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Penny is made of Marmite! 
22nd-Jul-2008 01:44 pm
The internet is full of Marmite.

It gets stuck in the tubes and causes slowness, and that's why the latest US episode of your favourite TV series took so long to download and crapped out in the middle.

No, really.

OK, actually, what I mean is the internet is full of things that everyone seems to either love with the power of all-caps, or hate with all the force of LOLcats. There's no middle ground here.

Of course, the reason for that is because if you're a little bit 'meh' about something, or you think it's OK but nothing to blog about - then you don't blog about it. So the only opinions that get expressed in the big old wide blogosphere are OMGAWESOME or RILLYANGRYSMASH posts. And sometimes, everyone liking something is enough to get the people who didn't have much of an opinion, start to get annoyed at the people who do and feel the need to post about how awful something was, and dichotomies form.

And no one is more prone to forming these love/hate divides than Joss Whedon.

Me, I'm pro-Whedon, in a lot of ways. By which I mean I love much of his Slayerverse work and I love Serenifly, though I recognise they can be annoying. I do not much care for Angel, I didn't like his work on Runaways, and the concept of his upcoming TV show The Dollhouse actively makes me uncomfortable. In general, I often think he's a good writer. He's certainly an intelligent writer; he tries hard and his work can be fun to dissect.

In case you've been living under an internet rock the last week, Joss Whedon recently produced an online three-act video called Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog. It can no longer be streamed for free, but I think USians at least can buy it from iTunes. If you're a filthy ferner like me, I'm afraid your time has passed.

Dr. Horrible is a comedy set in a Superhero world, starring Neil Patrick Harris as a second rate potential supervillain trying for membership into the Evil League of Evil, Nathan Fillian as his arch nemesis Captain Hammer, and Felicia Day as a woman they both like. Most of my friendslist liked it. Some didn't. But people are talking about it. A lot. Assume spoilers in all links, and in what's following:

There are three main characters in the story; and actually only two supporting characters, and that's if you're generous about Bad Horse. 45 minutes of story, small cast. The three characters are:

Dr. Horrible The eponymous protagonist played by Neil Patrick Harris. The show opens with him demonstrating his progressing 'evil laugh' for his video blog, charting his rise to supervillaindom and his wish to join the evil league of evil. Dr. Horrible (real name: Billy) is a sarcastic, nerdy inventor with revolutionary ideas politically, but his true motivation appears to be to make something of himself, specifically to impress girls. Specifically one girl, who we'll get to later. His ambition is personal, but his alignment is dictated by his politics: he has rather ill-conceived (demonstrated by his fumbling when he tries to explain them) ideas about how the system is corrupt and has to be changed radically to improve, and this has led him to supervillainy. His ambition to succeed in that area comes from his very human belief in himself and the hope that the girl he likes might look twice at him if he were someone.

Dr. Horrible is above all, a pathetic, reactive character. We know he's intelligent, because he's an inventor, and we know that he knows he's capable of great things (morality aside), but he's still working on it. His primary motivation is the girl, but he never works up the courage to approach her himself. He responds to events, but doesn't initiate them. The first heist we see him attempt is for a part he needs for his freeze ray, and an attempt to be accepted into the Evil League of Evil. Everything else that happens in the story is his reaction to things happening around him. He appears to be the archetypal Nice Guy™ - the guy who misses out on the girl because he never bothers to talk to her, then blames everyone else for his failure. As a Joss fan, I believe that he's probably what happened when Andrew Wells finally got his way and seduced Warren Meers, bearing his love child.

Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillian) is the Hero - capital H because that's a job description, not his role in the narrative. He's strong, not too bright, and both utterly full of himself and convinced that he's immortal. (You can tell why I'm thinking about picking him up as an RP character, can't you?) Things are right because he does them, but he, even more so than Horrible, acts entirely reactionarily. He shows up to foil Horrible's plot, and finds a girl who he dates because - well, it's implied he dates a lot of the girls he rescues. He persuades the Mayor to dedicate a homeless shelter because the girl wants it. Later he discovers that Horrible likes the girl and he mocks him for the fact that he, Captain Hammer, got her ("The Hammer is my Penis"). He's never been seriously hurt and has no checks on his behaviour: when, in the climax he his hit by a death ray and it physically hurts him, he has a mental breakdown because it's never happened before.

Hammer is set up to be the jock bully to Horrible's nerd, but they're both as pathetic as each other. Hammer acts for his own glory and goes along with what society expects from him because he likes the limelight. There's very no more to him than his high school footballer persona because there's never needed to be. He's highly stupid and childish and above all, ignorant of everyone around him.

Which of course, leads us to the girl herself:

Penny (Felicia Day) is the girl from the launderette who Dr. Horrible is creepy!stalkerish!infatuated with, but won't talk to her. Penny is involved with campaigning for a new homeless shelter, and it is she who first approaches Billy to ask him to sign his petition, from which she pushes a conversation. She later approaches the man she believes saved her from an out of control van, there's a moment of quick mutual infatuation duet, and they start dating, while keeping up her friendship with the laundry man she first talked to on the same day.

Penny is sweet, kind, and acts as a contrast to both the male characters: she is the 'idealistic princess' archetype who knows what she wants and has a higher purpose: it's Hammer who accomplishes the deeds for her, and she doesn't appear to mind that, but she is never reactive in her actions: she initiates the first contact with both men (interrupting them in their macho endeavours in both cases).

To sum up the plot, then:

Billy likes Penny; Billy uses his infatuation with Penny to motivate himself towards making a name for himself as a supervillain, at which he's not doing too well. Penny finally talks to Billy while he's busy with a heist, which Hammer interrupts. Hammer's attempt to foil the heist is ill conceived and macho, and resulted inpenny's life being put in danger. Horrible and Hammer both act to save her, but she only notices Hammer, interrupted his showdown with Horrible to express her gratitude.

She dates Hammer while maintaining her new friendship with Billy, unaware that he's stalking her and Hammer. When she finally introduces her new firend to her new boyfriend, Hammer recognises Horrible and brags about how he's dating her now, and how he's going to sleep with her to spite his nemesis. This drives Horrible over the edge and he starts plotting to kill Hammer, which just happens to be along the lines of what he needs to join the Evil League of Evil. He stops talking to Penny in his obsession and tracks them down to the dedication of the homeless shelter Hammer secured to impress Penny.

Hammer gives a speech about heroics, and his cruel heartless bragging in it disgusts the girl, who moves to leave, only to be interrupted by Horrible with his new Death Ray. Hammer and Horrible fight: Hammer turns the Death Ray on Horrible and it explodes, the flying shrapnel hitting Penny as a consequence. Her dying words to Billy are: It’s OK, Captain Hammer will save us. Horrible loses her, then he turns even more evil and joins the Evil League of Evil, loosing all his connection with humanity. His blog becomes a place where he pretends to be Billy.

Or, in the words of Anna, commenting on Feministe:
Two boys fought over a toy until she broke.
It's FORTY-FIVE MINUTES (including songs) of superhero narrative. It's funny (Nathan Fillian delivering the line "The Hammer is my penis" is worth the non-existent price of admission alone), it's simple, and it's small. So why the big giant fuss? Why all the debate about Penny? Why am I writing so much, here?

Because it's Joss Whedon. And Joss is made of Marmite. And you can't let marmite happen without blogging about how wonderful it is or how nasty. Because my corner of the blogosphere in particular is made up of vocal feminists who, whether they like it or not, have an overexposure to Slayers and Browncoats. Because people love debating whether Joss is a great feminist or a disgusting rapist. Because when you're frustrated with the way women are treated in fiction, you can either hold up the Slayerverse or Serenifly as 'yay Joss!', or you can throw up your hands and say Oh fortheluvvaBob shut up about Buffy and River, already!. Because people watched Dr. Horrible because it was made by Joss the Marmite of feminist fiction, and every single person who watched it knew they were watching something made by the same guy who deliberately subverted the ditzy blonde victim in an alley trope and made a lot of money out of it.

