynists in the metaphorical sense. Every time people let comments pass unremarked, don’t push back on hatred of women in the spaces around them, they’re providing more breathing room for the people who perpetrate those acts.

Ultimately, misogynists are responsible for their own actions, and the people who are around them can’t be blamed, of course. Nor is it the responsibility of women to fix the problem, as they do in ‘Billy’ in a rather final way. But it is worth talking about how misogynist attitudes spread and creep across a society.

It’s notable to follow Lilah’s arc over the course of the episode, though. She goes from actively colluding for Billy’s release because she’s pressured into it by the relationship she’s in with Wolfram and Hart (sound familiar?) to being battered by him (also familiar, yes?), to being empowered by Cordelia, who tells her that no woman with her reputation would tolerate this. In the end, Lilah comes full circle and is the instrument of Billy’s death, but she’s still not free. She’s still trapped in Wolfram and Hart, and there’s still a chance of being forced to free people equally reprehensible in the future; she’s trapped inside the cycle and she can’t escape it, even if she’s taken one misogynist out of play.

What Billy reminds us of, as I wrote when discussing him last year, is that anyone has the capacity to be a misogynist. Anyone has the capacity to be evil. It is not that people are intrinsically bad, but that people are shaped by the people and environment around them. Even a ‘nice guy’ can be contaminated by the touch of misogyny, and internalise it along the way. The question in ‘Billy’ isn’t ‘how do you identify and protect yourself from a misogynist,’ but ‘how do you resist misogyny and find new ways to fight it?’

It’s a question that could just as easily apply to the wider world. I’m not thrilled with a lot of the content on Angel, and I feel pretty strongly that the show doesn’t really have a lot of great feminist messages, for all that I love it, but there are occasional episodes that I think are pretty thought provoking, and this is one. Whedon laid out a challenge to his viewers here, although I’m not sure how many recognised it, let alone decided to take it up.