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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 02:04 am (UTC)
True enough. Though in all likelihood the house they're living in was theirs before William was born. From modern standards, he's still living at home with mommy. But that's taking it out of context...

Let's say the house belonged to his father legally, then upon his death William inherited. If his mother's been living there the entirety of William's life and before... well, in our century it'd be her home. It just happens that it sucked being a woman back then and the natural practice meant the son would inherit, but it could have even been enforced if the property was entailed.

Oh, but in the rare occurrence that it was William's mother's family who was wealthy, that house could have belonged to her through law protecting her assets. Rare, but still possible.

It doesn't appear that William had to work, so they probably inherited an income from his father. But then again, it could be that the mother owned lucrative property and William managed it.

Still, it's not so much him living with his mom that's the thing, but how he lives with his mom. If he were living with his mother but in the more generally expected way, he'd have been shown sitting in his library working on the accounts, perhaps taking a pinch of snuff, smoking a pipe and writing on affairs of state/business. Reading the morning paper and going off for meetings in town, going to his club to meet with other men and discuss manly things.

I think I view it more as William's mother's house because he acts so subordinate and dependent on her. He might be head of the house legally speaking (we don't know exactly), but he doesn't really seem like head of the house.

Oh, and that's another commonly coded feminine trait--a woman staying home to care for an ill parent, nursing them back to health.

Edited at 2010-06-17 02:06 am (UTC)
Jun. 17th, 2010 02:40 am (UTC)
I think you're ascribing fairly modern assessments to a Victorian situation. Someone more well-versed in history than I could probably expand more (I'm just going off what I learned while researching for my Williamfic).

We see very few scenes of William's home life. Well, we only see one such scene, where he's reciting poetry to his mother. It's unknown how he spent the rest of his time, so that's up for anyone's guess. So for all we know, he could spend a good part of his time handling affairs and such. It's unlikely he went out to clubs, you're right, because he seemed something of a social leper. But I don't know if that makes him entirely feminine so much as an outcast man.

And from what I gather, I don't think a son caring for his ill mother would have been coded feminine during that time.

Course, there's always the argument to be made that we're supposed to view this all by modern standards as it's a story being told to modern audiences. As such, the nuances of William's shifts through 'feminine' and 'masculine' would be in a modern lens. In which case, it doesn't really matter what the Victorian's would have thought, so never mind.
Jun. 17th, 2010 03:09 am (UTC)
We're shown an incomplete picture, but I think what little we're shown especially his disinterest in public affairs and his sitting at his mother's knee as she sings to him...

I do think it's interesting to ponder whether we're supposed to be viewing him from the modern context.

If it were a hundred years earlier, it'd be more wildly different with men painting their faces, wearing wigs, playing the fop. Or even seventy years earlier in the time of Beau Brummel. With the Victorian period, traditional gender roles seemed to solidify in a conservative light as the Queen's style trickled down through society.

I resorted to Wikipedia'ing Victorian Masculinity.

This bit is interesting: Since home and work were perceived as very separate spheres, working at home was a delicate matter, for example for writers, who had to fear their masculine status being threatened.

William is shown as a writer and also being tied to home and mother. The set standard suggests he's not fully embracing the role of the ideal masculine.

And also: In the second half of the 19th century the ideal of Victorian manliness became increasingly defined by imperialism because the subordination of non-western cultures was in its heyday in Britain. Thus, part of the concept of masculinity became military and patriotic virtue, which defined the ideal man as courageous and enduring like hunters, adventurers, and pioneers, all of whom were profoundly self-sufficient and independent and had broad scientific knowledge. This orientation towards hardiness and endurance was reflected by a change in clothing as well: rich colors and materials were banned in favor of dark colors, straight cuts, and stiff materials.

Interesting to note that Spike more fits the understood role of
"masculinity through imperialism" with his more adventurous attitude far more than William appears to. Even his clothes continue the stark contrast--dark and serviceable.

William's presented as the opposite in adventurous spirit. Not that he doesn't dream of adventures (romantic, most likely) but that he doesn't act on them. I think that's the chief note. Men of that time were expected to be men of action. Even being a man with great knowledge wasn't worth much if you didn't do something with it--publish for social and political reform, hold events to curry favor and guide the world. Be involved in the military. Perhaps travel to India or sail around the world.

