Sunday, May 11, 2008

Joss Whedon and feminism part 4

Ok so first of all I want to say thanks for everyone who's left comments so far. I really didn't expect my posts to get picked up or have people responding, especially not multiple times. I'm surprised and flattered! Also, these last two posts have been focusing on Firefly because they've been prompted by Allecto's writing. I will do another one on Buffy, but I'm not sure when - I've had the last week off work so have had a lot more spare time than I usually do.

I also wrote those last posts quite late at night so again I'm stunned they made sense ;) And a qualifier - my views sometime change day to day so I may contradict myself today.

In response to people's comments so far:
Male feminists - I don't think I explained myself clearly enough before. I have said in post number 1 that I know men can be feminists, I know men who are. This is a good thing, a very good thing! I said before:
"I do not think that they are well placed to pick up on and recognise internalised misogyny and societal sexism because by and large it doesn't affect them."

I'd just like to clarify that I don't mean men can't pick up on blatant or subtle misogyny and sexism, they can and do. It's just that unless discrimination affects someone directly. or they are specifically looking out for it, then I think it usually gets missed. HOWEVER, many women also do not pick up on discrimination, or will disagree on what discrimination is. Some men will be better at getting it than some women, and vice versa. I also think that there is a danger in stating that the men will never get it like the women do, because it implies that if you're a woman your opinions are automatically more valid than a man's. And that's bollocks. Everybody's opinions are valid and everyone can learn from each other. There are as many different views and takes on feminism as people and that's great.

To me, feminism can also mean humanism, i.e. treat people, both men and women, like human beings. This means do not objectify, do not buy their bodies, do not beat, do not dismiss. Both men and women are perfectly capable of doing this. I consider all my friends, male and female, feminist because they are not jerks and they believe in treating people fairly. If they didn't believe in this I wouldn't be friends with them.
To say that one sex cannot understand a whole raft of theory is divisive and patronising. I do not believe there are inherent differences between men and women's personalities and make up - I believe we are socialized into gender specific roles from birth and it's damn hard to get out of the mind set.
I guess I do believe in Unicorns then. I hope they're shiny.

Ok onto Allecto's last post.
First off, I think people have got the hump with Allecto's posts for two reasons. The first one is that she's very confrontational and aggressive in the posts and the second one is that people have misunderstood the purpose of her blog. Her post titles are 'A Rapist's view of the world' and 'A wife-beater's view of the world', both referring to Joss Whedon. However at no point does she explain why she thinks Joss is a wife beater or rapist. And y'know, I think her lack of an explanation is ok. This is her blog, it's not intended to be a radical feminism 101, it;'s not intended to educate people to radical feminism or convert them to her way of thinking, it's Allecto putting down her thoughts about issues she sees in the world. I think the intended audience are those people who already share her world view.
On this page she writes:
Men who know little of feminism, this is not the space for you. If you wish to educate yourself further on the women’s liberation movement then, by all means, read what I have to say. Until you have a deeper understanding of feminist thought, however, I do not welcome your comments or questions. I am not here to educate men on feminism.
(Emphasis mine).
On this page she writes:
The women who comment here come from all walks of life. We represent a highly marginalised and vilified group and we are often viciously attacked for our views. I will not allow comments from women who are not supportive of Radical Feminism. I will not allow male-apologist comments.
(Emphasis mine)

So I'm not surprised she hasn't published all comments received and I'm not surprised she hasn't responded to criticisms. That's not what she uses her internet space for. Unless a blog is described as an educational spot, or states that it welcomes discussions and sharing of ideas there is no reason to expect this to happen.

As for the rapist and wife beater descriptions - I assume that Allecto believes that all men are potential rapists, a view I think is shared by members of the radical feminist community, as opposed to accusing Joss of personally raping or beating his wife (or any other woman). (I happen to agree with it but I also think that all women are potential rapists (of men and other women) too, but that's a whole different topic).

Of course if I've got this theory totally wrong please let me know.

OK onto the actual content of the post. As I said before, I'm no literary critic and I don't know the techniques for dissecting texts. But I do know that I'm not entirely comfortable with the idea that all texts always represent the world view of the writer. To say this would surely mean that the writer can only create characters and situations they know? Surely people can write from the point of view of someone they despise in a manner they don't approve of? Or am I missing something more subtle? Please someone tell me if I am.

