Joss Whedon’s frequent return to themes about mental illness is one I’ve remarked on, as has my colleague Anna. His explorations of mental illness have not always been terribly nuanced or complex, and it’s notable that he keeps coming back to some core themes. Charitable readings might suggest that he’s exploring social justice issues and trying to get viewers to think about them in new ways. Less charitable readings might argue that he finds these themes convenient or even titillating, and that’s why he keeps including them.
There’s one trend that keeps coming up in his work, and that’s of a woman driven insane by outside forces, usually men, and often in an institutional setting, although not always. Is Whedon trying to create commentary about the pressures on women from their external environments, and the way in which society can make women literally sick? Or is this part of the kind of creepy subtext that keeps coming up in his work, where women need to become broken down and fragile so they can be rescued, often by men? It’s a strange paradox to have on the one hand characters like Buffy, who are interdependent and strong and nuanced and complex, and then characters like Drusilla, who is broken and in need of control.
Drusilla is driven mad by Angelus, who uses a series of escalating torments to slowly break her. It’s implied that she started out seeing visions, something that was condemned by the society she lived in, and thus she started to withdraw into herself in fear, thinking she was possessed and had done something sinful. Angelus exploited this to torment her into insanity and draw her closer to him, and we spend much of Buffy and Angel seeing her both fragile and extremely dangerous. She’s in fact dangerous because she is fragile. Drusilla is ‘unstable’ and unpredictable and therefore poses a danger to everyone around her, and this is the fault of Angelus, who created the monster.
Sierra is drugged and manipulated so that she’ll manifest symptoms of mental illness and be institutionalised, and it’s this that brings her to the Dollhouse. Her narrative comes out in bits and pieces; here we have a case where the institutional control of women is very much framed as a bad thing, and we are supposed to view what happens to Sierra negatively. However, there’s also a side of ableism to it, because the implication is that this situation is horrible because she’s not really crazy.
At the same time that I think Whedon and his writers wanted to criticise the way women are manipulated and controlled by society, and the medicalisation and pathologisation of women, they also played directly into familiar tropes about mental illness. The real crazy people are still dangerous and scary and should be locked up, under this framework. In an attempt to critique the treatment of women in society, and to advance a plot and humanise Topher, Whedon left women with mental illness out in the cold.
River, too, is subjected to institutional abuse which causes a serious mental health legacy. Both she and Sierra are referred to as schizophrenic in the texts, conjuring up an image of a very feared mental illness, and both were tormented and drugged into that state. Like Drusilla, River is simultaneously fragile and terrifying because of her instability and her tenuous grip on reality; this also provides, of course, a neat setup for a man to swoop in and intervene. Her brother, ‘acting in her own best interest,’ does things like drugging her even more to keep her compliant. There’s a scene in Firefly where he attempts to give her a ‘smoother’ and she reacts violently, attempting to exercise some kind of agency in her own life, and this is framed in a negative way; here’s a nice man trying to help her and she’s acting all crazy.
I’m not quite sure where Whedon is going with this theme, because there are many ways to read it and all could potentially be valid. What I do know is that this trope, of a woman who is driven crazy and then rescued, keeps showing up over and over again in his work, which shows that he thinks there is more to mine…or that he’s found it a convenient plot device and wants to keep using it. Or that he’s struggling with this theme and wants to tackle it well, and keeps trying from a slightly different angle.
Whedon’s expressed identification as a feminist and a desire to advocate for women in his work, although his alleged social justice values don’t always bear out in the way he treats women and minority characters. Despite the presence of women who are complex and intriguing and wonderful, he’s got a lot of women who are acting out old, old stories; Whedon presents a model of acceptable empowering femininity that does not address some of the core social issues that surround women in a heavily gendered world. This positions women who don’t fit that narrative as less worthy of liberation or agency.
This trope, of women pathologised and tormented by institutions, is a reflection of real-world issues, but I’m not convinced Whedon’s work adequately comments on those issues. Often these women seem to be used as a plot tool to humanise a man by giving him deeper emotional characterisation; Topher feels terrible about what happened to Sierra, and is eventually driven mad himself. Angel is tormented with regret over what he did to Drusilla as Angelus, and feels a certain amount of responsibility toward her. Simon gives up everything to help his sister, using his own institutional power to free her again and again, while Mal becomes a benevolent father who looks after them both as they navigate a world far from the wealth and privilege of their upbringing. Is this really an adequate confrontation of the treatment of women in society?
We live in a world where women are subjected to institutional violence and it does have long-term mental health impacts; PTSD among women, for example, is troublingly high (and all the more so because it’s often dismissed as something else, like a personality disorder rather than a reaction to stress and trauma). Where’s the commentary about that in Whedon’s work?