Gender and Joss Whedon

By Rebecca Pollack

The distinctive feature of sexual objectification in Joss Whedon’s work illuminates the concern for gender stereotypes throughout his projects. He creates this motif by depicting both female and male characters using recycled tropes that illuminate stereotypical gender behaviors to emphasize the gaze. Women are portrayed as sexual objects rather than actual flesh and blood humans with emotions and opinions.

The Gaze in Firefly:

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River is described as emotionally paranoid, embodying a variety of tropes including the “talkative loon.” Her less-lucid dialogue is sometimes nonsensical, and at other times it makes a disturbing amount of sense. River’s character development is evident throughout the series as she gets comfortable in her own skin. By Serenity, River is a fully-fledged human being who is allowed to kick ass and be comfortable showing her true self.

Between episodes 45, as River is waking up, she goes ballistic at the sight of the rest of the outlaws, wondering what is going on and expecting the worst. The audience takes pleasure in this scene because we are seeing a woman in her most vulnerable state. We’re supposed to have sympathy for her because there is a subtext of human trafficking and because she is a woman. Between River’s nudity and Mal’s assumptions of sexual misconduct, we are instantly poised to oversexualize her. The fact that River is being oversexualized only adds proof to how the media repeatedly does that to women. Men, on the other hand, are completely oblivious to it all because they are being treated much more nicely.

 

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Inara is also highly sexualized. In the scene where Inara is cleansing herself, the music in the background is very seducing and seeing her naked increases the sex appeal. She is not trying to be seductive at all. The audience is manipulated into thinking that, but there is a deeper meaning. In every scene that Inara is in, she always appears to have something on her mind. She seems to be troubled by something, rather than being concerned about how beautiful she is. The director is not depicting her as an elegant young woman, but rather as a powerful character who has her own reasons to be present in the show. The audience may assume that she has some mysterious sexual appeal to her, but that’s the media’s way of brainwashing its audience like it has done for thousands of years. The overly sexual appeal of Inara is simply the audience being brainwashed into thinking that she does, but the reality is that she has her own place and will not be standing in front of the camera just so that everyone can admire how beautiful she is.

The Gaze in The Cabin in the Woods:

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Whedon satirically pokes fun at the male gaze by having the employees appear googly-eyed while observing two of the main characters having a sexual experience. The recycled tropes that Whedon uses may be an indication that he is attempting to make a point about overused tropes. The characters are comprised of all the regular “cabin in the woods” horror movie stereotypes: the girl next door, the jock and his hot blonde girlfriend, the good guy intellectual, and the goofball comic relief…there is no virginal hero, the good guy doesn’t save the day and even the token jock and his blonde girlfriend aren’t idiots.

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Our society takes pride in being patriarchal. The perspective in which we see everything is always male because they are supposed to be mesmerized by the beautiful women on the big screen without taking five minutes to understand that there just somehow might be a deeper meaning other than sex. If that is the way that society will be, then we might as well not have media because we are too focused on portraying women as objects of sexual desire rather than the human beings that they deserve to be. At the moment, everything is over sexualized to the point where the overall theme of the show is lost in oblivion. The only way that we can bring it back is by having more female directors. It clearly doesn’t appear to be happening any time soon and it never will because we are too patriarchal to pay any attention. Audiences have had material like this shoved down their throats for way too long and any hopes of it changing are thousands of miles away.

Published in: |on December 11th, 2015 |No Comments »

Sexual Identity in The Cabin in the Woods

The Slut & The Virgin

by Courtney Zawistowski

Introduction
In The Cabin in the Woods, Joss Whedon addresses two opposing sexual identities: the “slut” and the “virgin.” He does so by using tropes that comply with the stereotypes of these identities. In the beginning, we learn a little bit about what identity each character has, and since we as an audience have seen other (horror) films, we put them into categories/identities we already know. In a sense, we fill in the rest of their identities to match our ideal of “slut,” “virgin,” etc., so that we can identify the good guys and the bad guys.

