A Queer Primer To Joss Whedon

by: Kevin Sparrow

Mainstream audiences are just beginning to find out what nerdy folks like myself have known for the nearly past two decades: Joss Whedon is a god amongst sci-fi creators. The hype and success of The Avengers is delivering Whedon’s work to a broader audience, which means now seems an appropriate time to examine how his work addresses a particularly queer audience and our issues.

Following a shared Oscar nomination for Original Screenplay with Toy Story, Whedon returned to his television roots to revive Buffy the Vampire Slayer from its failed 1992 trial by cinema. The storyline for the early seasons code the coming out struggle through Buffy Summers’ own knowledge of being the Slayer and the tension she experiences by the need for a huge part of her identity to remain secret. The revelation to her own mother that she is the Slayer is played very much like a coming out story–“Have you ever tried not being a Slayer?” Joyce Summers asks her at one point in their argument over her daughter’s destined profession.

This is a trope that is explored with other characters, especially prominent in a Season 2 episode “Phases,” about an unidentified werewolf terrorizing the city of Sunnydale, which leads to a guest character coming out as gay and the revelation that Oz, a major player in the series, is the werewolf being sought. He claims his aloofness toward his girlfriend as him “going through some changes.” Buffy is occasionally even more queer than the intended examples above; there is often homoerotic subtext that bleeds in, like a classic quote from the first season that has since fueled a thousand fan-fiction fantasies when Xander Harris directly tells Giles, Buffy’s mentor, “Shoot me. Stuff me. Mount me.” Hot.

To counteract the limitations of subtext, Whedon presented a fully realized portrait of one person’s burgeoning sexuality and same-sex attraction with Willow Rosenberg. Willow begins the series infatuated with Xander and, with that attraction unrealized, becomes romantically involved with Oz, her first long-term partner. Willow gets her first inkling of queerness when her evil doppelganger arrives from another dimension (this is sci-fi, folks) and has a particular fondness for licking women’s necks–particularly her own–prompting Willow to confide to the group, “I think I’m kinda gay.”

In college, Willow meets Tara Mclay, and the initial bond of their mutual interest in magic develops into a romantic relationship. There is a somewhat problematic binary even in this representation, as Willow appears exclusively attracted to men and then exclusively attracted to women, but it is fantastic and rare in television to see the amount of ownership Willow takes over her sexual identity throughout the latter half of the series.

Heavier on the testosterone, Buffy’s spin-off, Angel, contains fewer queer interpretations, but there is a major character that helps offset that. Demon karaoke host Lorne is pretty much the first drag queen to be a regular player on a network series. Actor Andy Hallett is always in make-up for the role–fluorescently green skin, devil horns, bright crimson lipstick–and his flamboyant personality and mystical powers to empathize with others when they sing (hence, demon karaoke bar) create a very specific and queer character. His orientation is ambiguous over the duration of the series as he signifies attraction to women, men, even lead vampire detective Angel himself; and though identifying as “he,” since Lorne is not human, gender is not a finite construct for the character, which allows for the ambiguity of the character to read to a more general audience.

In Whedon’s equally insightful but shorter lived series Firefly and Dollhouse, sexuality and gender play more direct but complicated roles. For the space-set Firefly, characters do allude to same-sex attraction a few times through the series, but the real revelation is in the portrayal of sex work. In this world, being a “companion” is a legal, and often revered, profession. One of the main characters, Inara Sera, is a companion who has respect from many other characters and stands up for the dignity and necessity of her own profession.

In a similar, though admittedly ickier, thread to Firefly’s companions, Dollhouse uses human dolls to engage in fantasies with paying customers. The dolls are imprinted with a personality based on another person or combination of people, and so, engage with customers according to whatever their sexual preference happens to be. The series also contains some preludes to gender variance as characters are in some instances imprinted with a personality that identifies opposite of their bodily represented gender, but the series never too greatly digs into these issues from a queer perspective.

Outside his own creations, Whedon has guest directed, written and even acted in LGBT-friendly TV series from Glee to Veronica Mars, shows he has directly addressed as personal favorites. In other media, Whedon took over arguably the queerest serial in comic book history–most assuredly in the Marvel universe–by penning Astonishing X-Men. Mainly, Whedon creates media space to be attainable for women and alternative expressions of gender than the typical binary, which ultimately helps make these spaces attainable for queer people. Much of his canon can be viewed as a roving Women and Gender Studies program; so study hard and someday, you too could rule the Whedonverse.

Kevin Sparrow is a Chicago writer who is interested in Queerness is both a favorite subject and pastime. His education in movies-writing has proved that he is adept at powering up computers and elementary keyboard use. Sparrow’s short stories, poetry and essays have appeared in that order in Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly and LIES/ISLE, as well as on the website Be Yr Own Queero.

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8 responses to “A Queer Primer To Joss Whedon

  1. Willow’s arc is not complete without reference to Kennedy, addressing whether Tara was a special case for her. (Tara probably deserves a special treatment of her own, and how magic was used as a metaphor in the early stages of their romance needs a mention.) Whedon’s treatment of Tara and Willow should probably be discussed in relation to the limitations Joss had to work within on the WB at the time.

    Also, don’t forget Andrew …. e.g. his total lack of interest in filming the hetrosexual couple when documenting the scoobies in season 7.

    Also, of course, there is Buffy’s “experimentation” in the comics.

    Xander and Jayne’s comments about “I’ll be in my bunk” … “When I think of them doing a spell, I have to do a spell by myself” (not verbatum, can’t be bothered to look them up) … show a little of Whedon’s take on (hetrosexual?) male response to lesbianism.

    • Thanks for those adds! I wasn’t sure how to make reference to some of this without fear of spoilage and space considerations, but definitely very notable characters and moments.

  2. Mal Reynolds seems to have a certain fondness for donning feminine apparel. He looks pretty fetching in a bonnet, if you ask me.

  3. When Faith joined Buffy in Season 3 there was considerable debate on websites about a lesbian subtext: did their arguing hide a mutual attraction? was Faith coded as butch and Buffy a femme girly girl? were Faith’s seductions of Xander in The Zeppo and Angel in Enemies (and later attempts to kill both) really to replace the men in Buffy’s life? why did she stay away from Buffy for long periods? why was she reduced to replying “Nothing” at key moments when Buffy seemed to be making an effort to communicate? why did she kiss Buffy in Enemies and ask for a kiss to start the fight in Graduation? what do we infer when Faith tells Buffy of her use – them -and – leave – them attitude towards men? was there a double meaning in her attempts to persuade Buffy to be more like her? I think Doug Petrie said in his commentary to Bad Girls that the writers weren’t aware of this subtext at first but once the messageboarders pointed it out they added more e.g. Faith drawing the heart on the window, ostensibly to signify vampires, but…

  4. Pingback: Geek Media Round-Up: May 31, 2012 – Grasping for the Wind·

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