Geekly Mailbag: Joss Whedon, Black Widow, 'Dollhouse,' and female characters
Let's get heavy.
Someday soon, we’ll all stop complaining about Avengers: Age of Ultron and move onto arguing about something more important. (Probably Mad Men.) But last week, I had Joss Whedon (and, of all things, Dollhouse) on the mind. Whedonites came out in force to talk about the geek auteur’s history, while a few more responses flooded in about Ultron‘s Black Widow controversy. (Remember, you can always email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’ve got a thought to share, or a song in your heart.)
Let’s mailbag it!
Black Widow Talk
I feel like you’re wrong when it comes to Black Widow, and, of course, I will tell you why.
We obviously know that Black Widow can hang. She is not an intern; she is an Avenger.
And that’s why she’s different.
Different than, say, a Pepper Potts or Jane Foster.
You mention the different men that she loves or has loved. But I have a lot of friends who I love or have loved, too. I have friends that I would do anything for. To imply those are romantic, just because it’s a male and female relationship, is actually kind of an ignorant statement, and perpetuates the same problem that you’re trying to address.
I have a love interest. We’re engaged and have a son. But I also have a support system, a team, and it involves females. Never tried to sleep with them, nor them with me. I feel like it’s the gender part that’s holding this conversation back, and the reason why it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Hawkeye spent the entire first Avengers basically hypnotized. Didn’t see an article about how men were marginalized or depicted dumb.
What I’m trying to say is that Black Widow isn’t a woman.
She is a person.
But, most importanly, the way that she has been depicted: she is an Avenger. For better or worse.
I’m glad that Dennis brings up one of the less-discussed aspects of the whole Black Widow kerfluffle. On one hand, it’s totally correct that Black Widow was not explicitly set up as a love interest for anybody besides the Hulk. You can go back to Avengers and read her relationship with Hawkeye as entirely platonic—and indeed, the revelations about Hawkeye in Age of Ultron make it clear that Whedon, at least, always felt that way. You could say the same thing about Widow and Cap in Captain America: The Winter Soldier—after all, Cap literally tells her that he wants her to be his friend, and their much-vaunted “kiss” is entirely an espionage ploy.
And Dennis is also right to broaden that reading outwards. There’s no reason why Black Widow has to be anyone‘s love interest. And in turn, Dennis’ argument kind of turns back on itself. Why are we talking so much about Black Widow? Is it really just because she’s a female character? Like, Iron Man’s story arc across his trilogy and the two Avengers movies actually has a lot to say about the military-industrial complex—and almost everything it has to say is weird, and arguably regressive, or arguably satirical. (There’s a separate essay to be written about how Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is basically the Bush Doctrine come to life.)
That being said: I also think it’s disingenuous to say that people who read the Cap/Black Widow stuff in Winter Soldier as “romantic” were wrong, or were somehow responsible for perpetuating problematic gender norms. Let’s be clear: the problem here is that the entire superhero movie genre is built on perpetuating gender norms from the ’60s. You could argue that some of the supporting love interests are co-leads. You could point to characters like Peggy Carter, a great character who is clearly established as Captain America’s “equal”—except for the fact that she’s in Captain America, and that her job is to support the superhero maneuvers of Captain America, and at the end of the movie she’s left being sad about how Captain America isn’t around anymore.
Quick, name one superhero movie that doesn’t feature a lead male character and a supporting female love interest. There’s Avengers—a movie that singlehandedly transformed Black Widow into a genuine character. Beyond that, you could make the argument for the X-Men movies; but weirdly, the most interesting and most balanced male-female relationship in those films is Wolverine and Jean Grey in X-Men: The Last Stand, a very bad movie which nevertheless has a few interesting scenes that throw their whole relationship into a much weirder place than most better movies ever try. And in all five Spider-Man movies, the most interesting role for a Spidey love interest is Mary Jane in Spider-Man 3—the movie that turns Peter Parker into an egomaniac Bad Boyfriend, while confronting Mary Jane with the very real possibility that none of her dreams will come true.
All that being said: One of the things I didn’t like about Black Widow in Avengers: Age of Ultron is that the movie DOES explicitly give her a romantic story arc. And while I think a lot of the controversy has been overblown, I also think it reflects a paradox in how her character advances. Whedon clearly wanted to give Black Widow more material; and Whedon is a romantic, so his version of “more material” was the movie’s only romantic subplot, unless you count the palpable freaky chemistry between Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who were married in Godzilla and whose origin story in Avengers was like Flowers in the Attic retold via metaphorical missiles.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying: I don’t think that people who have problems with Black Widow in Avengers: Age of Ultron are perpetuating anything. I think Marvel is perpetuating something. And I think it’s worth having a conversation about what that something is.
