Wonder Woman is doing well for herself right now, kicking ass and shattering glass (ceilings, that is) both onscreen and off. Weeks after the eponymous film’s debut, money is still coming in at a steady pace for Warner Bros. Being a commercial and critical success is fantastic, but the power of Wonder Woman lies in its feminism. Its opening weekend was the biggest for a female director – a huge success for women in the arts. Content wise, a man doesn’t show up for a good quarter of the film, leaving time to focus on Diana Prince’s beginnings on Themyscira, an island inhabited by warrior women created by the gods. There is no male gaze, and the male lead is merely a sidekick.
But things could have been worse.
In 2005, Joss Whedon was hired to write the Wonder Woman script. Two years into the film’s development, Whedon left. With the movie’s current success, we had forgotten about the Whedon movie that could have been. Until it leaked and Twitter reminded us of its existence.
After reading excerpts from Whedon’s script, I’m even more thankful for Wonder Woman’s current iteration. Guys, it’s bad. And in case you haven’t had a chance to scan through the good parts, go look it up. Now.
For a film that literally has “woman” in the title, Steve Trevor sure does get a lot of ink. The script reveals itself to be Steve’s story, with Diana Prince downgraded to the exotic woman he discovers. The script’s descriptions of Diana are super exploitative and male-gazy; in one bit of lazy writing, for example, the antagonist calls Diana a whore – a cheap insult women are sick of hearing.
It’s not just the sexism that’s a problem. There are racist character portrayals and during the big-kiss scene, things get a little homophobic.
“You [sic] whole life on an island with only women and you can kiss like that?”
Oh, Steve. You know that women can find love and physical satisfaction without men, right?
Before we go any further, I need to make it clear that this is not a Whedon takedown piece. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has been an important part of my life since I was 13. Here are three pieces of proof. I get excited when someone wants to talk about Whedon’s work with me. Firefly is fun and brilliant. Angel has its bumps, but its characters are well written and acted. Even problematic Dollhouse is entertaining sci-fi. (I also can’t help that I have a total nerd-crush on Topher. Whatever, it’s fine.) I love his work. I also know there are issues within it.
You can dig up bits of misogyny in Whedon’s storied work, but for the moment, let’s consider Buffy. It’s his longest-running television show and, with the exception of his Avengers work, his best-known creation.
Whedon created Buffy during a time when the bar was much lower than it is today and it was easy to call him a feminist pioneer. Do I think Whedon is a feminist? Yes, but he’s no feminist icon. For all that’s good and beautiful about Buffy, the show has its problems – especially with how Whedon wrote Buffy’s three major relationships.
Instead of allowing her to explore her sexuality in a healthy way in season two, metaphor-king Whedon punishes Buffy for having sex with her vampire boyfriend, Angel. After the two consummate their love, Angel loses his soul due to a decades-old curse. Buffy goes to bed with the person she love and wakes up to a monster. As Angel – now Angelus – spends the final episodes torturing, killing and harassing Buffy and her friends, Buffy marinates in her regret. Season two’s lesson is sex is bad – if you’re a woman. Angelus, on the other hand, gets to have a grand ol’ time being evil.
For a young woman who risks her life for others every day, at least give Buffy a healthy relationship. Whedon doesn’t give her that kind of companionship, though. Her next boyfriend, Riley Finn, is a nice blend of boring and toxic masculinity. He’s introduced in season four as the nice guy, the kind of relationship Buffy needs after all she’s been through. As the season unfolds, we find out Riley is part of The Initiative, a secret government organization. Likewise, Riley finds out Buffy is The Slayer and can’t fathom a woman being stronger than him. He projects his masculinity issues on Buffy, accusing her of cheating, not loving him enough, and eventually giving her an ultimatum for their relationship. So much for the “nice guy.”
In the love interest lineup, Riley is followed by everyone’s favorite villain, Spike. As a character, Spike is one of the best. Another vampire, he appears with girlfriend Drusilla in season two and never goes away, much to the viewer’s delight. He’s hot, he’s dangerous, and he is integral to the show’s comedic relief. From the moment he steps into Buffy’s town, it’s his mission to kill her. He already killed two slayers and he wants a third. Lust doesn’t care about love or hate, however, so Buffy and Spike eventually mash privates. On the surface, Spike is her sexy guilty pleasure, the manifestation of all her animalistic desires. He professes his love to her multiple times throughout the show, his desire so strong that he almost rapes her. Leading up to their sexually charged relationship, Spike becomes so obsessed with Buffy that he commissions a lifelike sex robot in her likeness because he can’t have the real thing. Despite the obsessive behavior, attempted rape and murder, stalking and some underwear stealing, Spike and Buffy are Whedon’s favorite couple.
Whedon’s representation of Buffy’s interests shows just how much he respects his own creation. He built a powerful leader, but during the show’s run, surrounded her with pain and abuse. The only joy in her life came from her friends, including the ultimate Nice Guy, Xander Harris. (Xander’s issues are worth their own piece, but I encourage you to read this critique.) Our hero has saved the world multiple times. If she’s going to have a relationship, can it at least be a healthy one? Unfortunately, most of the Buffyverse characters don’t get that luxury. The only example of a healthy relationship in the show is Willow and Tara, and Whedon kills Tara.
Knowing these flaws in my favorite show, the leaked Wonder Woman script didn’t surprise me. I knew, whether intended or not, misogyny has always been present in Whedon’s work. One can easily make parallels between how Buffy’s love interests treated her and how Whedon treated Diana Prince. That’s not to tarnish the work he’s done, though. Buffy is an important show that has produced several iconic female characters. Willow Rosenberg’s character development alone is worth binge watching while Anya Jenkins’ transition from vengeance demon to human is so charming in such a heartbreaking way. Whedon knows how to write women, but there’s work to do in how he treats his female characters.
It took me a long time to take off the fangirl glasses and look at Whedon’s work for what it is: flawed. It’s brilliant entertainment, absolutely, but it has its faults. It’s fucking hard when your favorites show themselves to be problematic. There are many Whedon fans like me who refuse to believe his feminism needs work. For me, I felt guilty. How can I be a fan when there are all these red flags? It’s tricky, but we can be fans while demanding higher standards and better feminism.
I’m still a fan. I’m not boycotting Whedon. I don’t want him to fail. I want him to do better. I just hope he listens.
It’s what Buffy and Diana would want.
Top photo: Wonder Woman
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Lindsay Patton-Carson is a Philadelphia-based writer and vice president of customer engagement at PiperWai Natural Deodorant. Her favorite topics to write about are pop culture, feminism and animal rights. In her spare time, you can find her going on a run, looking at memes and avoiding getting peed on by her two dogs. She was born during the same time the Detroit Tigers won the World Series. Because of Lindsay, the Tigers have yet to win another series. Follow her on Twitter @LindsayPatton.