So I watched Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. And I really enjoyed it! Until the finale.

First, in full disclosure: I’m not a Whedon fangirl. I was at most pretty much indifferent to Buffy and Angel; I watched them on occasion, but never got the big deal. I could see a lot of effort being put into making Buffy a dynamic female lead, which I appreciate, but I also spent a lot of time going, “…Really?” because there were areas where the show seemed to me to fail. But I’m sure those criticisms have been tackled by others, who are far more familiar with the show than I am, so that’s not what this entry is about. Also: I’ve never seen Firefly/Serenity. I kind of meant to get around to it, but never really had much of an urge, so it hasn’t happened. However, I’ve also always appreciated that, while he doesn’t do a perfect job, Whedon at least seems to always try, when it comes to female characters. He knows the world needs good ones, he does his best to put them out there, and he never comes across as a grandstanding douche who just wants recognition for writing good women even when he doesn’t do a good job, Aaron Sorkin.

Wait, got sidetracked.

Basically, what I’m saying is that I’m pretty indifferent to Whedon, but positively-inclined. And so the end of Dr. Horrible pisses me off hugely, because it really seems like he didn’t even try, and embraced everything he’s always stood against. More, with spoilers, below the cut.

Okay, so, I get that it was a villain-POV story, and that while not the most competent dude in the world, Dr. Horrible was always intended to be an evil character. We saw his rise to evil power, and that’s fine. Whedon did a better job making Dr. Horrible fun to watch in his descent into madness than, say, George Lucas did with Anakin Skywalker. So as a concept, that’s fine.

The problem was that the story was so caught up in its trickery — you really liked Dr. Horrible! But he’s eeeeevil! Mwahahaha! — it forgot to not suck. Though to be fair, the parts with Penny had always been kind of weak, because as a character, Penny had absolutely no agency whatsoever. She existed to be Dr. Horrible’s dream girl, and Dr. Horrible was an archetypal Nice Guy through the whole thing. The scenes were cute enough, and Neil Patrick Harris was darling enough, that I gave it the benefit of a doubt. But in the second part, it’s clear Penny exists as a prize for Dr. Horrible. She dates his nemesis, Captain Hammer, instead, and that’s what sets off his fall into darkness. She falls for Captain Hammer and never questions his bullshit, even though from the watcher’s POV it’s obvious, which makes her look pretty stupid. She’s generically nice and sweet, but has no other character traits.

So Captain Hammer uses her (both her body for sex and her cause for glory), and it drives Dr. Horrible mad. When Captain Hammer begins to brag publicly about having sex with her, she grows uncomfortable. But before she can actually do anything about it (she seems to be slinking off in shame, but she never speaks about it, never confronts Captain Hammer about it, never takes a decisive action) she is tragically, accidentally killed. Dr. Horrible was trying to kill Captain Hammer, his death ray exploded, Hammer ran off in pain and shock, and she was caught by the shrapnel and dies. But her death gets Dr. Horrible entrance into the Evil League of Evil and turns him into a respectable villain.

The end.

Let’s dissect:

  1. Not only does the show completely fail the Bechdel test, there is only one female character with a name, and she has no agency at any point in the show;
  2. Her noble death is used to further the POV character’s story, AKA, she’s totally fridged;
  3. She specifically dies after she’s had sex!
  4. She specifically dies after she’s had sex with someone who isn’t the Nice Guy main character who was totally sweet to her and bought her frozen yogurt! (How dare she…?);
  5. She had sex with someone who isn’t the Nice Guy main character, causing him to go evil(-er) and thus try and kill Captain Hammer, but she died instead, so it was her own fault!

Conclusion: if only she’d had sex with Dr. Horrible instead, everything would have been fine! I’m sure she could have been his sexy supervillainous Number Two character.

Further, it wasn’t an ironic use of the tropes it invoked, which I’d thought Whedon was capable of. I think it tried to be: there was a montage at the end, which included the newspaper headline “Country Mourns Whats-Her-Name” over a picture of Penny. Ha ha ha, a clever statement on how the death of women in comics and action movies is used to further the plot but no one is ever meant to care about them as people in and of themselves!

WAIT. For that to work, it would have had to REVERSE THAT TROPE by making Penny a character with agency who we, as watchers, did in fact care about as a person. But since her whole existence was only to further Dr. Horrible’s story, and she had no personality whatsoever, and her death was stupid and handled in an extraordinarily shitty manner, all it does is highlight the ways in which Dr. Horrible failed.

And it puts Whedon straight in Aaron Sorkin territory: Sorry, dude, you don’t get to do ironic commentary on the treatment of women in the media when you fail so spectacularly with the female characters (oops, character, there was just the one) in your own production.

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42 thoughts on “Horrible Thoughts

  • July 19, 2008 at 8:43 am
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    Thank you for giving me a reason not to finish watching. I got halfway through the first section before the main character’s Nice Guy-ness (and the fact that he was trying so damn hard that I know he’d fuck shit up) annoyed me so much I stopped. I was meaning to try and watch again, but now… nah. Not even gonna try.

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  • July 19, 2008 at 10:00 am
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    Penny (as in “penny for your thoughts” and not worth a dime more) was literally F’ed by Hammer (once for kicks and twice for the wierd stuff) and then F’ed by Horrible (using his “male enhancement” = death ray via his other male enhancement Hammer). Moral of the story to me: women get screwed every which way by men because women are seen as having no worth other than screwing. And the irony is that screwdrivers weren’t part of the story: “hammer” and “nail” were. I’m glad that Penny didn’t bust out Buffy moves and take the F’ers out – she would have gone from nice girl to beotch in 60s. But I’m sad she died and unfortunately, it’s what happens to lots of women caught between men in work environments, in community involvement, in every facet of life. We are losing (death to our spirits) battles and the war rages. I could spend days analyzing the story. Brilliant, sad, wish it weren’t true.

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  • July 19, 2008 at 12:01 pm
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    I’m so disappointed that I can’t even work up the energy to be *angry*. I’m just sitting here like “…Really, Joss? Really?” It would have been so easy to make her more than that, and he just didn’t bother.

    (On the other hand, it did make me want to do an internet musical like whoa. So there’s that.)

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  • July 19, 2008 at 1:26 pm
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    Regarding your dissection:

    1. That’s a bit unfair in a 45-minute story with only three characters. In fact, I’m pretty sure it would fail the test even if the genders were reversed? Hammer and Horrible don’t have any conversations that aren’t about Penny. (I guess some of the conversations between Horrible and his henchman would count…)

    One interesting question is why didn’t Whedon reverse the genders in the story? Doing so would make the story totally different, it couldn’t hang a lampshade on the Nice Guy / Jock dynamic if the genders of any of the main characters were changed. But that doesn’t answer the question.

    2. Completely true.

    3-5. What’s that got to do with it? Yes, I know that’s a common horror movie trope, but I’m not convinced that’s what’s going on here. Sure, Hammer provoked Horrible’s jealousy, but it seems he would have done that regardless of what he and Penny got up to in the bedroom.

    It’s worth noting that Hammer is nice to Penny, buys her frozen yogurt, takes interest in causes she supports, etc. He isn’t depicted as lying about liking her (and that seems like something he would brag about to Horrible when he’s rubbing that relationship in his face).

    > “I’m sure she could have been his sexy supervillainous Number Two character.”

    I assume that is sarcasm, since that seems wildly out-of-character. Actually, I think Penny would have better long-term relationship prospects with Hammer. He’s kind of a jerk, but his idealism (of sorts) is a better match for her idealism than Horrible’s anarchistic, nihilistic, self-admittedly “evil” approach.

    > WAIT. For that to work, it would have had to REVERSE THAT TROPE by making Penny a character with agency who we, as watchers, did in fact care about as a person.

    That’s what I thought he did. This is probably the heart of our disagreement. I did care about Penny as a person, at least as much as the other main characters. All were one-dimensional characters with primary idealistic goals and decidedly secondary relationship goals. Penny is the naive idealist to Horrible’s well-intended madman and Hammer’s super-heroic jerk. Perhaps you think that Penny should have been less one dimensional or more (less?) goal-oriented than the other two characters. If so, I’m curious as to why. I wonder how the story would have been affected if that was the case.

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  • July 19, 2008 at 2:09 pm
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    L33tminion:

    1) Fair enough; it’s a short show without a lot of defined characters. However, while Horrible and Hammer both seem to represent archetypes (the Nice Guy and frat boy respectively) they also both have strong personalities. The best description of Penny I’ve seen was in the comments to a post at Feministe, where she was described as “an idea to be fought over.” Unlike the guys, that’s all she was. She represented hope and goodness — which is a very gendered role.

