From Buffy to The Avengers: A Sociology of Joss Whedon

In which I explore the connection between comic book movies and Occupy Wall Street.

Avengers is huge. It might turn out to be the biggest summer movie, bigger even than the final Dark Knight installment. Commentators will talk about its significance for movie-making as the first time a major Hollywood film has brought together characters and continuity from five separate previous films into one single story.

But one thing they won’t be talking about is its politics. And that’s a bit strange.

It’s strange because the director and co-writer of this film is Joss Whedon, self-declared feminist and the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of the most overtly feminist TV shows to achieve major mainstream success. Buffy was heralded as a breakthrough in the mainstreaming of feminist cultural thought.   It was perceived as overturning stereotyped representations of women as helpless victims, offering strong and well-rounded female characters, and providing teenage girls with empowering female identification figures. It did this while implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, criticizing the male domination responsible for women’s disempowerment.  These qualities made the show and Whedon, a former women’s studies major and self-declared feminist, very popular among feminist commentators and occasionally a target of right-wing hostility.  The show spawned its own academic subfield, called “Buffy studies”, comprising hundreds of articles, several books, and entire undergraduate courses analyzing Buffy and its spinoff Angel for their inventive use of language, their evocation of philosophical themes, and especially for their transgressive and groundbreaking (for the time) portrayal of women.

What happened to the feminism?

Avengers, on the other hand, is a boy’s own story about four ultra-masculine dudes and a token hot chick.  While The Hunger Games and the Twilight installments are provoking heated discussion about gender and power, Avengers will raise little interest among either feminists or anti-feminists.

Spot the feminist content

So what happened? Did Whedon just sell out? Not exactly. It’s more like people stopped buying what he had been selling.

After Buffy, Whedon did three further TV shows, each of which was less successful. Angel, a Buffy spinoff, enjoyed a five-season run but had nothing like the cultural impact of Buffy. Firefly, a “western in space”, was cancelled after a single season, got resurrected as a movie, and then went nowhere. And then came Dollhouse, which raised a bold question by asking what freedom of choice actually means for women when every source of cultural information available to them reinforces the ideal of femininity — but then failed to do anything interesting with its premise and ultimately became more about its own convoluted internal mythology than anything else.

Part of Whedon’s trouble had to do with trends in narrative styles, trends he failed to keep up with.

The rise and fall of irony

Whedon’s storytelling depended heavily on irony and deconstruction. Deconstruction in pop culture it generally refers to the practice of using an established narrative device or trope (e.g. the chosen one who fights monsters to protect humanity) and taking it apart (de-constructing it) in some way to reveal its artificiality, usually by presenting it in a more ‘realistic’ way than usual (e.g. giving the chosen one realistic teenage-girl motives rather than presenting her as altruistically and enthusiastically embracing her calling).  Irony works in a similar way, using established narrative devices but pointing out their artificiality with the work, e.g. by having a character comment on them (“funny how nobody but us ever notices all the vampire attacks in this town!”). Irony allows one to use a device or trope while indicating that one is aware of its artificiality, to show that one does not buy into all of its connotations uncritically. Usually the point is to invoke established meanings while also playing around with them, opening up new meanings and new narrative possibilities.

In the 1990s, many of the most popular sci-fi and fantasy franchises, like Farscape, and Xena: Warrior Princess, were full of irony and deconstruction. (So were a few popular non-sci-fi shows, like Seinfeld.)  This kind if postmodernism caters to the genre-savvy of audiences that not only grew up watching TV, but grew up watching science fiction on TV and were familiar enough with its tropes to enjoy seeing them deconstructed.  Whedon, a third-generation TV writer (his father and grandfather were TV writers) was a master of this ironic style.

But in 2002, his space western Firefly came and went in half a season, Buffy went off the air in 2003, and in 2004 Angel was cancelled.  Also in 2004, the Sci-Fi channel introduced an updated and rebooted Battlestar Galactica. This show reconstructed its tropes instead of deconstructing them; its tone was not playful and ironic but deadly earnest. The same was true of other popular science fiction and fantasy shows that came after, like Heroes and Lost. Suddenly, the age of deconstructive irony was over. And Whedon, master of the ironic style, had to scramble for gigs.