I enjoyed your write up on the Black Widow Conundrum. I think you might have missed something in the Bruce Banner, Black Widow relationship. Like many of us, she is longing for what she can’t have, she doesn’t think she can be a mother. Her interest in Banner is as much mothering as lover. You see her desire in her interaction with Hawkeye’s wife. That she can sooth Hulk with the lullaby is another facet of this. She is still being the Black Widow, “Who do you want (need) me to be?”. Cap needs a buddy, Hulk needs a mother, Iron Man needs a sycophant/ego booster, I think Black Widow is trying these personalities on. She doesn’t know who Black Widow needs. I also don’t think her backstory has made her banal, we don’t know why she was in the program and we don’t really know much about her exit from the program, also we don’t know what the program took from her besides her fertility.
New idea: My ideal version of the Black Widow spinoff movie is a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead-ish retelling of Black Widow’s first four movies, from her perspective, where we can see that Black Widow was secretly the most important character in Iron Man 2, Avengers, Winter Soldier, and Age of Ultron.
I just read your article concerning Dollhouse and The State of Joss Whedon. First off- I thought it was fantastic.
I’ve always revered Dollhouse in my heart but remember it being very, very flawed. I’ve always been a bit confused about this disconnect, but I think you nailed it- it was daring. It was so delightfully weird in ways, as you mentioned, most shows wouldn’t even attempt. And when it stuck the landing, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. I remember having a conversation with a friend one time about it and it turning into a full- blown discussion about if humans have souls, and, like, what IS a soul, maaaaaaaan? It was far from perfect, but goddamn it was unique and asked questions. The whole Alpha storyline still sticks out in my mind, and not just because they turned Wash into a full- blown psycho killer. I’ve yet to see any piece of pop culture explore the definitions of identity in such a gutsy way.
The connection to Whedon’s career was interesting. Given that Dollhouse is generally considered to be at the low- end of his accomplishments, I think he’ll do alright.
All the Best,
Agree on all counts! As I mentioned in the piece, it’s hard for me to completely recommend Dollhouse. Like, there are several episodes of Dollhouse that just flat-out do not work. That’s true of the early episodes, which are more Mission-of-the-Week procedurals. But the show has basic foundational problems throughout. Like, the central will-they/won’t-they between Echo and Ballard is weird and wild and kind of kinky—not least because the show keeps on trying to turn Ballard into a total weirdo. But there’s just not much chemistry between Eliza Dushku and Tahmoh Penikett; the show’s actually much stronger when it focuses on its supporting cast.
And yet, even when the show clearly doesn’t work, it’s just so freaking interesting. It feels like the first draft of several different TV shows all thrown together. And Whedon and his writing staff have such a blast mixing and matching different characters; people keep on hopping into different bodies, and every nice person will become a psycho killer at least once. And Dollhouse is also one of those shows that goes out swinging: How many other shows feature an apocalypse flashforward?
I wrote an analysis of Dollhouse over five years ago that echoes a lot of the same points you made. I don’t know if giving you yet more material to read online is frowned upon, but I thought I’d pass it along.
One of the things that’s really struck me about Whedon’s work (and especially his recent stuff) is the way he’s constantly arguing that all large-scale institutions are evil. He keeps writing stories about people who work for or ally themselves with a larger institution that is at first portrayed as morally ambiguous or even benevolent (the Initiative, Wolfram and Hart, the Dollhouse, the World Security Council), and who briefly believe they can use the resources of the institution to do good, only to eventually realize that the organization is hopelessly corrupt and must be destroyed or betrayed. That’s also true of Firefly’s the Alliance (which goes from being an analogue to the Union side of the American Civil War in the original pilot to a shadow government willing to experiment on whole planets and responsible for accidental mass murder in Serenity) and the Watcher’s Council (a bunch of stuffy, behind-the-times old white guys who only offer to help save the world if they get to call all the shots). In Whedon’s worldview, pledging your loyalty to any organization larger than a circle of friends is always a moral failing.
That’s interesting in small doses, and I’m sure it’s informed by his frustration with the compromises necessary to survive in a corporate environment. My concern is that Whedon keeps returning to this idea without really thinking about its implications. His stories are so often about people who realize that institutions are terrible and find that the solution is to just fix things on a much smaller scale by working with friends. That’s…. not a realistic solution for most problems. In a way, it’s a deeply conservative message: don’t rely on anyone else for anything, and accept that you’re completely on your own. The best episodes of Firefly actually showed Whedon wrestling with this philosophy – the allied planets have more restrictions, but they’re safer and have more progressive values; the outer planets have total freedom, which some people use to exploit others like crazy – and I’d like to see him explore that kind of ambiguity again.
