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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. 17th, 2010 01:41 am (UTC)
Do we know Joss's or Fury's sexual history? Have they told us about it? In the absence of these things how is it possible to draw parallels of comparisons?

I don't know what the previous discussion is, so maybe I'm stepping in it and this is inappropriately directed, but THIS is a huge issue for me, the fact that we know Marti's sexual history. I don't think it's Marti's fault - from what I understand, DeKnight and JM blabbed as loudly and as often as possible, presumably to shift blame for the AR away from themselves. (And that's probably another form of sexism there - would JM dare to talk about Joss' sexual history in public? I doubt it.) But however it happened, I know about it.

And I really, really, REALLY wish I didn't.

It's not that she drew on her personal experiences that makes me critical of her. Every writer does that. It's knowing that she drew on personal history for that scene, which is so unbelievably problematic for me, that I can't get past.

Gabs knows how much I hate the AR. It's manipulative, it sends horrible messages about rape, and it pretty much encourages victim-blaming. And if I didn't know the history behind it, I could just hate it for what it is, without any personal feelings toward anyone.

But the thing is, I know that scene came from Marti - and I know that, in real life, she was in Spike's role. This is rape from the view of the attempted rapist, and I can't help thinking there's a connection between that and the way this scene comes across. (Especially since this scene was supposedly meant to create sympathy for Buffy - they couldn't have done a worse job of it if they'd tried.) I doubt it was intentional, I know she wasn't the only one involved, and I'm sure flipping the genders made it much worse than it seemed in Marti's head, but it still makes me sick to think about it.

I would've been pissed off about the AR no matter what, but knowing the history involved makes me even more upset. Maybe it's irrational, but rape kinda makes me stabby.

And, frankly, I didn't want to know that about Marti. It makes me look at her differently. And I'm not saying that's an excuse for all the shit she's gotten, because I totally agree with the rest of Gabs' post and I think she did some awesome things that should be praised much more than they are... but I just really, really wish I didn't know that.

Sorry for the really long rant. :\ And really, Gabs, this was a good post. It's just that one thing that kind of shoots red flares all over at me.
Jun. 17th, 2010 01:51 am (UTC)
Oh, I can understand the visceral reaction to it. I have much the same one, myself.

But...and I'm not even sure how to phrase this, but, I'm not sure how the fact that Marti was using a personal experience as a model for the AR is a valid form of criticism for the AR. Obviously, there's a lot to criticize about the AR. Hell, I'll hold her accountable for her poor judgment in even doing it. But the fact that she drew from her own life? I don't see how that's relevant in criticizing the AR.

And this is something that genuinely puzzles me. As I said in my post, my intent is not to label any individual a "sexist" or anything, but to put this all in a certain context. When I see generalized criticisms of Marti for her use of her own experiences (which range from the AR to depression, from what I can tell), I'm just baffled because...I don't see how that's a criticism.

How is it a negative that a writer decides to call on personal experience in their works? That's fairly standard for writers. In fact, for a lot of things, it's almost necessary for a writer. I doubt someone who hasn't experienced depression could portray it in such a compelling fashion.

So the fact that Noxon modeled the AR on an event that happened in her personal life...I don't care. It's not relevant to my assessment of the AR in any context. The AR was a bad judgment call that could have been made with or without that experience.
Jun. 17th, 2010 02:03 am (UTC)
Like I said, I'm NOT criticizing the use of personal experiences in writing, in general or specifically Marti. I didn't know she based Buffy's depression on herself, but if so, she did an awesome job there.

The criticism is of her motivations with respect to the AR. She created a really damaging portrayal of rape, and I agree, that bad judgment call could've been made with or without her experience. But the fact that she HAS that experience, the fact that she's extraordinarily predisposed to sympathize with Spike, makes the portrayal of the AR very suspect.

Maybe it was just cluelessness. I'd like to give her the benefit of the doubt, but I just can't, not when there's all this victim-blaming and rape stereotypes. If it doesn't bother you, if you can compartmentalize and view the scene without the behind-the-scenes context, that's a valid reaction, but it does bother me (just like there are other scenes that I can't separate from the behind-the-scenes machinations). And I'd like to think that's valid, too.
Jun. 17th, 2010 02:16 am (UTC)
Okay, I can see that. That's more a criticism of Noxon, as a person. What my post refers to (and what I tend to see in fandom) is her just being criticized for "working out" her personal experiences/issues in the show, and that's something rather different than expressing discomfort at that particular experience and how she went about portraying it in the series. The former shames women for being too open and/or for incorporating their own experiences in their work. The latter calls out some behind-the-scenes skeeviness.
Jun. 17th, 2010 03:39 am (UTC)
But...and I'm not even sure how to phrase this, but, I'm not sure how the fact that Marti was using a personal experience as a model for the AR is a valid form of criticism for the AR. Obviously, there's a lot to criticize about the AR. Hell, I'll hold her accountable for her poor judgment in even doing it. But the fact that she drew from her own life? I don't see how that's relevant in criticizing the AR.