Sci-fi tv, now with 98% less irony

This rise and decline or irony in science-fiction television might seem utterly trivial. But it reflects deeper and more important trends in society.

Liberal postmodernism

The 1990s saw the triumph of two important forms of left-wing politics. One, called ‘the Third Way’ by its proponents, married progressive stands on cultural issues like abortion and gay rights with more centrist or conservative stances than left-wing parties had previously taken on economic issues like social programs and free trade.  Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and Jean Chrétien achieved electoral success with Third Way platforms.  The other, called ‘political correctness’ by its detractors, focused on how women, blacks, and other minority groups are represented in popular culture, academic thought, and everyday language.  This ‘political correctness’ operated on the premise that how people are represented affects how people treat each other such that replacing ‘fireman’ with ‘firefighter’, for instance, would help remove barriers to women’s participation in male-dominated professions. Likewise, creating strong roles for women on TV and in movies was championed by some as a necessary means of encouraging girls and young women to assert themselves in society.

The 1990s also saw the ascendancy of liberal postmodernism in academic thought.  Postmodernism emphasizes, among other things, the contingency of social life: the idea that society does not have to be the way it currently is, even though we are often told that it does.  There is nothing natural, say postmodernists, about the fact that women are emotional and relationship-oriented while men are stoic, rational, and task-oriented.  These are socially constructed gender expectations, and they could just as easily have been constructed along the opposite lines.   One way to show this is to create works of art in which gender expectations are flipped or otherwise played with.

Like, for example, taking the helpless blonde girl who always gets killed in horror movies and making her a superhero.

Just out of frame: Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and Michael Myers, running for their lives

Postmodernism takes some of its ideas about social construction and contingency from Marxist theories of ideology.  To Marxists, ‘ideology’ doesn’t just refer to one’s political values; it comprises an entire integrated worldview that makes some ways of acting seem natural and normal and others seem foolish or unthinkable.  Marxists argue that every society produces an ideology that supports its dominant economic relations — in capitalist societies, for instance, ideology makes it seem completely normal and natural that a tiny minority of individuals should own the means by which society produces its wealth. But of course this is a trick; private property is a social institution, not a law of nature.  Liberal postmodernists, in particular, took this critique of ideology and pried it away from the Marxist grand narrative about modes of production, dialectical contradictions, and class struggle.  Doing so resulted in a mode of critical thought that could be applied easily to many different struggles against inequality (feminism, anti-racism, gay liberation, disability rights, etc.) and that could assist with one particular tactic of struggle, the critique of cultural representations – what conservatives call ‘political correctness’.

The common theme of the Third Way, ‘political correctness’, and liberal postmodernism is a shift from social inequality defined in primarily economic terms to inequality defined in symbolic terms – a shift from class to status, to use the language of Max Weber. The liberal postmodernist philosopher Richard Rorty declared that even though capitalism was far from perfect and even though it was ultimately contingent, it was the best available system at the moment, and therefore critical thought could only expose the socially constructed and contingent nature of society without being able to radically change it. Hence the times called for irony, as a simultaneous refusal and acceptance of social norms.  The ironist says, “I don’t accept your claim that this is necessary or inevitable, but I’ll go along with it anyways, as long as I can do so on my own terms”.

Class struggle

It helps to understand this ethos in its historical context. The 1980s were a decade of serious defeats for the radical and the moderate left: the rise of neoconservatives like Reagan, Thatcher, and Mulroney; the decisive (and still ongoing) decline of the welfare state; defeat after defeat for labour unions; even the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Whereas in the 1970s one could plausibly argue that the path to gender and racial equality, for instance, lay through a class struggle whose goal was to challenge (or possibly even overthrow) capitalism and the prerogatives of the 1%, by the 1990s the organizations and institutions of class struggle were engaged in a defensive fight for their own existence.  For middle-class leftists sensitive to multiple forms of inequality, it could seem better to fight sexism, racism, and the like where they were most visible, in the culture, rather than engaging in a losing battle for fundamental systemic change.