At the age of 26, William still appears very naive about the world around him. It makes me wonder if he ever did the usual tour of the continent at the appropriate age, he probably didn't do much more than see the sites. He's always seemed to me to be a man living in an ivory tower. And the ideal masculine of the Victorian period was more about less frivolous activity, industrial productivity, steady faith, and adventure made possible through British Imperialism. Considering how vast the British Empire was still at the time, I get the feeling William hadn't actually seen much of it. I doubt he left his mother's side to do so.

Edited at 2010-06-17 03:10 am (UTC)
Jun. 17th, 2010 06:28 am (UTC)
Disclaimer: I've had at least three college level courses in British social history, looking specifically at conceptions of gender, but two of them were four years ago and I'm working from memory rather than notes and readings here (the notes are in such a place that I will wake my parents up if I go get them now.) I'll try to make time to break out the actual sources tomorrow, and if someone who's better informed wants to jump in and correct me I would seriously welcome it.

The particular emphasis on caring for an elderly parent as women's work is something that I would see as being relatively modern. But conceptions of gender roles fluctuated a great deal in the Victorian period both over time and between classes. There were certainly middle class men in the second half of the 1800's who were very concerned with how the decorations in homes would affect people's morality, and to my knowledge no one was calling them girly for having those concerns. (Deborah Cohen's Household Gods is in my bedroom, hence the accuracy with the dates.)

Otoh, Habermas was not entirely talking out of his ass when he suggested the development of the public and private spheres (public was coded as masculine and private was coded as feminine) beginning in the 18th century and stretching through much of the Victorian period. It was certainly more complicated than he allowed, but I would not discredit the notion that many Victorians thought of the home as a woman's domain. Some of the complications include class differences (women at the Opera were super public), times when women would host guests at their home (creating a kind of half-public/half-private space), and the simple fact that it's pretty unrealistic to expect reasoned debate to only occur in public spaces and emotional stuff to only happen in private ones.

I'm pretty sure that there was a period when Victorian British men retreated into the home as a place of comfort in comparison to their stressful work lives without facing lots of accusations that they were being effeminate, but I couldn't tell you if it overlapped with William's life or not. I do think that a feature of that movement was the balance between work and home life however - home was supposed to provide an oasis from the crappy stuff going on in the world, but men were still expected to face that crappy stuff for most of the day. I'm not even really certain what class William is supposed to belong to, which will also make it tricky to figure out if that movement applied to him at all. The Industrial Revolution being in full swing by the 1880's would give men lots of crappy stuff in the world to be worried about, but interactions with the empire, especially with India, tended to to heighten concerns about men being effeminate (because that was a criticism that the British were using against Indian men) and those were also in full swing by the 1880's.

Basically, depending on William's class and the exact timing of these fluctuations in understanding of gender roles,* you might be able to make the case that his being portrayed almost entirely in the private sphere is a sign that his character is coded as effeminate. I'll check my notes tomorrow so that I can be more precise.

*Feminist footnote: The fluctuations were totally all over the place. Studying Victorian views of gender alone reveals more variation and nuance than evolutionary psychology grants to the whole of human history.
Jun. 17th, 2010 03:46 pm (UTC)
Ooooh! Fascinating!
Jun. 18th, 2010 12:40 am (UTC)
Basically, depending on William's class and the exact timing of these fluctuations in understanding of gender roles,* you might be able to make the case that his being portrayed almost entirely in the private sphere is a sign that his character is coded as effeminate.

Thanks for sharing all the info! You're far more well-versed in the nuance. I'm kinda more grasping at impressions, but haven't studied it in detail like you.

I think when you note all the factors: the modern lens portrays Spike as effeminate, the Victorian lens you postulate makes it possible he'd be considered effeminate in his own time, then you also add Spike's own feelings on the matter (I've always gotten the feeling he insults "nancy boys" and "poofters" so hard because that's who he considered himself to be on the inside, and the insults remind me of modern derivations of bashing effeminate men) and that Spike with his hyper-masculine posturing is the opposite of what he once used to be, that William is coded effeminate.

I thin


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