Joss Whedon is problematic: All the most serious issues in his works
A few generations have now grown up with Joss Whedon’s works that span in an impressive range from film to television. Along with his geek image, Whedon cultivated a reputation as a feminist, a woke artist in an industry filled with misogyny, racism, and apathy. However, Whedon’s filmography has shown that wasn’t quite the case.
From Joss Whedon’s works there have grown fandoms & geek havens in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and The Avengers. These films & TV series are classics but over the years it’s become apparent that they contain some glaring issues. It’s not easy to admit your favorite shows aren’t perfect but ignoring the flaws only dooms us to repeating them. Here are some of the most serious issues in Joss Whedon’s works.
Black Widow aka Natasha Romanoff was the strong female superhero that Joss Whedon presented to the world in The Avengers. There were some issues surrounding her character from the beginning, the most glaringly obvious is the fact that she used to be the only woman on the otherwise testosterone laden dream team.
Nevertheless, Black Widow is a well-developed character with flaws, strengths, and vulnerability that appealed to a wide audience. Then in The Avengers: Age of Ultron we saw a disturbing issue come to light on when developing Black Widow’s character.
While having a heart to heart with Bruce Banner, who is grappling with his destructive alter ego, Hulk, Natasha confesses that she was sterilized as part of her induction to the KGB. Natasha’s words to Banner are “They sterilize you. It’s efficient. One less thing to worry about, the one thing that might matter more than the mission. It makes everything easier – even killing. You still think you’re the only monster on the team?”
The moment was supposed to show Natasha’s remorse for her past misdeeds but instead gave the impression that her worth is reduced to her reproductive abilities. Even if that interpretation was unintended it still speaks volumes to the fact that this questionable line remained a movie both written & directed by Whedon.
The Wonder Woman film as we know it today thankfully never got into the hands of Joss Whedon. However, Whedon did write a script for the film that was leaked online. When reading the unfortunate script we saw a tropey, sexist version of the Wonder Woman universe that made jokes often at the superhero’s expense.
In comparison to the film directed by Patty Jenkins, Whedon’s attempt at the character of Wonder Woman was embarrassing & downright insulting. Many noted the way he had the male character talking down to an entire community of Amazon warriors and the inclusion of several Black token characters.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
An episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer brought to life a disturbing moment when in the aftermath of Buffy & Spike’s breakup, Spike attempts to force himself on Buffy to win her back. The result is that Spike is devastated & disgusted with himself and goes to Africa to try and reclaim his soul.
The idea that a female character had to be raped to bring about the redemption of a male character reveals the patriarchal channels that run deep in Whedon’s works. We see the same plot-device used in Firefly only years later when Mal learns to mend his slut-shaming ways only after Inara was brutalized by a gang of Reavers.
Another fault with Buffy is when it adhered to the tired trope of killing off lesbian characters. The trope known as “bury your gays” gives the impression that queer characters are seen as more disposable that straight ones. Tara’s tragic death is a vivid example of this in Buffy and also reinforces the idea that queer characters can’t have happy endings.
There’s a whole slew of issues when it comes to the portrayal of Inara’s character in Firefly as the ship’s live-in prostitute and her treatment from various other characters. However, even more glaring that the latent misogyny is Firefly’s use of Asian characters – or lack of use.
There are almost Asian characters on Firefly, certainly no Asian leads or supporting characters and rarely even background extras are Asian. This might be seen as simple negligence – not great but not malicious – but then we remember that Firefly’s lore is rooted in the fact that this universe has fused into an Anglo-Sino Alliance. For a world that’s half Chinese, there’s a bewildering lack of Chinese people.
The rest of Firefly is plastered with Chinese fashion, art, and language, all plundered from a people the show didn’t even bother to represent. The fact that there are virtually no Asian characters in a story as steeped in Chinese culture as Firefly is so absurd it would be laughable if it wasn’t also damned disappointing.
Only two generations to date have experienced Joss really, definitely not a few
But good articleJuly 18, 2020
You make some valid points, thanks for the article (Late in getting here because I’m late in looking up current Whedon info after hearing there is controversy in the first place.) I have to say that I do think someone can be a feminist and still have sexist ideas be they male or female, because we are all, unfortunately, raised in societies that hold very sexist ideas that we ourselves aren’t always aware of and must fight within our own minds. If you are raised to think a certain way, your brain develops that way and it’s even harder to fight as you get older. Even I as a female have found biases against my own gender in my own feelings! I can logic them out and say hey this isn’t right, but the feelings remain even as I fight them and confront them. I do think Whedon did empower women on some fronts (he at least can write a fully fleshed out female character, whereas people like say, Steven Moffat clearly see women as plot devices and not full humans so their writing of women tends to flat, one dimensional. Moffat’s writing tends to throw females into ‘hot dominatrix’, ‘feisty unmarried girl’ and ‘walking womb/mother/wife’ territory and men who marry into ‘he’s useless now other than as a whipped husband’ territory. So having seen plenty of sexist writing /movies/shows that have no clue how to write women, I do think Whedon is not as horrible at portraying women as people want to think. It’s not all or nothing. He had some progressive ideas (Even having a lesbian couple on TV in a time when it was rare and very highly controversial and not making it about pleasing men’s eyes, but about the couple being fully fleshed out and loving towards one another, is pretty damn progressive for it’s time) and yes, he’s also a product of the society that raised him so sexism, biased ideas will cling to it. It doesn’t mean he and others can’t learn from it and grow and change. I don’t know if he WILL learn from it and grow and change but I’m just throwing it out there that while he has some problematic things going on, he’s also done some positive things for girls as far as giving them role models. I think of him the same way I think of Star Trek. It allowed a black woman to have a career position that wasn’t simply maid/servant to white people. It has offered up ideas challenging religious beliefs, sexist beliefs, racist beliefs and other human biases over the years, and yet…It also has some sexist, racist, biased things going on based on the time and society it was created and brought out in (Depending on which version you get). People can be empowering and help one another while also having biases that hurt others. It’s probably more objective to understand that we all hold biases and some of us recognize that and fight it within ourselves, and some don’t recognize it and need to be educated, then it demonize any one person unless they’re blatantly trying to damage other people without remorse. Just my two cents.October 9, 2020
Well, you miss the point completely. In a time where women had no representation in action and fantasy in television and film he created one of the greatest and most iconic female heroes in history. Buffy is wonderful, self realized, and classically heroic.
