I feel I should warn you – this post is at risk of getting a little fanboyish. I think it is only fair that you get this warning because, as I am sure we are all aware, there are dangers inherent in second hand fanboyishness and it is my civic duty to ensure that you are saved from it.
Now that the ‘official government health warning’ is out of the way, I can get on with what I want to talk about today. Joss Whedon.
There, see, look what happened. The moment I say his name someone squeals and faints. It’s only relief I was not planning to talk about Nathan Fillion… Oh, bugger… Er, I’ll wait until the paramedics have sorted everyone out before I continue.
So, yes, Joss Whedon. I don’t think I need to bother with any introductions. I suspect that anyone with any claim to a semblance of geekdom is at least aware of the name of someone who is possibly one of the more influential people in geekery. He brought us Buffy the Vampire Slayer and revolutionised perceptions of horror while demonstrating that Sarah Michelle Gellar and Eliza Dusku look really hot in leather pants. He brought us Firefly and showed us that you do indeed get cowboys in space and that Nathan Fillion looks hot in cowboy duds. He created Dr. Horrible and showed how success is possible even without the big business backing and that Nathan Fillion looks hot in skintight t-shirts. He brought us Dollhouse and demonstrated that Eliza Dusku looks really hot in leather pants. Oh, and there was some quite profound lesson about equality, slavery and not treating people like objects in there too.
So, needless to say, he has had an influence and there has been much said about his attitude to strong women (‘Why do I write strong female characters?’), his feminist ideals both positively (Joss Whedon on Feminism) and negatively (A Rapist’s view of the world), his ability to subvert stereotypes (Mal’s best moments) and concerns that he intends to kill off all the much loved Avengers characters in the upcoming film (‘What to expect when expecting Joss Whedon’s Avengers’ - pay especial attention to the comment about a major death in act 3).
What I want to talk about is his attitude to the British. In particular the English. You see, from the point of view of us over here in this tiny little kingdom of ours, the US has a strange opinion of us. ‘English’ accents are either very RP (to the extent that you would believe everyone is related to the Queen and went to the same elocution teacher) or so cockney that ‘within the sound of Bow bells’ can be interpreted as being as far away from London as Northumberland. We are invariably the bad guys in most Hollywood portrayals. As Eddie Izzard does say on one of his stand up tours, we are the only ethnicity it is still OK to demonise. I often find myself cringing whenever I see a British character portrayed on screen by American writers and directors and while many great actors do their level best to keep the side up they often end up mired in the cliches.
Now, Joss Whedon is guilty of these crimes. I am not denying that. His English characters (Buffy’s Rupert Giles, Dollhouse’s Adelle De Witt , Firefly’s Badger among others) display a cornucopia of stereotypes from the aforementioned RP accent to a liking for tea. However, the portrayals often come across as more than the stereotypes. I am not sure why this is, it seems hard to analyse the reasons for it. Perhaps it is due to the great acting talent that is employed in these characters (because it cannot be denied that there is some talent here). Perhaps it is how that talent is directed or how well it is written. However it comes about, English characters in Joss Whedon productions seem to acquire a vitality and depth which is often lost in other portrayals of ‘Englishness’ in American productions. Rupert Giles, for example, is overtly the stiff upper lipped English academic stereotype but as you delve deeper into his character you see the tearaway teenager he once was, before he became a Watcher, and the dodgy demon summoning occultist he was at University. Then there is the fatherly affection he has for the Slayer which is very understated but still present in every scene Anthony Stewart Head has with Sarah Michelle Gellar. Some of these elements come out in occasional, teasing flashes and you come to realise that the ‘bumbling librarian’ is actually a very clever front based on expectations.
Adelle De Witt is similar. On first viewing she is cold, efficient and immoral; all played excellently by Olivia Williams. Willing to serve in a role that is actually a high class, glorified Madam in a very expensive brothel. There are hints she does this for wealth and power – the connections to the Rossum corporation clearly guaranteeing both. However, as Dollhouse progresses, we see cracks in the Ice Maiden facade. They first appear in the first season episode Echoes (episode 7) when a drug causes all characters involved to reveal snippets of their secret inner selves and from that point on more and more of the ‘inner De Witt’ comes to the fore. As the series progresses we see less of the ice maiden, a common stereotype for strong English women, and more of the concerned mother who cares for all under her charge. As season two progresses, you see her face her demons and choose a side in the upcoming conflict between Rossum and the rest of the world, finally picking a side based on moral grounds rather than profit. In De Witt’s case, I believe it is a case of having to repress her natural instincts in favour of succeeding in a career and then facing a situation that even she cannot ignore.
Perhaps what we have here is a combination of Whedon’s desire to approach genre stereotypes and subvert them – showing the viewer an unexpected outcome to the one they expect – combined with an ability of skilled actors and writers to really get under the skin of these characters and give them a great deal of depth. It applies to all the characters portrayed in the Whedonverse but I think it is especially relevant to his English characters because it is so rare to see them portrayed as being more than the stereotype. Also because, you know, I’m English and I like to see some role models of our greatest stereotypes done well.
And note, not once did I mention that his greatest British creation, the Cockerny Vampire Spike, is played by an American…
I am also wondering what we might expect in The Avengers. Will we get some interesting, British characters added to the Marvel universe?