In this film, we have a very clear slutty character: Jules. The virgin is more debatable, considering it could also be Marty (whereas Dana would be the fool), but that’s a theory the average audience member might not have. In any case, we are to assume Dana is the virginal character, since she fits the bill in more of a traditional and obvious way.

The Virgin

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Dana is the first character to be introduced (which is the case in most films). Though she is supposed to be the most innocent one, she is first seen dancing in the window in just a T-shirt and underwear. This gives the character sexual appeal, which virgins are supposed to have because they are pure and not yet corrupted, etc. Plus, when Curt points out that she isn’t wearing pants, she is immediately embarrassed, rather than proud of what she is displaying. We also see Dana’s purity in her personality, starting with the shot of her looking at the picture she illustrated of her professor. We later find out that she was sleeping with him, but the fact that she made drawings of him shows that she had feelings for him as well, making the relationship less wrong or “slutty,” and more valid.

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There is more setup of Dana’s character when the group arrives at the cabin. She is the first one to enter because she’s curious, which is another common trope of the “good girl”—bad girls are portrayed as promiscuous and unintelligent, while good girls are curious and intelligent. Once the whole crew has entered the cabin, Holden sees Dana undressing through the two-way mirror in his room. He tells her about the mirror and offers to switch rooms. Although we saw her begin to undress, Holden stops her before we see anything, keeping our view of her as a pure and innocent character.

The Slut

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On the other hand, we have Jules (girlfriend of Curt) as the “slut.” She opposes Dana in many ways, including the fact that she is loud and foul-mouthed. She swears several times in the first introduction of her character, calling Dana’s professor a “fuckwad” and an “asshole” for “fucking his student.” Jules also openly speaks about sex, including her comment about how Holden must be “good with his hands” as a reason to encourage Dana to get to know him. However, some of Jules’ slut persona is in her appearance. She wears short shorts and has recently dyed her hair blond, which conforms to the dumb blond/Playboy Bunny identity.

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Once the group gets to the cabin, we see Jules performing a sexual dance for the group and making out with a wolf head on the wall, both instances sexual in nature and aesthetically pleasing for the audience (or at least the male gaze). Not too long afterwards, we see her boobs when she is out in the woods fooling around with Curt. This confirms her “slut” identity, whereas we never actually see Dana exposed, we just have the forbidden fruit desire to do so. And, of course, Jules’ exposure ends with her death, another trope in horror films—sexual activity comes with consequences, and the slut is usually the first to go, as she is the first to engage in such activity and expose herself.

Conclusion
Joss Whedon uses tropes and stereotypes to develop identities for each character, especially in relation to sex. Most films have female characters with opposing sexual identities—one is promiscuous and one is not. This is especially prevalent in the horror genre, which is why Joss Whedon made these characters so stereotypical, as Cabin in the Woods is commenting on these tropes. We, as an audience, equate Dana with the virginal character and Jules with the slut based on these stereotypes, and this helps us identify which character is “good,” and which is “bad.” This ultimately causes us to root for Dana as the hero, and makes it more entertaining for Jules to be killed off.

Published in: |on December 11th, 2015 |No Comments »

Personal Identity vs. Group Identity

By Kelly Babler

This post is meant to examine the interplay between the individual and the collective; in other words, how do Joss Whedon’s characters’ personal identities relate to or contrast with their group identities?

His work revolves around characters who grow and change in a search for their identity, either as it relates to their group or as it’s distinguished. In the works I analyze below, there are two distinct paths that the characters take: they either have the potential to develop a stronger sense of self through their group identity, or to lose themselves completely in the role they assume within the group.

 

Dollhouse

Premise: Echo is a “doll” that customers can rent; she’s implanted with the correct personality traits, experiences, and identity in order to fulfill the buyer’s needs or fantasies. For example, in episode four, Gray Hour, Echo is deployed for a job that requires a skilled and experienced safe-cracker. That’s what she becomes, until her programming malfunctions and she becomes completely useless.

