Fighting with the Sky

Joss Whedon and the Able Body

Posted on: October 28, 2009

We all know: I love Joss Whedon.  I love his writing.  I love his shows.  I think he’s great at creating captavating television.  But he has some major problems — all of his shows show a lack of diversity, a problematic understanding of female sexuality, and more.  But the problem I want to talk about today is ableism.  Ableism seems to be a prevalent theme throughout his shows.  (A note before I start looking at his shows: I’m not going to remember every single episode of his that I’ve watched.  I’m sure there are some exceptions to what I’m about to say, but they are most likely the exceptions that prove the rule.)

So, let’s start with BuffyBuffy is a show that is based around a woman with super-human abilities.  Not only is she able-bodied, she’s more-than-able-bodied.  And so are many of the people around her — Willow and Tara are witches, Anya is an ex-demon.  The show often features language such as “I’m so mentally challenged” and the like when they do not have any mental disabilities.  Doing this diminishes the importance of disabilities for the people that live with them and what those people go through on a daily basis.

On top of all of this, the demons and people who aren’t demons that they fight are often portrayed as “crazy” or mentally impaired in some way.  The case that I am thinking of specifically (because I just watched it) is “Out of Mind, Out of Sight.”  In this episode, a girl is ignored so much that she actually becomes invisible.  She then goes around seeking revenge on Cordelia and her friends, who she sees as the cause of her problems.  She’s portrayed as crazy, and therefore mentally unstable, but it is really just a result of the social context in which she lives.

Firefly is one of Joss’ shows that was cancelled much too soon — after only half a season on Fox — and was later made into a movie, Serenity.  River was tortured by the Alliance in order to use her “special abilities.”  She has psychic abilities and the Alliance wanted to use those in a sort of army.  Her brother, Simon, rescued her from the Alliance and, because he’s a doctor, tried to bring her back to health.  You see, her torture left her mentally unstable, and with a combination of psychic abilities, she could be pretty dangerous at times.  While many of the serious plot line revolved around River, her mental unstability was often used to lighten the mood.  It was kind of like “look what silly thing River will do next” time on Firefly at some points.

And then there’s Dollhouse.  Oh, Dollhouse.  The storyline of Dollhouse revolves around perfect bodies.  An Active has to have a perfect body in order to be wanted for engagements, and the Dollhouse makes money off engagements, so they aren’t going to keep anyone around who doesn’t have that perfect body.  As soon as Whiskey has her face cut by Alpha, she is made into Dr. Saunders so that she never leaves the Dollhouse because she’s broken — no ones going to want an Active that’s deformed.  But when Victor has his face cut up by Alpha, he gets his face fixed…but that’s a story for a whole other post.

TV isn’t usually the place where we see a lot of people with disabilities.  It’s not as if Joss Whedon’s shows are any different from other shows in the number of people with disabilities that are regularly featured.  But Joss has had a reputation of creating shows that revolve around the promotion of the able body in ways that other shows don’t.  His shows value the able body not by only showing people without disabilities, but by centering shows around what able bodies can (and should) do.  As well as using disabilities as a way to lighten the mood.

10 Responses to "Joss Whedon and the Able Body"


I’ve wondered why Victor got the scar-erasing surgery but Whiskey didn’t. I suspect that the in-canon reason is probably that they needed a doctor and that Whiskey is a stand-in until they can get a replacement, but that’s not terrible strong logic since they haven’t made any effort to find a replacement (even now that Whiskey/Dr. Saunders has escaped the Dollhouse). The OOC reason is probably that they love Amy Acker in the role and they have fun turning Enver Gjokaj into different people each week (and man alive is he good at it), but unfortunately it sends an interesting message about whose bodies are valued in the Dollhouse. (One which I’ll have to tease apart later, sadly.)

This is an interesting post, but I’m not sure I quite agree with it. Because although I do think you are right about Joss Whedon using able (and super able!) bodies quite a bit, it is not always portrayed as a good thing. In many ways Buffy is miserable and mean to people she cares about. While Xander, who is the least-abled (i.e. not supernatural!) of the group is often the kindest, most loyal and moral. In the particular Buffy episode you point to, I think it’s worth remembering that most of the demons and evil in Buffy (especially in the early seasons) are metaphors for the high school experience. She is made crazy and invisible by the cruelty of other people, she isn’t inherently mentally unstable. (Am I remembering the details of the episode wrong? I hope not!)