Could you perhaps entertain that it made her perhaps marginally less capable of judging its impact within the context of the story? It was personal for her. It was her. She perhaps couldn't step back and see -- objectively -- the way in which it would play for an audience or adequately assess the way that this would then impact successive story choices in the future. Judgement is a factor in good writing, and if one is so very, very closely identifying with a very particular POV, judgement and perspective may be clouded.

Whether or not this was the case with Marti is up for debate, but it shouldn't be forbidden from debate. When perspective is lost it can negatively impact the quality of the writing so whether or not it did is worth discussing.

Edited at 2010-06-17 03:42 am (UTC)
Jun. 17th, 2010 03:47 am (UTC)
Could you perhaps entertain that it made her perhaps less capable of judging its impact within the story?

Absolutely, but there's no way to definitively say for certain whether this was the case short of just...looking at the text. If the text works on its own merits, then...it works. If it doesn't, then it fails for a reason that's not necessarily going to be just because she was drawing from her own experiences.

In the case of the AR, it failed...well, it failed for many reasons. Among them because it forced us to view Spike, the would-be rapist, in a sympathetic light by giving him mitigating circumstances (and a subsequent redemption story). That's a problem on its own. The fact that that happened because Noxon was using her own experience is neither here nor there. It's an interesting tidbit and makes it all-the-more disturbing. But the AR wasn't a misstep because Noxon was relating her personal experience; it was a failure because it was a harmful portrayal of an attempted rape.
Jun. 17th, 2010 03:18 am (UTC)
But would SdK, Jane E, JM, etc have known if she hadn't openly told people? If she hadn't laid out that she was making plot decision X based on incident Y in her own life? Which brings in the question of should she have plotted incident X because of her stated desire to score a point in an ongoing fandom debate. The whole thing was problematic and that was after months of her basically giving interviews saying that Buffy was making some choice based on a choice Marty had made. People kept protesting that what she was saying and what they were seeing didn't really fit, but because Marti seemed very, very, very tied in seeing the entire set up in a very personal way, it felt as though she was not capable of stepping back and reassessing the story. It had become very personal for her and thus it soemetimes felt as though she had perhaps lost sight of the forest for the trees... which is an area where seeing a character as a self-insert can pose a legitimate problem when writing. A writer needs to be able to place themselves in any of the characters shoes. If they are so wedded to one perspective that it's personal, they perhaps are no longer capable examining the story from any other perspective... which frankly, could be a problem with things in Season 6 beyond the 'bad boyfriend plot' and the 'AR'. Albeit, the AR remains the most controversial example of it.
Jun. 17th, 2010 03:37 am (UTC)
But would SdK, Jane E, JM, etc have known if she hadn't openly told people?

Fair point, although I do think there is a difference between sharing your personal history with friends and colleagues, and then having those colleagues turn around and announce it to the general public.

Not being privy to the interviews during S6, I can't say I saw a pattern, just the discussion around the AR. But as I said to Gabs, if Marti was using her own experiences for Buffy's depression, then good on her, because I think it's an excellent arc. :)

I think it's fair to criticize her motivation when that motivation has been made public. It's not often we get to see so much behind the curtain, and I understand some people wanting it to be part of the discussion, while others would rather focus on the text itself. I think both critiques are valid, as long as all writers are being treated equally and we're not dragging out Marti's business because she's a woman.
Jun. 17th, 2010 03:56 am (UTC)
Fair point, although I do think there is a difference between sharing your personal history with friends and colleagues, and then having those colleagues turn around and announce it to the general public.

True. But then, such writer's-room-revelations weren't unique. I could also have lived without knowing that on a bet wrter Rebecca Rand-Kirshnes peed on the pretzel jar on David Fury's desk.
Jun. 17th, 2010 05:05 pm (UTC)


And now there's one more thing I wish I didn't know about the BtVS team.


The One Who Isn't Chosen

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