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The negative space *around* Marti Noxon

There's a fascinating post on Feministe that's been discussed lately: How Come It's Never Joss' Fault? The Scapegoating of Female Creators in Pop Culture.

It's primarily about Marti Noxon and the bile that gets directed at her for her part in S6. This article got posted on Whedonesque, and a read-through of the comments reveals a general lack of understanding of the problem. Understandable, because I think the situation is more nuanced than the initial post lets on.

There's a lot of explanations that Noxon gets criticized because of the execution problems in S6, that it's not because she's a woman, and that any exec producer would have been criticized for it.

I think it's true that any executive producer at the time would have come under such criticism, but there are more layers to the problem than just that.

For one, a lot of the criticism directed at Noxon is specifically sexist in nature.

Perhaps the best example of this are the criticisms of Noxon's affinity for naked!Spike. These criticisms are usually made in a derogatory, shaming fashion. That Marti 'just' liked seeing JM shirtless/naked.

Folks, this goes back to the idea that women aren't supposed to display their sexuality. Exec producers who are men litter their shows with naked women because they 'just' like to see women naked. They're rarely shamed for it (At least outside of feminist circles - which are still less about 'shaming' and more about pointing out the imbalance). But when a woman is actually in charge and she displays her own desired eye candy on screen, she's insulted and belittled for it.

That's a problem.

Additionally, there are criticisms that Noxon was drawing from personal experience in some of the decisions in S6. I've never understood these particular criticisms, and I can't recall ever hearing a male showrunner held to the same standard. A woman writing about her own issues, relating to the characters she's portraying, working through her own experiences, is something to be criticized? Okay. I can't help but speculate that there's an aversion to having anything linked to "women's issues" in our TV viewing.

However, there's more to the problem than just the nature of some of the criticisms. This problem has two steps:

1. In the first step, Noxon's gender is largely irrelevant. This would likely happen even if it were a man in her place.

Fact is, there's a pretty strict dichotomy at work when discussing the show. Aspects that we like are credited to Joss. Aspects we don't are blamed on Noxon. Even in S6.

This is something I'm guilty of, as well. When I squee about, say, Dead Things or Buffy's depression arc or the tone of S6, I inevitably praise Whedon. Noxon? Never gets praise. She only receives criticism and hate.

This is a problem. It means that everything negative about the season, even things that Whedon may be partially responsible for, are laid to rest on Noxon's shoulders. Alternately, it means that everything positive about the season, even things that Noxon may be primarily responsible for, are credited to Whedon.

This suggests that 'Noxon as a failure' is such a given, fandom can't fathom that she deserves any of the credit for the good in S6. So it's handed to Whedon, instead. This locks Noxon into a rigid symbolic representation of Failure in fandom.

2. There's an effect to this, though, and this is where the criticism of Noxon becomes problematic from a feminist perspective.

There are few to no female writers in the business. There are even fewer female executive producers and showrunners. And it's incredibly problematic that, when we finally get one, she's designated the Fandom Scapegoat for All That's Bad in BtVS.

Yes, it may have happened even if Noxon were a man. But male showrunners are a dime a dozen, and one more being criticized as a failure is nothing. When a woman is unjustifiably criticized in such a fashion, though, it heightens the hurdle of future female showrunners to be successful.

It's like...well, it's like when there's a group of superheroes with one token chick in it. Sure Superhero Bob may be hated by the fans for questionable reasons, but it's okay, because there's Superhero John, Tom, and Bill to cover. However, when Superhero Token Chick trips once (while saving the day), and fandom criticizes her as being the reason the entire mission failed, then she's it. She's representing for all women.

It's unfair. I know it's unfair. It's unfair that I cringed when that female pro golfer attempted to play with the men and lost. That makes it harder for the next female pro golfer that wants to give it a try. And that’s a problem with the system.

So, yes, it's a problem in this case. Because of the strict dichotomy explained in #1, Noxon is often unfairly criticized and almost never praised. This is the key point. It's that the criticism is one-sided and not reflective of the good that Noxon brought to the season. When her talents are overlooked to focus on her failures, when those moments of brilliance are credited to a man, when she's one of the only female showrunners, you have a grand example of fandom inadvertently contributing to a sexist culture.

Let me address some questions that I'm sure will get brought up.

So you're saying we're not allowed to criticize Noxon?

Absolutely not! Criticize her where criticism is deserved.

Like the superheroes. Criticize Superhero Token Chick when she trips. However, also praise her when she saves the day. Don't hand her kudos over to Superhero Tom, instead.

But we'd do that with a male showrunner, too. Isn't this giving women special treatment?

In a way, I suppose. However, it's more accurate to see it as recognizing the context surrounding the show and the media wherein women are generally disempowered and underrepresented and asking for appropriate sensitivity to it.

