July 16, 2006

One possible partial defense of Joss

Wandering around the blogosphere this morning, I happen across an interesting feminist blog on (mostly) comic culture, and in particular this post on Joss Whedon's Emma Frost. (Note that the author gets into spoilers for Astonishing X-men #12 and later pretty quickly.) I was going to write up a long response, but the points I wanted to make are already being hashed over in the discussion thread, so I'm just going to toss off a few paragraphs below the fold (and, yeah, spoilers there too, from Serenity and Buffy).

My reaction to the post is nicely summed up by Vesper's post in the discussion thread:

Joyce's passing was probably the single most meaningful death I've seen on network tv. It underscored the importance of the character to the series. It eschewed escapism and showed the characters grappling with the absurd, arbitrary events of "real life" (more than any episode of, say, e.r. ever has for me, at any rate). I haven't been able to watch that episode more than a couple of times, simply because I identify so strongly with it.

It was an artistic experiment that may have failed for some, but I hardly think it deserves the title of a WiR death.

One of Joss Whedon's greatest strengths as a writer is creating rich, complicated and exquisitely human characters who are utterly destroyed by a single, tragic twist of fate. Wash is the most recent and visceral example: his death is instantaneous, irreversible, random, and devastating. He won't bound happily onto the screen in Serenity II with some garbled explanation about a clone-spy created by the Alliance; he's dead. With a capital period.

These deaths -- and the lesser sufferings Whedon inflicts on his characters -- often serve plot purposes: Joyce's death forces Buffy to start to take some real responsibility for the lives of others, ie, to grow up; Tara's death turns Willow into Season 6's Big Bad; and so on. But they also often illustrate how fragile and unjust life is, how close we all are to suddenly dropping dead. Whedon's worlds are like Lovecraft's in more than just their populations: both showcase universes government by no true laws other than 'tragedy happens'.

But does this excuse Whedon from being classes in with the WiR writers? 'Excuse' is not exactly the right term. Whedon uses the suffering and death of his characters in far more complex ways than an archetypal WiR plotline; but he still seems to lack sensitivity to the WiR problem. So, as ever, we must eschew a simple dichotomy of praise and blame: instead, we praise Whedon for his ability to construct compelling characters of all genders while simultaneously identifying the places where he still ought to do better.


MosBen said...

Actually, it's funny you mention Wash not coming back with a silly clone explanation, as that is exactly what Whedon did to bring back Colossus, who had been rather definitively dead for five years, in Astonishing X-Men.

Such are the options of a comics writer who wants to use a character needlessly killed for grand effect some years ago...

Noumena said...

'But Colossus wasn't cloned; they just switched his body!'

Yeah, point taken. And Spike's resuscitation in the last season of Angel was even cheesier.