It’s no secret that Joss Whedon has, on occasion, saved my life. All right, pardon the hyperbole, but more than once I’ve contemplated the thrilling surrender of death but sat on my couch and watched Buffy instead. I’ve learned my lesson; I’d never actually put those ghastly feelings into motion—I’ve seen the horror of suicide’s collateral damage, and I would never put my friends and family through that particular emotional grist mill. But even removing the temptation to actual action doesn’t keep me from laving myself in some high-quality suicidality. However, Buffy does.
There are reasons aplenty why I love Buffy with such a deep and infinite ardor (I love Firefly, and I like Angel quite a bit, until it gets to the super-creepy faintly incestuous part in season 3 and 4, but neither matches the deep visceral response that Buffy evokes). There’s the constant play in language, for one thing. The way that adjectives become nouns, as in “It gives me a happy.” The way that the characters invent new slang, as in “That’s the kick!” for saying something’s cool, or “Five-by-five” to say A-OK. The way that the show employs neologisms like “vampification” and “lesbidar.” The way that the show pokes fun at cultural idiom, as when Buffy refers to vampires as “undead Americans.” All of that flavor of lexicographical jump-roping makes me get a good-down low tingle.
There’s the constant nodding to high-brow, low-brow, no-brow and pop cultures. I love it when Buffy describes her principal-enforced tenure selling candy bars as “going all Willy Loman,” a moment I love as much as when Willow bemoans her SAT scores by exclaiming she’s “Cletis, the slack-jawed yokel!” I love the moment when, after Xander tries to say something profound about fear, he finds himself mired in a morass of elliptical platitudes and Buffy responds, “Thank you for the Dadaist pep-talk. I’m feeling much more abstract now.” I live for moments when I can trot out lines of Buffy dialog.
But all of that is nothing but the shiny. It’s the glittery tinsel bits of why I love Buffy—and therefore Whedon—with such an inordinately intense extra-flamey white-hot burning passion. Seriously, if I could meet one person in Hollywood, it would be Whedon, if only to inarticulately stammer out my appreciation for his oeuvre. And were he then interested in why I was so abjectly devoted, I’d get the opportunity to tell him, and that is this: he makes a mess of gender stereotypes, and it’s a lovely trashing.
Buffy herself is the most obvious example of messing with gender. She’s blonde and tiny and ostensibly weak, but she is the chosen one. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.
More than Buffy’s sweet, sweet ass-kicking abilities, and they are prodigious and lovely, she is a complex internal mess. Sure, that the skinny blonde chick turns the tables on victimhood is already a gendered reversal, but there are plenty of booty-stomping cuties ready to open up a fresh can of whip-ass in the action/adventure/comic universe. What sets Buffy apart is that she has conflict about her destiny. She suffers. And she feels badly about suffering. She has a superiority complex and then an inferiority complex about her superiority complex. It’s a whole big thing. And it makes me identify with her like mad.
But it’s not just Buffy, see. Because suffering is an equal-opportunity sport. In fact, the mark of humanity is the ability to suffer in the Whedonverse. Whether it’s Angel, the vampire with a soul, or Spike, also the vampire with the soul and also a world-class pervert and so in the great mythical debate of which undead to bed you can guess my pick, or any of Buffy’s Slayerettes, or pretty much anyone one with a spark of humanity glinting brightly in the forest of the night, there is suffering. The mark of true evil is the inability to feel pain. I kind of love that.
Men and women are absolutely equal in the Whedonverse—that area of media conceived by Whedon himself, well, Whedon and his team of crack henchpeople. They fight each other and they don’t hold back (unless it’s Buffy who does hold back a little when she spars with Riley, her boyfriend the steroided-out Initiative guy). Men and women are equally strong and equally weak. They are equally needing of saving, and they are equal saviors (although Buffy is a bit more savioresque than anyone; she’s just a damn fine savoir). Finally, they are this: equally good and equally evil.
It’s this last point upon which I must hand it to Whedon and his team. Most media has a hard time depicting women as evil. There’s a Victorian restraint guiding the hand that draws the evil chick. She often gets a white glove treatment, wherein she gets all kinds of explanatory notes for why she’s so goddamned bad. Male villains rarely get the back-story. They’re just bad, and we the audience accept that. Cruella de Vil is motivated by her desire for the soft fur of pure Dalmatian puppies. Catwoman has a history of abuse. However ill thought-out, Poison Ivy wants to protect the environment. Male supervillains just have an endless, ambient hunger for power. ‘Nuff said. Supervillainesses, though, get the full narrative treatment.
Not so in the Whedonverse. Women, like men, can just be bad, and like the girl with the curl, when they’re bad, they’re very, very bad, while the men often are just bumbling. Whether it’s Glory, the God, who wants the end of the world, or Willow, when she goes all dark magics, who wants the end of the world, girls gone bad are girls gone pyrotechnically, supernovally, atomically bad. You have to respect Whedon’s willingness to draw these dark ladies with a free hand. I do.
There is, however, one area that Whedon doesn’t do well and that is sex. In all three series—Buffy, Angel and Firefly—no one can have sex very successfully, except for maybe the lesbians. Everyone else, which is pretty much just a bunch of heterosexuals getting their naughty on and doing it badly, but not in a good-bad kind of way, nor even a bad-bad kind of way, but really a rather lame-bad kind of way, get punished. The Whedonverse is pretty much a hotbed of sexual repression. Buffy loses her virginity to Angel, and he loses his soul. Buffy goes on a sex rampage with her boyfriend Riley, and a house grows vines. Willow gets frisky for Oz and he goes all wolfy. Buffy has some fine, fine nasty sex with Spike and she hates herself. Angel gets naughty with Darla and she gets pregnant out of wedlock with his son who then later, after spending time in an alternate dimension, has sex with Cordelia and brings about yet another apocalypse. Even Inara, the trained companion, can’t manage to seduce the eternally hard-up Captain Tightpants, Malcom Reynolds. Seriously, sex in the Whedonverse makes STDs look positively rosy. It will be interesting to see how Whedon copes with the sex issue in The Dollhouse, his project that debuts this fall.
The fleshy messiness of sex aside, Whedon does beautiful things with gender—and with genre. No one puts a little bit of horror, a smidge of comedy, a dash of satire, a heaping helping of noir, a soupcon of the Western, a fistful of Sci-fi in a blender, pushes puree and then tops it off with a musical number like Whedon. He mix-masters genres with such fluidity that it looks easy, and that’s the mark of a genius.
It is, then, with great excitement that I will view Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, his latest mixy thing, online tomorrow, when it will pop hot and fresh from the virtual oven. The fact that it stars Neil Patrick Harris and the eminently lickable Nathan Fillion (about whom I had a sex dream yesterday) is only icing on the Whedonverse cake. Watch it fast, because it’s not gonna last. I’ve no doubt it’ll be gender-genre-mixilicious. In any case, it’s Joss Whedon, and that’s got to be gender-bustingly good.