    3-5) What that’s got to do with it is a cultural history of women being punished for being sexual, and it’s not the first time Whedon has fallen into that trope. And it’s got the double-whammy of not just her dying after it’s been announced to the public that she had sex, but being killed (albeit accidentally) by the POV character, who wanted to have sex with her, and didn’t get to. The first two acts set it up so that we like Horrible and want him to end up with Penny, so there’s an element of “If only she’d liked the Nice Guy, this wouldn’t have happened!” That makes me mad because she should be able to consent to sex with anyone she pleases and not have to worry about getting murdered.

    It’s worth noting that Hammer is nice to Penny, buys her frozen yogurt, takes interest in causes she supports, etc. He isn’t depicted as lying about liking her (and that seems like something he would brag about to Horrible when he’s rubbing that relationship in his face).

    He may like her, but — like Horrible — his interest in her hobbies isn’t genuine. It may have started out that way, but he makes it more than clear that what he really wants is to use her as an object to humiliate another man. He doesn’t care about her causes or her hobby; he likes the glory doing something good in public will get him. And while he may be nice to Penny to her face, bragging about how he’s going to nail her, talking about it publicly (and she does appear to be humiliated by that), and using her cause to further his own reputation are all pretty rotten things, and I would argue they’re also deceitful. Aside from possibly on their first date, he isn’t nice to Penny. He uses her.

    You’re right about the sarcasm. That was me rolling my eyes about the ridiculous female character cliches generally, but I can see how it didn’t come across clearly. Sorry about that.

    I don’t think Penny had much of a long-term chance with Hammer, though, or if it was long-term that it would be a happy relationship, because he was primarily using her. (I found his line about “getting to do the weird stuff” as implying that if he didn’t want to do the weird stuff with her, he wouldn’t have gone out with here again; ymmv.) I also don’t think he was particularly and idealist, though; I think he liked the glory and attention of being a superhero, but was primarily a jerk.

    Clearly we feel differently about Penny’s character; I think there was a lot less to her than there was to Horrible or Hammer, and that that’s a problem. For example, she only got one funny line (“Now I can picture it clearly…” or whatever her sad comment about being fired was), even in the two acts that were largely comedy.

    I think giving her a more dynamic personality could only have helped. Even had she ultimately died in the same way, if she’d had enough personality for the watcher to know how she really felt about the situation (instead of vague hints that maybe Hammer wasn’t as amazing as she’d first though, or maybe Billy was a sweet guy she might like — though I don’t think his Nice Guy behavior should have been rewarded but that’s a whole other can of worms) then viewers would have been able to identify with her more strongly, and her death would have had a larger emotional impact. I still wouldn’t have been thrilled, but I’d have been less angry at her character’s treatment overall.

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  • July 19, 2008 at 7:11 pm
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    I was linked to this blog and it says everything I was fumbling to say about my disappointment with the ending, especially as Penny and Dr Horrible really had started to connect on ways to change the world, and then BLAM! nothing!

    Thanks for being so articulate.

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  • July 19, 2008 at 9:46 pm
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    Aside from the gratuitous snipes at Sorkin, I certainly agree with the spirit of your post, and also with most of the details.

    Personally, I was very fond of Dr. Horrible/Billy as a character; I accepted him as a comedic, over-the-top, faux-evil version of the twitching nerd who’s constantly being shown up by the preening bully. I’m not as quick as others to stick him in the “Nice Guy” category; as I wrote in Greer’s LJ, I thought he and Penny always had an element of flirtation in their interactions, so it wasn’t the false-veneer-of-friendship that I associate with Nice Guy Syndrome.

    But I too hated the treatment of Penny in Act III. She was just beginning to come into her own at the end of Act II, and then . . . nada. One line in a full-cast song, and then she gets a death line that says NOTHING about her character, but is merely meant to drive Billy further into madness. She is reduced to a shadow of a wisp of an idea, and we are back to square one, i.e. Act I, in which she is just a pretty face with a social conscience.

    And I was incensed at how hard they hit the “THEY HAD SEX OMG WTF BBQ” bullshit. Children, kindly calm the fuck down about the sex. These characters are clearly in their thirties; you want to believe that they’d be PAST THAT “sex carries more weight than any other act in the known universe!!111!!!” stuff.

    I disagree with your #5 — I think the clear implication was that basically everyone was to blame for Penny’s death but Penny.

    Anyway. That was jumbled, I realize. But I think there could have been some seriously meaningful ending in which Penny actually causes something to happen by choice, not chance, thus putting this stupid gendered shit to bed, but no. Of course not.

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  • July 20, 2008 at 12:50 pm
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    The criticism are completely incorrect. For instance we are shown that Penny repeatdely questions her relationship with Captain Hammer, and actually sort of leaves him(or at least leaves the stage during his speech, cause she’s fed up.) The fact that Penny is semi-angelic, cares about the homeless, is sweet and caring, does NOT make her a shallow character. Is she a “prize”, absolutely, because the character is an amazing human being. Evil Doctors, superheroes and viewers can see that. So why can’t you??
    Aaron Sorkin is also an amazing writer of characters, male or female. You however, write some very poorly reserched and halff assed stuff though.

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  • July 20, 2008 at 1:00 pm
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    Morten — I’m approving your comment despite the fact that I find it to be incredibly rude. I don’t mind people disagreeing with me and am totally up for debate and discussion, but I don’t appreciate the disrespect.

    With regards to your point, I disagree. She’s a “prize” in that she’s something two men fight over; they aren’t fighting over her because she’s angelic and wonderful — Horrible fell for her because of how she looked, long before he ever spoke to her and found out she was a good person; Hammer only wanted her to piss off Horrible. She wasn’t a shallow character because she was nice and caring, and she wasn’t a shallow person; she was a shallow character because she was undeveloped and unused as anything except as a prize in a cockfight between two men.

    Marissa — Fair enough on number five. I don’t think it’s what the show intended at all, but to me it seemed like the logical extension of the Nice Guy problem Dr. Horrible had. I do think the show was self-aware enough that we weren’t supposed to blame her, but given the lead-up it easily could have gone that way.

    Re: your last paragraph, hell yes.

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  • July 20, 2008 at 1:09 pm
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    I think that Dr. Horrible is a satire of the superhero/supervillain conflict as male power fantasy, and the characters are largely stock figures who exist to further that concept, so I really can’t agree with your criticisms.

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  • July 20, 2008 at 1:14 pm
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    Danielle Ni Dhighe — I don’t think being a satire puts it away from criticism. I find the reduction of a female character (stock or otherwise) to an object being fought over as a way to further male power fantasy very worthy of criticism, in fact.

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  • July 20, 2008 at 1:23 pm
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    Interesting commentary. I agree that Penny’s death serves as a plot point — though it might be worth taking into consideration that Whedon regularly kills off likable characters, not all of them female.

    I agree her sweet, innocence is gendered and her initial ability to overlook Captain Hammer’s self-absorption is clueless. A far cry from the wit of Buffy, certainly.

    The point I do disagree with here is wishing that she would have made something happen by choice, rather than chance. I disagree because one of the (depressing? distressing?) thematic points of this piece is that no one here is making things happen. Dr. Horrible brings the death ray into the situation and that’s his responsibility — but he’s not the one that fires it. Captain Hammer does fire it but he means to kill Dr. Horrible — instead it backfires on him, sends out random shrapnel and inadvertently kills Penny. If others acted with agency, Penny’s lack of it would be a gender issue. But when no one acts with agency, then I think it’s the world view of the work. One in which the “good” guy is self-absorbed and shallow, the villian is aware the world needs changing but won’t do it in a good way, and the population at large worships whichever media figure seems to have power (though none actually do). It’s a portrait of a world in need of saving and no one to tackle the job.

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  • July 20, 2008 at 1:54 pm
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    I think it’s worth mentioning that Penny is the only one really working for social change – she volunteers at a homeless shelter and is attempting to set up a better facility. It’s Hammer’s signature that gets the mayor to open the place, but Hammer’s only doing it to impress her, so ultimately it’s her influence that causes it to happen.

    I think it’s also possible that she was even starting to influence Hammer into seeing that fighting evil by strength alone isn’t enough – he’s still a jackass in the end, but maybe she opened his eyes a little. People don’t change overnight.