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To the group of thieves she’s working with, she’s a failure and a liability. To the Dollhouse, she’s a dangerous investment with the potential to cause trouble for the company. She’s helpless and endangered, showing the consequences of failing to embody the identity that’s expected of her.

Effect: Echo’s quest lies in finding autonomy and individual identity, but she’s impeded by an overpowering group identity that is literally able to control her behavior. She’s characterized by her participation in the Dollhouse, and as such, her identity is whatever the company creates for her.

Verdict: Echo loses herself within the rigid expectations for her identity within the group. This is the negative outlook on group participation, taken to the logical extremes of brainwashing and human trafficking.

 

Firefly

Premise: The characters are a diverse group of people from very different walks of life. Although they’re vastly different as individuals, they mesh well as a crew and makeshift family. In fact, their participation in the crew makes them more than the sum of their parts. Take, for instance, Jayne Cobb, who I believe was poised at the cusp of some major character growth when the series was cancelled. The image shows one of the final scenes of the episode Ariel, after Mal exposes his treachery and threatens him with the space equivalent of a keel-haul. Jayne’s reaction, “Don’t tell ‘em what I done,” shows the difference between his personal identity and his group identity. When he’s acting as an individual—an isolated variable—he’s happy to be the cutthroat mercenary that puts himself first, even if it means turning on his crew. However, he doesn’t want to be remembered that way. He doesn’t want that to become his identity within the group.

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Effect: The characters of Firefly come in with a strong sense of personal identity, but it’s through their group identity that they’re able to grow over the course of the show. Their group identity shapes them without changing them, providing a family structure, a support network, and a value system against which to weigh moral and ethical decisions.

Verdict: In Firefly, group identity is a gain, not a loss. It serves as more of a comfort—it’s a unifier that makes each individual better as a part of the collective.

 

The Cabin in the Woods

Premise: They typify each character into a one-word descriptor—the whore, the athlete, the scholar, the fool, and the virgin—because those are the five archetypes needed for sacrifice to the Elder Gods in order to save the world. If the characters don’t fit perfectly into their roles, they’re manipulated into fitting. For example, early in the film, Dana and Marty comment on why Curt has become such a stereotypical jock when really he’s a highly intelligent sociology major. For that matter, Dana isn’t even a virgin; the company just had to work with what they had. At the end of the film, the director explains that at least four of the five had to be killed to save the world: the whore has to die first because she’s impure, but the virgin can live or die as fate decides. Obviously, being a part of this group has negative ramifications for the main characters.

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Effect: This film takes yet another approach and satirizes some of the clichés of group roles in life, in film, and especially in the horror genre. Each of the five teenage protagonists serves a different role within their group—both to the audience who are familiar enough with the horror genre to expect a certain set of stock characters, and to the antagonists of the film who select them because of the tropes they fit.

Verdict: These characters belong to a group whether they choose to or not; their group participation isn’t even in question. The problem is that belonging to the group altered their character, controlled their behavior, and negated their free will until they fought to reclaim it.

Published in: |on December 11th, 2015 |No Comments »

Mutant Identity

The Mutable Identities of the Whedonverse

By Mary Davisson

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Joss Whedon is a master of mixing styles and ideas which would otherwise clash. None of his television shows or films can be classified as one specific genre and because of that his stories are rarely flat. This treatment also extends to the sorts of characters he creates.

Whedon’s characters are never any one sort of person: Dr. Horrible is a mad scientist villain wannabe who just so happens to have tender heart; Buffy is a pretty cheerleader and a hardcore slayer with a sharp wit; Angel is a vampire cursed with a soul.

One should never take Whedon’s characters at face value, but one shouldn’t expect those characters to keep from changing during the course of their journeys.

 

The Cabin in the Woods

“We are not who we are.” -Marty Mikalski

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The Cabin in the Woods (2012) plays with idea that no one is completely one specific type of person and in trying to make a person one-dimensional requires a lot of manipulation.

