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Mirrored from Words, words, words, art..

One of the tropes Joss Whedon returns to over and over is The Exceptional Woman. In his narratives, this is a (generally very young, very physically small) woman who is the best ever at what she does without having to really work at it. It’s either a natural talent, or an unnatural one forced upon her against her will… sometimes painfully. On the one hand, you have your Willow Rosenbergs and Kaylee Fryes, and Skye (no last name)s who may work at something but don’t need to work THAT hard because they are NATURALLY GIFTED. Willow did a lot of research, but also had a vast well of world-ending power deep inside her. Kaylee could fix engines she’d never seen before, because OSMOSIS (her dad was a mechanic, it rubbed off on her). Skye does a lot of computer work, but has never had to seriously study anything seriously, or even finish high school. Naturally talented! Gifted! Effortlessly amazing! On the other hand you have your Buffy Summers and your River Tams, cruelly manipulated and forced into something they didn’t want to be, by the actions of old men. Unnaturally gifted, they don’t have to work for what they have either. Sure, early series Giles is always bugging Buffy to practice and study strategy and be serious, but over and over we were shown that she doesn’t need to.

Joss Whedon is often lauded as Feminist, and as good for women. His shows, especially “Buffy,” are considered girl-positive. And it’s honestly rare to see decently developed female characters on tv. But the way Whedon persists in displaying women and their abilities is harmful to women.

Why do I say this?

It’s rare for women to be recognized as experts in their field, even in women-centric discussions like Feminism or in traditionally women-centric fields of employment like teaching or nursing. As Ben Barres has famously pointed out, people react differently to scientific research, to facts and figures and provable results, based on the gender (or perceived gender) of the person publishing the work. It’s why Kim O’Grady only got callbacks on his resume after he added “Mr” to his name. It’s why a man who admitted to attempted murder and “accidental” rape was one of the paid spokespersons for Feminism for years. Patriarchal society accepts that men are superior to women, and that it’s rare for women to be in positions of power or authority, to be good at what they do, because they just are innately inferior. Patriarchal society accepts that men and women simply think differently and that the way women think (and speak and socialize and budget their time and spend their money etc) is inferior to the way men think (and all the rest). Patriarchal society accepts that a handful of women will be super exceptional and naturally gifted and will rise to the top, proving their natural worth, but the rest of women are just inferior or lazy or stupid or too busy shopping for shoes or whatever to do the same.

So when a Big Name in media, someone lauded as Feminist, routinely portrays only Exceptional Women Who Are Naturally Gifted, it buys into the established myth that most women are mundane but some select and glorious few are ~~SPECIAL~~ and ~~GIFTED~~ and ~~DESERVING~~. And it reinforces the narrative that while it’s accepted and normal for men to work hard and get ahead, to study martial arts or science or tactics or wood working or whatever to become successful, the same isn’t true for women. The only really acceptable way to be a stand out woman, a central character, is to have The Hand Of God marking you as innately special and gifted. And that means it’s ok and normal and routine for men to be experts and leaders 95% of the time, because most women just can’t cut it.

It’s a way of both putting women on a pedestal (so special! so exceptional! so naturally gifted!) while also putting limits on them (no need to try to work hard or study or practice, you’ve got it or you don’t). It’s a way of establishing unrealistic role models and goals. It’s a way of dismissing most women and their experiences.

It really sucks.

And it’s harmful.

(NB: I have not discussed “Dollhouse” at all because I found the show deeply, deeply creepy and did not watch it.)

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( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 15th, 2013 09:17 pm (UTC)
Very well said and I agree. A lot.
Oct. 15th, 2013 09:18 pm (UTC)
A friend and I were trying to think of a main character in "Buffy" who worked hard and succeeded and changed because of their own effort and sweat and we came up with... Xander and his carpentry.
Oct. 15th, 2013 11:25 pm (UTC)
I never watched more than a handful of episodes, I could never get the appeal. Even when people would tell me about it, honestly, my response was, "But WHY?" I seriously could never find anything entertaining about the show. I loved the movie, though. LOVED it.

I haven't watched his other shows and haven't really felt a need to. The way people describe them to me is enough to turn me off.
Oct. 15th, 2013 11:27 pm (UTC)
I like a lot of his stuff, or aspects of it. It's part of why I write about him & his work, because I care about representations of women & other minorities in popular media in general, but also because I like his work but realize much of it is problematic and should be addressed.
Oct. 16th, 2013 02:18 am (UTC)
Yeah, I understand that. I really love Stephen King despite his little literary flaws but he's got some problematic/questionable bits, too. Since I feel that his good qualities overshadow his less good qualities, I can still enjoy his work. For me, Whedon is just not someone whose work is terribly interesting. I think sometimes something either speaks to you or it doesn't.
Oct. 18th, 2013 10:23 am (UTC)
you have your Willow Rosenbergs (...) who may work at something but don’t need to work THAT hard because they are NATURALLY GIFTED.

Nonsense. Willow spends years studying magic, we see her practise with other more advanced magic users, we see her make a ton of mistakes because she's just not good enough, we see her suffer headaches and nosebleeds because she's not powerful enough. More importantly, it's not about talent or gift. In Buffyverse everybody can do magic, Buffy, Xander, Dawn, Giles, Anya as a human, Spike - all of those characters cast spells at least once on the show. Willow becomes better than them at doing magic because she works hear tuchus off.

also had a vast well of world-ending power deep inside her.

That's factually incorrect. Willow needed the power of an entire witch coven, the power Giles could also wield, to be able to raise Temple of Proserpexa, she wasn't powerful enough on her own.

Please, if you don't know the show well enough, at least do some research in the future.
Oct. 20th, 2013 10:01 pm (UTC)
It's true.

In my teaching days (the '70's) I once had a colleague, a senior female faculty member, who advised me to submit papers for publication using only my initials, as I would have a better chance of getting published if it wasn't known that I was a woman. It was good advice, too.

On the bright side -- I guess -- she had attained sufficient eminence that she didn't have to do that any more.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )