Feminism and Joss Whedon: Assigning Fault

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 Comments indicating a lack of said grasp will not be published, because this series is not about feminist education.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 of the things which we often forget about television when we are watching it is that it requires a team. A huge team, in fact. I fall into this trap as well, imagining a shadowy producer/director figure alone in a room with some actors, but in fact, a television set is crawling with people. Lighting, camera, and sound crews. Hair and makeup. Props and costuming. Producers. Directors. A television set is really a rather chaotic place.

In the course of the Feminism and Joss Whedon series, I’ve talked a lot about some of the problematic content in his works, but what I haven’t talked about as much is who is responsible for that content. The assumption is usually Joss, since he’s at the creative helm, but that’s actually not a fair assignation of fault. A lot of people have input on the content and presentation of television shows, and while Joss is a major contributor, he’s not the only one.

Something like a major plot element which strikes me as problematic, yes, that could be Joss’ responsibility, because even when he’s not actively writing and directing an episode, he is exerting creative control in the writers’ room. But even that may not be entirely fair, because networks can and do demand changes to the plot to serve their own needs. I think it’s important to distinguish between creative situations which Joss can control, and creative situations which he can’t control, because it’s not entirely fair to blame the man for every little thing we have a problem with in his shows.

Let’s take costuming. Dollhouse is often heavily criticized for its costuming, which can be pretty exploitative. A safe cracker wearing ludicrous heels? A hostage negotiator staggering along a pier in equally towering heels and tight clothing? A perfect girlfriend riding a motorcycle in a dress with a hem which closely approaches the underwear? All of these costumes are viewed as unrealistic, and they’re hauled out as examples of Whedon’s treatment of women on his shows.

Only, they’re not a good example of how Whedon feels women on television should be treated. The costuming is actually handled by the costuming department. Joss can definitely say that he wants a particular look and feel, and presumably he has some veto power, but the costume department handles these things, and as Joss himself has admitted, he doesn’t always notice elements of costuming such as high heels. He trusts Shawna Trpcic and other members of the costuming team to do what needs to be done. To do their jobs, in fact.

And Fox definitely has some influence over costuming. They wanted the show sexed up, and they delivered a number of notes to that effect. Costuming is one way to sex the show up superficially without compromising plot, and I wonder if there were times when Joss wanted to question some costuming notes from Fox, but decided that it might be better to let sleeping dogs lie.

And, of course, such costuming is par for the course in Hollywood. I’m not saying that it’s ok to do something because everyone else is doing it, but the fact of the matter is that the costumes are not at all remarkable for television, and especially not for the genre. Stop and think for a moment about how much work Joss would have to do to overcome costuming norms. I’m not even sure he could do it. If he asked, for example, that Eliza be costumed in something more appropriate for safe cracking (say, sneakers), Fox might have vehemently opposed it on the grounds that the audience and advertisers want to see her in heeled boots. Bucking the tradition of impractical costumes would require huge amounts of energy, which might be better focused elsewhere.

What about the use of larger women in his shows? One of the things Joss is often criticized for is his tendency to cast traditionally attractive women who are on the smaller side. Again, I would like to point out that this is par for the course in Hollywood. And, again, I would like to point out that if Joss tried to go against this trend, he would face significant opposition. He already has; Fox demanded changes to storylines with Miracle Laurie because she’s “large.”

Joss may very much fervently want to cast truly plus sized women. But the network may be informing him that this is not going to be permitted. Because the network thinks that viewers and advertisers don’t want to see large women. Especially in a serious sexual context. We can criticize Whedon all we want for not including larger women, but we should really be attacking the network, because it’s their influence which is a deciding factor here.

Likewise with people of colour. I find the lack of people of colour in Whedon’s shows very problematic. On a main cast of seven, four are white, and of the remaining three, one (Tahmoh Penikett) is often read as white, another is simply viewed as “exotic” (Dichen Lachman), and one, of course, is Black (Harry J. Lenix). It’s kind of a bummer that there’s so¬† much white going on there.

But, again, the network may be leaning on Joss. The network thinks that viewers want to look at white people. While I am merely theorizing here and have no evidence to back this up, I suspect that the network may have informed Joss that he’d met his all-you-people quota. That people don’t want to see too many people of colour, so the balance of the cast shouldn’t change too much more. Look at Grey’s Anatomy, a show which is often lauded for its diversity: the main leads are white, and there’s a heavy lean towards whiteness on the cast even with people of colour like Sandra Oh, Chandra Wilson, and James Pickens, Jr. as part of the roster.

It’s difficult for people of colour in Hollywood to get acting jobs, because the demand is for white people. But I’m not sure that this demand is always from the creators of shows. I think that a lot of it comes from the networks and the studios, manipulating content for various reasons. If Joss wanted to add more people of colour to the cast, could he do it? Or would it be a fight for each and every actor?