Think of it like the VAWA (Violence Against Women Act). Sure, it seems like "special treatment" on the surface. But that's assuming everything's equal in society; that women who are victims of domestic violence are given adequate attention by the justice system. Frankly, they're not. In order to rectify this imbalance, a special act for women is required.

Likewise with female executive producers. Asking fandom to take into account the cultural context in which Noxon did her thing may seem like special treatment. However, it's just taking into account the sexist society that surrounds her.

Besides, it's kinda a shitty thing to do to someone, man or women.

But this doesn’t mean the criticism of Noxon is necessarily sexist.

True, but not the point.

As noted (at length) in the post, some criticism of Noxon is absolutely sexist. Some is not. However, it exists in a sexist context, which is why it's a feminist issue. It's also why it's especially disheartening to see it happening in a fandom for an ostensibly feminist show.

The point is less to label individual fans as "sexist" and more to create an awareness of the larger problem and how the Noxon example exacerbates said problem.

Okay, have at it, guys. One rule, though: No bashing of any real life person! Noxon, Whedon, Fury, anyone. Criticism =/= bashing. Don't cross the line.


Jun. 19th, 2010 02:09 am (UTC)
I think I agree with you about Villians. It has an incredible narrative drive coming after Seeing Red, which blew everything apart. It just grabs all the separate strands and single-mindedly pulls them together to that inevitable conclusion. I can never take my eyes off the screen when it's playing.

I read what you wrote about Wrecked way back when on your lj, and you said something similar about Marti's single-mindedness. If you look at the great Jossian episodes, they tend to be more ensembley (though all of a piece thematically); Innocence is clearly a key Buffy episode but it's her second lowest line count of the season with Xander almost overtaking her with the parallel Xander/Willow/Cordelia/Oz drama, Who Are You is about Faith but also about Buffy and Willow, and so on. Marti focuses this one tightly on Willow and Warren and the negative space of Tara (the latter primarily through Dawn's scene) and the forward momentum is beyond what this show usually does.

Joss has been very open about how The Body was inspired by his mother's death but nobody castigates him for using S5 to work through his bereavement issues.

I'm not so sure that "nobody" does so. I've seen people accusing Joss' own relationship issues (and daddy issues) souring what goes on screen. But I certainly agree that Marti gets it much worse.

I also think implying Marti brought it on herself (which is beginning to sound like an AR apologisms) by speaking about her experiences is doubly dodgy given that Steve DeKnight not Marti made that particular bit of information public.

Whoops, I didn't do much research on this, and I didn't know about DeKnight making that public. My original point, anyway, was more that when a piece of information about an artist gets public it's hard not to view their work through that lens, and as a corrolary that it isn't necessarily sexism that drives people to bash Marti personally. I think too that a discussion of what we know about artists' personal lives influencing their work is what they're having. That said I was mostly being academic, and I wasn't trying to say that bashing Marti was okay or not assholeish behaviour. It's a slippery slope between trying to understand why something happens and apologizing for it, or at least it is when I talk.

It was never as simple as "Spike = Bad Boyfriend" when she described it in interviews, in earlier ones she even talked about how their relationship brought out better things in Spike than in Buffy.

I like this--mostly I like that Marti seemed to be describing the relationship in nuanced terms, when she seems to be accused of doing the opposite. I haven't seen many of the interviews from the time.

I think the problem was quite simply that the writers (including Joss and Marti) had a very different interpretation of Spike's character to that of many fans and the bastards went and wrote the character they saw. For the Spike I was watching the AR was as logical consequence of everything he brought to the relationship as Buffy beating him in the alley was of her contribution. Both were ugly acts but removing either would have made the story feel incomplete.

Well, Spike AND Buffy's character, but otherwise, yeah. The feeling that Buffy is written OOC in the AR scene seems to be more common in these here parts than that Spike is; both characters seem right to me but I'm not sure I'll get into that without figuring out how to phrase that carefully.

One thing about the comparison of the Dead Things beating and the AR is that the latter was treated (I'd argue) more seriously in the text, so as much as I agree that in principle the two acts have a kind of symmetry in the season (the two nadirs of Buffy/Spike for each of the two characters) I'm not sure how well the writers got this across.
Jun. 20th, 2010 08:31 pm (UTC)
I read what you wrote about Wrecked way back when on your lj, and you said something similar about Marti's single-mindedness.
I stand revealed ;-) At least it sounds like I'm consistent.

I certainly agree that Marti gets it much worse.
And you're right it's not clear why. The storylines in S6 were probably more controversial with fans than any other show I can think of and the sexual element makes a difference too but the vitriol got so very personal.I don't think it was people hating on her for being a woman but I do wonder if Marti being a woman gave people permission in some sense to make those kind of attacks. The nearest I've ever seen for a male show runner were the infamous allecto posts about Joss but they get remembered and banned for being so unusual. With the Marti-bashing people used to almost dogpile on each other to express their contempt .