    The story could be seen as a cautionary tale – Dr. Horrible idealizes Penny, and Hammer objectifies her, and in the end neither one gets what they want. If Horrible had set aside his megalomaniacal plans and just talked to her, he wouldn’t have set the events in action that ultimately killed her. All of Dr. Horrible’s ambitions turn out to be hollow, and in the end he’s miserable.

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  • July 20, 2008 at 2:07 pm
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    It’s hard for me to think of Penny at any point being a female-power type written role. In fact, there are some instances where if they would have provided the character of Penny with anything more then 2-dimensional nature, it would have ruined the context of the story.

    Penny is written in almost exact comic book style. We know nothing about her. She represents everything “good” in the most simple sense, but we have no reason to know anything about her any more then we know about say, a coffee table.

    Joss has done a pretty good job of satirizing the way characters are played within a comic book structure. Modern comic books portray the female lead character as just a prop; and darndest to fulfill that role.

    If you look at every character, they behave and act with almost mechanical similarity to comic books made film. The difference is the consequences of their action don’t meet with the same results they expect.

    The Hero is a nameless chad-sladbody who does his job and cares very little and obviously thinks very little about the results of his actions. The Villain has one central goal. The short goes out of it’s way to show the Villain has a much more complex narrative.. why does he do these things? Is any Villain really truly evil? In the end, he mourns over the loss of Penny while Hammer runs away…

    Hammer was the prototypical Hero, but when it was discovered that he had nothing really at risk in any of these instances (because he felt no pain he never put himself at risk before, and didn’t envision himself at risk) everything else around him was simply a prop to play off of.

    Penny was his prop. Penny, like I said above, meant very little in the Hero’s viewpoint more then say, a Coffee Table. The Hero’s viewpoint didn’t allow for her to grow, because she was an expected perk rather then any real being.

    Dr. Horrible, the Villain, couldn’t work to legitimize Penny, because as was established in Act II, she was a force of “good” who disliked where he was going – even if he showed Penny, as he thought, that he was a power of good, there was no way she would join with him in anything, she had already rejected that option.

    Your argument that you had to reverse the trope is wrong. If he had worked to make Penny a more central character who acted of her own agency she would have been the only one in the piece who did so.

    The whole piece effectively sent up all comics. Everyone played their role, actions happened as expected, we simply saw it from a different angle. What it really does is bring to light the fact that millions of people rush to see Comic Book films where this exact script basically plays out from the Hero’s viewpoint, and no one comes up with similar criticism or sees it in such a way.

    (And, if we want to talk about super-stereotypical females roles, Batman: TDK is FULL of them, but will, again, rake in tons of $$$ because, told from the Hero’s perspective, it’s a lot easier to forget that the Hero is doing much the same thing in that as Hammer did here.. with just slightly more subtle dialog)

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  • July 20, 2008 at 2:37 pm
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    I don’t entirely disagree with your criticisms, but I do want to defend Dr. Horrible a bit, because I did like it (though it’s pretty slight compared to other Whedon works, and just as goofy). So, a couple things:

    First, I don’t think it’s fair to judge a work’s success solely on political or even moral grounds. It’s good to be conscious of gender roles in fiction, and to think about the messages any given piece is sending, but not everything is about sex. Well okay, maybe everything is about sex, but not everything is consciously making a point about sex, any more than everything is making a point about class and economics or race. Which is why I am a little leery of criticism that looks at every work of art from a Marxist perspective, or a multiculturalist perspective, or a feminist perspective. I think all those movements make valid points, and can help us understand some things better, but I’m not on-board with any of their criteria for a successful work being the only worthwhile criteria. (Not that that’s necessarily what you’re doing here, but…) Of course, you might also say that Whedon deserves this kind of crit since he does think about feminism in his work, so whatever.

    I also think that it’s not really fair to criticize this particular work for the lack of depth in Penny’s character. With just 45 minutes to work with, Dr. Horrible is the only character that is anywhere close to complex or well-rounded; Penny, Captain Hammer, and Moist are all primarily foils for Dr. Horrible with only the slightest of nods toward development of their own. In my reading of the show, the central conflict is all within Dr. Hammer’s head, with Penny and Captain Hammer representing his two possible paths.

    On the one hand, Penny has a nuanced, shades-of-grey vision of the world (“everything just happens”). She can see both the good in Captain Hammer (and he is good, and does good for the world, even though we don’t really get to see much of that) and the bad, and she is clearly ambivalent about her relationship with him because of that. Captain Hammer (and Moist and Bad Horse) represent the starker, cartoony world where there is only good and evil (or the status quo and change if you’re looking at it from evil’s perspective), and you have to choose sides. When Penny dies, Dr. Horrible loses his shot at a colorful, morally ambiguous world in favor of the silly comic-book world, and while this allows him to fully embrace evil and become successful there, it’s a lot emptier.

    That said, I also disagree that we as viewers don’t care about Penny. I felt it like a punch in the stomach when she died, and kept waiting till after the credits for some sort of cop-out or something, until I remembered it was Joss Whedon, who loves killing characters. I think her death works the same as, say, Uncle Ben’s death in Spider-man does. Uncle Ben is not a particularly well-drawn character either, but we feel the pain because we identify with Peter so much. Joss goes to a lot of trouble to make us identify with Dr. Horrible, and so we feel his pain at Penny’s death in the same way.

    This is probably rambly and typo-ridden and stuff, but I’m too lazy to try to make any sense out of it, so here ya go.

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  • July 20, 2008 at 3:43 pm
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    Terrie – I can see the point you’re making, but I strongly disagree that none of the characters have agency. None of the characters is directly responsible for Penny’s death, but that isn’t the same thing. Throughout the three episodes, we see Dr. Horrible making decisions, making plans and carrying them out with varying levels of success, and taking decisive actions. He’s the POV character, so of course we see the most of this from him. Hammer does the same to a lesser extent, because he is not the point of view, but we still see him actually doing things by choice and design, as ridiculous and shallow as they are.

    Penny, on the other hand, really doesn’t do that. Her only goal is to help the homeless, which is definitely admirable—but she is failing at it when she runs into Horrible on the street. The success of converting the building comes from Hammer, who does it for her; that takes away her agency with regards to her only goal. She almost dies and is saved by him, so goes out with him; she starts to feel dissatisfaction with him, and may be leaving him, but as she does she dies and her last line takes back any initiative she was showing.

    That, to me, is a gender issue.

    Zoinkers – As I mentioned in response to Terrie above, I don’t agree that just because Penny is the one who wants the shelter created means that she causes it to happen. She was working towards it, but Hammer did it for her (and he did it to try and sleep with her, not because he thought it was an inherently good thing), which erases her agency.

    The story could be seen as a cautionary tale – Dr. Horrible idealizes Penny, and Hammer objectifies her, and in the end neither one gets what they want.

    I think I see your point here, but my problem is that Penny is still not an active player in this tale. One of my friends described her very well as “a toy they fought over until she broke.” And it upsets me that that’s all she is, despite good intentions.

    Chris – I think we agree on a lot of points here, but ultimately just disagree in conclusion. (Also, “chad-sladbody” is my new favorite phrase. *g*) Ultimately, while I think there is a lot of inversion of comic book tropes happening here, I don’t think Penny’s role is in any way one of them.

    The reversal is in how we see the hero and the villain; you’re dead-on about that. We see a villain with complex motivations, and we empathize with him. We see Chad Sladbody the hero, who’s really just an ass causing trouble, and we want him defeated. That’s pretty cool in and of itself—the problem is that the role of “girl who dies tragically to make the sympathetic character sad” is not at all reversed. In a traditional story, her death would have been important to Hammer’s development as a hero; in this reversal, it’s important to Horrible’s development as a villain. But the death is still all about the male character, and not about Penny. (As for her agency, I explained in my above comment to Terrie why I think she was the only one lacking it.)

    As for Batman: TDK, I haven’t seen it yet, but read spoilers for it a few months ago. My reaction was, I’d guess, exactly what you’d expect.

    Jonathan – First off, I am a feminist and this is a feminist blog. I critique things from a feminist perspective because, while I freely and happily admit it’s not the only criteria that makes a product successful (unless you are using a very, very narrowly-defined meaning of success) it is one that matters a lot to me; I have a hard time enjoying media that smacks of sexism, and that’s not something I can turn off or choose not to care about. I had been very much enjoying Dr. Horrible until the third act; I absolutely think that, while it wasn’t intended to be sexist, Penny’s death played into some very sexist tropes, and that ruined the product for me. So while it may be seen as a success to others, or overall if it achieves its goal of proving money can be made off of new media (and I will be pleased for the media if it does, despite my opinion of the show), for me it was a failure.