But this balance of opportunities has shifted again.  It’s easy to cite 9-11 as the moment that irony lost its predominance in the spirit of the times, and this is probably true for the popular culture as a whole, but for me and many others on the left the shift away from irony came earlier: on November 30, 1999, when tens of thousands of protestors showed up at the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in Seattle and effectively shut down the conference, helping to stall the formation of a new global trade regime.  Because while Third Way politics gave recognition to the symbolic or cultural needs of women and other subordinated groups, it increased economic inequality, making life harder for poor and middle-class people. This growing economic inequality makes it harder for middle-class advocates of minority groups to hold on to their cultural gains in the face of conservative backlash.  And so class struggle has been growing for over a decade, from Seattle in 1999 to New York in 2011 to Montréal right now. And it will continue to grow, a class struggle from below in response to the class warfare waged by the rich (the 1%, the capitalists) against everyone else.

Seattle 1999

Irony is passé. These are earnest times.

Whither Whedon?

Which didn’t stop me from having fun at the Avengers. I do like my escapism. But it does make me wonder.

As far as Joss Whedon himself goes, his star will continue to rise and he will continue to write witty entertaining genre fiction (I’ve heard that Cabin in the Woods is brilliant). But I’ll be very surprised if he ever manages to provoke any kind of political discussion again.  In hindsight, it seems that for all his grasp of feminist theory he was a one-trick pony when it came to feminist cultural production.  He played with gender stereotypes by taking the damsel in distress and making her the action hero.  But he didn’t complete the gesture by exploring men’s feminine qualities.  While non-genre shows like Six Feet Under and even The Sopranos looked at male emotionality and vulnerability, Whedon’s male characters were the stoic tough guys of classic masculine fantasy, albeit in an ironically self-aware way. And for all the queer-positive representation of lesbian relationships in Buffy, his characters seem frightened of male homosexuality. His treatment of non-White characters is embarrassingly tokenistic at best … one could go on.

The more important point is, what will happen to cultural politics as class politics continues to rise?

For me, the strength of postmodernism lies in its attention to difference, its refusal to silence local and particular experiences of oppression in favour of a universalizing grand narrative.  This insistence on difference forces us to attend to the incommensurate differences in how people experience social oppression, to their differing needs, burdens, opportunities, and desires. I believe that a radical movement to overthrow capitalism must attend to difference in this way if it is to succeed. It would be a shame for the baby of difference to get thrown out with the bathwater of liberal irony.

9 thoughts on “From Buffy to The Avengers: A Sociology of Joss Whedon

  1. Hey Chris. Such a well-written blog! Just to respond to the issue of irony (and I know it’s not really your main point) thought I’d express some skepticism. I’ve heard claims before that one decade or era is more, or less, ironic or earnest than another, but I think it’s very hard to demonstrate conclusively. There was a lot of earnestness in 90s pop culture; think about grunge, for example. And what would you make of “Glee” now? That said, I certainly agree that certain eras have certain moods, and those moods are historically contingent. But irony rarely fades very far away. Because it’s a reversal of expectations, it feels liberating (eg everything by Oscar Wilde) and people love that.
    -Glenn

    Like

  2. Hey Glenn, thanks for the kind words! And thanks for the comment. Yeah, I agree with your observations about earnestness in the 90s and irony in contemporary pop culture. With respect to the latter, I think irony is the chief characteristic of the hipster, and those are everywhere.

    What’s more or less faded away, in my view, is the intersection between irony and left-wing politics. It’s not gone completely but it’s much diminished from what it was. In the 90s one could reasonably believe that ironizing and deconstructing a cultural trope was in itself, a political act, capable of releasing or mobilizing energy for more practical changes. In that context, the appearance of a non-gender-normative character on a mainstream TV show aimed at teenagers felt like some kind of progress. I think that the effectiveness of that kind of cultural politics has more or less plateaued, leaving us with apolitical irony and earnest politics.