Allecto says:
"What makes me even more annoyed about this scene is the fact that Mal, as always, does all the talking, leaving Saffron’s potentially interesting history unexplored. This is typical of stories written by misogynists. They are not interested in women’s stories; women are only there to further understanding of the male characters."
Re Mal doing all the talking, I think the scene was written this way to demonstrate Saffron's character. She's meant to be submissive and think herself unworthy. Also, as we find out later, Saffron is a construct, therefore there is nothing real to find out about. So she wouldn't want to dwell on her male believe past.
In regards to women only being there to further understand male characters. This does happen an awful lot in fiction, and yes it is typical of stories written by misogynists. (For a comic centric view of this, see the Women in Refrigerators website.) But I don't think it is happening here. I think we are still getting to know Saffron and the exchange prompting Allecto's comments helps us do this. But again, I'm no literary critic and tend to look at things from within the universe, ie.e. if it makes sense within the boundaries of the story then I'm fine with it.

"the....scene where Zoe shows herself to be completely unsympathetic to Saffron’s slavery and blames Saffron for her own subjugation."
I am not one who believes in a sisterhood. I don't see any reason, given what we know of Zoe's character, why she should rush in and defend Saffron. Zoe is an military woman, she's a loner and she cares for her own, in this case meaning primarily Mal and Wash. Mal because he was her captain in the war and old bonds like that do not die, and Wash because he's her husband and they're in partnership together. Zoe cares for the rest of the crew because they're crew and the Captain brought them on board but she isn't going to take a new person under her wing freely. I get the impression that you need to earn Zoe's loyalty, it is not given freely.

Zoe says the Captain shouldn't be 'babysitting a damn groupie', well no, they've got jobs to do and he shouldn't be married to her - he shoulda realised what the ritual meant or Shepard Book shoulda told him. Zoe also calls Saffron trouble - well she did turn out to be trouble. This comment *could* be read as Zoe knowing something isn't right with Saffron's story, although I doubt it. I think she means Saffron's presence will interfere with the running of the ship and Mal's job.
Wash's inane geese juggling comment only serves to show up Wash - he hasn't realised the gravity of the situation and is trying to dissipate his wife's anger.

In regards to women not defending their own, when we first meet Saffron on the ship and Mal is being exceedingly rude, talking bout her like she isn't there or have ears, Kaylee comforts Saffron and calls Mal up on his rudeness. She does not get punished and if I remember right, Mal looks contrite at Kaylee's reprimand. But that's Kaylee - she cares for everyone, Zoe doesn't.

Allecto's comments about men abusing women for being born female I wholeheartedly agree with. I'm just not convinced that Our Mrs Reynold's so far demonstrates this.

Allecto's next comments are about the scene where Saffron is in Mal's bed. I pretty much agree with Allecto here. It does make submissiveness and vulnerability sexy, and you know, it's not! Saffron has been traded to Mal, Mal pretty much says just that:
"Just’cause you got handed to me by some couldn’t pay his debts, don’t make you beholden to me."

Therefore taking advantage of Saffron is utterly utterly wrong. You could argue that this scene is designed to show Mal being a jerk, but I don't hold with that. There's not enough made of Mal's jerkishness and far far more made of Saffron being teh sexy.

Allecto's comments about Joss writing that women lie about everything I think would only hold true if this were correct for all his characters. But I think that in Firefly (and Buffy) he's created a selection of diverse female characters with distinct personalities, mostly free from stereotypes. cough*except for River*cough. However I forgive River's cliche of mad super powerful teenage girl because she's so fucking awesome at it. And because his other female characters are truly diverse and strong.

Allecto's comments about the Wash/Zoe relationship:
"Wash openly admits that he wishes he could sleep with Saffron a woman who he has just met. He simultaneously believes that he loves Zoe despite the fact that he openly admits to wanting to fuck Saffron. And the primary motivation for him refusing to fuck Saffron does not seem to be because he loves Zoe, it is more because of his life may be in danger if he does. Wow, I really do just love these nice, white husbands. Whatever would women do without all these nice, white men?"
I'm not sure if you can love someone and truly want to screw someone else. I love my boyfriend very very much, I still crush on other people, but I don't think I could actually bring myself to sleep with someone else. I think most people are the same. Or am I naive? And the comment about Wash's life being in danger if he cheats on Zoe - if fear's the primary motivation for not sleeping with someone then you are lame. This seems to be representative of that old cliche that all men are driven by their cocks - kinda cruel and dismissive towards men I think.

The Inara/Saffron moment - Saffron is ruthless yes, Allecto thinks this is a good thing because Saffron gets to kick fuckwit men in the head. Zoe gets to shoot fuckwit men all the way through the series and River singlehandedly takes out an entire army of reavers. Saffron's ruthlessness therefore doesn't appear to me as a feminist moment because she's a bad guy. However, random titillating lesbian scene, yes. Unnecessary. But at least it's established in other episodes that Inara does actually like women.

Jayne's gun Vera is big and phallic yes, that's why Jayne has it. He likes big phallic things. Jayne is not a nice man. He's also not representative of all men because like Joss female characters, the male ones are also allowed to be distinct and different.

While Mal and Saffron are wrestling:
"MAL (cont’d)Looks like you get your wedding night after all."
Sex (rape?) jokes are not necessary. We get the comparison without the dialogue. Also, Saffron's pose and clothes are unnecessarily sexualised by this point. She didn't have to be wrestling with a tiny bra and low cut dress (top?) on. I do not hold that this is justifiable because it is in character, it would be nice to not include women as eye candy at every possible moment. Ok, Zoe, River and Kaylee are not treated as eye candy, so why does practically every other woman in the show have to be dressed like a tavern wench? I know it's a western style show but that's not an excuse. They could all be dressed like Zoe and still be in 'period' costume. Not doing so indicates laziness (and an inability to see women as other than sex objects) by Whedon, the producers and the costume department. (Inara not included her because her job is to look beautiful).

The scripted notes to this scene are pretty horrible too.

"She (Saffron) lets out a breath, smiles at him unfathomably."
"She (Saffron) looks at him… looks away, considering the question… — and he slams the butt of his gun into her chin, knocking her out cold. He stands, regards her genuinely vulnerable form. Says with a kind of sadness"

As Allecto says "The scripted description of Saffron in this scene make it abundantly clear that this scene is supposed to titillate." Titillation is not neccessary. Women do not have to equal sex. Why can't people see this?

"But perhaps most disturbingly this scene can be read as a justification for male violence in the home. Joss frequently references marriage in the scene, to bring on the funnies of course, having Mal acting like a spurned husband and Saffron the wayward wife. If we read the entire episode using this framework of reference we can see that Joss has constructed a vicious argument in favour of male violence in the domestic sphere."
This paragraph and the two following it I think are valuable. If you read the whole episode using the above frame of reference then I think Allecto has come up with some very valuable, interesting points. Of course if you don't think it's appropriate to use this frame of reference you won't agree with her.

"First up we have the innocent virgin wife. Mal romances the innocent virgin wife, teaching her to be strong and independent, but still ultimately subservient to him, and obedient to his authority. They come to the marital bed and it turns out that she isn’t quite so innocent after all. She transforms from an innocent country girl into a manipulative, callous woman, who is strong, capable and independent. She works for herself and bows to no one, not even Mal, her husband. In fact, she willfully betrays him and uses his faults and weaknesses to get her own way. It is clear that such a woman must be brought down. By any means necessary.

Saffron leaves Mal and Mal tracks her down, invading her home by force as a husband, pushing her to the bed, using his body to pin her down while he lectures her for not conforming to proper feminine womanhood, before slamming his gun in her face.

If you view the episode like this, and I think you can justifiably do so, it revels in cliches and smacks of misogyny. It is this presentation which ultimately makes me quite uncomfortable with the episode. Mal, whilst being an anti hero, is still the hero. As such his actions are to be emulated and approved of. I also think Allecto is correct in presenting Inara/Saffron as the Wife(Virgin?)/Whore dichotomy. Again, making me uncomfortable with the episode.

So, while I disagree with the details of Allecto's interpretation of this episode, her overall view argument and conclusion I think has a lot going for it.

I also wanted to include some thoughts about Inara and Companionship. I think prostitution is wrong. The buying and selling of anyone's bodies is just plain wrong. I believe that the majority of prostitution is rape, because I believe the women are coerced into doing it. I don't know how to solve the problem, but penalising the punters not the prostitutes would be a good start.
Inara's job is not as a straightforward prostitute. She is a Companion. she sells her body and her services and her goodwill and her conversation and her ability to entertain. I get the impression Whedon was inspired by Geishas, except that they never ever sold their body.

