There’s been a lot of chatter this week about feminism, faux-feminism, virtue signalling, and the muddiness of ideals when influenced by sex, mostly brought about by Joss Whedon’s collapsing marriage and the scathing tell-all unleashed by his wife. For years, Joss has been a sort of nerd living deity: proof that the under-represented can achieve and be respected for their geekiness. I mean, he’s still white and male, so these perceptions have always been somewhat slanted, since the deck was stacked in his favor from the start. Putting that aside, we’re left with a career that was no doubt propelled by ‘strong’ characterizations of women. And yet, knowing what we now know about his personal life, we’re left wondering how genuine these portrayals were.
Critics of his work found flaws years ago: needlessly perfect and pretty heroines who were almost always white; the strange creation of the First Slayer in Buffy–a woman of color magically, forcibly (she’s chained up and not having any of it) imbued with demonic power by a circle of wise men. Furthermore, there was a perceptible gulf between what women and especially women of color experienced and the ‘troubled’ existence of clean, white society that Joss’s work often described. Which is fine, since we write/ create what we know, and that’s obviously his wheelhouse and experience. But he was given a free pass for that and many other transgressions in voice and narrative, because we needed a nerd-hero.
Well, there’s lots of those now, a dime a dozen really. Being into comics, videogames, shows like GoT, or geek-chic isn’t abnormal. Society has moved on, grown, become more accepting of what’s different or exploratory, and so, looking back on older creations, like Buffy, we can easily see the cracks that weren’t so apparent before. Do Joss’s personal actions invalidate all that he has done? No, though they certainly remove any substantial sympathy (for women) and weight from his portrayals. Because you can’t really respect women and pen this excuse in a letter to your wife:
He (Joss) admitted that it was because he was ‘surrounded by beautiful, needy, aggressive young women. ‘It felt like I had a disease, like something from a Greek myth. Suddenly I am a powerful producer and the world is laid out at my feet and I can’t touch it.’
Although he did touch it (them), allegedly. If all he had done was to admire and desire, both normal reactions for a sexually aware person, then his values wouldn’t seem such a farce. If he wore his predilections on his sleeve, and was in an open relationship with his wife, again, we’d be having a very different discussion–and this media whirlwind would instead have been a small flutter of a breeze. However, since he used his position, power and influence for sex, he crosses into the realm of a predator.
Where does that leave us as creators? Well, if we are moralizing folk, then we have to check ourselves, daily/ hourly/ by the minute, to see if we’re posturing or preaching. I write about families and family ties a lot, and that’s because my relationship to my own family is so strained. We’re just so very, very different: a collective of aliens from different planets. My mom was the glue of our weird little clan, and without her, we’ve certainly fallen apart. It’s a wound that I will repair one day as best as I can, once my pride stops getting in the way; a wound of which my estrangement is delaying any healing. I know this about myself. I know my ugliness, and perhaps that’s why I’m relatively good at portraying it in imaginary characters. Likewise, should Joss have been open about his wandering eye years ago, right when it first started wandering, and we might have been able to somewhat respect him as an affable pervert with good intentions.
Where does that leave us as partakers in art? “Strong women” is the buzz phrase of the age. But strength is so much more than just creating a woman who can take a pummelling or dish one out as rudely as a man. Strength comes in the presence of weakness and fear. A woman who struggles with her weight. A transgender woman who struggles with her identity. A woman who is colored by depression. A woman who is colored and persecuted and tries to eke out a life in a culturally-backwards town. A woman recovering from abuse. A woman impoverished and saddled by bad decisions and unwanted (initially) children–though her loving of them in less than ideal conditions could make for some fantastic literary fiction. Any of the above concepts could be material for a brilliant story, really. These are all examples of ‘strong women’.
Are these characters fun to read or watch? Are they as plucky, pretty and witty as Buffy? Not always, their lives can be quite boring or even sad. Still, these are the stories of which we need to see more, simply because they speak less to fantasy and more to an achievable reality. (And we, as creators, can write them the better, funnier, braver outcome for their choices and failures.)
Why do people love Mouse (from Feasts) so much? I mean–and channelling some Andrew Dice Clay for a moment–by chauvinist-asshole standards she’s okay looking, but the rest of her…Flat chested, kinda bony, doesn’t smile, boyish hair, about as sexually provocative as a pencil. She’s got no martial arts skills or superpowers. She’s clever, though not smart enough to get herself out of real trouble. At best, she warms from hostile to unfriendly. She’s had a really, really horrible life. What is there to admire about her, then?
Her hope. She hides it well, that light inside. But despite how much the world has conspired to make her hate herself: she doesn’t. She wants to live. She clutches close the impossible dream that she might one day be happy, and so on she trudges, through fire, brimstone, war and death aplenty. Soon, she’s walking with godlike creatures, a mouse in their shadows. And she never longs for that power, she never yearns to be those gargantuan forces. She only wants to be herself. She knows who that perfect self is. She loves herself, and life.
I think that’s the backbone of what defines a ‘strong female character’, at least in my eyes. It’s a self-satisfaction and harmony that occurs outside the patriarchy, outside and in spite of any of society’s influence, negativity and constructs. Strength, at its deepest depth, becomes an appreciation and almost supernatural connection to life and a greater consciousness, no matter what terror and uncertainty might be raining down.
More women like that in popular culture please. I don’t need them to be superheroes, though Jessica Jones continues to fill that gap pretty well. Besides, real women living real lives are superheroes anyway.
All my love,