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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. 16th, 2010 11:34 pm (UTC)
YES. As you know, I'm one who criticizes him for that, as well as for a few other tropes that aren't necessarily problematic on their own but that keep showing up till you begin to think that those are the only kinds of women he wants to/can write, and things get squicky for me.

But then he (or someone around him) will write Zoe or Lilah or Adelle, and I feel much better. :D
Jun. 17th, 2010 01:08 am (UTC)
But then he (or someone around him) will write Zoe or Lilah or Adelle

Or Buffy. Or Willow. Or Faith. Or Darla. Or Echo. Really, Joss has written some of the most complex, compelling and real female characters ever seen on network TV. It's not all shallow stereotypes.
Jun. 17th, 2010 01:23 am (UTC)
Willow grows out of the so-cute-you-could-just-die in the later seasons, so she grows beyond it by the writers adding some much needed darkness to her growth.

Faith starts out fitting this: crazy, waifish brunette women whose allure hides a dangerous instability and violence within. And then later on when Dushku becomes extraordinarily thin, Echo does fit this fully: crazy, waifish brunette women whose allure hides a dangerous instability and violence within.

There's a trend there. It's more obvious because Whedon keeps recycling it. No one's arguing the he doesn't create complex and compellingly real characters (because clearly he does), but that there seems to be certain images of women he has in his head.

Adelle is someone who defies the trope. Zoe defies the trope. Buffy sets a new standard in defying the trope of blonde cheerleader running down the alley, along with a hodge podge of other inspiration strong women. Cordelia defies the trope--her no-nonsense mouth, her strength of heart, her mind and spirit.

So there are many female characters who are extraordinarily unique. Just the ones you listed fit into the Whedon tropisms at some point or another.

Jun. 17th, 2010 01:46 am (UTC)
* Willow showed a malicious and manipulative streak as early as 'The Harvest'.

* I wouldn't call Faith in S3 "alluring" because that implies a passive approach, trying to tempt people to look at her; Faith was all about going out and taking what she wanted. And her instability and violence weren't "hidden"; rather, I'd say it was her conscience and desire to fit in and be accepted that wer the hidden traits.

* I really wouldn't describe Echo as crazy, unstable or dangerous at all. She was struggling for self-knowledge and trying to reconcile what she knew with who she was.

In other words, while of course there are similarities between some of Joss's characters - and really, why should that be the least bit surprising or bad? - I don't think they all fall neatly into stereotypical tropes. Even if they appear to be so on the surface, there's always another layer or three if you look more closely, as I've illustrated - and indeed, most of Joss's work is about playing with expectations and subverting standard tropes rather than ignoring them or defying them altogether.
Jun. 17th, 2010 01:52 am (UTC)
Gabrielle, you finished Dollhouse right? Um, if not PLEASE DON'T READ THIS
I really wouldn't describe Echo as crazy, unstable or dangerous at all.

Ha! She's incredibly mentally unstable. That's her whole schtick. To say otherwise... well, her struggle is to finally find stability again. That's what she searches for and Paul helps her with. Dangerous? Oh heck yeah she is. That's also the basic premise of her character. Her body, her spinal fluid, is the key to everything. She's dangerous to the Dollhouse's agenda as first presented. Dominic Lawrence drove this home. Adelle continues to recognize Echo as a threat, who then turns into a powerful, self-controlloed weapon.

She's pretty much made insane by the imprints. Even having Paul imprinted into her mind to live with her forever and ever... uh, yeah that is also insane. Which is best shown in this vid (spoilers for Season 2 finale):

Edited at 2010-06-17 01:54 am (UTC)
Jun. 17th, 2010 01:25 am (UTC)
I don't think I said it was all shallow stereotypes. What I said is that he falls into writing particular tropes, and the fact that he keeps returning to those tropes either bores or squicks me, depending. Even when those characters become awesome and well-rounded, the trope is still there.

Tiny (attractive, always) girl who kick ass and has this shadowy patriarchy group of men attempting to control her: Buffy, River, Echo

When She Smiles, Everything's Alright in the World (attractive, always) Girl: Willow (mostly in the earlier seasons, though there are a few times even in the later seasons that I feel like I'm being smacked in the face with "OMG ISN'T ALYSON HANNIGAN ADORABLE?" Well, yeah, she is. Dial it back, though, please), Fred (who, by S5 of AtS had no personality to speak of and was a only there for the sake of men's stories), Kaylee, Mellie

Crazy (brunette and attractive, always) Girl: River, Fred, Bennett (kinda), Echo (sometimes), Dru

I don't think all of these characters are only shallow stereotypes (though I do think that the characterization of Fred in particular and also, say, Kaylee is weak). But when you continue to do the same thing over and I over, I'm gonna start to ask, "Why?"

Faulkner's my favorite writer. He writes some really, really feminist stuff, though he wouldn't have categorized it that way (he's also a product of his time, so he can be pretty failtastic at times: he tried to write progressively about race as well, but sometimes I read something that makes my jaw drop). He also has this tendency to write about young women who are destroyed by the gender role expectations enforced on them by society. I love that he explores those ideas. But I'm squicked by the fact that it's always young, attractive women that he explores these ideas through. There's something a bit squicky about watching another young woman get destroyed. And I have no problem calling him out on that.

For Joss, his portrayal of female characters would be like if he had a Magical Negro type character in all of his shows--like if Shepherd Book was just one of many. I may like Shepherd Book as an individual character, but in the context of the larger trope, it would bother me. (At first I thought that Boyd was going to fill this role and I winced: to Joss's credit, he didn't go there.)

I'd also like to see more older women, more women of color, less conventionally attractive women, etc. And yeah, I do hold Joss to a higher standard because he claims the word feminist.


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