Feminism and Joss Whedon: Death and Character Abuse

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 Comments indicating a lack of said grasp will not be published, because this series is not about feminist education.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

Cordelia. Penny. Fred. Tara. To a lesser extent, Anya. What do all of these people have in common? They’re all female. They’re all characters in the Whedonverse. And they’re all dead. But they’re not just dead. They’re dead because their characters were abused for the sake of plot, and, in some cases, the writers clearly radically misread the way in which viewers were responding to these characters. For some, they are the Achilles heel of the Whedonverse. And their deaths generated a lot of outrage among Whedon fans.

Death plays an important role in drama, and Whedon definitely doesn’t shy away from death in any of his series. Some of those deaths might not be wholly justified in terms of the story, but many are: the death of Joyce, for example, is an important step on Buffy’s hero’s journey. The final death of Darla is a form of redemption (although critics have pointed out that “redemption through childbirth” and sacrificing yourself to save a child is pretty problematic; maybe I should add “pregnancy and babies in the Whedonverse” to the long list of topics I plan to include in this series). Warren and Caleb must die because they are misogynistic villains. Etc. For the most part, Joss knows when it’s time for a character to die, and how to stage the death so that it does justice to the story and the character.

But sometimes, he really trips up. And it’s notable that the major trip-ups have all involved female characters. And that these deaths are usually accompanied by a deeper emotional connection on the part of viewers: we are first distanced from these women, and then the story turns, so that we really start to resonate with them, and then they die. These deaths are also often accompanied by reconciliation and revelations on screen. There’s a pattern, in other words: emotional fulfillment for female characters means that it’s time to die.

As a commenter said in an email exchange, “Whenever Joss heightens emotions, death follows and this is as predictable as the sun rising (quoted by permission).” This trap is common in television: the creator deepens the emotions, makes them more complex, and then is backed into a corner. Something explosive needs to happen to move the story along, because emotions are peaking, and they have nowhere to go. Death is often the way out, but it’s sometimes the wrong way out.

When death does a grave disservice to a character, it’s wrong. It yanks readers outside of the story, reminding them that this is not a world they are experiencing vicariously, it’s a world created by other people. Disserving a character also cheapens the experience for viewers; people have actually felt violated by character abuse, have felt betrayed by the creators, have lost faith. If you betray your viewers enough, and it’s systematic enough, they will start to lose faith in you.

Cordelia is one of the most complex and nuanced characters in the Buffyverse. We are introduced to her as a total airhead, a writeoff character, but we learn that she’s much more than that, and we watch her evolve and grow over the course of Buffy and later Angel. Cordelia Chase, for many, represented an incredible example of character development, and she showcased an ability on the part of the writers to really deepen and enhance characters viewers have been watching for years. Cordelia’s rapture and return felt like a bit of cheap trick, especially when Cordelia started behaving oddly, and viewers felt increasingly betrayed and upset until they learned that she’d been possessed.

Perhaps out of a desire to distance themselves from a mistake, the writers stuck Cordelia off screen in a coma as soon as it was convenient, which was infuriating to many viewers. They were left with a sour taste in their mouths which was not alleviated by the clumsy attempt to kiss and make up in “You’re Welcome” (Angel, Season Five, Episode 12). All the more infuriating? That as a point of reconciliation and revelation was reached, Cordelia died. And viewers knew that she was going to die, because this is what Joss does.

Penny’s death in Dr. Horrible also aroused a lot of ire. She’s a female lead we don’t really get to know, because of the short length of Dr. Horrible, but it doesn’t make her death any less infuriating. Neatly dispatched at the end to tie up loose ends? And, in the process, backing the story into a corner which it will have a hard time getting out of, should the creators wish to continue it? Perhaps her death was supposed to underscore, for viewers, the idea that it was a hollow victory. But we already got that. We don’t actually need to have the subtle nuances of the story hammered into our heads.

Fred’s death is another example of infuriating character abuse. As a viewer, I got the sense that the writers were getting tired of Fred, so first they created emotions, and then they killed her. I mean, great for Amy Acker that she got to stay on the show as Illyria, a character I actually really enjoyed, but it really cheesed me off, as a viewer, that they felt the need to kill Fred. In part, because it felt like the predictable Whedon’s Last Resort: ok, we kind of resolved a story, Now What? I know, let’s kill her! There are ways to create drama and conflict which don’t involve death, people.

Tara is another character with a highly controversial death, and a lot of Whedonverse viewers felt extremely betrayed by what happened to Tara, and how it happened. In a pretty shocking display of ignorance in terms of understanding how viewers were relating to Tara’s character and her death, the writers even thought it would be a good idea to bring her back as The First, something Amber Benson thankfully nixed, knowing that it would upset viewers.

Tara’s already a problematic character because some people felt uncomfortable with Willow suddenly “turning gay,” despite manifesting interest in the gentlemen in earlier seasons. My initial reading of Willow’s character was that she was bi, but a commenter pointed out to me that, in fact, the situation may be more nuanced. Willow herself identifies as gay (which may be ignorance on the part of the writers), but it does bear consideration that many gay and lesbian youth attempt to forge relationships with the opposite sex in high school. As camouflage, as an attempt to try to fix something which feels “wrong” to them, out of fear. I can definitely see how people could read Willow’s presentation as supporting evidence for the idea that being gay is a lifestyle choice, but I give the writers more credit for that. Or, I did, until I heard that they debated whether or not to keep her gay after Tara died.