I also don’t see where in Firefly they made fun of River. I guess I don’t see how it was ever like- “It was kind of like “look what silly thing River will do next” time on Firefly at some points.” Can you remember any specific times? Because while I don’t disagree that she was used for humor, I don’t think she was used any moreso than the other characters, or in a way that ever made me think she was stupid.

Anyway! This is a great post. I’m glad I popped over from Shakesville. I’ll be reading more. 🙂 I do think you are on to something in this post. I just think that the assumption that able bodied always = better in the Joss Whedon universe is a little off. (Able bodied = always present, yet, but I feel that’s more a failing of TV in general than his shows specifically.)

“But he has some major problems — all of his shows show a lack of diversity, a problematic understanding of female sexuality, and more.”

Not to mention a lack of logic, cheesey dialouge, and characterisation frequently abadoned to make ‘a point’.

Strange how he’s all for feminism yet according to Chrasima Carpenter binned her for getting pregnant.

One thing I wouldn’t blame him for though is his lack of disabled people, I imagine Hollywood execs don’t give him much choice in the matter. Although in all likelhood, he’d only use them to make a sick joke.

Margosita, for an instance of when River is comic relief (and I adore Firefly, let’s be clear), think of the time when Book let his hair down, and River freaked out. Same episode, River is “fixing” his Bible. Both clearly played for laughs.

Another episode: she’s peeling all the labels off the cans in the kitchen. Comic relief out of her mental illness.

Off the top of my head, I believe there were also a few incidents in Objects in Space which played on this as well.

As I said, I LOVED Firefly like a thing of much lovedness, but it doesn’t mean I can’t see the flaws in it.

Whiskey didn’t get the scar-erasing surgery because she refused it – it was mentioned in the un-aired pilot, and then they brought it up again in, I think, season 2’s premiere. What I’m having a hard time remembering, though, is whether she as already Dr. Saunders permanently when Alpha slashed her face.

“Another episode: she’s peeling all the labels off the cans in the kitchen. Comic relief out of her mental illness.”

I always thought that was because the cans were Blue Sun products – just like when she slashes at Jayne in one episode it is because he is wearing a Blue Sun shirt.

I was linked here from a site on LJ (firefly_signal).

Honestly, River was less used as comic relief than she was as a living (which I think was to make her more sympathetic and pitiable, since you don’t get the same emotional reaction from a rich boy running away from home to save some futuristic device that does nifty stuff when they need it to) plot device within the show and movie. Joss even says in the commentary for the movie that the entire arc is “Mal’s story as told by River.” She’s not entirely her own character, she has all agency removed from her, is set up to be almost completely dependent on her brother, and you only ever see her on the show when she says something “important.”

Though the scene with Book and his hair was hilarious, it irks me to no end that a genius is afraid of a man’s hair. Surprised, I get, but then hiding?

Ahaha, SORRY. Hi, I’m Gidget, and I could rant about Joss’ treatment of just this one character for -forever-.

“that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t also used as some comedic relief for the viewers. The scene with the cans is supposed to make you laugh because you just see River doing this silly thing for seemingly no reason.”

Maybe it is just because I didn’t find the scene funny, or think that River was doing a silly thing for seemingly no reason, but I never thought that scene was supposed to be comedic in nature. The hair scene, yes. But my interpretation of that scene was that we were supposed to wonder why River was becoming more and more frenzied; that we were supposed to be concerned.

Maybe I’m wrong, and I fully admit that other people may have found that funny when I didn’t. After all, I also don’t see the Bible bit as being hilarious, or even something that is supposed to be. The only hilarious bit came from Book trying to take back the Bible, and that, for me, is wholly separate from a portrayal of River, since it was Book’s attempts to get his Bible that sent me over the edge.

this guy is a good script writer He also wrote uncredited drafts or rewrites of Speed, Waterworld, Twister and X-Men, although in interviews, Whedon disowned the latter three films. He claimed that he had a good script for Alien: Resurrection, which he felt was spoiled by its director Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

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