Sunday, July 20, 2008

I wouldn't call it Horrible,

but I would call it lacking. Specifically, lacking in melanin content and quality roles for women. I watched Dr. Horrible today, the online musical created by self-proclaimed feminist Joss Whedon. The three-act production stars both Nathan Fillion of Serenity and Firefly fame, and my favorite child doctor Neil Patrick Harris.

Some say "Dr. Horrible is good!". Some say "Dr. Horrible is Fabulous!". I say it's the same stuff I've been complaining about for two years now. Happy early birthday, blog! It's about two white heterosexual men (including the main character played by "very content gay man" NPH) who fight over a skinny white woman. The woman, named Penny, is younger that both of her male suitors, and she has no real character of her own. Her defining personality traits include doing laundry, volunteering at a homeless shelter and eating frozen yogurt.

Rebecca Allen of A Nerd at Peace writes:

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, [Nathan Fillion's] 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.

Purtek of The Hathor Legacy writes:

Since it’s Joss Whedon, it’s practically guaranteed to come with high expectations attached, both for quality creative work and, in many circles, for feminist content. On the former, Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog definitely lives up to the hype. On the latter, unfortunately, I have to say that it failed miserably. Of the three characters, Penny is by far the least developed. She’s a sweet, somewhat naive, save-the-world local activist with big, romantic dreams for her life. While the two male characters are also stereotypes in a way, they’re both larger than life, hilarious caricatures, whereas Penny just seems to lack personality. The fact that Dr. Horrible initially falls for her as he encounters her twice weekly in the incredibly mundane setting of the laundromat is fitting, here.

And naturally, in a story with three characters, two male and one female, there is a love triangle at work, and as is often the case, the woman in that story becomes more of a prop at play in the interaction between the two men. The real relationship struggle, the real competition is between Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer. The reason Penny has lasting appeal to Captain Hammer is because it’s one more front on which he can assert his superiority over Dr. Horrible - while the scene where Captain Hammer assures Dr. Horrible that he will be having sex with Dr. Horrible’s crush was admittedly hilarious, due mainly to Nathan Fillion’s delivery, it depended entirely upon playing out their battle with one another using a woman’s body as a way of scoring points. Worst of all, Penny dies at the end, in exactly the kind of death scene we’ve complained about several times on this site - one that serves almost exclusively to progress the character development of the men in her life. She dies as a result of the competition between the two men, accidentally, by getting in the way. Despite the fact that immediately before Dr. Horrible arrived on the scene, she seemed to be recognizing her boyfriend’s incredible arrogance and selfishness, with her dying breath, she sings “Captain Hammer will save us”. Not only does this show her as the woman to be rescued (if unsuccessfully), the main point of having her say it was to take away that last thing that made Dr. Horrible want to be…not horrible, and cement his commitment to proving himself as the most evil person alive.

I agree with both assessments, which I found on Joss Whedon's fan site under the July 20 entry. Commenter rufustfyrfly summed up my second problem with Dr. Horrible:

. . . [the musical] had exactly no named characters of color. Yet another bizarro parallel universe in which Southern California is mostly white.

Come on, Joss. We know you can do better than this! I push because I love.

Almost every person in the entire musical was white and male. Seriously. Even in the dedication of the homeless shelter, almost every person in the room was white. There was one possibly Asian woman who had a singing part, but she had to share all of her screen time with her two white friends.

This kind of nonsense is plausibly excusable when your production is governed by media conglomerates like Viacom or NBC Universal or Time Warner or Disney. But Mr. Whedon, when you decide to create a project with no strings attached, and you have complete creative freedom, you should do better. Especially if you call yourself a feminist, a label which some question.

Here are some related perspectives on Dr. Horrible:

...but., by elisha at sixth_light.

Dr. Horrible, or Why I'm So Pissed Off, by per_maybe_haps.

Blogging along with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, by Holly at Feministe.

Also, here is Why film schools teach screenwriters not to pass the Bechdel test, by BetaCandy at The Hathor Legacy.

Finally, I leave you with Joss Whedon's Equality Now speech via Mother Jones:


Stephanie said...
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Bianca Reagan said...

Yes, the musical is called Dr. Horrible. But Dr. Horrible could have been played by Felicia Day, with her singing love interest played by NPH. Or her part as Penny could have been written better. Or there could have been more female actors in the multiple supporting roles. There is no reason going into it I would know, or should assume, that the musical would be overwhelmingly male.

Stephanie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter said...

Finally got around to watching this. Dr. Horrible is deluded, in a bad way, he's still evil after all. And honestly, stereotypically pathetic. Captain Hammer is a jerk. Penny is naive. Overall, despite her untimely death, Penny comes off best, despite lack of characterization.

It benefits from being so short, simply because the main characters probably would have become increasingly annoying in anything longer.