    Second, I don’t think that a feminist reading has to be invited for it to be valid; but by being very up front about his feminism – something I very much appreciate! – I agree that Whedon invites it, and that’s part of my disappointment here. I really feel he could have done better from a feminist perspective, he’s one of the few writers I genuinely would have expected to do better, and I’m sad that he didn’t.

    Regarding your actual points, part of the problem may be that I didn’t identify with Peter, and I don’t identify with Horrible. In fact, I really can’t identify with Horrible – so much of his character was about being a Nice Guy (that is, a guy who sees himself as very nice and wanting to do the right thing, who feels he is deserving of dating the girl he wants but can’t work up the courage to talk to her, and who feels possessive of her and robbed because she dates someone else), that, while I could enjoy watching his character to some extent, I couldn’t put myself in his shoes. This may be partially a personality thing, and partially a gender thing, but because I didn’t identify with him, I felt no pain at Penny’s death.

    Further, the assumption that we should feel his pain at Penny’s death is part of the problem as I see it. Her death is entirely about his pain. That removes what little personality she had entirely.

    I think your point about Penny representing nuance and Hammer representing black-and-white as worldviews is very interesting and a valid reading of the text, but it still ends the same way—Penny is sacrificed in favor of the development of Horrible’s character. If that isn’t a problem for you, then we’ll have to agree to disagree, because in any reading of the text, it is one for me.

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  • July 20, 2008 at 4:07 pm
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    My point about Dr. Horrible being a cautionary tale is that both Horrible and Hammer are over-active, and their actions cause more harm than good. Penny is active in her humanitarian efforts, and the only reason Hammer is the one to set up the shelter is because he’s the superhero, and Penny is non-powered. I don’t think it’s a gender issue so much as an issue of power being in the wrong hands. Nonetheless, she does more for good than both of the other characters. We don’t see it on-screen, but again, these things don’t happen overnight.

    As for her death (the main issue here), I was initially disappointed, but began to see the story as a tragedy illustrating how caring, generous people are out-shouted, overshadowed, and often killed by those who feel it’s better to make grand gestures and exercise force. Maybe having the force concentrated in the hands of the male characters and making the caring, generous role female makes this a gender issue, but I don’t think it’s anti-feminist because the use of force is ultimately bemoaned. I see Penny as the reasoned voice in the midst of self-absorbed carelessness.

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  • July 20, 2008 at 4:23 pm
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    You said:
    “3-5) What that’s got to do with it is a cultural history of women being punished for being sexual, and it’s not the first time Whedon has fallen into that trope. And it’s got the double-whammy of not just her dying after it’s been announced to the public that she had sex, but being killed (albeit accidentally) by the POV character, who wanted to have sex with her, and didn’t get to. The first two acts set it up so that we like Horrible and want him to end up with Penny, so there’s an element of “If only she’d liked the Nice Guy, this wouldn’t have happened!” That makes me mad because she should be able to consent to sex with anyone she pleases and not have to worry about getting murdered.”

    I cannot follow you here. Yes, she dies and didn’t have sex with Horrible, but before that she waits at the coin wash with frozen joghurt for two – but Horrible doesn´t come, because he is too busy planning his childish revenge. My first thought was: “If HE had come to the coin wash, instead of working on his phallic death ray gun, he would have – sorry for being Hammerisc – totally had sex with her, and she would have lived. So it is his fault all the way.

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  • July 20, 2008 at 4:24 pm
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    I just found this. Part of me wants to disagree because of the limited nature of the series; because I think that this story wouldn’t have worked as well with a more fully developed Penny (it would make Horrible’s “love” less vapid) – but in the end, then Whedon should have come up with a different story so that it would have worked in this limited nature. Your criticisms don’t ruin the show for me, but I certainly find them valid. And excusing a lack of quality by low production values or whatever doesn’t work. A character doesn’t need CGI to be less flat. Especially since we are used to better things from Joss.

    Thanks, and watch Serenity already.

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  • July 20, 2008 at 5:55 pm
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    Hmmm interesting take on a simple 45min act. To be honest I never thought t dissect it along the male/female divide and just viewed penny as a character (not particularly as her being a female.
    Just a few points
    “Penny had always been kind of weak, because as a character, Penny had absolutely no agency whatsoever.” – I’m not sure that’s particularly true she had her own agenda of attempting to improve society, I think her hope in humanity allowed her the ability to do this in the face of overwhelming adversity as opposed to Dr H who just saw misery and futility and Captain H who was just out to further his own agenda instead of actually being of any benefit.
    “She falls for Captain Hammer and never questions his bullshit, even though from the watcher’s POV it’s obvious, which makes her look pretty stupid.” – I don’t think that’s quite right either, to be fair she’s only known this guy for just a little while (and aside from Dr H no-one seems to see through this guys bullshit. I don’t think she’s any stupider then the rest of the nation. She has her reservations as shown in her hesitating response to “how is cheesy on the outside” and her halting line “This is perfect for me, So they say, I guess he’s pretty okay” and she does eventually start to wake up (albeit after public humiliation) and leave the arena.
    “So Captain Hammer uses her (both her body for sex and her cause for glory), and it drives Dr. Horrible mad.” – yes but not just because he wants her as a prize I think to him she represented the good in humanity, and for her to also be taken in by this Asshole meant he no longer saw any good or hope for the world hence the evil in him rising.
    1. Not only does the show completely fail the Bechdel test, there is only one female character with a name, and she has no agency at any point in the show; – there were only 3 characters in the show overall………and I think her agency was to bring out humanity in those her life impacted…..I don’t think she needed to be particularly verbose to do that.
    2. Her noble death is used to further the POV character’s story, AKA, she’s totally fridged. – All deaths in whedonverse affect the other characters (very much reflective of real life where deaths are a catalyst for change good and bad) I don’t think this is a comment about her or her value or strength
    3. She specifically dies after she’s had sex! – hmmmm very few people on whedonverse don’t have sex it was bound to happen…….
    4. She specifically dies after she’s had sex with someone who isn’t the Nice Guy main character who was totally sweet to her and bought her frozen yogurt! (How dare she…?)- I’m confused, you would have preferred her to stay with the jerk who was using her for his own glory?? If anything her flaw was in buying into public opinion “so they say” in not listening to her own instinct. I think people male and female are guilty of this and is a sign of weakness yes but also of humanity, I’m not sure I believe ANYONE is free of all weaknesses.
    5. She had sex with someone who isn’t the Nice Guy main character, causing him to go evil(-er) and thus try and kill Captain Hammer, but she died instead, so it was her own fault! – I don’t think many people saw it like that, a lot of fans on reflection realized that once Dr H focused on his heist over and above persuing the one thing that made him “human” he took a path down a series of choices that led to him becoming evil. I think anyone thought she deserved what she got (if anything the point was that it was totally undeserved – hence confirming Dr H opinion that the world sucks)
    Conclusion: if only she’d had sex with Dr. Horrible instead, everything would have been fine! I’m sure she could have been his sexy supervillainous Number Two character. – no I think there are numerous conclusions mainly about choices we make, what drives a person to their actions and such, I agree penny wasn’t as well developed as Dr H but to be honest Captain H was the least developed of all the characters.
    I could go on but I think this is running overly long. Sorry. Thanks for an interesting article though

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  • July 20, 2008 at 6:14 pm
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    Fair enough. I consider myself a feminist, as far as that goes, and drawing attention to these issues is important. And I certainly wasn’t trying to suggest that an uninvited feminist criticism wasn’t valid; that would be pretty silly to suggest. Just that not every work is all that interesting with a blindly feminist reading (i.e., I’m not interested in grading every work based on how well it agrees with my values, which is how some critics read to me, though Marxists and Christians are way worse than feminists on this score). I might not be expressing myself clearly on this point, but I can’t really figure out how to say it better.

    And like I said, I don’t entirely disagree with your criticisms. I think that you can definitely look at the Dr. Horrible as examples of “fridging” and the “nice guy” trope, though like you I don’t think they were intended to be sexist. So if those specific things are deal-breakers for you, then I can see why the show would be disappointing, even infuriating. Hell, there are tropes that I can’t stand, that I don’t even object to on a moral basis, but will still ruin my enjoyment of a work.