You are like most 3rd wave feminist. You have sold your soul to critical theory because you want the easiest route to political relevancy. The sad part is that you destroy all the great humanizing work of feminism that liberates women and men from misogyn. In its place you offer racial and sexist segregationist postmodern claptrap.October 22, 2020
You used the phrase “post modernism” not to mean what it actually means, but the Jordan Peterson definition. Yikes.December 15, 2020
nic with a dic and two big balls
‘You miss the point completely’ Thanks, David Henson for educating all of us (more like casually handwaving away) on how ‘Third Wave’ feminism is only bad because you’re currently living through it. Did you read the article or just come here to preach? Men like you are the reason there are women who make actual rationalizations of their ‘third wave’ ideas – you know – with actual examples – from just one dude’s entertainment career – to back it up.
Your comment is absolute ‘mansplaining’ b.s to the nth degree, no matter how many meaningless, nonsense buzzwords you pepper in there.
You’re the type of guy that says it ‘makes sense’ that only one mainstay character out of both ‘Angel’ and ‘Buffy’ is POC because it ‘reflects their demographic representation in real life.’November 25, 2020
Hello. I found your article challenging, as I’ve been a fan of Joss for a long time. I’m grateful that you have helped me think about him in this way. I still respect elements of his work, and I don’t necessarily agree with all your points, but I would be wrong to ignore the trend that you have identified. Malc’s slut-shaming always threatened to spoil my enjoyment of a show I otherwise love, but otherwise many of your points hadn’t occurred to me before.February 2, 2021
What a lot of incredible nonsense.February 25, 2021
What was wrong with Inara’s character? She flips the high-end escort trope on its head by empowering women who enjoy sex work. All the power is placed in her hands. She wasn’t forced into the work, she chose to go to school for it. SHE chooses her clients and she has the ability to blacklist someone so that other companions know not to deal with them in the future. Because of her job, she is part of the social elite and a member of high society that allows her to open doors no one else on the crew can.
What’s with all this anti-women who enjoy sex rhetoric that’s been going around lately? People are trying to be so progressive it’s actually causing things to regress.
I’m not sure what issues you saw with her treatment from other characters, but if you’re referring to Mal, the reason Mal is mean towards her is because of what she represents. See, the thing about Firefly is that each of the 8 characters onboard Serenity represent different aspects of Mal’s identity that he lost in the war. The ship itself represents his freedom and sense of adventure. Inara represents his heart and compassion. Whenever she isn’t on the ship, Mal’s mood becomes darker and he acts more callously. They butt heads so much because Mal is constantly at war with himself, wanting to regain his compassion, but finding it stuck in a mud-drenched valley, riddled with bullet holes. He’s also unknowingly in love with her but too bull-headed to realize it. She’s in love with him, too, and when she finally realizes this, she actively works to protect Mal from developing feelings for her because she knows it would cause too many problems. Hence, why she is just as mean back.
Sara, it’s almost as if you didn’t thoroughly research this topic.
As to the low amount of Asians on Firefly, I find that odd, too, but it could be any number of things. It could have been done purposefully, it could have been the network execs wanting to cater to a western audience, maybe there weren’t very many Asian actors who auditioned, maybe this was going to be explored better after season 1, maybe most of the Asians are well-off and live on the rich core planets instead of the poor outer rim planets, maybe Joss didn’t want a lot of Asians on the poor planets because they would look like oppressed railroad workers instead of white folk who would look like desperate ranchers and coal miners. Maybe there’s a conspiracy here, maybe there’s not. Either way, we’ll never know until an official statement is made which won’t ever happen.
At least the main cast of Firefly included a loving interracial couple, two black actors, one Brazilian actor, and one actor that is part Iroquois. I believe that Kaylee’s role was written to be Asian but they loved Jewel Staite’s audition so much that she got the part. She fit the role the best out of all who auditioned. I don’t see anything wrong with that. As with all things, we are more than just the color of our skin or the heritage in our genes. We are not the sins of our fathers. We are humankind.March 13, 2021