Within the context of the story, Tara’s death was a sobering lesson. It was a reminder that supernatural evil isn’t the only kind of evil, and that people can die from something beyond the supernatural. Joyce died the season before of natural causes: Tara died because she was an innocent bystander and a misogynist’s bullet managed to hit her. But, the thing is, we already got the idea that guns can be just as deadly as supernatural things, because we saw Buffy lying in the yard as though she was dead. We didn’t need to have the lesson repeated with a freak bullet through Tara’s heart. (Which, I mean, sex/love and punishment, anyone?)

Especially since we had just seen Willow and Tara reconciling. That was kind of a key sign that Tara was about to die, because, really, where are you supposed to go from reconciliation? We couldn’t have explored her character any more, right? She was tapped out. Finished. Done. So, let’s just kill her to advance the plot, in act of callous and casual cruelty which will undoubtedly get us ratings.

And, of course, let’s ignore the fact that the classic thing to do with lesbians on television is to kill them or make them evil. (Hey, Whedon got a bingo there, he killed one and made the other one evil!) The justification for Tara’s death is that it made it possible for Willow’s magic to get totally out of control. Except that Willow also cares deeply about Buffy, and her magic could have just as easily gotten out of control as she attempted to deal with Buffy’s very serious injury, and with the realization that Warren was truly an evil, sick, twisted, sadistic fuck.

Whedon very cleverly deflected criticism about Tara’s death by arguing that, of course, she wasn’t killed because she was gay, it just had to happen, with the plot, and that he would have killed Oz off just as easily: it’s about being Willow’s lover, not about sexual orientation. And I think that appeased some critics, but not most, because most thought that the treatment of her character was highly problematic, because it played into Whedon’s general habit of destroying relationships as a form of dramatic tension. For me, Tara’s death falls right into the sex and punishment theme, which is such an old trope: why do people think that punishment is the only way to move a plot forward after characters reconcile/have sex/build a strong relationship with each other? Surely, there must be other sources of drama.

I also find Anya’s death problematic. I think it was meant to underscore the savagery and brutality of the final battle, but it felt more like tying up ends to me. Xander and Anya were repairing their relationship, so Anya had to die. This, of course, frees up Xander for romantic entanglements when the story continues in comic book form. We already got, as viewers, the sense that the battle was brutal and hard, and the amount of sacrifice involved. We didn’t need to see Anya die to understand that.

So, what is it with Joss and pointlessly killing off female characters? In all justice, I can think of a few male deaths which have been read as pointless (Shepherd Book, arguably necessary as part of Mal’s hero’s journey, and Wash both come to mind). But it is troubling that female characters in the Whedonverse pretty much get a death sentence as soon as viewers forge emotional connections with them and as soon as they start to resolve their relationships. A happy relationship is said to make a boring storyline, but exploring the nuances of a relationship doesn’t have to be dull, and there was a lot more to mine with all of these characters. Their stories were brutally cut short by deaths which felt jarring and upsetting.

The tendency to kill women off to create drama is hardly limited to the Whedonverse, of course. It’s pretty much the oldest trick in the book when it comes to generating drama for the television. But I would expect an auteur who labels himself as a feminist and prides himself on pushing the boundaries and exploring new storytelling techniques to avoid such hackneyed tropes.

One Reply to “Feminism and Joss Whedon: Death and Character Abuse”

  1. I agree with most of what you said(or at least see your side), So I will address the two that I don’t necessarily agree with.

    The first one is what happened to Fred. I think that the structure of Season 5(taking over Wolfram & Hart) wrote her character into a corner, that of the labcoat tech mainly there to deliver a couple of lines of exposition and disappear for the rest of the show. Whedon LOVES Amy Acker(He raves about her in commentary tracks), and wanted to put her back in the field with the rest of the core gang and more front and center in the story. I actually thought it was a brilliant way to get rid of a character that wasn’t working in the current format of the show, but keep the actress.

    As far as Anya goes, she fell victim to a Whedon dramatic philosophy: You have to earn the payoff.
    If Buffy is brought back from the dead, it can’t be all puppies and roses… she is going to spend some time traumatized.
    When Angel comes back from 100 years in hell, he’s going to be insane.
    Whedon hits this point again and again in his commentaries. Anyone, of course, is free to disagree with his philosophy.

    Whedon felt that to pay for that final battle, he had to kill off more than just a few secondary and tertiary characters. He didn’t want to kill any of the core Scoobies (Buffy, Xander, Willow, Giles), they were still kicking around doing a series about Faith, So he killed the next two highest ranking characters, Spike(temporarily), and Anya. Anya died the way she did to show that not everyone dies heroically in battle, some people just get hacked down. Anya, like Wesley and Gunn in the final episode of Angel, also had no supernatural powers to protect her, so it made a certain amount of sense for that reason that she died how she did.

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