Deconstructing Dr. Horrible.
This post contains mad spoilers. I also warn that I am going to take a funny, silly, amusing show and be boringly, depressingly serious about it. If your response to these sorts of nitpicks is 'durr it's just a show' -- you're right. So don't click.
I liked it and hated it at the same time. There were enough laugh-out-loud moments that made it fun for me. The Bad Horse songs were my favorite, and the best line is where Billy's singing about how Penny's tears will dry when he gives her the keys to her brand new Australia. The Whedon wit is there, and that's what I show up for. It's silly fun, not a political statement.
Except that it is totally a political statement, one I suspect is quite calculated on Joss' part.
Amidst the silly fun, there is a premise here with which we are all too nauseatingly familiar. Nice Guy (and what does it say when the 'nice guy' is the villain who wants to burn, destroy etc.) vs. Mean Jerk (the day-saving hero who's in it for the cootchie) fight for the affection of Sweet Helpless Female (who unlike most of Joss' female protagonists is every bit the simpering damsel she seems to be, except she's not and I'll get to that).
My good friend cmdr_zoom mentioned in his LJ his own issues with this setup, and though I am not here to dispute them, I would like to offer my take.
First, I'm going to talk about Joss. Before I saw the episodes, I commented on Zoomie's blog something that sparked a fairly intense discussion with pjack about Joss, feminism, and my own issues with the blind adoration of anything Whedon when, in the man's own (here paraphrased) words, he's only doing what everyone else ought to be doing anyway.
I didn't mean to imply he's not a feminist. I just don't think he's the god of all things feminism, all hail Joss. He's doing what everyone ought to be doing anyway. That's a passing grade, not an A++. The fact that he's got these views and happens to possess a penis does not make him a god among men. It makes him a man. Period. Anything less than that isn't making the grade. That's my point, and I'm not so sure he'd disagree.
The fact that I do think he could do better is a compliment. You can improve on a good thing, so by definition, he's got a good thing here, with the movies and the funny, and the stuff.
One of the things that intensified the debate with my husband, I believe, and what made it personal for him, was that many guys look to Joss for how to get it right, and me saying 'bah' when people hail him for being such an awesome feminist can easily be interpreted as me saying 'he's not a feminist and neither are you, so don't bother trying.' While I think that's reading an awful lot into 'bah,' the concern deserves to be addressed.
However, I do think that some of his female characters are kind of one-dimensional, even if it's an awesome dimension. Also, providing me with an impossibly beautiful/perky/kick-ass female role model I could never live up to isn't that much different than slapping a size 0 supermodel on a runway. I refer here mostly on Firefly, which I enjoy a lot, but the female characters didn't resonate with me as much as the male characters did, and I thought long and hard about why. That's a post for another time, wherein I deconstruct Firefly, but I mention it here to put into context the things I commented on Zoomie's blog. Basically, fetishizing strong women is still objectifying them. They are still objects of desire rather than real people.
I would have loved to have seen a Shepherd Book character who was a woman. Strong, but not sexy. Older, earthier, torn by deep moral and ethical issues, fulfilling a role that has nothing at all to do with eye candy. That would have been powerful. I liked the actor who played Book, and I'm glad he was on the show, but that role as a woman would have meant a lot to me.
I don't mean to disparage the good things Joss has done. I just don't think the statements he makes are any more spectacular than what every guy out there could just as easily make himself. Furthermore, I don't think those statements ought to be considered that much more spectacular just because it's a guy who's doing them. That smacks too much of Mr. Man doing us little ladies a huge favor and we should swoon about it. Isn't that exactly what he takes a stab at in Dr. Horrible?
As for Joss being the figurehead of the male feminist contingent, that is also a whole other post worth of material. The long and the short of it is: I like Joss. But he's not a hero. He's a guy who makes movies, tv shows, etc. He's a funny man, and I enjoy a lot of what he does. Sure, I would gleefully tear him a new one about how he handles LGBT issues, but only because I care enough about his work to get riled about it. Which is a whole other post. That's three. I could start a Joss blog at this point.
I suspect that, amusing moments aside, what I liked about it is precisely what a lot of the folks (including myself) who didn't like it hated. I think it was fairly biting social commentary, and I wonder how many people even realized they were being bitten.
Let's take Billy. He is the geeky outcast nerds everywhere can relate to, but he is not a good guy. The 'nice' guy is not nice! He's horrible to Penny, all the while whining about how why, oh why, won't she just see how wonderful he is! He goes through all these convoluted schemes just to avoid putting on his cowboy panties and talking to her. Neil Patrick Harris is great, talented and nuanced in his delivery, and I enjoyed his performance.
