Hello, Feministe! I haven’t posted much lately because I’ve managed to get my hands a little too full with other projects. I do have some posts on other subjects that I hope to have up soon, but I first I felt it was my duty to inform you all that this is the last weekend that you can see Joss Whedon’s new musical, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, for free. The final episode was just released this morning, and they’ll all be up until midnight on Sunday. (I assume that means Sunday night, not late tonight.) After that, you’ll have to buy them from iTunes.
But why are you blogging about this on Feministe, Holly? Haven’t you been criticized before for calling people’s attention to topics that are only tangentially related to feminism? Like say, racism? Never fear, ye pure of heart, because there’s definitely a point. For one thing, Joss Whedon is an unabashed feminist himself. The kind who says clearly that he shouldn’t get any medals for something every writer in Hollywood should be doing: writing strong female characters like Buffy (you know, the Vampire Slayer) or half the crew of the good ship Serenity.
For another thing, you know what the most fun part of Joss Whedon’s work is, at least for me? Dissecting it. Buffy has inspired quite a lot of scholarly work and criticism, to the point where it ostensibly has its own sub-field of cultural studies. (I have to admit at this point that I wrote my own undergraduate thesis about Buffy, although it was an anthropological study of early fan communities c. 1997. I also have to admit that I lost my taste for the show after the fifth season.) Although the most rabidly loyal of Whedonites may disagree about the need to be critical, I think a lot of other fans relish the fact that Whedon’s work often invites thoughtful questions, quirked eyebrows, even nitpicking.
So here’s what I want you to do. Go watch Dr. Horrible, all three episodes, while they’re still free. You’l be glad you did. Then come back here and click into the rest of this thread, where we’ll do SPOILERS and discussion and ask the question… is this a comic musical about a Nice GuyTM?
I’ll just tell you my answer off the bat. Yes, it is. NPH, displaying his gay-given talent for exaggerated caricatures of straight men yet again, is a quintessential Nice Guy. OK, so maybe the quintessential Nice Guy isn’t secretly making freeze rays in his apartment, but if you look at the love triangle in Dr. Horrible, the pattern becomes pretty clear. Even though he aspires to be a confident bad-ass, Dr. Horrible (aka Billy) can’t get the nerve up to talk to Penny, the woman of his dreams — a girl he’s only ever really looked at from afar.
His nemesis, the local superhero, is a macho bully who cheerfully advocates beating up nerds, weirdos, and perverts before they become menaces to society. Naturally, he has no qualms about asking Penny out after “rescuing” her by shoving her in a pile of garbage. Captain Hammer is a showboater who admits (when Penny’s not listening) that he’s in it for the sex and because he can take what Horrible wants. Hammer’s monologues and solo tunes are some of the most brilliant parts of the musical, skewering the traditional hyper-masculine superhero ideal in much the same way that the works of Frank Miller, Garth Ennis or Pat Mills do. His politics are a public relations ploy, and you get the idea that he’s become a superhero mostly so he can keep beating on misfits.*
Of course, the macho football-player jerk who gets the girls has ALWAYS been the archetypal archenemy of the Nice Guy. The Nice Guy might not even exist without the Mean Guy. This is why we constantly have to listen to Bad Science Reporting about how women are only really attracted to Mean Guys and assholes. To be fair, Billy Horrible doesn’t ever stoop as low as some of the worst specimens of Nice Guy that feminist blogs have collected over the years. He just listens, without ever actually asking her out, and gets more and more furious as the object of his unspoken affection talks about her new heroic boyfriend. (Sound familiar?)
This is a Joss Whedon drama, however, and metaphor plays a large part. Captain Hammer is explicit about the fact that “the Hammer means my penis.” Dr. Horrible just carries a ludicrously phallic-looking freeze ray, with which he initially hopes to stop time so he can actually talk to the terrifying and mysterious creature known as woman. Ultimately, it’s the angry, destructive clash between these two dicks that bring the plot to its climax and its close. What did you think of the ending? I’m still pondering what it says about women, Nice Guys, and macho jerks. (Well, the macho jerk’s ending is pretty obvious, I suppose.)
Interestingly and unusually for Joss Whedon, there is no “strong female character” in Dr. Horrible — at least not in the traditional sense. Penny, whose name and demeanor evoke the innocent silent-film damsel tied to railroad tracks, works at a homeless shelter and believes in compassion, optimism, and the potential for positive change. She doesn’t kick anyone’s ass, she just sings in a sweet light voice about hopeful subjects.
Penny ultimately seems turned off both by Hammer’s self-centered grandstanding and the glimpses she gets of Horrible’s “burn everything down, the world sucks” faux-revolutionary nihilism. She’s just an ordinary girl trying to make things a little better for people who are worse off than her. I have to admit this caught me off-guard; I was expecting a 11th hour reveal of ass-kicking potential. So I’m very curious to know what you all think of Penny… and of the way the story turns out for her.
* You know who would kick his ass, though? Bad Horse. The Thoroughbred of Sin. I mean, uh, Ghandi.