Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Slaying Expectations: Elevating Genre and Character in the Whedonverse

In the Whedonverse, it's not unusual for viewers to expect one thing when they'll end up getting something else entirely. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Dollhouse, Joss Whedon plays with genre and character in strikingly original ways that expose the nuances of what we think we want from our entertainment and what we actually want.

When we first meet her, Buffy Summers (of eponymous Vampire Slayer fame) doesn't seem to be more than a preppy, blonde high-school girl. However, in that first awkward and flustery encounter between new-girl Buffy and nice-guy Xander, it's not Buffy's cell phone or diary that she leaves behind in the hallway, but her wooden stake.

Right away, "Welcome to Hellmouth" is everything we expect, except not. 

The formula Buffy plays with isn't new. The sweet new preppy girl on her first day at a new high school and the potential sloppy, overly zealous love interest all point our expectations toward the incredibly clichéd after school special programs that infused teenage media from 1972 to 1997. 

The wooden stake, though? That's a genre juxtaposition we don't see coming. But, the nod toward abnormality isn't just for kicks. By introducing the deviating elements, Whedon not only brings us into a world where the ABC Afterschool Special is something to be mocked, but he also attempts to counter our assumptions about the portrayal of women in television.

Style wars: ABC Afterschool Special vs. Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Pilot
The ABC Afterschool Special episodes were fueled with teenage angst and exploration, addressed the troubles of growing up surrounded by judgmental peers, and emerged from the 90s with a boatload of Emmys and a lasting impact on television tropes. Female characters, for example, were a prime casualty of the genre. After school specials often featured male protagonists, and when they did center on women, the stories involved popularity, romance, or bullying, and would feature an extremely archetypal lead. 

Whedon, however, reenacts the clichés of the genre in order to explicitly point out that his work, and more importantly, his female characters, are not clichés. 

Both Buffy Summers and Willow Rosenberg, the two main female characters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, initially embody typical female caricatures: Buffy with her desire to start a new life in a new town and be a normal teenage girl, and Willow with her unpopular social status at school because of her computer knowledge and book smarts. However, these women soon grow into fully-fleshed out characters, breaking the mold of their initial archetypes. Buffy, though she retains her desire to be normal amidst her demanding vampire slayer duties, finds herself entangled in a relationship with a vampire (her natural sworn enemy) and begins to question her very nature. Willow remains the bookworm, but begins to practice magic, to which she later develops a crippling addiction that tests not only her relationships to people around her, but also her trust in herself. 

Buffy and Willow, 1x02 and 7x22
In the long run, it's not a terrible idea to start out with a stereotype. Stereotypes are often seen as a springboard for creative authenticity. Director Anne Bogart often found that in her experience working with actors, stereotypes both fueled and hindered the performances that were delivered. 
A stereotype is a container of memory. If these culturally transmutated containers are entered, heated up and awakened, perhaps we might, in the heat of the interaction, reassess the original messages, meanings and histories they embody…Perhaps we can stop trying so hard to be innovating and original; rather, our charge is to receive tradition and utilize the containers we inherit by filling them with our own wakefulness. 
If called into question and intentionally turned against themselves, stereotypes call the viewer out on their own judgments. Whedon embraces this idea of calling his viewers attention away from their expectations. His heroines are consciously aware that they are both breaking and enforcing the stereotypes placed upon them.

Now that's character development.
Buffy Summers, for example, embraces her girlish nature, allows herself to become flustered over boys, and even physically appears to embody the stereotypes inherent in the after school special genre that would categorize her as a trope, but she also knowingly retaliates against her genre and cultural stereotype, and by doing so asserts her human nature and delineates herself from our expectations. Whedon does not put Buffy in situations that challenge her humanity, her relationships, and her self-identity to raise her up as a "strong female character" (which has, in itself, become something of a modern trope created to annihilate the history of negative clichés), but to show that she is a strong human character, who embodies qualities everyone, both men and women, should look up to.

And Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn't the only place where this happens. 

In Whedon’s short run television series Firefly, a genre-bent Western and Science Fiction series which captures the adventures of Captain Malcolm (Mal) Reynolds and his crew aboard his spaceship, the character Inara Serra both embodies negative female stereotypes present in the Western genre and turns them on their head. Inara is a companion, the title given to a specialized sex worker. In Western films, the Miss Kitty archetype isn't so different. A Miss Kitty will usually run the local bar or brothel, be tough as nails, command a certain amount of respect, and know her way around a shotgun. In the Firefly mythology, companions like Inara already hold a position of authority and respect. They attend school to learn their trade, and are acknowledged by the government as valuable assets. This counters our societal stereotypes that teach us sex workers down as shameful and unfortunate. 

