Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Three people who do their jobs better than Joss Whedon

It wouldn't be Josh's blog if we didn't have the occasional two minutes hate against Joss Whedon.

Joss Whedon is perceived as a writer friendly to women because he features a lot of women  in his properties. Sure, I'll buy that. What I don't quite buy into is the scuttlebutt on the internets that he's done more to advance woman's issues than any other human being who ever lived. And even I will admit that Whedon is pretty good in this regard. However, he's not perfect. Of note is that his brand of feminism involves a young woman getting punched in the face for seven years. When that is the gold standard, when all genre writing is measured by this yardstick, then I think there's a problem.

This piece sums up a lot of the problems with Whedon's brand of feminism.

See also, Strong Female Characters

Here's the list promised in the title:

The Writers on Scooby Doo, Mystery Inc
I don't hate everything Whedon's ever done. I think Seasons 2 and 3 of Buffy (Spike, Drucilla and Angelus and Faith and the Mayor, respectively and Season 4 of Angel were some of the best television that were ever broadcast, irrespective of genre.

Scooby Doo has come full circle in recent years with the kind of pop culture references, funny dialogue and clever plot twists that characterized Buffy back in its heyday. I think the most recent episode is better than Buffy.

Look, I'll even say something nice about Whedon. It's hard to write smart someone smarter than yourself. Larry Niven said that it would take him months to write the parts of his Protector books where the superhumanly intelligent protagonist was doing something. Plus, make it too smart and you run the risk of losing your audience. So, a trick that writers often use is to make the antagonists kind of stupid so that the heroes can seem smart when they run circles around them. Yeah, it's a bit of a cheap trick, but often it's the lesser evil, so we live with it.

Whedon's writing appears clever at first glance, but falls apart when you think about it. TV tropes has a term for it. Fridge Logic.

I think the scene that best exemplifies this is the part in the Avengers when the Black Widow speaks to Loki in his cell. He taunts her and she draws him out, and he mentions the Hulk in passing, so she's like "We've got you now!" and drops the whole charade right then and there. Except. they know he's seen Banner, and indeed, his whole conversation with Fury was about the Hulk.

Which part was clever, Joss? The part where the Black Widow acquires information they already through Fury's earlier conversation had or the part where she radios in a juvenile fuck you mission accomplished to Nick Fury in front of Loki, squandering the asset?

And then there's the stuff that's just dumb, like Saffron calling Mal by his full name when she's claimed she doesn't know him, thereby revealing her deception. That's the kind of mistake that tripped up Bugs Meany in the Encyclopedia Brown books. (Also, those books had Sally Kimball, who is a more fully realized character than any of the women on Firefly. (Or the men on Firefly, for that matter.))

But Scooby Doo manages to weave together a complicated narrative that makes sense, with both sides outsmarting the other at certain times.

James Cameron

Cameron didn't give us Ellen Ripley, as she was introduced in the first movie, but he gave us Sarah Connor, who was cast from the same mold. I'm going to focus on Ripley, however, because it allows us a direct point of comparison. Cameron gave us Aliens, for many fans the high point of the series, and Joss Whedon, when asked to write an Aliens movie, gave us Alien: Resurrection.

To hear his fans tell it, Whedon wrote Toy Story all by his lonesome, instead of being one of many screenwriters who contributed to the script. And as quick as he is to claim ownership of that, he's equally quick to blame other people for his failures. Whedon was all like "This is everyone's fault but mine!" about A:R. . ("It wasn't a question of doing everything differently, although they changed the ending; it was mostly a matter of doing everything wrong. They said the lines...mostly...but they said them all wrong. And they cast it wrong. And they designed it wrong. And they scored it wrong. They did everything wrong that they could possibly do. There's actually a fascinating lesson in filmmaking, because everything that they did reflects back to the script or looks like something from the script, and people assume that, if I hated it, then they’d changed the script...but it wasn’t so much that they’d changed the script; it’s that they just executed it in such a ghastly fashion as to render it almost unwatchable.") Oh, the movie sucks because the actors said their lines exactly as I wrote them down, said Joss "Do you know what happens to a toad when it's struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else" Whedon. I read an interview with Wired where he insists Dollhouse was brilliant (Dollhouse was the series, you may remember, where a bunch of pretty women are mindwiped and imprinted with whatever personality their clients want. Empowering!) but people were just too dumb to appreciate it.

And feminism is really only half the story about the Aliens series. The second one was awesome and influential and gave us lines that are still being quoted now. Resurrection...was a punchline.

Hayou Miyazaki:

I'll start with the first runner-up. Honorable mention goes to Avatar: The Last Airbender. The heroes are leading an invasion to stop the villains by defeating the Fire Nation leadership during the brief period of a solar ecclipse when Fire Benders will be unable to use their powers, and and their commander, the father of two of the kids gives a speech and says, "If we do this, this war is over." Not we win, not some dead-ender brownshirt "The Space South shall rise again!"  BS but the war is over, and we get to go back to our families.

Miyazaki began work in 1963, the year before Whedon was born, back when Whedon's father and his father were churning out sitcom scripts. Joss Whedon, as you may know, is a third generation sitcom writer, a factor that played an enormous role in his success. Plenty of geeks write well. Few of them have the connections he did.

