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The Philosophy of Joss Whedon

on Wed, 05/25/2011 - 00:00

In the realm of television production, Joss Whedon is one of a very small handful who can be considered a “rock star.” Other shows may get larger ratings and longer lives, but Whedon’s creations have resonated with viewers in ways that most mainstream entertainment fails. In the process, Joss Whedon himself has established a bond with his fanbase that transcends the usual relationship between a television writer and the connoisseurs of his endeavors. A popular T-shirt is emblazed with the words, “Joss Whedon is My Master Now,” and it difficult to name another producer who would receive such accolades.

But what exactly makes Joss Whedon someone who can elicit such a rabid response from fans? Part of it has to do with the quality of his work, beginning with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, its spin-off Angel, the short-lived Firefly and big-screen offshoot Serenity, the web series musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and the often misunderstood Dollhouse. Not only do they entertain, but they embody such ideals as family, feminism, identity, redemption and numerous other idioms that we all face during the course of a lifetime. There is a basic philosophy that runs through the creations of Joss Whedon that make them meaningful and personal to viewers, and thus elevates the man to a level of adulation in the process.

That philosophy can also be found, however, within the many interviews he has given through the years and some of the best have been collected into the book Joss Whedon: Conversations (University Press of Mississippi, 2011). The dialogues span the scope of his career from Buffy through Dollhouse, and while often entertaining in their own right, they are also filled with small tidbits that shine a light on the Joss Whedon worldview. More than anything else, it is Whedon’s own words that sum up his creative endeavors and why they are so passionately revered.

First and foremost in the works of Joss Whedon is the “relateability” of his narratives. Buffy, for instance, was often a metaphor for one’s teenage years with a literal “high school as hell” tagline that adequately summed up the adolescent experience. It told the audience that they are not alone, that everyone goes through such trials and tribulations—even a superhero like Buffy Summers.
“Everything that we pitch, everything that we put out there, whether or not it works, is based on the idea of ‘the audience has been through this,’” he told David Bianculli of Fresh Air in 2002. “A normal girl goes through this. A normal guy deals with this. You know, it’s issues of sexuality, popularity, jobs. Whatever it is, it’s got to be based in realism. We can’t just say, ‘The warship’s come and, you know, they transmogrify, the—blah, blah, blah.’ We can’t do that. We can go to some pretty strange places, but at the start, we always have to be about, ‘How does the audience relate to having done this themselves?’”

Joss Whedon once famously made the statement, “Don’t give people what they want, give them what they need.” While the comment is indeed included within the pages of Conversations, a greater understanding of the directive is also offered.

“Ultimately, stories come from violence, they come from sex,” he explained to documentarian James Longworth in 2002. “They come from death. They come from the dark places that everybody has to go to, kind of wants to, or doesn’t, but needs to deal with. If you raise a kid to think everything is sunshine and flowers, they’re going to get into the real world and die. And ultimately, to access these base emotions, to go to these strange places, to deal with sexuality, to deal with horror and death, is what people need and it’s the reason that we tell these stories. That’s the reason fairy tales are so creepy, because we need to encapsulate these things, to inoculate ourselves against them, so that when we’re confronted by the genuine horror that is day-to-day life we don’t go insane.”

If the storyline of Buffy was one of coming of age, its spin-off Angel dealt with making one’s way in the real world. When the series concluded its five-year run on The WB, many fans believed it ended on a cliffhanger, with the title character preparing to do battle against a supernatural army just as the screen turned to black. In reality, however, it was another pillar in the Joss Whedon philosophy.

Buffy is about growing up,” he clarified to the A.V. Club in 2007. “Angel is really about already having grown up, dealing with what you’ve done, and redemption. Redemption is something you fight for every day, so I wanted him to go out fighting. People kept calling it a cliffhanger. I was like, ‘Are you mad, sir? Don’t you see that that is the final statement?’”