Frances Fisher as the "Miss Kitty" Saloon Keeper Strawberry Alice in Unforgiven (1992)

And here, we have Inara: Ultimate Lady Badass.
Whedon knows this, and doesn't shy away from placing Inara in situations where people question the credibility of her work. Captain Mal is a common offender, as he calls Inara a "whore" to her face many times. However, Firefly does well to differentiate the stereotypes of prostitution from Inara herself. In the episode "Shindig," Mal says of one of Inara’s past disrespectful clients: "I might not show respect to your job, but he didn't respect you." 

This intentional delineation between person and occupation calls viewers to question the separation of stereotypes from the people upon which they are placed. Since Firefly takes place in the future, the show also plays with the context of history. Our present is the same as Firefly’s past. Therefore, Whedon shows us through this circumstance that the biases we place on people today will eventually be historical insults. The term "whore" still has a very potent presence in today’s society, but Firefly exists in a verse where this term is old fashioned, and though it will still carry the negative weight of its meaning from the past, societal progress will render it obsolete and inapplicable.

Firefly breaks the mold of typical Western female archetypes by surrounding its female characters with groups of people who unquestioningly accept their power, then places that small network into the "real world," where the woman’s power is irksomely challenged. For example, Kaylee Frye, the ship's resident mechanical genius, has a stereotypically masculine job. When we meet Mal and his crew, none of them ever question Kaylee’s expertise, but when they are faced with people who are not part of their network, we find the crew, as well as ourselves, wondering how anyone could be so narrow-minded as to believe she isn’t capable of traditionally masculine occupations based on her gender. This allows viewers to assert their allegiance to the woman, and feel revolted at the fact that someone would question her power.

Whedon also uses Kaylee to express the complexities of women by making her an incredible sensual, yet innocent and joyful character. In the episode "Shindig," Kaylee’s desire to get dolled up and act girly for a party presents a stark contrast to her usual persona. She dresses up in an exaggeratedly ruffled pink Southern Belle gown and resolves to have fun despite remarks about how her in a gown "would be like a sheep walking on its hind legs." By finding ways to express how Kaylee is both complemented by and juxtaposes the Western genre, Whedon shows audiences that, even in genres known for their apparent sexism, women can still be represented in a fair and respectful way by overturning standards and expectations.

But, the inversion of stereotypes isn't just reserved for the protagonists. Dollhouse, which centers on a secret underground company that sends out client-ordered "actives" who have been implanted with personalities and memories of another person to complete desired missions, gives us the ever-complex House Director Adelle DeWitt. While she isn't the primary villain of Season 1, Adelle is certainly a force of antagonism, as anyone who is in charge of robbing people’s memories and personalities would be. But, like any complex antagonist, Adelle believes her job is a force of good, while also inherently despising her work because of her inability to share it or profit publicly from it. 

The stereotypes of a corporate figurehead embedded in her character would usually condemn Adelle to go one of two ways: honest or corrupt. But by placing us physically in a room with her as she prioritizes the safety of the dolls, particularly Echo, the show's protagonist, Dollhouse blurs the lines between good and bad, and allows the audience to experience a simultaneous loyalty to our protagonist and empathy with our antagonists (a tactic also used throughout Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as we gain access to the inner sanctum of the demon antagonists). 

In the episode "A Spy in the House of Love," the Dollhouse staff believes Adelle is away on business, when she is really taking a personal trip with a doll for her own personal need. It is in this episode we see her unravel, shed her corporate persona, and admit to disliking her work, creating an unexpected complexity to her character. Whedon represents the very real internal contradiction between what people want and what they do through Adelle’s character. This inversion of the antagonistic perspective expands the world of the story and allows us as viewers to think complexly about the antagonist’s integrity and humanity. This view also sheds light on the nuanced differences between how we see our female protagonists and female characters in general.

In his work on Buffy the Vampire SlayerFirefly, and Dollhouse, Joss Whedon plays with the societal and narrative expectations of his viewers in order to create evolved fictional societies that still have clear roots from our own culture. These distinct female heroines and antagonists have fueled a new generation of women representation on television. And if Whedon’s work is any indication of what is in store for the new culture of leading ladies on television, it's clear we have a lot to look forward to.

Written by: Milena
Milena is one half of the awesome team that created Red Herry. When not deciding which fictional vampire is her favorite, she enjoys cats, corn on the cob, and forcing the Harry Potter books onto unsuspecting children.
Follow Milena on Twitter: @RazberryBattle 

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