Horizon Zero Dawn, Joss Whedon and the Problem with “Strong Female Characters”Games Features Joss Whedon
Over the past weekend it emerged that Joss Whedon, the legendary creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, might be a bit of a scumbag. Whedon, who in the past decade has built something of a reputation as a leading male feminist in pop culture, was recently divorced from his wife of 16 years, Kai Cole. In a blog post on TheWrap, she alleges that over the course of their relationship, Whedon had been a serial cheater, indulging in emotional and physical affairs with fans, coworkers, actresses, and other “needy, aggressive” women that he encounter in his decade and a half of Hollywood writing. The news was, of course, devastating to some, predictable to others, and disappointing to just about everybody.
Personally, I was on the side of “disappointing but predictable.” Generally, as a tech reporter and pop culture critic, this is a story I’ve seen play out many times, enough to start forming a theory as to why it happens so often. The first ingredient is usually a privileged person in a marginalized space that begins to enjoy the positive attention they get from public, self-righteous moral posturing. These people are often hiding something; Whedon himself admitted as much to his wife (see also: Hugo Schwyzer).
The second is usually a marginalized audience who desperately wants to believe that a person of oppressive privilege finally “gets it.” I myself am guilty of this; at times I’ve rallied behind various cisgender straight men in the tech industry because I assumed they could be trusted on the merit of their professed beliefs. In private, however, many of these men turned out to be just as sexist as any of the outwardly misogynistic; rarely were they able to actually practice what they preached. Often the warning signs were there, but I only spotted them in hindsight. When you’re desperate for a sign that the world is changing for the better, you see what you want to see.
A problem with pop culture feminism is that the education is informal and opt-in; rarely are its acolytes (who are inevitably the most vocal and enthusiastic evangelists) given the contextual foundation of its philosophical underpinning. As a result, some of the ideas circulating within the community can be misguided, if not harmful. In the case of nerd culture, the loudest voices are often white and cisgender, a group that, upon warming up to social justice causes, often means well but in their enthusiastic attempt to advocate for others, begin to speak over those who have direct experience with discrimination. Thus the popular narrative is shifted to the least insightful perspective, often taking the movement’s priorities with it (of this, as a white woman, I have also been guilty).
I think this is why so many straight cisgender male writers, like Joss Whedon, are confused about the difference between “strength” and “agency.” That is, many writers think that valuing a woman based on her strength is feminist and that writing a “strong female character” who “totally kicks ass” is enough to challenge misogyny. And while that context can and does subvert common sexist tropes (for example, putting a high value on physical female strength, and portraying women as a lead and not a sidekick, both of which support female autonomy), it reinforces others. Because at its heart, it doesn’t actually understand. Society has long been structured around female dependence on men and it leaves us extremely vulnerable and at-risk for exploitation and harm. That’s why we fight so hard for our economic freedom and object to the social frameworks that reinforce our subjugation. This can include how we are depicted in media. Feminism is the assertion of our right to seek out and define our own existence and determine our own fates. It’s not enough to write a “strong” female character. Not all women are strong, and that doesn’t mean they’re any less valuable. Don’t write them with strength as the goal: write them with agency.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I finish up Horizon Zero Dawn. Aloy, despite having been written primarily by a male lead writer, is one of the better female protagonists I’ve ever played in a game, and it’s hard to find fault with her. But behind that perfect combination of inner strength and outward independence, as well crafted as it is, is the reality that we think feminism is about making all women strong, instead of valuing all women, no matter how weak we may perceive them to be. We specifically use the negative associations surrounding emotional expression to stigmatize women as incapable. The only way to challenge and subvert it is to stop tying their emotional expression to an inability to achieve.
We women know we’re strong. We’ve had to be. Sometimes when you praise us for our strength, it feels like you’re celebrating our ability to endure immense amounts of bullshit. In that sense, even the value that straight cisgender men place on our strength feels self serving: in the end, we’re strong, because we’re trying to survive you.
There are many ways to write and “be” feminist. But cisgender straight male writers, in particular, do not seem to understand that contextualizing the noteworthiness of a woman in terms of their sexual worth is sexism’s ugly root, not merely one of its branches. If you ask them to stop gauging a woman’s value on the basis of her appearance, there is often an entitled, almost angry response, along the lines of, “But it’s my right to look at women and evaluate their body.” And therein lies the problem. Many cisgender straight men do not want to stop thinking about women on their own self indulgent terms. Their entire identity is wrapped up in it and they have no incentive to behave differently. And with men like Joss Whedon, it shows up in their work. It’s why so many of his lead female characters look suspiciously like sexual fantasies.
If you want to improve the social condition by adjusting the way you write women, start with agency. Empower us, make us the hero of our own story. Defer to our authority and our perspective. Make us sympathetic. Empathize with us. Give us the benefit of a doubt. Write women who are vulnerable and weak but still bravely pursue their motivations and endeavors. Write a woman who cries and is scared but still saves the day. Write a woman who is angry and imperfect but has a heart of gold. Write a woman you don’t want to fuck—not because she has traits you find unfuckable, but because you respect her enough to not even think about if she is or not. Write a woman who would want nothing to do with you. And above all, show that you value women enough to value them in any of their forms—even the ones you’ve been conditioned to use as justification to withhold your respect. Value them on their own terms, and not yours. Until you can do that, the work is not yet done.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.