    But, on the other hand, I still think it was a good show. For me, anyway it did what it intended to do. I did indentify with Dr. Horrible (and Peter Parker), and I liked the songs and I laughed at the jokes and I was sad when Penny died, and for me that is basically enough. While I can dislike and condemn the woman in the refigerator as a trope in the larger sense, in this particular instance I can pretty much ignore it, and just enjoy the work on the levels I do enjoy it on. Perhaps this is a sign that my feminism isn’t as serious or sensitive as yours, or maybe it’s a gender or personality thing like you said.

    We’ll just agree to disagree, and thanks for taking the time to respond to me. Oh, and as others have said, Firefly/Serenity is totally worth taking the time to watch.

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  • July 20, 2008 at 6:22 pm
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    Just a couple of tings I thought I’d say.

    First, I wouldn’t say that Penny dating Captain Hammer was the beginning of Dr. Horrible’s fall to darkness. Sure, he brooded about it, tried to tell her what an idiot he was, but that’s about as far as it went. He wasn’t happy about it, but he more or less accepted it. It was only when he found out Captain Hammer was only using her to get at him that he finally fell. In that regard, I felt it was less Dr. Horrible fighting for Penny and more the last straw of abuse that finally broke him.

    “And I was incensed at how hard they hit the “THEY HAD SEX OMG WTF BBQ” bullshit. Children, kindly calm the fuck down about the sex. These characters are clearly in their thirties; you want to believe that they’d be PAST THAT “sex carries more weight than any other act in the known universe!!111!!!” stuff.”

    And on this note, I thought that was EXACTLY the point. Captain Hammer, a man in his thirties who isn’t past that stuff. He is exactly that immature and it seemed to me the only reason it was brought into the story at all was to accentuate that.

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  • July 20, 2008 at 7:24 pm
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    I actually agree with you entirely on Sorkin. The devolution of his strong women characters in the second season of “Sports Night” taught me his game and nothing he’s done since can really dissuade me.

    However, this line bothers me immensely: “Sorry, dude, you don’t get to do ironic commentary on the treatment of women in the media when you fail so spectacularly with the female characters”.

    I wasn’t aware there was a checklist. I especially wasn’t aware that a writer who has essentially constructed almost every single piece of work he’s done in the last 15 years around the concept of female empowerment needed to fulfill all the items on that checklist.

    Maybe your lack of familiarity with Whedon’s work is a part of this. Or, given what I consider your baffling ambivalence to “Buffy,” perhaps you don’t read his work the way I do. Applying some sort of simplistic test such as “Do the women get killed/punished after they have sex?” flattens even the most subtle narrative choices. And it’s awfully difficult when you’ve got a writer who is entirely about using genre conventions, breaking them, reversing them, and laying them on ironically.

    So without writing an entire essay here, let’s just say that I disagree in the extreme.

    But one side point before I go. A lot of mention comes of the frozen yogurt, which Dr. Horrible buys for Penny and of course Capt. Hammer buys as well as a part of their arms-race courting of her. (Need I suggest that her death comes across as the inevitable outcome of two men treating her like property?) But you’re missing another piece, a scene in the middle of a musical number that might have been skipped.

    After hooking up with Hammer, Penny returns to the laundromat with two containers of frozen yogurt. She’s waiting for Billy/Dr. Horrible. But he doesn’t show, because he’s too busy working up his violent plans to kill Captain Hammer. This is the moment where Penny has, perhaps, made the decision that she wants to talk to Billy, and (given how they were interrupted previously) perhaps make her own choice, to be with him rather than the Captain.

    That’s Penny very subtly making her own decision, but of course the men in the story have decided that they’re not going to listen to her, because they’re amped-up heroes and villains who are going to fight one another over the woman they contest, no matter how much she protests.

    I can’t deny that in the end she’s just another victim. But given the rest of the context of the piece (and it’s only 42 minutes long, so there’s not massive amounts of it), I would chalk it up to being a bit more meaningful than your usual slutty teen who has sex and then is immediately murdered by a stock horror-movie trope wearing a mask and wielding a box cutter.

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  • July 20, 2008 at 7:31 pm
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    One supplemental point, and I apologize for the second post, but this comes from a comment…

    “While it wasn’t intended to be sexist, Penny’s death played into some very sexist tropes, and that ruined the product for me.”

    Just looking for some clarity here. Did the death bother you because you read it as a sexist act, or did it bother you because since it “played into some sexist tropes,” it risks the work being inappropriately appreciated by sexists?

    This sort of criticism is hard to draw, but it’s even harder if the criticism is at how the work might be taken by an imagined sexist viewer, versus how the work is read by someone who is viewing it in the context of the artist’s other work.

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  • July 20, 2008 at 8:44 pm
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    Rebecca-

    I appreciate your response and your thoughts. I agree with some of your points. I think part of the craft of something like this is that some characters have to be drawn in ways that may or may not be complimentary to their gender. I think you put a lot of solid thought into your argument, and it’s a well crafted reason. That’s all I would ask of any person who sits in honest criticism of any product. While we disagree on the exigent circumstances that define Penny’s character, I get your viewpoint. In the end, very few people are here to bash anyone else viewpoint, rather a good exchange of ideas. I’ve read several (far more vicious) criticisms of different works of art I’ve appreciated from strategic viewpoints that tend to resort to hyperbolic screaming.

    Your base argument is very well thought out. I think part of what makes this very tricky is the nature of the viewing audience. For those of us who grew up reading flat-plain comic books, especially of the Marvel / DC / Alternate books. Or, in the more modern Genre, the male-dominated roles and attitudes of things like “Grand Theft Auto”.

    In fact, in some ways, Penny is the perfect foil for the latest trends in comic books and similar media that play directly to young males. In GTA-IV, the opening “GirlFriend” character is portrayed later as both a good guy (an FBI Agent, basically) and at the same time, continuously referred to and played against as a soiled good guy for her corruption.. for helping to flip you; in the end, power-women in the modern form are portrayed as idiots/sell-outs/creepy/deadly whereas women who fulfill the most purient roles (hookers/drug dealers/etc.) are portrayed as having the most male friendly dialog without a sliver of sarcasm present.

    Penny is portrayed throughout Dr. Horrible as the only character with truly pure motives; she’s seeking resolution of a political issue through legitimate means. Meanwhile, the two males are either idiotic (Hammer) or Evil (Dr. Horrible) and it is their power struggle that results in the death of the only “pure” character.

    I get your argument, I do. I may not agree with it, but I appreciate your thought process on it, and find your blog well written and interesting.

    BTW, your comment about dating or knowing a non-Sci Fi fan is interesting. I want to add a brief point on that too; differences are the spice of a good relationship, who would want to date someone exactly like themselves, no excitement in that, nothing new to learn. The ability to respect and love the differences about each other is part of what makes every relationship good.

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  • July 20, 2008 at 9:18 pm
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    Zoinkers — I think what I’m not getting about your reading is that you say both that Penny is the active character and Hammer only helps because he’s a hero; but it’s a cautionary tale about the havoc the Hammers of the world cause. I don’t really see how it can be both—if Penny’s the hero for her work and Hammer is destructive, shouldn’t it be her work and not his destructiveness that has the influence?

    I don’t think Penny is the reasoned voice because I don’t think she gets much of a voice at all. If that was the intention and it had come across clearly, I’d agree, but it really didn’t come across that way to me.

    Gelastes — I brought up the frozen yogurt because it is such an extreme part of the Nice Guy stereotype that Dr. Horrible represents. (Not sure if you’re familiar with the stereotype I’m talking about, if not there’s some info here.) Part of that is the “I listened to you/bought you presents and you still didn’t date me” attitude, which I felt that Horrible’s actions played into. And why do you think she’d have had sex with him if he’d shown up? Assuming she was starting to be upset by Hammer’s actions, she could very well have been looking for just a friend with a sympathetic ear—but that also plays into the stereotype, where the Nice Guy resents being just a friend and feels he should be rewarded for listening to her with sex. (To be clear, I’m saying this is what I see in Horrible’s character, and not an inference about you–I absolutely don’t want that to get mistaken.)

    So if you read the show as being about a Nice Guy, as I did (and I think to some extent as we were meant to, ymmv on that) then her action is still just a part of the typical narrative.

    Patrick Pricken — Thanks for the comment. I certainly wouldn’t expect everyone’s enjoyment of the show to come to a screeching halt as mine did, but I’m glad to know that my criticisms make sense regardless (at least to some, though I try not to begrudge those who disagree).

