in fact, mr. whedon, you don’t like women all that much

much ado

This is the international poster, and it’s better than the other one.

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.

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16 thoughts on “in fact, mr. whedon, you don’t like women all that much

  1. Not sure I agree as much with the latent misogyny in “Buffy”, but with “Much Ado”, I wholeheartedly do, and, in spite of some good things about it that you pointed out, overall I really hated that movie. Contrast it with the 1993 version, which was marvellous, and it really has no right to exist. To do Shakespeare you must have a convincing statement to make and Whedon’s movie was completely lacking. It was so incredibly superficial and trite. The backdrop of “the war” was completely played off and had no real relevance; it seemed to be a movie about wealthy people in a kind of bubble, and the female characters were indeed molded to a patriarchal model. Very disappointing. I can see your criticism of the latent misogyny in “Buffy” as valid, but nevertheless it had a reason for being, in my view, for the cultural relevance, the fresh and excellent scriptwriting and the positive morality of being the best you can be under extremely trying circumstances. Given that it was made for television, in my view, it exceeded expectations and constructed a positive model for dealing with the challenges of modern existence. “Much Ado”, which reached for a higher bar of film and presumably “art”, failed miserably.

    • I’m not sure I see why we should give television a pass and not films based on the fact that one is higher art than another….but that would get us into a discussion of high vs. low culture, hegemony, etc, and that’s a bit beyond what either of us was talking about. I really tried not to think about the Branagh film at all when watching or when writing this, and it’s been a few years since I last saw it, but as far as I recall, it doesn’t do anything fresh with the misogyny in the original play either.

      I didn’t say “Buffy” isn’t fantastic in lots of ways, but that doesn’t excuse it for also buying completely into the patriarchy. To me, saying that it’s “the best it can be” is meaningless – culture is there to be critiqued, and you don’t give points for effort. And you can also love something that’s problematic, so long as you can also acknowledge why it’s problematic, which is what I was doing. So it’s irrelevant to the discussion that “Buffy” was trying hard. So was this movie. It’s just that people seem to like one more than the other, and one seems to have been more successful in other ways than the other.

      The only thing I give Whedon points for, feminism-wise, is that he’s generally very comfortable allowing two women in one universe (Buffy/Willow, Zoe/Inara, etc) to have personalities, not just one, as in just about every other thing ever.

  2. Off topic, but I do think when we discuss culture the medium is relevant, as well as the subject matter. And my point was not that “Buffy” was trying hard, but that Whedon managed to make some meaningful points in that series, in a creative and original way — I also like your point about the multiple strong women in that universe. I also see and agree with the many ways that he reinforces patriarchal models of sexuality especially with respect to Faith and Kaylee. However, from my point of view, I didn’t feel that Buffy was being punished for having sex with Angel. Even if some of the other characters reflected that point of view, the script did not for me, and in fact it is the men in her life who are shown in as culpable – in Angel’s case, for carrying a long legacy of sin. But I’m not really disagreeing, just pointing out that there was room at least for me in that moment for another interpretation. In any case, enough about Buffy. I will look forward to reading more of your posts to find out in what cases you do see a constructive challenge or alternative model to patriarchy.

    • But having sex with Angel literally turned him evil. And then Parker in college. And then sex with Riley wakes up a demon ghost lady. And sex with Spike loses the respect of her friends, which is ridiculous, because she and Spike probably have the healthiest relationship of all of her relationships (okay, maybe Riley at the beginning, but then he gets weird and all patriarchal protective of her).

      I hope I do find a constructive challenge to patriarchy! So far no go.

  3. Yeah, ex: Xander who has just left Anya at the alter comes back and gets angry at her for sleeping with Spike, and he tells BOTH Buffy and Anya that they’re basically tainted and he can never look at them the same or touch them again for having sex with a filthy vampire man. He has no moral high ground, he has no claim on either of them emotionally, and he’s really just slut shaming them because his feelings are hurt – i.e. he’s a better man than Spike so they shouldn’t be having sex with Spike. It’s gross & awful & for no reason should it be excused because the show ALSO does other things well. You don’t have to take the bad with the good. You can totally critique it and ask for Whedon (or anyone else) to do better in the future.