(P.S. I’m the guy who recommend the book The Long Ships to you.)
A very smart take on Whedon, Jack! We don’t talk very much about “selling out” anymore, and the term has come to define a kind of archaic view of the world. “Sell out” feels very Generation X, very ’90s: It feels like a remnant of a time when it was possible for a filmmaker to construct an entire successful career without working on a remake or a sequel.
And I do think that Jack’s right to argue that Whedon’s foundational ethos is based on the general skepticism of institutions that defined some of the most interesting work of the ’90s. Like, I know that I probably think entirely too much about Fight Club, but I do think that there’s something vaguely Fight Club-y in Whedon’s work: The simultaneous fascination with and distrust of shadow societies, the sense that maybe the whole world would be better if you just blew everything up and started over. (I hasten to add that Whedon’s work is vastly smarter and more humane than Fight Club—a character like Tyler Durden would’ve been a joke-y one-off baddie-of-the-week on Buffy the Vampire Slayer—but I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that the end of Dollhouse correlates nicely with the end of Fight Club.)
Also, since Jack recommended The Long Ships to me, now I can recommend The Long Ships to you. Check out what Michael Chabon said about it! Michael Chabon rules.
Dear Mr. Franich,
Whedon is basically a script doctor and accidental producer / director by day, but in his soul he’s a comic book writer. TV Buffy never should have happened, and then it shouldn’t have lasted beyond twelve episodes, but lucky casting of Sarah Michelle Gellar and Alyson Hannigan followed by hiring Christophe Beck(!) at the start of season 2 made it possible for the franchise to lurch drunkenly on for 7 1/2 years and 254 episodes. One thing Whedon learned was that often something would totally blow up his carefully laid plan, and to pick up the crowbar that had just hit him in the head and run with it.
In your case I would direct your attention to Angel episode “Waiting in the Wings” (3.13 Feb 4, 2002). This aired three months after the Buffy musical, and at some point Amy Acker had mentioned to Whedon that she was trained in ballet. So Whedon invented a pretext involving Angel’s crew viewing a (supernatural) performance of the the classic ballet Giselle where Alexis Denisof’s character would doze off and there would be a comic dream sequence of him as the Prince dancing a duet with Amy. A real ballet dancer had to be cast as the prima ballerina for the “real” performance, and instead of auditioning for dancing, Whedon had candidates read the expository text that character would have to perform with David Boreanaz before the climax. Summer Glau auditioned, she was 21 years old and had studied to be a classical ballet dancer all her life until at 19 a toe injury forced her to retire. She’d moved to Los Angeles to get acting work and to that point had gotten nothing at all for two years. However, she absolutely nailed the audition and performance, featuring this text:
Ballerina: “There is a section in the first act, during the courtship dance, where – my foot slips. My ankle’s turned and – and I don’t quite hold – every time. (Glances at the box) He doesn’t notice. He doesn’t even know ballet that well. But always, at that same moment, I slip. – It isn’t just the same ballet. (Looks at Angel) It’s the same performance. I don’t dance. (Returns to watching the stage) I echo. (After a moment she turns back to Angel) Please – can you make it stop?”
Comic book author Jeph Loeb was in attendance at the audition (there’s extensive Whedon commentary about this ep on the DVD) and suggested Glau be invited to read for River Tam on Firefly. The Angel episode aired the day before Buffy ep “Dead Things” (6.13 Feb 5, 2002), which is also about people being controlled, Warren tries to turn his ex-girlfriend into a sex slave with magic technology and when that fails murders her as she tries to escape. Anyway, Glau’s performance brought Whedon’s own words above to life, and you can see how that text points strongly at the themes to come in both Firefly / Serenity and Dollhouse, even Eliza Dushku’s character name.
And the Acker / Denisof ballet duet scene was cut from the Angel episode but in a final irony is often viewed on YouTube, where Glau’s scene was so heavily accented (Russian) that few people noticed it at the time or since, with the notable exception of Whedon himself.
All the best,
Stories like this make me wish that television worked differently—that, like, a network like FX would just hire Joss Whedon as an artist-in-residence, give him a weekly hour of television, and let him do whatever he wanted to do. He could turn it into an anthology, or a miniseries, or even explore different storyline strands—a dark supernatural series in the summer, a lighthearted space adventure in the fall, occasional live performances of various Shakespeare plays starring Whedon’s repertory.
Maybe that’s not so crazy. FX has sort of done that with American Horror Story, and HBO is pushing that model even further with True Detective (which doesn’t follow the repertory model of AHS.) Don’t you want to see the episode of television that Whedon would write right now?