    Sarah — My thoughts on Penny’s agency with regard to her humanitarian efforts are a few comments up, in the one I addressed to Terrie. As for her being stupid, I don’t think she’s meant to be, but that’s a side effect of having a strong POV for the whole show. It’s obvious to Horrible, and thus to the watcher, that Hammer is not a good dude; that makes it remarkable that no one else notices.

    yes but not just because he wants her as a prize I think to him she represented the good in humanity, and for her to also be taken in by this Asshole meant he no longer saw any good or hope for the world hence the evil in him rising.

    Well, again, that makes her responsible for his actions, which is unfair. Further, I think he did want her primarily as a prize, because he had been stalking her for at least some time before he ever talked to her and found out she was a humanitarian and an idealist. That may have been the icing on the cake, but she was his dream girl before he ever knew that.

    and I think her agency was to bring out humanity in those her life impacted…..I don’t think she needed to be particularly verbose to do that.

    I think we may be using different definitions of agency, here. I find her to be without agency because her choices (what few she makes, she is much more pulled along by events than either of the male characters) are shown to have little consequence or impact on the people around her—instead her death does. And I just can’t buy into a show where the most important thing a woman can do is die.

    About your points 2-4, the reason I noted in my original post that I’m not a huge Whedon fan and not familiar with his whole body of work is because I’m not criticizing this with regards to his other works, but as a stand-alone project. My comments about sex were not that she shouldn’t have had it, nor that she should have stayed with Hammer; my point is that her character had sex and died almost immediately thereafter. Furthermore, the man she was having sex with was only sleeping with her to 1) anger another man, and 2) get to do the weird stuff. So both in terms of what happens to her and what is done to her (and I don’t feel sex should ever be something that’s done to a person…), Penny having sex is shown in a very negative light.

    Point 5: I don’t think we’re supposed to take away that she deserve what she got or caused her own death, but I do think it’s a logical conclusion to draw.

    Jonathan — Indeed, this is a dealbreaker for me. And it seriously sucks, because I had also been enjoying the jokes and the songs until the third act, and I wish I’d been able to enjoy it all the way through. But I am totally cool with agreeing to disagree. Thanks for commenting. 🙂

    Anonymous — Well, he was already on his way into darkness because he was a villain. But the more important point is that it’s his feeling of being entitled to Penny that made it so hard for him to deal with her having sex with Hammer—if it had been truly presented as none of his business, it wouldn’t have caused him to go crazy. After all, she’s having sex with Hammer by choice, she seems to like him at that point, and he isn’t hurting her, so unless he feels entitled to control her sexuality, what’s the big deal? He might be upset about it (in part his own fault for never telling her how he feels) but he doesn’t have the right to try and stop their relationship in any way and obviously feels that he does

    Captain Hammer, a man in his thirties who isn’t past that stuff. He is exactly that immature and it seemed to me the only reason it was brought into the story at all was to accentuate that.

    Then why is it humiliating for Penny? He’s not the one who has to deal with the public humiliation of his announcement; she is, or rather, would be if she hadn’t died.

    Jason — Second comment first: Penny’s death is sexist. It is also an example of a sexist trope. These things are not sexist because there is a trope; they were all sexist in and of themselves, and the trope shows that there is a pattern to these individual acts. So it bothered me both within the context of the movie, and because it’s part of a larger trop, and had nothing to do with whether or not it would be appreciated by sexist viewers.

    With regards to that and to your previous comment, “I especially wasn’t aware that a writer who has essentially constructed almost every single piece of work he’s done in the last 15 years around the concept of female empowerment needed to fulfill all the items on that checklist,” it’s important to note that I am not viewing this within the context of Whedon’s larger work. That was why I wrote at the beginning of the original post that I’m only passingly familiar with Buffy, and not at all with Firefly. I’ve read some of his remarks on feminism and writing feminist characters, though, and I want to stress again that – with the exception of Dr. Horrible, which didn’t seem to – I really, genuinely appreciate that he seems to get it and try. However, within this show specifically, I think he failed, so within this show’s context, I was angered by the attempt at meta-commentary.

    Whether or not a female character is punished for having sex is not the only criteria I judge by, but I am pretty much universally annoyed when I see that cliché in action. I saw it here; I was annoyed by it here.

    And it’s awfully difficult when you’ve got a writer who is entirely about using genre conventions, breaking them, reversing them, and laying them on ironically.

    That’s part of my frustration! Whedon seems to know the conventions and is capable of breaking and reversing them—from what I saw of the show, that was the entire premise of Buffy, and he certainly reversed the hero and villain roles in Dr. Horrible quite well. But he didn’t subvert, reverse, or break WiR, he played directly into it.

    My thoughts about Penny and her waiting for Billy with yogurt are above in my comment to Gelastes, but I’m aware that’s a very specific reading and that not everyone will agree with that.

    That’s Penny very subtly making her own decision, but of course the men in the story have decided that they’re not going to listen to her, because they’re amped-up heroes and villains who are going to fight one another over the woman they contest, no matter how much she protests.

    My problem with this whole concept is that Penny’s protests carry no weight: if she had actual agency, they would, and her rejection of Hammer (and possibly Horrible) would still have shown the ridiculousness of the situation. And since we never get to see what her decisions regarding Hammer and Horrible would have been, or if she’d have been capable of leaving Hammer, or rejecting Horrible, I’m pretty unsatisfied with the momentarily inklings that she’s making a decision. Doubly so because the implication that she’s leaving Hammer are then canceled out by her last line.

    (Sorkin… Oh, lord. I really liked The West Wing’s first few seasons, and I loved Sports Night in its first run! And every time I try to rewatch, I get more and more frustrated with the portrayal of women. I am very glad I am not alone on that one!)

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  • July 20, 2008 at 9:39 pm
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    Chris – Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’m completely okay with agreeing disagree, and am glad people have taken the time to read and consider, even if they aren’t convinced by me.

    I’m not at all familiar with GTA, so I will take your word for it. 🙂

    I definitely agree that Penny is the only “pure” character, but I still find the treatment of her character to be sexist. YMMV, and that’s okay by me, too.

    As for relationships, very good point. My former boyfriend and I had very little in common, actually, but the up side was that I got exposed to lots and lots of new things and new situations. I didn’t end up taking to many of them, but I definitely don’t regret trying them!

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  • July 21, 2008 at 12:36 am
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    What I said was that “Penny is active in her humanitarian efforts”. She’s not the centrally active character, because it’s not her story. Hammer helps because he’s the superhero – he’s famous and has the sway. Hammer’s sweep of the pen may do a lot of immediate good, but it’s Penny’s long-term efforts that laid the ground-work. It never would’ve happened without her, and it’s possible that she could have done it without him, given enough time. Once again, the opening of the homeless shelter is the only good thing that happens in the story.

    In the first act, Penny gets her voice in her exchange with Billy/Dr. Horrible about bottom-up vs. top-down change. Billy scoffs at her signature collection and tells her she’s “treating the symptom” and that the “fish rots from the head, so you’ve got to cut it off.” Her retort is pretty witty, I think. “Cut off the head of the human race?” Billy’s response barely disguises his desire to take all the power for himself, and Penny steers him back to the subject of signatures. Ultimately she gets her way – the signature and eventually the opening of the shelter.

    I suppose it would be more feminist to put the power directly in her hands, but most of us don’t have that kind of power. Most of us can’t single-handedly set up a large organization. Most of us cower when there’s danger. Most of us aren’t willing to confront a public speaker, even if they’re in the process of humiliating us.

    Hammer shows he barely knows what to do with his power, and Billy only wants revenge for his powerlessness. To me, Penny symbolizes patience and the willingness to make subtle, non-destructive changes over a long period of time. She symbolizes it so well that she’s easily mistaken for someone who causes no change at all – but in that case, I think it says more about the viewer than the story itself. She could be more confrontational and more assertive, but considering where the confrontation between Hammer and Horrible got the both of them, I think Whedon ultimately falls on the side of Penny’s point of view – it’s better to make peace and try to see the good in people, and thus influence them through kindness, rather than to “bash in minds” with one’s own ideas.

    I don’t have much to say about her death, other than that the only message I take away from it is that good people die when self-absorbed people use too much force. All the “agency” in this story has negative effects – Penny’s relative powerlessness and non-confrontational tendencies leave her in a relatively good light, in my book. She uses what little power she has to effect the most positive change in the story (although it may have been completely undone in the end by Dr. Horrible’s ascension into the Evil League – but I doubt he would spite her memory by abolishing the work she had done).

