When Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was accused last month of abusive behavior by numerous actresses he worked with, it prompted something of a reevaluation of how truly feminist his works were.
Natasha Simons’ essay Reconsidering the Feminism of Joss Whedon explores this, noting that the character Buffy Summers, “as a Slayer, descends from a line that was literally created by men – a formation that stems directly from the male anxiety over an inability to create life the way that women do.” The feminism in Whedon’s work was a version made palatable to a male audience and a patriarchal society. Robyn Bahr explained that Whedon’s “visions of on-screen feminism often amounted to a reductive, masculinized conception of what it means to be a forceful woman.” In Buffy, women were only considered strong or of any worth if their strength could be measured in the same way as a man’s.
Palatable feminism means that if a woman can’t be acceptably characterized as a “wet lettuce,” she has to be BADASS. But like, badass in the way men understand. The badass developed as a response to this. Joss Whedon created Buffy to intentionally subvert the idea of women as victims. Wet lettuces are weak and pathetic and need saving, while “Strong Female Characters” are, well, strong. Unfortunately, this further perpetuates the idea that the only admirable traits a woman can have are the ones associated with masculinity.
Because apparently, the only way to convince the world of women’s value is by convincing men we’re just like them. That’s what equality is, right? Being exactly the same with no unique characteristics. That seems to be why Buffy succeeded in crossing the boundaries of science fiction and fantasy to allow a woman-focused story to receive any attention. Buffy as a whole was allowed to succeed because it was feminist in a way that aligned with a patriarchal society’s values.
HBO’s Game of Thrones also demonstrated this mentality. Sansa Stark’s evolution comprised of her going from someone with compassion, who cared about people, to someone devoid of pathos and humanity. And this was framed as her developing into a stronger woman. Showrunners David Benioff’s and Dan Weiss’s version of female empowerment presented women as competent leaders only when they were deprived of warmth and emotion, their feminine aspects. In order to be considered worthy rulers, they had to be heartless and coldly logical if not violently ruthless. You know, “like a man.”
They treated Daenerys Targaryen as unfit for the job because she demonstrated empathy for others and that too deeply reflected her “womanness.” Such behavior is an indicator of femininity, which is of course linked with hypersensitivity and irrationality. To them, it was inevitable she lost her sh*t and set the entirety of King’s Landing on fire. Bran Stark was more suited to be king because he lacked any such weaknesses, read: emotions. Sansa was a better queen because she had shed her vulnerabilities and learned to rule the way men do, without feelings.
This has led to other women engaging in the same thought process. Part of the reason for the vitriol Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight received was rooted in internalized misogyny. It was, despite its flaws, unapologetically feminine, and therefore worthy of ridicule.
Palatable feminism may also contribute to why some characters are considered more likable than others. Kikyo of Rumiko Takahashi’s manga turned anime Inuyasha was for a long time, widely loathed. This was partly because of her relationship with the eponymous male lead and her interference in the much-loved main couple of Inuyasha and Kagome. She wasn’t evaluated as a character in her own right, she was judged based on her connection to a man.
More than that though, a dichotomy had been created between the morally ambiguous Kikyo who stole the departed souls of the dead to maintain her undead existence and the sweet, unambiguously good Kagome. Kikyo wasn’t outright evil, even in her new, revenge-driven life she still demonstrated compassion and heroic tendencies. But she was villainized by fans in a way that other male characters who were just as, if not more, morally dubious than her were not. Inuyasha’s big brother Sesshomaru tried to murder both his younger brother and Kagome, and Koga of the Wolf Demon Tribe allowed his wolves to slaughter an entire village. But women aren’t afforded the same permission to be complex and layered, so Kikyo was treated as the worst character on the show.
Kagome’s more positive reception can also be linked to her status as a generically plucky girl. She’s sweet, simple, and lacking in any provocative characteristics. We see a similar treatment of women in films like Enola Holmes, and the 2017 remake of Beauty in the Beast. These works bring up relatively uncontroversial issues like Western white women’s right to read or vote. They avoid engaging with the problems that women today are actually impacted by in order to avoid pissing off the conservatives who perpetuate these issues.
The problem with palatable feminism like this is that it allows those who align with problematic thinking, like the demonization of sex workers, to avoid any mainstream challenge to their thinking. They can pat themselves on the back for agreeing that yes, women in the West should be allowed to read! These tropes function as a nod to the idea of feminism without the intention of actually incorporating it in any meaningful way because that would not be palatable and therefore not consumable.
Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!