I don't think Billy is meant to be a sympathetic character. The fact that he's the guy so many viewers can relate to is a wakeup call. Hey, nice guy? You're not nice. Your bizarre obsession and inability to treat the object of your affection as anything other than, just that, an object, isn't nice -- it's creepy. You're the villain in this piece.
Captain Hammer, the mean boyfriend who the nice guy resents, is the fairly predictable jerk. Nathan Fillon makes him hilarious. He hams it up, but that's part of the silly fun that had me cracking up at the funny parts. I think Captain Hammer is aptly named. There is no subtlety here. He's a jerk you expect to be a jerk, and you want to see him lose because he's the jerk that has cost you every date you've never gotten. It wasn't the stammering and freeze rays and inability to articulate your thoughts to a fellow human being as if she was, just that, a fellow human being. It's the Jerky Boyfriend's fault. The fact that, when he 'rescues' Penny, he literally treats her like trash? I say again, we're not going for subtle.
Then there is Penny. The object to be won. At the risk of looking like a Bad Feminist (like Bad Horse, I also have a posse of trained cowboys to sing my correspondences) I'm going to go ahead and say that I kind of liked watching Joss do a spin on the helpless female that didn't involve an eleventh-hour turnaround wherein she grabs a flamethrower and kills every muthafugga in the room. And here's why: that's pure wish fulfillment, and it's not what people do.
She is sweet, she is kind, but unlike the damsel trope, she's not looking for someone to sweep her off her feet. She wants to help the homeless. She's not looking for Mr. Right. She just wants you to sign her petition. She's not lost in the world, bereft for the lack of a man. In fact, she is doing just fine all on her own until these two megalomaniacal douchebags step in and screw it all up for her.
At first she's enamored of Captain Hammer because, let's face it, Nathan Fillon. But she starts to see the flaws in the facade. The nice guy villain didn't have to come in with the death ray to make her see. She already got it: he's a jerk, and she leaves. Billy didn't come in to save her, anyway. He came in to get revenge on his nemesis, and afterwards he would take her and make her see. Does that sound like a sympathetic character to you?
Of course, it's a Whedon production, so someone has to die (at least it wasn't the token gay guy this time, JOSS). It's a bit of a cop-out that Penny dies rather than Billy or Hammer having to face her for what they've done, but that's the tragedy of it. She remains a prize, not to be won by one or the other, but lost by both. They never do see her as a person. Here's this woman who's just living her life, doing her own thing, and these two guys come in thinking they'll save her (from what?) and in the end they both destroy her. Because she's not a super hero, and she's not a flamethrower wielding punk-ass death machine. Why should she have to be? Why can't she just collect her signatures and do what matters to her?
I've seen comments about how someone that stupid who falls for someone so obviously jerky deserves what she gets. Wow, a death sentence for failing to be omniscient? Isn't that a little harsh?
She doesn't know what we the audience knows. She doesn't see what we see. He sweeps her off her feet (did I mention Nathan Fillon) on a lie, and her crime, her death-deserving stupidity, is that she believed him -- for a time. She deserved to die because she couldn't see right through the super hero's public face to the greedy jackass within, and she didn't look deeply into Billy's soul in time to turn him from his evil path, since the dumbass clearly can't express himself adequately with words, and, and, and... for heaven's sake, she just wanted to gather a few lousy signatures! Aren't we putting an awful lot on some woman just trying to get by in the world? Whose crime is giving people the benefit of the doubt? Yeah, she totally deserves to suffer, be betrayed, and to die.
Man, I'm glad these people weren't my judge, jury, and apparently executioner during my misspent dating years.
I think maybe what she deserved was to be left the hell alone in the first place.
Yeah, it would be cool if she had whipped out an uzi and mowed them all down, then stood atop their corpses and said, "And that's what happens to jerks who mistreat women!"
Except that's not how it goes. That isn't how it goes at all. Women get torn apart over stuff like this. Their lives get destroyed. That's the sucker punch with this piece. If it didn't make you mad, then you missed the point.
This is, of course, entirely what I am reading into it. I don't know what Joss' intent was. If this is what he was trying to say, then go me, I rule. If not, well we watch and we take away what we take away. This is what I took away from it.
The fact that it's all wrapped up in something that is, in parts, genuinely hilarious is masterful. This isn't me swooning over the awesomeness that is Whedon. As I've stated before, he is not my hero. But Joss, if this is what you were aiming for? You nailed it. If you were trying to do something else and I missed it? Well, this is what you should have been doing, and if you want to nod and say you meant it all along, I won't tell.
What I hated about it is what I loved about it, and there aren't many works in any medium where I can say that and mean it.
And that's me, taking silly fun and making it dreadfully serious.