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.
- 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;
- Her noble death is used to further the POV character’s story, AKA, she’s totally fridged;
- She specifically dies after she’s had sex!
- 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…?);
- 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.