Joss Whedon and the Myth of the Exceptional Woman

One of the tropes Joss Whedon returns to over and over is The Exceptional Woman. In his narratives, this is a (generally very young, very physically small) woman who is the best ever at what she does without having to really work at it. It’s either a natural talent, or an unnatural one forced upon her against her will… sometimes painfully. On the one hand, you have your Willow Rosenbergs and Kaylee Fryes, and Skye (no last name)s who may work at something but don’t need to work THAT hard because they are NATURALLY GIFTED. Willow did a lot of research, but also had a vast well of world-ending power deep inside her. Kaylee could fix engines she’d never seen before, because OSMOSIS (her dad was a mechanic, it rubbed off on her). Skye does a lot of computer work, but has never had to seriously study anything seriously, or even finish high school. Naturally talented! Gifted! Effortlessly amazing! On the other hand you have your Buffy Summers and your River Tams, cruelly manipulated and forced into something they didn’t want to be, by the actions of old men. Unnaturally gifted, they don’t have to work for what they have either. Sure, early series Giles is always bugging Buffy to practice and study strategy and be serious, but over and over we were shown that she doesn’t need to.

Joss Whedon is often lauded as Feminist, and as good for women. His shows, especially “Buffy,” are considered girl-positive. And it’s honestly rare to see decently developed female characters on tv. But the way Whedon persists in displaying women and their abilities is harmful to women.

Why do I say this?

It’s rare for women to be recognized as experts in their field, even in women-centric discussions like Feminism or in traditionally women-centric fields of employment like teaching or nursing. As Ben Barres has famously pointed out, people react differently to scientific research, to facts and figures and provable results, based on the gender (or perceived gender) of the person publishing the work. It’s why Kim O’Grady only got callbacks on his resume after he added “Mr” to his name. It’s why a man who admitted to attempted murder and “accidental” rape was one of the paid spokespersons for Feminism for years. Patriarchal society accepts that men are superior to women, and that it’s rare for women to be in positions of power or authority, to be good at what they do, because they just are innately inferior. Patriarchal society accepts that men and women simply think differently and that the way women think (and speak and socialize and budget their time and spend their money etc) is inferior to the way men think (and all the rest). Patriarchal society accepts that a handful of women will be super exceptional and naturally gifted and will rise to the top, proving their natural worth, but the rest of women are just inferior or lazy or stupid or too busy shopping for shoes or whatever to do the same.

So when a Big Name in media, someone lauded as Feminist, routinely portrays only Exceptional Women Who Are Naturally Gifted, it buys into the established myth that most women are mundane but some select and glorious few are ~~SPECIAL~~ and ~~GIFTED~~ and ~~DESERVING~~. And it reinforces the narrative that while it’s accepted and normal for men to work hard and get ahead, to study martial arts or science or tactics or wood working or whatever to become successful, the same isn’t true for women. The only really acceptable way to be a stand out woman, a central character, is to have The Hand Of God marking you as innately special and gifted. And that means it’s ok and normal and routine for men to be experts and leaders 95% of the time, because most women just can’t cut it.

It’s a way of both putting women on a pedestal (so special! so exceptional! so naturally gifted!) while also putting limits on them (no need to try to work hard or study or practice, you’ve got it or you don’t). It’s a way of establishing unrealistic role models and goals. It’s a way of dismissing most women and their experiences.

It really sucks.

And it’s harmful.

(NB: I have not discussed “Dollhouse” at all because I found the show deeply, deeply creepy and did not watch it.)

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Blog post copyright Brigid Keely Barjaktarevic. Originally posted at Words Words Words Art. If you enjoy this blog, check out my parenting blog at Now Showing!.

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