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 Comments indicating a lack of said grasp will not be published, because this series is not about feminist education.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).