How Come It’s Never Joss’ Fault? The Scapegoating of Female Creators in Pop Culture

I got into one of those discussions about Buffy the other day. You know, the one where you get all excited because you’re talking to a fellow fan and you want to bask in the greatness and talk about some of the terrific characterisation that went on, and then, well, they have to bring up the sixth season.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The sixth season was not one of the show’s finest moments, although it definitely had some episodes that I really loved. It featured The Trio, which is something we all could have done without, I suspect, and some particularly low points, plot and episode wise. I’m quite happy to shred the sixth season, to talk about the places I think it went wrong in quite lengthy detail. I mean, really. ‘Doublemeat Palace,’ anyone?

Or the fifth season. That’s another popular one to bring up in the kind of conversation I am talking about, if people can take some time out from trashing on the sixth season to refocus. Others are equal opportunity critics and will happily divide their time between both.

What this person wants to talk about is not characterisation, plot, embedded contexts in the show, but what a horrible person Marti Noxon is, and how she ruined everything, and how Joss never should have abandoned Buffy, leaving the show in the hands of a woman. How it’s obvious that Marti and other female creators involved in the show are to blame for everything that went wrong. They’re ‘working out their issues’ or they are just not capable of handling a big television show all on their lonesomes or Joss gave them too much leeway.

What surprises me most about this attitude, I think, is that it often comes from people who say that we need more female creators in television, and who say that we should support shows headed up by women, like Grey’s Anatomy. People who will identify Whedon’s work as feminist and talk about the feminist themes it contains, sometimes even questioning the aspects of his work that are, shall we say, less feminist in nature. People who complain about the lack of female representation in the writing room and behind the camera. All will tell me in exquisite detail about how Marti Noxon is to blame for everything that went wrong in the fifth and sixth seasons.

For some reason, whenever a mixed gender team is involved in the creation of television, everything that goes right is credited to the men, and everything that goes wrong is blamed on the women. Pretty much uniformly, across the board, and by a wide variety of people, including people whom you would expect to know better. Men get all the credit, and women get all the controversy.

How come it’s never the fault of the male creators?

I’ve been viewing and critiquing Whedon’s projects for a very long time. And something highly consistent that I notice is that people are very reluctant to blame problematic content on him. People who think that Dollhouse was a fiasco blame it on Eliza Dushku. People who hated season six Buffy think it’s all Marti Noxon’s fault. Sarah Michelle Gellar is blamed, often quite abusively, for the decision to end Buffy after seven seasons (yes, she did want to leave the show, but it’s not quite as simple as ‘it’s all her fault’).

This isn’t just about Joss Whedon, but about television and creative work in general. When mixed-gender collaboration does happen, assessment tends to follow a road we’ve gone down before; everything great must have been the men, and everything bad must have been the women. It’s not uncommon to see male creators absolved of culpability if there’s a woman around to blame things on; ‘well, it’s obvious where the idea for that came from!’

What’s interesting about the Marti Noxon situation is that the fan backlash became so vicious that Joss actually responded to it, in a number of different venues including on the DVD commentary. He had to ride in to the rescue, telling people that they were welcome to not like what they saw, but they were certainly not welcome to abuse Marti Noxon for it. He, too, was involved in creative decisions during that season and deserves just as much culpability, and owned up to making some mistakes and not being perfectly happy with things, which certainly argues against the claim that Noxon is wholly to blame, doesn’t it?

Yet, Joss, often heralded for making feminist television and featuring strong feminist characters, didn’t come out and make the obvious connection for viewers, that they were engaging in some age-old blaming behavior that falls out along sexist lines. Joss, who sometimes uses television to resist dominant narratives about gender, to force viewers to challenge assumptions, to provide models for giving women credit for their accomplishments, couldn’t quite bring himself to say that attacking Marti Noxon went pretty contrary to the core ethos of Buffy, a show where characters never shrank from responsibility, but refused to take blame for things that weren’t their fault.

‘Marti Noxon ruins everything’ is a line that will dog Noxon until the end of her career, no matter what she does, how much she grows as a creator, and how much great television she is involved with.

I can’t help but wonder how people would have dealt with it if Joss had turned the show over to a male executive producer, if people would still be placing all of the blame for the problems with the sixth season at the feet of that man, or if they’d be owning up to the fact that Joss deserves a share of it as well.

We should not fall into the trap of assuming that female creators are immune from criticism (they’re not) or that no creative problems can be fairly blamed on female writers, producers, and filmmakers. But the opposite extreme, of attributing everything bad that ever happens to them, is equally distasteful and astoundingly widespread.

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