    • Exactly! Like, people should totally celebrate that Joss Whedon has helped women make lots of strides and be different from female characters in many other scripts (and he deserves all the things for giving the world Amy Acker), but the way he fancies himself a (white) savior of women is deeply and sadly ironic, and while he presented the whole sixth season Buffy/Spike thing as a way to show how Buffy has gone as deep and dark into sadness as she can when it’s probably the best relationship she’s been in makes me sad, because I think more women should have at least one relationship in their lives that’s based completely or foremost in sexytimes and lust. Also, Buffy and Spike get and need each other better than Buffy and Anyone Else Ever.

      And also, Joss Whedon really needs to meet a non-white person. By the trailers, it looks like Wes Anderson just met a non-white person and his latest movie doesn’t seem to suffer for it, so Joss should try that, too.

      • But he knows Chiwetel Ojiofor & Gina Torres. He’s got the non-white male & female perspective. (note sarcasm – even though Ojiofor and Torres are amazing)

        Yeah, i feel like the things that made Spike/Buffy bad were about the ways they were shamed for it & not their actual relationship (up until the Spike tries to rape her bit). Pursuing a relationship that both people are ashamed of is basically always unhealthy, but if a point of the show is that we’re all monsters/monsters can be humans (which has been talked about by Whedon before) then exploring that border is really important & shouldn’t be shameful at all? I have more thoughts on this but like…. I don’t want to write six paragraphs on your blog ❤

        • You can write as much as you want on my blog, always.

          Chiwetel Ejiofor is the greatest and most under utilized actor ever. I love him.

          And exactly. Barring when he tries to rape her, the only thing that’s bad about their relationship is the reactions everyone has to their relationship.

          • So for Spike & Buffy, they both see something in the other that they can’t have (Spike because he’s told he’s evil & Buffy because she’s the chosen one) & Buffy’s now asking herself if she could be anything else as well. Does she have a darkness in her? Are there parts of herself she doesn’t like? Is she really okay with those parts? How can she come to terms with the fact that she’s morally flawed? How can she cope with the things she hates about herself? Does she use Spike in this regard? At what point does doing something that makes her less heroic in the eyes of everyone else make her actually less heroic? Can she be a heroic monster? & the fact that they ended that season with Evil Willow means that EVERYONE is learning to court a darkness or recognize that heroes can be flawed. So why are Spike & Buffy (and by extension Anya) punished? Because the manifestation of their darkness was using sex to interrogate and also relieve themselves of their morally gray thoughts (which in BOTH of these instances basically amounts to self loathing – hating yourself to the point that you pursue agency in an avenue that’s not socially sanctioned because you NEED TO HAVE SOME AGENCY, ANY AT ALL REALLY). & I think that Willow murdered people because they killed her lady love & was forgiven, & Xander left Anya at the alter to theoretically save her life, but Anya & Buffy has sex so their monstrosity was not addressed in any other capacity than as monstrosity. & the show did NOT critique any characters’ responses (except through Tara… but then they killed her… so … you know… kill the moral compass to descend into darkness, validate that gray area while advocating for control, but never back up to address the sex issues because the person who was supportive is gone… narratively it’s a trap). I could talk about Buffy the Vampire Slayer for daaaaaays.

  4. I’m late to this conversation, but I wanted to add one observation. I completely forgot about Benedick’s line “If I do not love her, I am a Jew,” but I’m glad it was omitted from this adaptation. However, Joss Whedon did include the line “I’ll hold my mind were she an Ethiope,” punctuating the joke with a shot of a black woman. There are no people of color in the main cast, and very few seen as background actors, and the one time a person of color IS included in the action she is made the punchline of a joke. Unsurprising in a film from Joss Whedon but disappointing all the same.

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