The first thing I have a beef with is that prostitution, in whatever guise, is still in existence and is celebrated. And Companionship is presented as something desirable. Yes the Companions choose their punters but it's not a perfect system. The episode Shindig shows this - Inara's client does not respect her or her profession and hits her. Mal then wades in as male hero because 'his' woman has been hurt. I'm sure Inara can take care of herself, but by somewhat more subtle means. Unfortunately it seems that attitudes haven't changed much and men's first instinct is to challenger the other man. And when I say men here I mean men, not people. At any rate, Inara is not allowed to take care of herself, she stands quietly by whilst Mal partakes in an extremely stupid swordfight he can't hope to win. This episode could have been written differently with Inara getting revenge on her punter.

Alimaemia said in response to an earlier post of mine that Companionship is a high class social function, not like prostitution as we know it. I agree with both points but it does incorporate prostitution, Inara does sell her body. Now if she enjoys the sex every time then I'd be happier, but no one enjoys their job all the time. We also don't see any safeguards against hurting the women - there are repercussions in that men who hurt the women will be blacklisted but Shindig clearly shows that this doesn't deter some men. The reputation of the Companions does not prevent punters being rude and abusive.

I also wonder if the Companions have to pretend to be someone else in their job? I mean, do they have to grin it and bear it when they are with a boarish oafish punter, do they have to fake enjoying the sex? From the little I recall of a conversation between Inara and one of her female punters I think they do have to fake it. This could have been explored in so much more detail in the show, but it wasn't. Instead it was glamourised and portrayed as a respected profession.

I can see the paralells between Companionship and current day prositution. And I think that Companionship is morally and ethically wrong.

Comments and criticisms please, and thanks for reading!

EDIT: this page has Allecto explaining more fully her views on what constitutes rape and interracial relationships. Worth reading.


Devin said...

I love your posts!

That being said, I do not know that I would necessarily state that I would agree with you on the "Mal walks in on Saffron" section. In my opinion, it's more of a he-came-to-claim-what-was-his: the SHIP. How could you resist going to see the woman who almost killed you when you are right next to her house? And as for the way she was dressed, who knows what she was planning for the evening. We are not told what sort of a planet it is, we do not know if she was making a lover out of the man who almost killed the crew. Maybe she was waiting for him and her cut of the profits.

IMHO, one of the most important things to realize here is that this is a dystopia. It's not meant to be perfect, and therefore I feel like it can be given leeway. If it were meant to be perfect (IMHO), it wouldn't be any good, because the flaws in the characters is what makes it interesting. Not that I'm saying you don't recognize this, I just felt it was pertinent to say.

Saranga said...

Hi Devin. Thanks for the compliment!
Re Mal reclaiming his ship, fair point, I had forgotten that detail.

Regarding how she was dressed, yes there can be plenty of in text reasons as to why Saffron was dressed as she was, but it did not have to be written this way. She *could* have been on a planet where women aren't sexualised and she could have been wearing a little more.
Joss and the producers/directors of the show chose to have her looking sexy and chose to film the fight in a 'sexy' titillating way. I understand why - hot partially undressed women sell tv. BUT, there are other ways of being sexy. I am questioning why Joss et al chose to film the scene in this way.
I don't know if you're familiar with the book Female Chauviinst Pigs by Ariel Levy, but she talks about the porninification of everyday culture - women in music videos, tv shows, models in magazines and on billboards and high street fashion - and Levy talks about how this one type of hyper sexuality is (generally) the only one showcased in western (American) culture at the moment. I think that titilating fight scene is another example of this pornification.

Re Firefly being a dystopia, yep it is, and the character flaws are part of what makes it interesting, but that doesn't take away from the fact that Joss chose to write the show in a particualr way. It could still be a dystopia without the titilation and casual sexism, OR, it could highlight these problems more. And maybe Joss intended to do so, we'll never know.
Whew. Long reply.

Lord Runolfr said...

The final confrontation between Mal and Saffron is problematic. I don't see how it could have played out much differently, given Mal's character, and that is an indictment of Mal. He does have some antiquated ideas about gender roles.

