Thursday, 11 April 2013

J is for Joss Whedon

In 2005, when I was 26, my life changed radically. I found myself single for the first time since I was
17, living alone, with a distinctly new outlook on life. After nearly 10 years in what was, in retrospect, a very controlling relationship, it was time to re-evaluate things, decide what I wanted from life and decide what the future held for me, independent of anyone else. For a very short while, I felt lost and alone, but surprisingly quickly, I realised how incredibly liberating this was. As a result I began to re-evaluate everything, from my previously vegan lifestyle (it is amazing how easy it is to justify going back to vegetarianism is when you have blue cheese again for the first time in 4 years) to what I wanted to watch, read and enjoy.

For years, so many friends, work-colleagues, academics and creative people I respected and admired had expounded on the merits of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. "It is so well-written" they would opine, "This Joss Whedon guy is a genius, and these characters are fantastically well-drawn", others would gush. I would nod politely, internally wondering what spell had been cast on so many people - people whose tastes co-incided closely with my own - when all I could see was a cheesy high-school drama with a ridiculous title and, I suspected, all the depth of Beverly Hills 90210. Of course, I'd never actually watched the series, but having seen, and hated, the 1992 film which I believed the series to be 'just like', I gave it a wide berth. 

The 'Scooby Gang' in the kind of 90210 shot
that had initially put me off giving Buffy a chance.
Cut to 2005, and my friend Craig brings up The Buffy Debate again. He cannot believe I haven't seen it and insists I give it a chance. In my new re-evaluative mood, I relent, and am very pleasantly surprised. We fly through season 1 fairly quickly as I discover that it is, indeed, a drama featuring teenage characters, who go to high-school. However, I also find, to my surprise that is it funny, clever and, despite being about a teenage girl who has been chosen to lead the battle against the vampire hoards, it is highly emotionally resonant. Show creator Joss Whedon had indeed, won me over - I had to admit.

Over the course of about 6 months, my main viewing becomes this fantastic series with its gutsy characters, carefully crafted relationships and best of all the narrative - this interwoven, richly-textured story that stops at all points on the passage from childhood to adulthood. It encompasses, amongst many other things; sexual awakening, familial relationships, bereavement, homosexuality, addiction, religion and of course the over-riding themes of responsibility, otherness and the growing pains of young adulthood. The more obvious metaphors of high-school being 'hell', a young woman fighting off demons and keeping secrets from those around her for their own protection are perhaps, plain to see.
The main premise is used to explore so many fascinating aspects of the human condition, and all with carefully constructed story arcs and great performances from the regular cast. The fact is that the programme I had dismissed as teen-drama tosh constantly surprised with episodes such as Hush, which featured 27 minutes without any dialogue, exploring the concept of a society without verbal communication. Never afraid to push the envelope episodes such as Once More With Feeling, an episode that happens entirely in the form of a musical or The Body which explored the devastating loss of a parent in a way that left its audience bereft, in many ways redefined the genre.

I went on to adore Firefly - the short-lived 'space-western' series created by Whedon. Once again, the beautifully drawn characters and their adventures drew me in quickly and made me care about their plight, with ease. Drawing on the best of the Western genre for tales of the treachery, survival and exploration in a pioneer culture, whilst blending in the tropes of sci-fi the series helped reflect human relationships through a different lens. The series, whilst cancelled early by a network disappointed that it hadn't immediately gained the mass audience appeal of Buffy, found a new cult status on DVD. The sales of this helped secure funding for a Whedon-penned and directed Firefly film, Serenity, in 2005. Having loved the series, I went to see Serenity at the cinema and was, again, blown away by the inspired plotting, engaging dialogue and wonderful style of the film. Again, Whedon's daring in snatching away from his audience some of the people they care about the most, without any of the usual conventions to indicate we will be losing someone, is both breathtaking and heartbreaking. 

Kick-ass Buffy
Much has been said about Whedon's ability to write strong female characters but it is important he be recognised for this, sadly, all too rare feature. Whilst it is easy to identify the ass-kicking vampire slayer Buffy, or Firefly's mechanic, Kaylee as pulling the switcheroo on defined gender roles, each of the female characters he has created are unique and surprising in their own ways. Take geeky Willow, who discovers not only her own true powers but her homosexuality throughout the story arc of Buffy or Anya, originally a 'vengeance demon' granting the wishes of wronged women, who has to learn how to be human. These are female characters whose individuality sing from the screen. Perhaps one of the most touching things about his writing for female characters is the way that he maintains their femininity without this diminishing
Fabulous Zoe and her adoring husband, Wash.
their ability to be powerful, intelligent and formidable. Firefly's Zoe is an affectionate wife, but this doesn't stop her being a fearsome, straight-talking renegade and Inara, quite literally schooled in 'womanly ways' as a companion, is a shrewd, sword-fighting business woman.