Well, Spike AND Buffy's character, but otherwise, yeah. The feeling that Buffy is written OOC in the AR scene seems to be more common in these here parts than that Spike.
True , times have changed although the Buffy OOCness is very specific - people don't think she would have taken so long to fight back. Myself I think that up until the point Spike says he's going to make her feel it he's coming across as desperate rather than aggressive and she's responding to that desperation by begging him to come to his senses just as he's begging her to admit hers. His mood shifts quite suddenly from desperation to aggression as he gains physical control, he tells her he's "going to make you feel it" and her slayer instincts cut in immediately. She kicks him across the room.

I think the immediate reactions of Buffy to the beating and Spike to the rape attempt are equally serious but in the former case DT is followed by OAFA which fails on so many levels - I actually prefer AYW. Subsequently I have the feeling that there's a similar frequency of their respective sins being brought up but Spike's guilt is very focussed on the AR rather than any of the other crap he pulled while Buffy's comes across as more diffuse, it's not just about the beating but also the using that came after.
Jun. 20th, 2010 10:18 pm (UTC)
Is allecto the one who claimed that Joss raped his wife, based on the fact that Zoe called Mal "sir"? That was what I thought of but obviously as you say that's a definite outlier whereas Marti-bashing in certain quarters is sadly the norm.

Certainly in other fandoms showrunners are often hated; stroll to Trekdom and read what they say about Berman and Braga for example, or Heroes and Tim Kring. But again that seems to be based on the quality of their work.

I wonder if the hyperbole in the attacks come from the amount of controversy season six generates? If *everyone* would just acknowledge that it was terrible than the haters could write it off more easily, but generally disagreement leads to people in the "yay" and "nay" camps getting angrier and angrier and more and more obscene. I have a feeling that this is not the case--that Marti would simply be bashed universally rather than in x % of the fandom, but it might be worth thinking about.

True, times have changed although the Buffy OOCness is very specific...

This is pretty close to my interpretation. Certainly we know that Buffy (in the whole run of the series) deals with would-be rapists with a lot more ease than she does with Spike--she doesn't bat an eye about hyena-Xander (nor does she hold it against all-human Xander) and she stops the Go Fish guy very quickly. But Spike isn't just anybody. She let him into her home and into her heart, whether she admits that or not, and I think when he's trying to force himself upon her, she's hoping that he'll turn around and stop himself, so that she doesn't have to stop him. I don't think she really believes that Spike is as evil as she claims she believes, and it's really devastating to see it (in her eyes) proven that she was right all along.

On the other hand, the fact that the episode went out of its way to set up Buffy being injured in a random vamp fight tends to support the "she's so weak and helpless" interpretation that many find so distasteful. I can buy that Buffy would be feeling worse because she's physically injured, but that plot element seems out of place and unnecessary in a Buffy-reacts-purely-emotionally reading. Take the random!vamp!fight-injury out and I think the scene works better but that thin thread (the fight injury) is also what other people rely on to make the scene make sense, so who knows.

I think the immediate reactions of Buffy to the beating ...

I agree with this. In season seven Buffy feels bad for using Spike and Spike feels bad for the AR, but just as much as Buffy doesn't apologize for the alley beating Spike doesn't go out of his way to say sorry he fairly deliberately tried to cut her off from her friends in Dead Things or interfered frequently with her attempting to tend to Dawn (Gone, As You Were).

In a few brief comments on each episode Marti pretty much apologized for the lack of follow up to the alley scene in OAFA, so I agree with you there. OAFA I tend to agree is not a good episode: Anya and Tara are great in it and there are a few good moments, but besides screwing up the followup to Dead Things it does very badly by Dawn. I feel intellectually like Dawn has every reason in the world to be upset, as her sister alternates between overprotecting her (so she can't make friends) and neglecting her completely. But in-episode, Dawn just comes across like a crazy, whiny brat. To an extent I think this is realistic (teenagers aren't known for their communication skills), but a defter hand in this one could have made Dawn much more accessible to the audience in a season where her main role is the somewhat thankless task of being The Person Buffy Is Neglecting.

I feel similarly about all Drew Z. Greenberg episodes except Entropy (which I love) and maybe Smashed though, so there's that. Safe from Firefly manages to get by on the strength of Simon and River's bond alone. Empty Places is probably the worst offender in terms of taking a situation where every person has valid arguments a priori and then when it counts, no one makes them and they all sound like lunatics.
Jun. 20th, 2010 10:19 pm (UTC)
At some point in composing the comments I think the italics helping to differentiate between what I wrote and what you wrote got lost--sorry about that. :)


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