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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 11:09 pm (UTC)
When the question being debated is "why do attacks on her writing seem personal" it is pertinent that she announced that she her personal life for plot decisions. Had she couched choices in terms of character history, serving the plot, etc. it would be vastly unfair to introduce her personal history. When she said that choices came from her personal sex life, she at least partially set the stage on which many a fandom kerfuffle danced. She conflated her personal life with the plot. So when fans react negatively to the plot and segueways into how that plot came about it ends up becoming about her personal life... which is why I said that she would have been better served had she kept that information to herself, not in the sense of "how dare she use her real life to inform story" but in "It's ridiculous to personal life is out of bounds when she publically used it to explain her method of making story choices." The problem with her publically combining her sex life with the plot is that it makes plot discussions overlap her personal life. She blurred the boundary. She is the only writer with her personal sex life being discussed... but she's also only the only writer to have pubically connected her sex life with having steered plot.

As to whether or not this is 'fair.' I don't know that it's matter of 'fair.' It's that she broadcast it and it's late in the game to then say that fans shouldn't consider it when analyzing choices based on her stated motivation.

As to the other part, yes, I think that there is a difference between using one's experience to inform a story and using a character as a self-insert. Using one's experiences to inform a story is great. A writer losing perspective and seeing a character as a personal avatar can be problematic. Not always. But it's not uncommon.

We're all guilty of this to one degree or another. It's human nature (what writer was it that said 'You must kill your darlings'? I never remember, but it's not horrible writing advice.) The urge to treat your beloved characters differently can be self-indulgent and it's often a byproduct of writer overidentifying with a character. It can diminish story possibilities or damage characterization. Whether or not this is true in Marti's case is open to debate... but that's just it. It should be possible to debate. Different conclusions can be reached, but to forbid it as an avenue of criticism?

Anne Rice was roundly mocked for her "I am Lestat" rant on Amazon. And this may be a factor in why the later Chronicles stank. And Rice isn't alone. There are other writers where hyper-identifying with a character seemed to diminish the quality of their stories. It can be a flaw. Regardless of whether one thinks Marti is guilty of this, it's a legitimate area to examine. Marti having publically drawn the "I am Buffy" parallel leaves her open for that area of discussion, and it wouldn't be as much of a question had she not publically drawn those parallels herself.

It is legitimate to wonder whether someone's stated approach to story aided or hurt the writing.

Anyway, all writers use aspects of themselves in characters. This is a good thing. However, when a writer views a character as a self-insert it may be less so. It's the success or failure of within the contest of the story that's being analyzed (which, again, is why a writer saying plot decisions were motivated by personal reasons blurs the lines between criticism of plot points and criticism of the writer's personal life. They got their personal life in the story.)

And all of this is beside the fact that I do think it's unfair that Marti is given all the blame for things that went bad and Joss all the praise for things that went well. Both were fallible. And that Joss isn't and never was 'god' to begin with.
Jun. 16th, 2010 11:40 pm (UTC)
I can't help but think we're talking at cross-purposes. You're discussing fandom "as it was" whereas I'm addressing fandom "as it is". I know very little about the discussions that went on while it aired. Most of them are gone. I know the environment then was very different from what it is now. Now, people have settled into their own opinions and views on things. The show has had time to age.

But what I see now are general declarations of the type that "Marti ruined S6 by using her own experiences". These aren't meant to be discussion-starters, but are used as evidence, in of themselves, that this a failing in Marti's abilities as a showrunner.

And, yes, I'm gonna find it problematic when that sentence is used. Because it's not said that Marti ruined S6 because she mishandled the execution while working out her own issues. No, it's that she used her own experiences, PERIOD.

Is there room for discussion of the execution of this type of storytelling? Absolutely. That's not what I see, though, so that's not what this post addresses. Instead, it addresses the fact that when women step up into a "man's" job (which exec producer still is), she's held to harsher standards and is expected to be 'masculine' in how she does things. For exec producers, this entails being detached from the story because expression of emotions and attachment are still seen as feminine traits. Using one's experience in one's work is the ultimate example of this type of emotional attachment, so this particular line of criticism is cutting Noxon down for being 'too' feminine in her handling of the show.

That's problematic. It's problematic in the way I see it phrased and presented. If, instead, I saw people saying that they have a problem with Noxon because she botched the execution whilst trying to relate her own personal experience, then I wouldn't have near the problem with it that I do.

And all of this is beside the fact that I do think it's unfair that Marti is given all the blame for things that went bad and Joss all the praise for things that went well. Both were fallible. And that Joss isn't and never was 'god' to begin with.

Understood. As I've said, this post was not written in response to you, nor was it intended to be directed at you.
Jun. 16th, 2010 11:52 pm (UTC)
For exec producers, this entails being detached from the story because expression of emotions and attachment are still seen as feminine traits

Then this is problematic for Joss as the power of his writing if from the emotion (because logic and meticulous plotting aren't his strong suits).

I agree that there are truly not enough women in the industry. And, being a woman in a male dominated industry, I sympathize. Also, sexism can take truly insidious forms.

That said, we need to be able to criticize. So while being vigilant for sexism, we need to be careful that we still leave room for critique regardless of gender.
Jun. 17th, 2010 12:02 am (UTC)
Then this is problematic for Joss as the power of his writing if from the emotion (because logic and meticulous plotting aren't his strong suits).

But, as I said, women are held to higher standards than even men are in this regard. And Joss? Almost never gets the blanket criticism for it. He's got Penis Immunity. Laugh! Can I get a laugh? I feel horrible that I've upset you with this.

Joss often gets 'criticized' in favoring emotional moments over plot, but these usually very praise-y criticisms that center around Joss being the master of emotional story-telling. For Noxon, it's just a criticism.

That said, we need to be able to criticize. So while being vigilant for sexism, we need to be careful that we still leave room for critique regardless of gender.

I don't believe I've put any unreasonable limits on criticism, and if you think I have, then I've obviously not been communicating well.

With regards to criticisms of Noxon using her personal experience, I get the feeling we're talking about two separate things, really. I'm talking about a fairly common, definitive statement I see brought up time and time again in fandom that frames 'using one's personal experience' as a negative thing worthy of condemnation. When applied to a women, that's a big problem.

But I think you're talking about something subtly different, which is a more general discussion of the merits of attachment to one's work, the effects it could have, if it went too far in S6. All of which are worthwhile conversations to have, but none of which I've actually seen in my time in fandom. If the statements I've described were used to open such discussion, I'd take little issue with it.
Jun. 17th, 2010 12:15 am (UTC)
Oh, I agree that Marti comes in for some really unfair areas of criticism. And, I can see where some of it takes on sexist attitudes about certain things. I always thought it unfair that she gets blamed for things where Joss is at least as much responsible for the show during Season 6 and she was on maternity leave for a substantial portion of Season 7 so I'm even more stunned when she's criticized for things there. Plus, I also think she gets some flack in some quarters for being perceived as being part of the reason Spike and Buffy entered into a sexual relationship, and I'm certainly not one to hold that against her.

As to whether she was a good producer, I don't know how any of the viewers could actually judge. There's much more to producing that just scripts and if anyone can judge whether or not she was good at that it would be Joss who was her boss.

That said, I remember the interviews she gave in Season 6 frequently made me want to pull my hair out until I swore to stop reading them because her interviews unfailingly made me less happy with the show.
Jun. 17th, 2010 12:21 am (UTC)
Heh. I've found it's best for my sanity (and my love of the show) not to read too many interviews of the cast or crew. Knowing too much behind-the-scenes info starts to kill the show for me after a while. Better to just avoid it.


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