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  • July 21, 2008 at 1:56 am
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    It might put things into a little more perspective to reiterate that at first, my views weren’t that far from yours. Penny did seem like a weak, underdeveloped character, and I was left cold by her death. I hadn’t made enough of a connection to feel much more than, “Aww, really?” But it wasn’t until I came here that I began to consider her character differently. I don’t mean that to sound snarky – you raised some important issues, and they got me to look at things a little more deeply … and ultimately to disagree with you.

    Nonetheless, the discussion is a valid and important one. I’m certainly not one of those fans who will snap at anyone who ‘dares question Whedon’s vision’ or anything like that. He set a high standard for himself, and deserves to be scrutinized under that standard. It’s just that in this instance I believe he withstands the scrutiny.

    If I’ve said a lot here, it’s because I really enjoy this sort of analytical discussion. I’d rather talk to someone with a drastically different viewpoint than someone who agrees with me completely. For one thing, I’ll admit that I’m not very aware of the stereotypes mentioned here, and that’s probably hurting my arguments some. “Damsel in distress” did cross my mind, but it didn’t seem to be the right cliché. Also, I have no idea what the Bechdel test is, and I’ve never heard the term “fridged”. So … there’s learning!

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  • July 21, 2008 at 11:20 am
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    I’m surprised so many people seem to think that being a “parody” means it can’t be criticized. There are good and bad parodies, and you take a risk anytime you parody something that’s potentially offensive – because if you’re not crystal clear on precisely what it is about the offensive material you’re making fun of, then even though people realize it’s a parody, they’re left questioning just exactly what you were making fun of.

    Also, Sorkin IS a grandstander who expects cookies every time he writes women. I *like* how he writes women frequently, but he seems to think getting it right sometimes means he can’t get it wrong, and that’s just not true.

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  • July 21, 2008 at 1:32 pm
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    “Then why is it humiliating for Penny? He’s not the one who has to deal with the public humiliation of his announcement; she is, or rather, would be if she hadn’t died.”

    Okay, that I read totally differently. Penny is not humiliated because she had sex. In fact, note how their first night (and any other) is not shown in the film, it’s just a given. But Penny feels humiliated by Hammer’s proclamation because she’s basically openly dating a frat boy in his thirties.

    In Germany, there’s the concept of “fremdschämen”, more or less “being ashamed for someone else”. I think that’s what happens there, too. Hammer doesn’t see bragging about sex in public as anything except a symbol of his prowess. He’s too thick to be ashamed himself, and he’s adored by a public lapping it all up and not thinking about it. Except for Horrible and, now, Penny. She has had her doubts (as seen before) and now she sees them confirmed, she sees Hammer’s true (third?) layer which is exactly like the outside. So she leaves.

    By the way, it’s Hammer who kills her. Horrible tries to warn about the malfunctioning weapon, but Hammer pulls the trigger anyway.

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  • July 22, 2008 at 6:04 am
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    Oh: Don’t watch The Dark Knight. Just a cautionary comment.

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  • July 24, 2008 at 1:53 pm
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    Zoinkers — Ah ha! One of the problems with a lot of blogs, obviously including this one, is that after awhile they tend to talk to a specific audience that’s used to the terms and concepts the terms represent, so when someone new joins in there are some crossed wires. It probably won’t change your mind, but if it helps, what I’ve been referring to:

    “Women in Refrigerators” refers to a long-standing comic book trope where female characters are raped, murdered, or depowered (or some combination of the above) for the specific purpose of having an emotional effect on a male character. More often than not, these women (whether or not they are heroes in their own rights at some point) are the love interest characters within the story. The name comes from a particularly horrific example, wherein the Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner) came home to discover his girlfriend murdered and stuffed, you guessed it, in his fridge. It’s not a problem because of any one specific example; it’s a problem because it happens all the damn time in many, many kinds of stories, but especially superhero ones. If there wasn’t such a history of it (one I’m sure that Whedon is aware of) Penny’s death would not have bothered me so much, though I’d still have been disappointed by her character. (The original WiR site is here, there are other media examples here.)

    To pass the Bechdel test, a movie must 1) feature at least two women, who 2) talk to each other about 3) something other than a man. It doesn’t sound like a terribly high standard, but when you actually think about most movies, very, very few pass. (The origin.) A lot of movies that fail the Bechdel test are still perfectly enjoyable, but once you start looking for it it’s hard to overlook the complete lack of female characters in the media when women are half of the world’s population.

    So that’s the background from which I was looking at this to begin with, and may explain why I read it the way I did.

    All that said, I can understand your reading and definitely agree it’s a valid one; it’s just not mine. *g* It does also depress me, though, for very different reasons; if the reading of the show (I hope I’m not misunderstanding you) does show Penny as being a real agent for change and thus kind of the only good force… It took Hammer to get the work done, and the Hammers of the world are unreliable. (We don’t see if Penny would have succeeded on her own; I don’t think the show was too optimistic about that.) And then Penny dies, so… There goes all hope? It’s a different kind of reading, but still pretty bleak.

    All that said, thank you for all of your comments and discussion. I’m glad you stopped by and thought about my perspective, and I’m glad you shared yours; I’m a huge believer that critical thinking about media is a very important thing, even when people reach conclusions different from my own. 😉

    Also: thanks for the link. I still see problems in the show, but am glad Whedon can acknowledge them.

    BetaCandy — Totally with you on both counts. Parodies can still be criticized; and they can fail. And Sorkin… That’s a post for next time I try to rewatch Sports Night or TWW.

    Patrick Pricken — Well, yes, she’s embarrassed, but (if I recall correctly, as I obviously didn’t rewatch the thing) she’s the one all of Hammer’s adoring fans dislike. Though that is something I had overlooked, as a place where I think the show gets criticism right: it reflects the difference between how a man and woman are often treated in that situation (he’s adored, so his fans hate her) in a way where we’re supposed to see that as absurd. But I very much feel that overall, Penny’s treatment was problematic because of… well, everything else I’ve said outweighing one positive moment with her.

    And yeah, I saw The Dark Knight, hoping that the good parts of the movie would outweigh the bad. It ended up being kind of a wash, but at least in part because I was braced for it.

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  • July 24, 2008 at 1:57 pm
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    I think the way this story was resolved, but on re-watching the whole thing, I’m beginning to suspect it was intentionally so. When you first watch it, NPH’s acting and Whedon’s humor make Dr. Horrible instantly likeable, and you see everything from his point of view.

    But if you pay close attention, there are lots of little nods to the fact that he’s actually an insane stalker. The picture of Penny he keeps on his mantlepiece is shot from the bushes, where he was presumably lurking and watching her. He tracks her movements and laundry schedule. He is, in fact, a weird, creepy stalker — someone you can feel sorry for, but ultimately still a creepy stalker. He’s not really in love with her; he thinks she’s cute and is obsessed with her.

    As others have noted, I think the most blatant tip of the hat here is the newspaper headline with ‘Nation Mourns What’s-Her-Face’, but that’s not the only point that drives home what this is really about. Penny is the only decent, normal person in the story; she is destroyed by the battle between the (actually quite crazy, if mostly sympathetic) Billy and Captain Hammer, and the world doesn’t even notice.

    If that were something the writer put in there just to give Billy his moment of Evil Revelation, I’d agree with the complaints. (And at first I did.) But I don’t think it’s unexamined. I think that is precisely and intentionally the message we’re supposed to take out of it — that funny, sympathetic Dr. Horrible actually is evil, a good person is destroyed as a result of it, and the world doesn’t even notice.

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  • July 24, 2008 at 2:01 pm
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    Er, completing the bit I left out of the first sentence:

    “I think the way this story was resolved was indeed guilty of many of the criticisms placed on it, but on re-watching the whole thing, I’m beginning to suspect it was intentionally so.”

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  • July 27, 2008 at 2:54 pm
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    It’s definitely a bleak story, and your reading of my reading is on the mark. The Hammers of the world (the people with power) are absolutely unreliable (just look at anyone in government)! The most we can hope to do is check their powers by making them directly contingent on our support. That, of course, can create its own problems … however, I think the dramatic statement of a problem in society can be helpful in itself, even if an obvious solution isn’t put forth. Just look at the discussion this one short alone has provoked! : )

    The post I’m linking here expresses a lot of things I was reaching for, but much more clearly – http://karjack.livejournal.com/656327.html (Regarding her Firefly comments, I feel the show would’ve explored its female characters further if it had run for more than half a season – I can see plenty of interesting places he could have gone, given similar things he’d done in his longer running shows.)