The story involves the ordered sacrifice of five young people for the sake of some ancient  blood thirsty gods, lest they bring about the end of days. The film itself is a mixture of horror, comedy, sci-fi and even some pretty existential philosophies.

Each of the five kids is intended to represent a specific type (the Whore, the Athlete, the Scholar, the Fool and the Virgin) though they are continually shown to have a mixture of each trait versus containing just the one trope. It’s the exhausting job of the technicians to make them adhere to those personality tropes by manipulating their pheromones, drugs, climate and even using atmospheric whispers a la LOST.

The technicians goal is to minimize the personalities to leave the characters without complexity which could be considered a sort of defense against their dark fate. In the end, when they are given the chance to choose their fates they decide to go against the push towards sacrifice.

Though their personalities could be manipulated to make counter intuitive decisions the real individual will find a way of slipping through the traps. The Cabin in the Woods shows that an identity’s complexity cannot be diminished.

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Firefly

  “I’m not on the ship. I’m in the ship. I am the ship.” -River Tam, Episode: Objects in Space

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Firefly (2002) is set on a spaceship called Serenity that is the home of a group of diverse people working together as a sort of familial unit. Every character has their purpose and job on the ship, except for one; River.

River is a brilliant young girl recently rescued from the tortured experiments of the Alliance. These experiments have caused a tear in her psyche that leaves her awkward, unpredictable and seemingly fragile.

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However, in the episode Objects in Space River (Summer Glau) is given an arc where she ends up saving everyone and the ship.

Though River is a complicated personality to begin with, it doesn’t help that with everything she comes into contact with ends up leaving a residual identity within her. Objects are not just objects to her, they’re items with history and she can’t help but feel and know that history when she touches them.

The beginning of the episode has us watching River as she makes her way through the ship, touching its walls and unintentionally reading the minds of the crew.

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As the episode goes on we see an assassin board the ship and incapacitate the crew, except for River. River then spends her time helping the crew and toying with the assassin making them all belief that she has become one with the ship, as though she dissolved into Serenity’s walls.

It turns out that she didn’t absorb into Serenity, but she did board the assassin’s ship and took over his comm device. She helps to defeat the assassin and is welcomed back into the collection of the crew members who now have some idea as to River’s value.

What we see with River is that environment can alter one’s personality. Granted, it works differently for everyone, but with River she absorbs her environment on a psychic level. She can’t help but change with her surroundings.

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Dollhouse

 “He took his original self and smashed the hell out of it.”        -Topher Brink                                                                                       Episode: Omega

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Dollhouse (2009) is set in an alternate universe where people volunteer to have their identities erased for a period of time in order to be imprinted with new personalities in order to suit a clients needs. Essentially they’re super complicated prostitutes that are called, “Actives.”

Echo (Eliza Dushku)  is the main Active of the series who is also the most popular. She ends up catching the eye of the escaped and corrupted Active, Alpha (Alan Tudyk.) Alpha had the unfortunate situation of becoming imprinted with forty-eight personalities at once, and has hopes to do the same to Echo (thereby making her his Omega.)

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His experiment fails and Echo rejects his offer to become his other half and instead uses the event to become her own person, though she is desperate to regain her original personality as Caroline. A thing that can only be completed once she has finished her contract with the Dollhouse.

We get to see Echo on her journey from a blank slate to an individual with an identity cobbled together from past imprints combined with her own personal experiences. Her story shows us that identity is an ever changing and always complicated element that is essential to every person.

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Joss Whedon’s has made a world is full of individuals who seem basic on the surface but evolve over time. They end up revealing and developing  other aspects of their personalities, for example: An athlete who is also an academic; a confused, strange young woman contains with psychic insight and strength; a woman with an erased identity can cobble together another identity to replace it. Though his characters are fictional they are allowed to experience and learn from themselves like real-world individuals.

Published in: |on December 11th, 2015 |No Comments »