As Whedon continued to make his way through his own life, his creations grew and encompassed greater themes. Already proving himself a fan of the underdog, his next television series, Firefly—as well as its big screen follow-up Serenity—further advanced the concept. Despite being a combination of a space-slash-western adventure series, it also dealt with “everyday people” struggling to make a living while events and consequences outside of their control affected their ability.

“The political statement that Serenity makes is very blatant—but it can be embraced by someone who’s extremely conservative or someone who’s extremely liberal,” he told CulturePulp in 2005. “That’s not the point. The point is, it’s a personal statement. What Serenity and Firefly were both about is how politics affect people personally. And the personal politics are the only politics that really interest me. I’m not going to make this big, didactic polemic—I’m just going to say, ‘When there are shifts in a planet, those tiny little guys are the ones who are affected. So let’s hang out with them—not the Federation heads or the Jedi Council.’”

In many ways, the online musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was likewise a political statement, but not necessarily one that can be found within the narrative. The web series was born from the 2007 writers’ strike in Hollywood, as well as Joss Whedon’s belief that the “little guy” was being squeezed out of a continually expanding corporately-controlled world. The medium of online video offered new and different opportunities for anyone, however, and Whedon thus embraced it as a form of liberation.

“Let’s face it, in the media there are now eight companies,” he explained to Kim Werker of CrochetMe in 2008. “In any mall you walk into, there are now eight stores—there’s gonna be a Gap, there’s gonna be a Banana Republic. Everything is becoming consolidated, so where there used to be lots of variety, there are now, like, 10 giants and tons of tiny little villagers. And yeah, the villagers are going to start making their own stuff because the materials will be available to all of them, and we can’t all just do things the way the giants want, because it does seep something out of your soul. I think it’s absolutely true on every level of art that this is the worst of times and, like some guy might have said once, the best of times.”

In an earlier interview contained in Joss Whedon: Conversations, the television creator comments that “a writer has a responsibility to tell stories that are dark and sexy and violent, where characters that you love do stupid, wrong things and get away with it, that we explore these parts of people’s lives, because that’s what makes stories into fairy tales instead of polemics. That’s what makes stories resonate, that thing, that dark place that we all want to go to on some level or another.” The remark could just as well—if not more so—refer to Joss Whedon’s fourth small-screen endeavor, the FOX drama Dollhouse, than anything else.

Dollhouse, which lasted for two short seasons, tells the story of an illicit underground organization that erased the memories of its “actives” and replaced them with new, custom-made personas. They were then temporarily sold to high paying clients wishing to experience their deepest, darkest fantasies which were often sexual in nature, though not always. Ultimately, Dollhouse was a dissertation on identity and fantasy, power and corruption on a different level than Buffy, Angel or Firefly, but one that still held true to the philosophy of its creator.

“We get to confront (these characters) with the consequences of what they do, and learn more about why they do what they do,” he told Salon in 2009. “Because very few people are entirely evil. I know it’s hard to believe that after the last eight years of government in this country, but everybody has two sides, and I believe that not only are people often less or more righteous than they understand, but they often don’t know what part of them is actually the good part. And a lot of the things that we prize in America might not actually be useful traits, and a lot of the things we vilify, to me, are not necessarily harmful, and that’s something that’s been in my work from the start.”

The worlds of Joss Whedon have included numerous characters, from a female slayer to a male vampire struggling with the aftereffects of retrieving his soul, from a crew of space-scavengers fighting to survive five hundred years into the future to a young woman trying to discover her identity in a world filled with lies and deceit. Despite the diversity of these creations, however, the narratives told within follow the same blueprint and personal philosophy as the man who invented them, while likewise eliciting similar emotions in those who follow their fictitious journeys. In the end, it is those stories that matter and serve as the basis for the adulation of the man—but the words contained in Joss Whedon: Conversations demonstrate that the accolades are also worthy as well.

Anthony Letizia

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