There are some minor movie spoilers in this post.
So I saw Much Ado About Nothing. Because I had to. To, like, participate in the cultural conversation. And because Joss Whedon.
It really is lovely. The black and white is great, though the fade-to-white transitions are not effective. Amy Acker couldn’t be bad at things if she tried. I’m a little worried about how much weight Nathan Fillion has gained, because it looks unhealthy, but he was funny as usual, as was Tom Lenk. And I always forget how that’s probably the funniest Shakespeare play.
But it’s also the play that hates women the most. And that’s an interesting thing to look at when you consider that Joss Whedon loves to be known as the dude who likes strong women.
(I say this having only seen Whedon TV shows and not movies, this one and Serenity notwithstanding. And I say this having only read eight of the 38 plays. But we’ll go with it.)
Anyway. Even though this movie, like all adaptations of Shakespeare onscreen or onstage, takes place in a nebulous now-but-anytime-but-not-really-any-era-in-actual-history era. But Whedon decided to frame the play with a prologue that shows that Benedick and Beatrice actually slept together once and then he sneaked out when he thought she was sleeping. Obvs that is the ONLY possible reason a woman could hate a man so obviously hot and wonderful and perfect, right? Beatrice couldn’t just be a woman who knows herself and has decided that marriage is not a thing for her, just as other people know themselves well enough to know that they don’t want children or they don’t like broccoli. But because modern audiences, even those who clearly know the play because they live in the western world, couldn’t possibly buy that a woman just doesn’t like someone because his personality is douchey. Apparently the only way to be douchey is to sleep with a woman and not call her back. (Not arguing that’s not douchey, just that it’s not the only determination of douche-ness. And I see the irony of using a pejorative that references a female hygiene system.)
In an interview with Kurt Andersen, Whedon said something about how he only changed slight things, like not insulting someone by calling them a Jew, but he wanted to keep the original flavor of the play. Totes fine. But if you’re someone who likes when women get to be “strong,” I’m confused why you wouldn’t at least try to reinterpret the whole Hero thing. I’m just grasping at straws here, but how about some kind of wedding fight where you don’t have all of the lines because there’s music playing over them, and then you can have some choice ones stand out without making Hero a slut for not being a virgin, instead of being a slut for being unfaithful? Thinking your fiancée is having an affair is a great reason to blow up, but you can imply that without saying outright that she’s not a virgin. If you had more careful and selective sound editing, you could even keep Hero’s later admission that she is still a maid, because it would be taken less literally. Or, you know, you could just take it out. Because you changed plenty of other things to suit your cast and filming schedule.
This all really doesn’t make sense with the new Beatrice and Benedick angle, except that it does, because Joss Whedon does not actually like women all that much.
He likes to punish them for having sex. Always. Look at Buffy. Every time she has sex with someone, the world comes crashing down and she gets treated like shit. Look at how Faith is only good when she stops sleeping around. Look at how Kaylee is deemed silly and frivolous and tacky because she talks openly about needing to get laid or just buy a vibrator already.
Whedon’s definition of strong women is “ladies kicking a little ass so long as they remain firmly a part of the patriarchy and don’t shake things up too much.” While you could say that it’s interesting and relevant to show women living in the real world and yet still having more active roles in it (and it is – I’m down with showing that ladies are real people while still acknowledging that the world puts them in boxes and that they have to balance a lot of things), it doesn’t fit with his claims that he writes strong female characters, since his worlds are not the real world – they are utopias and hells and microcosms, and he can do whatever the hell he likes with them, and he does nothing. And it’s so frustrating, because he’s so good at so many of the things he does, and he’s kickass at a lot of aspects of world building, and he actually knows how to end things, unlike J.J. Abrams. And I give him points for allowing there to sometimes be two women in the same world who both do things, unlike so many other creators who only know how to create strong ladies in the situation where all the women around them are useless (see: early episodes of Veronica Mars, the entire premise of Nancy Drew with her dead mother and silly Bess and George, and lots of other things).
But he only lets girls do cool things so long as they finally adhere to society’s standards of what women do – harping man-haters can be tamed so that Fred and Wesley can be together; Buffy can save the world but not have a boyfriend because no one can handle her.
I don’t really need any of his stuff to change, because it’s great, but I resent his constant claims that he treats women really, really well. I just don’t see it.