It’s also important to be aware that networks have some control over storylines. They have the ability to shelve stories they are uncomfortable with, or to ask for changes to the story. So, when I criticize Joss for something which feels heavyhanded and wrong, maybe it feels wrong because it wasn’t actually his creative decision. I would be curious to see what would happen if Joss somehow magically acquired his own network, became 80 people, and started producing television without any creative control from above. Would we see more people of colour? More size diversity? Less problematic plots? I bet we would!

I often forget to examine the issue of creative control in my discussion of Whedon’s work. It’s hard to pick everything apart and determine who is responsible for which part, but it’s important to remember that just because it appears in something Joss Whedon’s name is on, it doesn’t mean that Whedon fully examined and approved it. It may be that he didn’t even notice it (shoes), didn’t even want it (changes to November’s storyline), and may have been actively forced to change it by powers greater than he (episodes one-five of Dollhouse).

4 Replies to “Feminism and Joss Whedon: Assigning Fault”

  1. Hi, I commented on this over at your post on Deeply Problematic so I will not repeat myself but maybe just caution a bit to not assume too much when it comes to the specificity of network interference. If the writer on Alas refers to the same Miracle Laurie interviews that I heard, which seems likely, there was no mention that her storyline was changed due to her appearance. What she said was more that when the original pilot (and following concepts) was scrapped they had to find a new plot for “November”. The size issue was not mentioned at all in that context.

    I have absolutely no problem believing the general idea of network pressure to conform to sexist standards etc, but that particular instance might be reaching. Also, the Joss post on Whedonesque didn’t really convey “he doesn’t notice” but more that he chooses what battles to fight and that Eliza might have had a big say in her outfits, which seems to fit if you listen to the commentary for “Ghost”. Again, this does not pertain to whether the end result is sexist or not, but circumstances might not be so straight forward.

  2. Have you read the full Alas post? There’s an explicit discussion of the fact that Fox pressured for a recast because of Laurie’s appearance. Now, I don’t know about you, but if I was an actress in that position, I’m not sure that I would want to go into explicit detail on why the network wanted recasting to happen. So, Laurie’s interviews may not have mentioned the “size issue,” as you put it, but it definitely played a role in the framing of her character. I don’t think that the author of that post was “reaching” there, at all.

    As for Joss’ post on Whedonesque, allow me to quote, since apparently you don’t believe me: discussing Amy Acker’s costuming and a point of contention he said, about that point of contention, “Didn’t notice.” And, you know, a big part of this post was a discussion of much responsibility Joss has, personally, for every point that people nitpick about. My point here is that, with costuming, I think it’s unfair to blame him for everything, because costuming isn’t his job. Other people are responsible for handling costuming, and while I’m willing to bet that he would step up to bat if there was a big problem/something he really took exception to, he has other things to worry about.

    Finally, if you don’t think networks interfere in a big way, you aren’t very familiar with the industry. Networks can and do regularly request a wide variety of changes to content for a wide variety of reasons. Individual producers can choose how to respond to those in their own way. Again, I think Joss would fight a change which he thought really compromised his work, but he also takes notes like every other producer, because he wants to keep the network happy. Acknowledging that network pressure plays a role in the creative presentation of his content doesn’t mean that Joss has failed, somehow. On the contrary, it means that people who jump all over Joss for everything that’s wrong with his shows are making a grave mistake, which is assuming that Joss is responsible for every detail.

  3. I meant to write “convey to me”, since I was arguing about the overall message and not the wording of Joss post, our reading is absolutely as legit as mine. There was further discussion in the Alas post, it was also unsourced, and since one of the points it made didn’t match with what I had heard in one of the interviews I thought I should mention it. It’s certainly not unprobable it went down as they describe it though. It seems silly to argue since I agree with you about overall trends etc. My point could be made like this: I agree with you that we should not blame Joss for everything, but there is a tendency (my general impression, not apropos your writing) to resort to the argument “the network made him do it”, where we actually have no data to back that up. I think one of the messsages of Dollhouse is that oppressive structures are upheld and reproduced by us all, even those of us that have ambitions to change them. That does not mean we should not try to change things and criticize failings like the ones you mention. I just think it might not be very productive to routinely assign most of the “negative” influence to one of many factors that shape the end product.

    Finally, I would just like to say that I love all of your writing on Dollhouse. And I should get better at not just commenting when there are details I disagree with!

  4. It’s fine to comment when you disagree. I’m not trying to suppress disagreement here, and many of the people who disagree with assertions here are making valid and interesting points in their discussions. It’s just a good idea to articulate your disagreement better; your core point did not come through in your original comment, with your original comment sounding nitpicking, rather than like intelligent disagreement. And, your core point is a valid one; while it’s important to avoid blaming one person for everything, one shouldn’t necessarily swing to the opposite end of the spectrum, and shift all of the blame to someone else. That’s an idea which is worthy of exploration, since it’s kind of a key theme of this post: who is to blame for what? When everything doesn’t come with a neat little label to tell us who is responsible, how do we sift through something to figure out who did what?

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