I was just reading Irae Nicole's post about Joss Whedon's cissexist tweet. This is the not the first time that Joss' social activism has been rightfully critqued on this site. I applaud these posters and I think we should continue to scrutinize activists who claim to represent our movement, but it got me thinking about how intelligent and thoughtful criticism of work that Joss produces is so sorely missing from public discussion.
Even though Joss has been writing some great female characters for years, his feminist report card is far from straight A's. As Anita Sarkeesian has pointed out, Dollhouse had a lot of issues with rape culture. While he paid lip service to the question of whether the Actives could consent, he quickly dropped the issue once they had Sierra's character experience a "real rape" (a.k.a. violent with the victim actively resisting/crying). What is happening to the actives on their romantic engagements is rape. You have a right to consent or not consent every time you have sex. You can't sign that away for years at a time. Believing that people can give blanket consent for years at a time without any option to back out is what lead to marital rape being legal well into the 20th century. Not exploring that while Dollhouse was on the air was a waste of a great opportunity.
Joss has a much poorer track record on race issues. Firefly was really his best attempt at including people of color in his main cast other than that it has been a bit of a disaster
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the movie): white as the day is long
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV series): all of the regular characters for all seven seasons are white*, with the exception of Robin Wood (played by D.B. Woodside) who is added in season 7. Many of the other people of color in the supporting cast fall into horrible tropes.
- Angel: We get our first African American main character with J. August Richards. Although his original appearance is a bit cliche he rounds out much better.
- Firefly (TV Series) and Serenity (Movie): A big step forward with the featuring of Gina Torres and Ron Glass. Unfortunately for a show that regularly uses Mandarin and claims to exist in a culture that is equal parts American and Chinese, there is a conspicuous lack of Asian characters. It is also unsettling that that only other two featured POC supporting actors (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Richard Brooks) both play villains.
- Dr. Horribles Sing-Along Blog:There is exactly one POC, Maurissa Tancharoen (who is Joss' sister-in-law and co-writer of the film). She plays "groupie #1". They even joke on the commentary about how "no one is Asian in the movies", but their apparent dismay at the white washing of Hollywood is not reflected in their casting.
- Dollhouse: While it is nice to see the inclusion of Harry Lennix, Tamoh Penikett (who identifies as White River First Nations) and Dichen Lachman, the rest of the featured characters are all still white. There are also several problematic portrayals of other side characters.
- The Avengers: Extremely white washed. Although he wasn't responsible for casting the main cast, it was entirely possible for him to cast more supporting characters of color.
- Much Ado about Nothing: Other than a brief cameo by Tancharoen and one nameless extra shown for effect after a particuarly racist line, there is not a single person of color in the whole movie.
- Marvel's Agents of Shield: Technically he is only executive producer while his brother and sister-in-law (who is Asian American) serve as show runners. There are two women of color in the main cast: Ming-Na Wen who is criminally underused (and sometimes problematically portrayed), and Chloe Bennett. The show has very troubling depictions of its POC supporting cast - who have turned out to be the villains of their perspective episodes almost every time.
I am sure I missed some things as this is just a general overview, but this alone is unacceptable. We should expect more.
Now, don't get me wrong, I am a huge Whedon fan. Buffy the Vampire Slayer helped me get through a lot in high school. I named my dog after Kaylee from Firefly and my sister named one of her pets after Jayne. I saw an advanced screening of Much Ado about Nothing and stayed late for a Q&A with the cast. I waited in line for hours for an autographed photo of Robia LaMorte, that I keep to this day. I have made countless pieces of fan art, some of which I have submitted to contests. These pieces of media have deep meaning to me, which is why I can't ignore these issues. I can't sweep problems under the rug because it makes it easier for me to love the things I love if I shut them out.
I believe we need thoughtful discussion of his work, especially now as his Avengers' success has rocketed him to a much broader audience. We need to stop thinking that "being a true fan" means shutting up about things we find issue with. We can't just brush it off with "It's only a TV show. Stop being so sensitive". The way marginalized groups are presented in media matters. Pop culture permeates our lives, and its messages can get into our heads. We need to be able to talk critically about what exactly it is saying.
* I have found several references to Charisma Carpenter's Cherokee descent online but have been unable to find any evidence that she identifies as a person of color. If someone has a link to an interview or other source which says otherwise, please let me know and I will update the post.