Joss Whedon’s Big Gay Elephant in the Room

You always critique the thing you love . . . sort of. I read a fascinating critical analysis of Joss Whedon’s female characters this morning. As a writer and creator, Whedon is probably best known for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and all of its requisite “strong” women. In fact, the critique was all about how Whedon’s women aren’t actually written as strongly as he’s often given credit for. The critique examines Buffy, Firefly, and Dollhouse through a close reading of how the females on those three shows are much more male-dependant than die-hard Whedonists would like to think. The critique was thoughtful, well-crafted, academic—it uses Laura Mulvey’s male gaze theory as part of the scholarly perspective—and unfortunately carefully avoids talking about Willow Rosenberg anywhere in the article. Because, you know, that would undermine the entire thesis. In the history of pointing out elephants in living rooms, this is the equivalent of not pointing out the biggest, gayest elephant in the living room. That’s a metaphor: Willow is the big, gay elephant.

Am I a Whedonist? Not really. Am I a Buffy fan? Hells yeah. Does the author of the article have a strong argument? You betcha. That's the thing: I can love something AND critique it because I can hold more than one thought in my head at a time. In fact, much the essay is very thought-provoking in making a space for feminist critique of a body of work often considered “off limits” for said feminist critique. I actually tended to agree with the author that citing Joss Whedon (white, cis, straight, male) as the poster child for feminist storytelling in television is a bit problematic. The article presents a very thoughtful, persuasive analysis of why Buffy, Faith, Cordelia, Zoe, Kaylee, Inara, and Echo, the primary female characters from the three main Whedon television shows, (the author acknowledges that Angel is not on the list) are more emotionally dependent upon men than fans would like to admit, and in some cases actually brutalized by men. Yep, very persuasive, I’m convinced. It’s a good analysis. The problem is, Willow is conspicuously absent from the entire discussion. Why is there a lengthy article on Joss Whedon’s female characters without any witchy representation? Methinks the lesbians in the Whedon-verse are trouble-spots for the author and her feminist sensibilities. Feminists have historically not known what to do with lesbians and have thus ignored them. Google “lavender menace” and get back to me. Also, Willow isn’t actually a gay elephant. It’s a metaphor. Try to stay with me.

So, not including Willow in the critique is a serious oversight here. It equates to invisibility of the gay character as well as a plot hole the size of Dawn’s screaming mouth. (Mystical sisters are also mysteriously absent from the critique.) I could get into a counter-argument about how Willow’s character arc, which is typically cited as the most culturally significant character in the entire Whedonverse, because , you know, coming out as a lesbian in the 90s and then staying out for the rest of the series. I could get into the details of how Willow and Tara’s relationship actually pushed back against the notion of Mulvey’s theory about lesbians for male consumption: They were decidedly not “lesbians” in the “lesbian” porn kind of way. I could also mention the fact that Willow’s entire character shifted from being weak and self-deprecating while still closeted to being self-actualized and powerful (to the point that she could have destroyed the world) when she became concerned about women instead of men. But I won’t get into all of that trivia. The point I want to make is about crafting a good argument: If you want to critique something you love, acknowledge the contradictions; don’t ignore them.

There’s plenty to work with here. We could give Whedon a good chastising for killing off Willow’s lover, Tara, for the classic dick-move trope of “the gay character dies.” It’s one of the most heartbreaking deaths in the history of gay television (with apologies to fans of Alice Pieszecki  and Dana Fairbanks) and was arguably the single most fan-angering moment in Whendon-verse history. (It even angered the actress playing Tara, not because she died, but because she felt that they were betraying the marginalized gay fans they had championed.) There’s important, critical work to be done here and it got ignored. I love Willow but I’ve got some words for her. Loving something means never having to say you’re sorry for critiquing it. Don’t hold me to this. It doesn’t apply to romantic relationships.

In summation, if you’re actually going to point out that there are a bunch of large animals in your living room, don’t ignore the big, gay elephant.