My daughter returned to school today. She suggested a movie marathon the night before to celebrate the last day of summer. We eventually went with Teen Titans (which is another show that does a good job with its female characters), but we considered any number of things.  At one point she asked, "Can we watch the movie about the super strong princess?"

I felt the temperature rise as Jen turned her gaze on me.

"What movie is that?", I asked.

"The one where she's friends with the giant pill bugs."

"Oh," I said. "Nausicaä." Then I added, "They're not pillbugs, they're Ohmu."

Back before she was born, we decorated Lily's room with an underwater theme. We didn't want to go pink, because neither of us is thrilled about the whole princess culture (There's a great book with a great title called Cinderella Ate My Daughter about it), but if she has to be in to princesses, I think Nausicaä is just about the best one out there.

The name of the character comes from the Oddessy. She's the young woman who helps Odessyeus one of the seven or eight times he washes up on shore over the course of the story. I found this account while I was researching this piece:

Miyazaki's impression of Homer's Nausicaä came through an account of her in a translation of one of Bernard Evslin’s handbooks of Greek mythology. From Evslin’s description Miyazaki imagined a fearless, compassionate, beautiful, and spirited girl who delighted in nature and spurned convention—an image he admits being somewhat disappointed to see did not seem so splendidly displayed in the Odyssey

Other Nausicaa


She's such a great character. She's not super-strong either, but Lily was referring to my very favorite scenes in the movie and one of my favorite scenes in any movie.  Nausicaä  is out at the periphery of the village and when a bunch of airships land and start disgorging troops. She sees that they're heading for her father, so she starts running to his room. The scene cuts to him, an old man, sitting up in his bed. He unsheathes his sword and lays it on his lap. He tells his advisor to hide and she tells him that she'll be staying. We see the troops enter the room, and then the scene cuts to the outside, where we hear the sound of a gunshot. Nausicaä  hears it too, and she sprints up the final flight of stairs and when she bursts into the room and sees her father's body, she completely flips the fuck out and demolishes the squad with nothing more than the small staff she was carrying. When more troops arrive, these in full plate armor, she picks up a fallen sword and sets on them too. She's about to kill one of them when Master Yupa, her mentor, leaps into the room and intercepts thrust the blade of the sword with his arm. He has his knife ready to go through the neck slit of the commander's armor, and as his blood drips down the blade, he lectures the commander for violating the rules of engagement, then says to Nausicaä that if they fight here and now, the invaders will massacre the people of the village in retaliation.

It's not an attitude often found in American movies, where only quislings cooperate with the enemy and naked defiance and open violence are the only avenues to victory. It reminds me of two quotes I like:

At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice. - Maya Angelou

Be patient. You are not winning a game called justice, you are living a life called justice. Bertolt Brecht tells the story of a man living alone who answers a knock at the door. There stands Tyranny, armed and powerful, who asks, "Will you submit?" The man does not reply. He steps aside. Tyranny enters and takes over. The man serves him for years. Then Tyranny mysteriously becomes sick from food poisoning. He dies. The man opens the door, gets rid of the body, comes back to the house, closes the door behind him, and says, firmly, "No."

It's certainly a more mature work than anything Whedon's ever produced. My other criticism of him is that his characters seldom have to make hard choices like that. They just do what they want to do and that coincidently turns out to be the best course of action. 

And just about all of Miyazaki's films have strong female leads, Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke (who, while great, is not actually a princess). Miyazaki also manages to write strong female characters without the rage against the machine anti-authority I'm a thirteen year old and I'm smarter than the grownups vibe. He even features a couple female villains, something that Whedon's never been able to pull off. In fact, best of Joss Whedon's work is not as feminist as the weakest of Studio Ghibli's.

Mmm...Maybe not Pom Poko.



  1. _Alien: Resurrection_ did suck, and a lot of that was down to plot elements that were just stupid. I'm sure Whedon shares much of the blame. But his points are also completely valid. If he'd directed, the movie probably would have been much better -- perhaps achieving the level of a fun but forgettable romp, instead of languishing in turd-ville.

    Look at the original _Buffy the Vampire Slayer_ movie as compared to the series... You can hear echoes of Whedon's unique style of witty dialog, but what was so effective on the lips of the TV series' cast falls flat in the movie. Partly that's the quality of casting, and partly that's due to direction.

    Whedon's work always leans heavily on subverting expectations, which is a big part of what it makes it work for those of us who like it, but also means that much of what makes it work can't be fully conveyed in a script. I'm reminded of his story of casting Adam Baldwin as Jayne in _Firefly_. Jayne is a bit of a repugnant character, and initially Baldwin tried to play that up. Whedon's advice went something like this: Say the lines as if you're the hero. In other words, deliver the lines the opposite of how you would expect. This transformed his performance, and won him the part.

    The director of A:R didn't understand that, and the movie suffered for it.

    1. I think you have a point, and I'll admit that Whedon is a competant craftsman with a very distinctive style, albeit one that i tend not to like. The point i intended to make with the post is that he does tend to be so universally lauded in geek culture, this style is seen as the pinnacle to which to aspire. However, as thousands of crappy high fantasy novels have shown us, you don't write another Lord of the Rings simply by aping the superficial aspects of it.