Whedon's mother, Lee Stearns, was a high-school teacher, credited with inspiring Jessica Neuwirth, founder of Equality Now, an organisation working for the protection of human rights for girls and women across the world. In 2006, Whedon was asked to speak at an Equality Now conference as an Honoree, for his part in the fight for gender equality. His speech, whilst highlighting how sad it is that he is so unusual in his dedication to writing strong roles for women, is highly inspiring.

“Equality is not a concept. It's not something we should be striving for. It's a necessity. Equality is like gravity. We need it to stand on this earth as men and women, and the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance, and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and woman who's confronted with it. We need equality. Kinda now.” Joss Whedon, 2006. 

Whedon went on to create Angel, a spin-off from Buffy and Dollhouse, a sci-fi drama series which featured the actions of a shady corporation who use their abilities to implant skills and personality traits temporarily on individuals at the whim of their wealthy clients. 2008's, hilarious Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, was a 'musical tragicomedy in three acts' made specifically for internet distribution. Whedon's fans continued to enjoy his work and eulogise about his talent but the financial success, needed to gain backing from studios, still seemed to allude him.

2012 was an exciting year as it saw the release of horror film The 
2012's Avengers Assemble - just fantastic!
Cabin in the Woods
, which he both wrote and produced, and the film adaptation of Marvel's Avengers, which he wrote and directed. Both films were fantastic - demonstrating once again, Whedon's ability to tell unique stories with depth and character. This time, however, the financial success to go with the adoration of his fans and, to date, Avengers is the third highest-grossing film of all time.

At present, Whedon is reported to be working on a TV show, again based on Marvel characters, currently titled Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and a sequel to the Avengers, due for release in 2015. I can't wait to see more of his work.


  1. I loooooove Firefly, and am a big fan of Joss's work. (We named our daughter Kaylee even) This is a great description of why his work is so awesome. I didn't realize Avengers was his work, now I'm double-impatient to see it (we just recently saw Thor and Captain America, and I wonder if we should see Iron Man and Hulk first?)

  2. Aww - Kaylee! Shiny! I had seen Iron Man but none of the others and it didn't affect my enjoyment of it at all. It is an awesome film - packed with his trademark humour :0)

  3. Sometimes I swear we are twins from anothether country. I have never seen Buffy but have heard about it endlessly. I now need to go purchase all seasons and watch through. My series favorite was Sex and the City. I have also heard about Firefly but there just isn't enough time to write and watch and read and all the other myriad things a person must do during the course of a day. Great post! Though I blame you for adding more to my plate. ;) Jennifer a.k.a. Urban Gypsy Girl

    1. Haha! Sorry for adding so much to your plate. I assure you that it is all very delicious and nutritious! :0) x

  4. With you on the Buffy front, as you probably gathered! It's definitely one of those that is far from being what it appears on the surface - in fact, it's basically attacking all of your expectations from the inside. It's funny, clever, scary, moving, inspirational, and at the right times very silly indeed. For a long time Sadie didn't believe me but eventually she gave it a try and was under the spell for good.

    If anyone hasn't watched it, there are very definite arcs that span the series. The first series can almost be seen as an apology for the film; it's good entertainment but it's a little rough around the edges and I wouldn't judge the series based solely on these episodes.

    It's not really until the second series that it really gets the hang of things. Personally, I think the episode with the love spell is the first that's on another level to what's gone before, the story is tight and everyone has settled into their roles, from then on everything seems to blossom.

    It manages to pull off that trick that great TV rarely does - The Sopranos manages it for example - in that although you can pretty much dive in and watch most episodes in isolation just for entertainment, you get so much more out of it when you're involved with the characters and the way they develop and interact. You don't NEED to know why so-and-so is moody with such-and-such, but it's a richer experience if you do.

    If you're one of those that has ummed and ahhhed about watching it, give it a go! Start from the beginning, and if you're not feeling it then give it until at least halfway through series two before writing it off - come on, what else were you going to do, watch Geordie Shore? Pffft.

    1. Currently re-watching The Sopranos through with David and loving it just as much this time through. Totally bob on! :0) x