From Victim to Hero: Joss Whedon's Characters


From Victim to Hero:
Joss Whedon’s characters
Scott Allie (editor in chief, Dark Horse Comics), Rhiannon Louve, Kara Helgren, Anna Snyder, Todd McCaffrey

·      Q: How do you feel about Joss’s portrayal of River, in terms of her presentation as a victim?
o   AS: These are things that are done to her, from an outside presence. She doesn’t have a choice. She had no participation in her victimization. By the end of the series, her programming is something that is not externally triggered, but she embraces and uses.
o   RL: There is being the victim of a crime vs. a victim mentality. Joss’s characters are victims of crime who do not embrace a victim mentality, but instead rise up and fight.
o   K: Ophelia (Hamlet) was used as a pawn by everybody, and essentially had no control over that. Shakespeare implied that she saw drowning as a way out. By comparison, River saw another way out.
·      Q: Joss took a lot of heat for Dollhouse. Characters were so victimized: treated as pawns and prostitutes and were traumatized.
o   AS: Echo had some free agency. She signed on the dotted line so they could do those things to her. It complicates the notion of victimized. Women who are in abusive relationships, there is a transitional periods, on their way out, they sometimes go back. They are choosing to go back into a victim. They need to own their situation.
·      Q: Was Joss glorifying victimization by making a whole cast of victims?
o   RL: I didn’t feel that way. I felt empowered by the show. He explored philosophical sexual ideas that were ahead of their time.
§  AS: Joss has been exploring prostitution throughout his shows.
§  K: Showing people freely talking about sexual themes: people are not always comfortable with this. Sex is a part of life, a basic need of human beings. Some people just felt this was an exploitation. It was calling attention to the victimization that does happen. We don’t see these things, we try not to think about them, but they are happening all the time. And that’s hard for people to swallow.
·      Q: Inarra
o   AS: They are in control of their client base, their money, they have political power. It’s clearly not victimization.
o   TM:
o   RL: It’s hard to have a character that is traditionally feminine and still powerful. And that’s what Inarra is.
o   K: She is in control. She’s a sex worker, but she’s not a victim. River is the victim – because she has things done to her that she doesn’t want. The companion guilt is very wealthy and powerful. She knows how to fight. She’s able and capable. Whereas River is victimized to such an extent that she doesn’t even know how to control herself.
·      Q: Regarding Dollhouse: even if it could be done, could it be done ethically? Is there anything that can be done without victimization if people are desperate to sign that control?
o   RL: This is what makes Adele such an interesting character. First you think she’s the villain, and then you don’t. Adele is at the center of how the LA dollhouse was run.
o   K: Adele will get shit done, if it needs to be done, but she has a caring nature to the dolls.
o   Audience: The dolls in the LA dollhouse were still treated as human beings, while the Washington dollhouse treated them only as tools.
·      Q: Where does Echo become a hero?
o   RL: She starts out as either a hero or a terrorist. She’s back into a corner, and she’s coerced. Her personality starts to carry over from personality to personality.
§  SA: Is this what makes her a hero?
o   K: When she’s in her terrorist days, she’s Caroline, not Echo. As Echo, she starts picking up pieces of other personalities she’s had programmed into her.
·      SA: Dollhouse explores identity, without answering anything. We can all make different conclusions.
·      SA: We see female characters put in a victim role. They are put through some kind of horrible sexual ringer, to rise up from the ashes. Is it exploitive? Is it emotionally honest? (talking about Tomb Raider game)
o   TM: It’s a default state for a male writer to say that if I am going to put a female character through the ringer, it’s going to be through rape. But there are other tools. There are things that can make you lose your will to live faster.
o   K: Originally the backstory was that she lost her father. Now this is being retconed. It’s a shorthand for something more complicated. And it trivialized the event.
o   RL: Bringing it back to River, there’s nothing about sexual victimization. It’s not about sex. It’s a female character, and she’s rising up from her oppressors, and it’s nothing about sex.
§  Even if you don’t go to a story about rape, it’s about being married against their will.
§  Even things that are written now, for children, have that trope.
o   K: Using either rape or forcing to marry: you’re taking free agency away from a woman.
o   RL: forcing to marry is something that is still happening in the world today.
·      Talk of playing to strength. There’s victimization, but then how do you deal with that.
·      Women are victimized by taking away their free agency (e.g. control over their body, their mind, their relationships), and that almost never happens to men.
o   It’s the shorthand for a female character.
o   A male protagonist is usually more complex.
·      SA: Choice being taken away from the protagonist is a common trope.  But that's not always true: Ripley in Alien. Linda Hamilton in Terminator. On the other hand, you have Catniss in Hunger Games, where everyone is essentially a slave.
o   Gender is not an issue in the story of Catniss. It’s not about a young women rising above, it’s about a person rising above.
o    SA: All genre fiction is about taking support structure away from the protagonist.
o   AS: But female and male characters are treated different. You don’t see nearly as many kidnapped male characters (unless they are children). You don’t see men sexually victimized. The method of removing choice and agency is different. A wider range for male characters vs. female characters.
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