As Devin points out, Mal's purpose in going there was to get his shuttle back. It looks like he could have done that without confronting Saffron at all, and certainly without the sort of violence that resulted. I can easily see how this scene is a low point for feminism in the show, although I'd stop short of calling it an endorsement of domestic violence.

As for whether Inara has to "fake it" with her clients, I think that's obvious from her first appearance in "Serenity", when she's with one of those clients. As I've said elsewhere, I don't think Joss Whedon's ultimate goal is to glamorize prostitution, but we'll never know for sure, since he never got the chance to tell the whole story he intended for this character.

Devin said...

Very true that Joss, et. al. chose the costumes. But you know how much control Fox had over things (order of episodes, requiring Train Job to be created, etc.). Perhaps this was one of those things that Joss hadn't intended on, but then again I'm just speculating.

Hopefully we'll get more of a backstory to everyone in the comics. I'm super bummed that the comics are so short, especially since I'm not really sure that they are intended to be actual episodes, but at least they're closer to the story than the Buffy comics (have you read those? TOTALLY jumped the shark!). Although they're supposed to bridge the gap between the show and the movie and since we weren't supposed to find out about Miranda til the end of Season 2, I can only hope for the best!

And thanx for the tip about that book. Wonder if it'd be at my local library.....

Saranga said...

I didn't realise Fox had control over the content and direction of the show.
I like the Buffy comics, the first few were a bit weak but I'm definitley liking the latest ones. It seems the internets is rather divided in opinion over season 8...

Devin said...

Wow! I think you're the only person I've met (?) that likes where the Buffy comics are going. I understand that now they can do things that they couldn't do before, and bringing Warren back was waaay cool, but making Willow fly? Really?

Saranga said...

Willow flying is rather lame. But Dracula is very cool, the other slayers are very cool, big stompy Dawn is turning out a lot better (and less annoying) than I expected. I'm really excited to see where they're going with the current arc about the sycthe and how it's going to fit into Fray - which is well worth getting if you haven't read it. I'm predisposed to really like anything slayerish Joss does which is why I have to think really hard to criticise it properly.

Lord Runolfr said...

I didn't realise Fox had control over the content and direction of the show.

Oh, the gripes some of us have about FOX. Even though they knew this was a serialized show, they ran the episodes out of order, including running the pilot LAST. They didn't think it had enough action, and they thought Mal's character was too dark, so they insisted that Joss write "The Train Job" and make Mal more "jolly".

Strascynski had to put up with similar crap from Warner Bros. when he was making Babylon 5. WB didn't like Michael O'Hare or Pat Tallman and insisted on replacing them. They insisted on gratuitous product placement of a motorcycle in an episode, resulting in a completely contrived scene. They never let him know until the last minute whether the show would be picked up for another season.

From what little I know, studio execs seem to be assholes of epic proportions.

Saranga said...

I knew they ran the episodes out of order and showed the pilot last. And then they wondered why it didn't do well??!! As you said, assholes.

alimaemia said...

I would just like to say that everyone also has to remember that this series is so unbelievably unfinished that story lines that were obviously supposed to be open to more suddenly became dead ends. I think that's what happened with Inara.
There was SO much depth in her character (and you can argue with me about this, but I think she did have depth, and I think every time, or at least almost every time, she was on screen I feel that I really felt the character). I think it was pretty clear that they were going to do a lot more with her character, with the mysterious box she opened in... I think it was Bushwacked, but I cannot recall right now, and also with the way she felt about her own career.

I find it hard to argue about the characters, especially when you try to get really deep into their... psyche I guess. Especially since the writers didn't even have warning that they would be cancelled, so they couldn't even prepare a sort of "wrap" episode.

On a side note, I just saw that you wrote a quick thing about Female Chauvinist Pigs in a comment, and I really enjoyed that book, although there was one chapter that I distinctly remember hating (about transgender/transsexual/genderqueer people). The rest of the book is well written and seemingly well researched, but that one chapter/section is appalling.

Oh, and another side note. I love the Buffy comics... so much. Sometimes they're a little (ok, a lot) ridiculous, but that's another reason I love them, because sometimes Buffy was also ridiculous (a giant praying mantis lady? A MUSICAL DEMON? Ridiculous? Yes. Horrible? No.)