    I absolutely agree with her that the “nice guy” here isn’t so nice. Whedon shows Dr. Horrible fairly explicitly as a stalker, and while it’s mostly played for humorous effect, Billy isn’t so cute by the end of the story (I agree with Sam’s comments up above). I can relate to his inability to talk to women – he idealizes Penny, but in doing so, he objectifies her as well. The tragic message, I believe, is ultimately that objectification can kill.

    If one of the problems presented by the story is the objectification of women, the solution could be read as, “Just put down the (embarrassingly phallic) Freeze Ray, Billy, and talk to her already.” Not easy for social retards like me, but certainly easier (and less costly) than taking over the world.

    So … in conclusion, I think Whedon was very aware of these tropes, and sought to subvert them not by turning them on their head (as he did for several years in Buffy) but by emphasizing their tragic absurdity. Was he too subtle? Maybe. But by allowing people like us to come to our own conclusions through discussion and careful analysis, I think he ultimately makes a more powerful statement than by saying it plainly: “Men who objectify women are jerks, yo. Stop it, or you’ll get someone killed.”

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  • July 30, 2008 at 8:45 am
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    I’m not the student of gender bias in media that clearly some of you are (it’s very impressive!), but there are a few things I was struck by in DrH that I don’t think anyone’s mentioned…

    Penny didn’t just happen to die when Hammer fired Horrible’s malfunctioning weapon–look at the sequence of events leading to that: She was repelled by Hammer’s pie-like jerkiness on the podium (well before he mentioned having sex with her), and got up to leave. When Horrible came in, she was hiding behind a chair or something, where she probably would have been safe from the shrapnel. But when he sings, “head up Billy Buddy, it’s time for no mercy,” the camera cuts to her standing up, mouthing “Billy buddy?” with a puzzled look on her face, and then cuts away. Her wounded body, when he goes to her, is not behind the chair; it looks to me like she was instinctively moving forward out of concern for Billy, and that’s why she was in the line of fire when the raygun exploded. (Note that she would also probably have been safe had she stayed on stage.) She, at her death, had already left Hammer as love interest and moved to Billy as at least kindred spirit, and she died without him ever knowing that. “Captain Hammer will save us” still implies her faith in his heroism, but it doesn’t mean she’s committed to him as a lover. I’m not sure what the implications of this are symbolically, but I agree with the writer who commented that Penny’s death represented the loss of the world of reality, layers of complication, shades of grey, etc. and the domination of the Comic Book World.

    Listen to the closing credit music; anyone notice this? It starts out with the little chord vamp that’s Penny’s signature theme, then gradually underneath the rhythmic Dr. Horrible music comes up and takes it over completely.

    And I was fairly impressed by the way Penny’s character managed to be fairly complex with very little dialogue.

    I’m also struck that I while everyone obviously acknowledges Horrible as a nerd, no one yet has addressed Penny’s nerdiness, acknowledged by Hammer (in a shocking burst of insight, for him) in Act III. Penny, too, is choosing between worlds–the one she instinctively knows is right and good and healthy, and the one that probably rejected her all her life and suddenly swept her in with Hammer’s attention. How many of us, nerds-at-peace now, would have been able at age 24 or whatever to recognize in the attentions of the devastating guy who suddenly swept us off our feet and treated us like princesses a source of real danger to ourselves, RIGHT off the bat? (Hell, I was 30 when it happened to me, and I didn’t die, but there was a lot of emotional shrapnel. The guy was a gorgeous asshead, but completely unworthy of me, and 2 years later I married a wonderful loving nerd like myself.) Penny recognized it, too late, but she recognized it. If Penny had had time to develop like, say, Tara in BVS (another woman Whedon character, by the way, depicted as almost uncomplicatedly good, very quiet, and eventually doomed by the broken world around her) she might have headed in a very empowered direction, but she wasn’t given the chance. THAT’S the tragedy here, I think.

    Also: note that in both bookend danger moments, with the van and the raygun–it took both Hammer and Horrible to render the situation dangerous to Penny. Horrible set things into motion, Hammer broke what Horrible brought and caused it to spin out of control. Just a comment.

    And finally (then I’ll shut up)…I haven’t figured out what it means yet, exactly, and I wonder if anyone else has thoughts on it–no one’s commented yet, and I find the lyrics to Horrible’s last song to be terribly significant, though I haven’t got it nailed down. In the second verse, he sings (presumably to Penny): “So your world’s benign…so you think justice has a voice, and we all have a choice? Now your world is mine…and I feel fine.”

    If they do make a series out of this, or a sequel, or whatever, I’d be curious to see what kind of villain Dr. H becomes, based on these lines.

    In the end, we had not two but three worlds that collided, with three strong characters and three separate visions/representations of those worlds: Penny’s “let’s all be nice to each other and care about other people more than ourselves” world (naive, but in my opinion not even remotely weak), Hammer’s (shallow solipsistic immaturity with image and popularity as guiding core value), and Horrible’s…oddly, to my watching, the least defined of the three visions in the most well-defined of the characters. After Penny’s death, whose world will Horrible’s resemble more?

    Just my randomness.
    -Jem

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  • September 13, 2008 at 8:09 pm
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    Okay,

    so I stumbled over this page more or less by accident after watching the musical/musical-spoof mentioned above. However, I read the thread both with great interest as well as with progressively stronger raised eyebrow. I would like to make very clear that it is not my intention to deny that there are gender related representations (at worst stereotypes) immanent to every product of a given culture. Still, I can’t help but wondering if “horrible’s sing-along blog” has been burdened with a responsibility it was never written to carry?

    I think it can be stated without exaggeration that about 90 % of both musicals and comic books are pretty stupid in way more than “just” the way they present female characters. What could, would and should a parody/homage to both of these genres do, other than taking and applying their premises and rules? You are probably right by raising your concern about this piece of entertainment. To be honest, the more I think about it, the more do I agree with at least parts of your post. Nevertheless, I feel strongly the reason is neither misogyny nor carelessness.

    It is because a genre’s parody works best by following it’s rules. Again, in the end, it is a spoof on the genres musical and comic books. Therefore, the plot is constructed in a certain way. And frankly, none of the characters is an “actual” character. Every single character remains a summary of clichés. Where is the problem?

    Assumed “horrible” would credit another mastermind than Josh Weldon, would it be as much a concern? Can you take a writer in coercive detention for fooling around with a genre, without emphasizing on the concern of gender roles, just because he’s been praised for exactly that before?

    No question, one COULD make a super-villain-musical-blog-whatever IN ORDER to question the representation of masculinity and feminity in media. But is the product automatically to be condemned just because this approach is not it’s focus? OR is it just because of the name shining on the package?

    Cheers,
    alt153

    PS: sorry for any funny English that might occur.

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  • September 13, 2008 at 8:40 pm
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    Hmmm… always read the comments first.

    I think almost all is said and done here. Particularly your exchange of thoughts with “Danielle Ni Dhighe”, “Jonathan” and “Chris” pretty much articulated my points of view as well as illustrated what you probably thought. … maybe with the differences that all of them (and you) seem to be able to put their thoughts to appropriate form in English.

    Nevertheless, thanks for taking the time to read through all of this Rebecca.

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  • August 30, 2009 at 1:11 am
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    This seems to be a year late, yet I am impelled to comment.

    ‘”Women in Refrigerators” refers to a long-standing comic book trope where female characters are raped, murdered, or depowered (or some combination of the above) for the specific purpose of having an emotional effect on a male character. ‘

    I agree that this happens, and that it happens in an unbalanced and objectionable way. But yet, I have a hard time finding it a problem in this musical.

    For one thing, Buffy was filled with fridging of male characters, most notably Angel in season 2, but also countless other minor and major male characters. Is this equally problematic, or is it fine for males to be fridged, because they are not fridged as often, in modern Western culture as a whole? If it is a statistical thing, and not a problem per se in any one instance, then how do we object to Dr. Horrible as a standalone piece? If it’s a statistical thing, than shouldn’t we take into account Joss’s work as a whole?

    If we take the other horn, and decide that no one is to be fridged, where does that leave us? Look at Hamlet. His father, Polonius, and Ophelia could all be argued to have been fridged. Interestingly, Ophelia fits the definition the least, while the most masculine figure in the play (save perhaps Fortinbras)– the late King Hamlet–suffers the death closest to that definition. Perhaps this is the true reason his ghost lingers, he is just too masculine to stand for being fridged.

    I understand that there is a problem, and that you are part of an effort to solve it, but if your solution involves me not watching Dr. Horrible and Hamlet, than you’ve not just thrown the baby out with the bath water, but you’ve thrown me out with it too.

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