    But I could be totally off base. What do you think?

    Like

  3. Yes, I think that’s a very compelling argument. I do think Xena and Buffy felt progressive and transformative in a way that couldn’t quite be reproduced by a tv show (at least) right now. People wouldn’t be as receptive to such representations as meaningfully liberatory. I can hardly imagine feeling about a tv show the way I felt about Xena and Buffy. I really did feel like watching them was a political act! (Though again, I’m not entirely sure that an extraordinarily ironic show like Glee can entirely escape being “political” in some way. I guess you’d have to see it to comment.) And here’s another angle — in no way contradictory to your argument — on the cultural politics of the 90s: part of the what stimulated the (paradoxical) earnestness with which irony was celebrated was the strength of the gay rights movement (again, I think of Oscar Wilde’s utter obsession with irony). The irony of queerness is almost self-evident, and thus often celebrated and positively claimed in gay cultures, though of course the irony of queerness is entirely historically and culturally contingent (in some other cultures queerness might well be — indeed actually is — perceived as entirely expected and unsurprising, and therefore not at all ironic). Anyway, my point is that it’s possible to think that the force of queer culture in the 90s was a result of the sympathy for irony, which was, as you say, really a result of disenchanted leftists turning from economics to culture. I think, however, that queer politics rose not because it was buoyed up on a sea of beloved irony, but because of the political significance and legacy of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. (And AIDS was “significant” because white, middle-class, well-educated, self-confident men were dying and threatened.) So AIDS politics pulled up gay culture, which pulled up irony, which allowed Gabrielle to love Xena and Buffy to kill Jason. So there.

    Like

    • Brilliant. There’s a complex play of material and symbolic forces there that I’ll have to chew on for a bit.

      Now you’ve got me thinking about how *camp* Buffy was. It used tropes ironically precisely in order to tell very earnest and melodramatic stories. Detachment in the service of passionate involvement.

      There’s an urban legend or a joke (maybe you’ve heard it) that goes something like this: Bourdieu and and Foucault and Derrida and Lyotard are sitting around in a bar musing glumly about how a white male intellectual superstar can no longer speak as the authoritative voice of anti-oppressive struggle when one of them has a brainwave. “If we are no longer the centre,” he says, “then there IS no centre!”. Maybe we can read liberal postmodernist irony as a way for white male middle-class subjects to come to terms with the challenge to their symbolic privileges mounted by feminism and other anti-oppressive movements. Hence its ambivalence as a political force.

      I was going to say about Glee – I have seen a few episodes, and I find it interesting. On one level it goes a lot further in its inclusiveness than Buffy ever did. But it has a very different feel. For one thing, Buffy was told from the point of view of characters who were significantly alienated, who were in society but not of it, which gave the show a kind of countercultural tone despite the banality of the suburban middle-class setting, whereas the characters in Glee might be misfits or feel marginal at times but they and their struggles are very much part of normal society. Maybe that says something about the mainstreaming of the politics of difference, its incorporation into liberal common sense. Glee is definitely political – I bet it pisses off American conservatives to no end – but seems to tend towards a liberal individualistic politics that reads as apolitical because of the dominance and naturalization of liberal individualism.

      Now, a show that ironizes and deconstructs individuality as such – that might be interesting!

      Like

  4. Hey Christopher I found this absolutely fascinating and well written. I’m currently taking an intro to sociology class and I’m supposed to write my final on a topic for which I can pull three peer reviewed scholarly articles as well as info from my textbook. I don’t know if you still check these comments as it’s been well over two years, but I’m at a loss for a topic to research. This article sparked my interest yet I don’t quite know how to formulate my own topic to cover. Based on my interest in the ideas expressed in your article do you have any suggestions?

    Like

    • Hi Charles, I’m glad you found this fascinating! I’d love to help, but can you tell me more about what you found interesting about the article? Based on what you say about the assignment you’re asked to write, I imagine you could choose almost any topic to write about. So, how can we narrow things down?

      Like

What thoughts do you have?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s