Good Writers, Coasting, and How You Can Avoid Joss Whedon’s Mistakes

Joss Whedon sad

There are a ton of great articles examining Joss Whedon in the wake of Age of Ultron and plenty of crunchy debates to dive into because of them. In this piece, Sady Doyle illuminates something about Whedon that I’ve understood on a subconscious level but not been able to crystalize until now. To wit:

My ultimate take on Joss Whedon’s “feminist” screenwriting is that it’s a byproduct of good writing, period. The writer he most reminds me of is Charlie Kaufman: They’re both deeply personal writers, who clearly have a wide variety of sexual hang-ups, and to the extent that these hang-ups center on women, they probably do affect their perceptions of real-life women in many ways. Plenty of women have noted that Whedon’s fixation on emotionally vulnerable, eighty-pound teenage girls is disturbing and off-putting, and I would tend to agree. Charlie Kaufman’s apparent belief that a sexually awakened, self-realized woman wouldn’t need him, and would therefore abandon him to a hostile universe, is also kind of weird and upsetting, or (at least) a good reason not to ask Charlie Kaufman out on a date. However, because Kaufman and Whedon are good writers, who understand why stories work, when they sit down to write a story, they feel the obligation to make all of the characters identifiably human, including the women. This is, sadly, so rare that their female characters are often more well-rounded and interesting than almost any other characters out there, including a lot of characters written by people with better sexual politics.

When I read that a light shone down from heaven because YES. This is not just a Joss Whedon issue, it’s an issue with a lot of writers who hail from the land of privilege.

I (and others) have said many times that when you write stereotypical or downright offensive minority/marginalized characters, it’s almost always due to bad writing. If you’re a good writer, you don’t reach for the easy stereotypes, you don’t pull from the box of overused ideas, you aren’t a lazy thinker making lazy choices. And that often results in passable minority characters that might even be considered amazing and revolutionary[1]. Especially when compared to a sea of characters that are nothing but two dimensional offenses to all good taste.

Sometimes that’s even enough.

When you’re thirsty in a desert, even cloudy, contaminated water looks great.

However, it will not always be enough. That situation is a place to start from, not a place to kick back in and pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Yet that is what many, many writers do. Whedon certainly seems to have done. As Ashly Nagrant points out, we’ve now had 20 years of Whedon doing the same thing over and over, coasting on his talent instead of building on it.

Joss Whedon has failed to evolve as a writer and a director. People who are longtime Buffy fans saw Age of Ultron and complained about how quippy the dialog was. That quality has always been part and parcel of a Joss Whedon project — it has long been one of his trademarks. When the question was how could people who loved Buffy be surprised by this, I could only venture a guess:

We are suddenly, sadly realizing Joss Whedon is a one-trick pony.

Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy those tricks and there is nothing wrong with that! I am in no way saying that I haven’t enjoyed Joss’s work and won’t continue to in the future. But it does hit a point where it is almost 20 years since the debut of Buffy and you suddenly realize Whedon is just writing the same thing over and over again. No matter how much you like garlic bread, you can’t eat it all the time or you’ll get sick of it.

What’s the solution? Continuously work on becoming a better writer.

Pay attention to evolutions of thought on representation and be aware of the kinds of tropes that most media properties–be they TV, movies, or lit–engage in. Listen when your readers critique your minority/marginalized characters, particularly if they are the same identity as said characters. Accept people’s lived experiences as valid and learn from them.

Read books and articles on this subject. Writing the Other: A Practical Approach is an excellent place to start. Invisible and Invisible 2 are also excellent resources for delving deeper into representation.

Take classes and workshops that address this specific skill. Yes, I teach them, and so do others. Both in person and online. (If you want to find one, I can help with that!)

Read fiction by authors who have a reputation for writing amazing, deep characters. Examine how they do it, absorb it, learn.

Basically all the things you’re supposed to do to become a better writer, anyway. All the things truly great writers do, even after they’re hailed as being great.

Footnotes

  1. This accounts for a lot of Steven Moffat’s success as well. He’s clearly a good writer when he’s on his game. And that good writing can distract you from some underlying problems. And because the writing is good you want to ignore the underlying problems. There comes a point for many of us when that’s impossible. Like Whedon, that point arrived when his popularity meant a large body of work to examine.[]

Comments

  1. says

    This isn’t it.

    I think Sady Doyle was a little closer to the mark, before she starts blaming a comicbook superhero movie for being a darn good representation of how crossovers are handled in this-day-and-age comicbooks.

    It’s not that Whedon hasn’t matured as a writer. He has, especially through his TV work – which is actually kinda my beef with him: he was growing beyond the audience, his “look-at-clever-me” writing and direction jarring within the context of the show itself (think “A Hole in the World” on Angel, one of his more gimmicky “special” awards-bait Buffy episodes from Hush onwards, regardless of how well they were executed, or the entire thrust of Dollhouse).

    As regards Ultron, Black Widow calling herself a “monster” in the context of numerous stories of little girls wanting Black Widow toys on the shelves glues my hand to my face. It reads like the teenaged Claremont X-Men/Sandman reader, John Hughes/Tim Burton watcher, Cure/Morrissey listener of the 80s turned middle-aged, let his flag fly but went tin-eared instead.

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