And so, what are you supposed to do when the Buffy guy produces Two boys fight over a toy until she breaks?

Well, you can:
a) laugh at the penis line and get on with your life.
b) complain about the trope and how sick you are of seeing it.
c) argue that there's a larger purpose to it all that's not as misogynistic as it appears.

There are a lot of people doing all 3 of these. If you opted for a), I doubt you've read this far anyway. Go! Be a productive member of society! It's the b's and c's being interesting: the b's I've observed seem, on the whole, to not be fans of Joss' other works. The c's are more firm followers of his. They are reading the piece in the context of the larger works, and their arguments usually mention him by name. Me, I don't know which is more valid; I think works have to be judged on their own merits and in context. But I do find the arguments interesting, particularly in regards to Penny.

I think Joss’s point was in the cross fires of male pissing contests, women suffer. Penny died because Dr. Horrible and Capitan Hammer were trying to destroy each other. The Nice Guy and the Jock were so busy trying to take the other one down, neither noticed Penny was still there and in harms way. I see it as a good example of how in the cross fires of the patriarchy, women get hurt. They get spoken over, hushed, turned into sexual objects, and killed.

Meggygurl commenting on Feministe
Me, I viewed it as a tragedy in the classical sense: people act stupid and selfishly, and no one's happy at the end. I've just exchanged my Fables collection for Manga!Hamlet, and while the plot isn't the same, the structure is. People are crap and everything falls apart. Penny dies because the boys fought over her. Captain Hammer goes insane because he's selfish and stupid and not emotionally equipped to deal with suffering. Dr. Horrible, through his own actions and inactions, loses the girl he loves, falls into a spiral of self destruction and loses touch with his humanity.
Boy, you kill someone, everyone makes a fuss! Yet I still feel differently about this than what I've done before. It's a tragedy, classically structured. Usually death is meaningless and arbitrary in my work, to reflect life, but this is the old brew.

Joss Whedon proves me right in the Washington Post

There's a lot of good reading in the links included in this post, and I kind of feel I've written a lot without actually saying much, but I think that reader interpretation is what's important here, not authorial intent. It seems most likely that Joss, Neil, Nathan and Felicity were just having a laugh with a high budget, and didn't construct any deliberate meaning. I was certainly willing to let the whole thing slide by as something that was fun to watch, but the way in which messages and ideas can be read into it is just one of the things that makes Fandom so great.

♥ Don't ever change, you guys.

[Further reading: Feminste | A Nerd at Peace | An interview with Joss Whedon]

[View this post in light format | Your style | My style]
22nd-Jul-2008 01:25 pm (UTC)
I haven't seen it yet, because I live under a rock, but your analysis of the online Whedon love/hate situation seems very astute.

Personally, I tend to give the guy the benefit of the doubt. I don't see how the creator of Buffy could possibly be a misogynist. I kind of get the feeling that people who say that make the basic assumption that all heterosexual males are misogynists and take it from there.

Again, I haven't seen Dr Horrible yet, but own feeling is that it could be dangerous to over-analyse a 45-minute musical comedy about superheroes.

Edited at 2008-07-22 13:26 (UTC)
22nd-Jul-2008 09:41 pm (UTC)
Ok, my response is that the creator of Buffy couldn't possibly be a simple misogynist. People are complex, and have attitudes and habits of mind that often work at cross purposes with each other. Taken as a whole, I don't see him as being a misogynist... but that doesn't mean he can't have his moments.

Of course, when you bring in the discussion that takes up so much of this thread about authorial intent and the like, it becomes much less important to decide what is possible about a work based on the author's previous works. But the point still stands within a given work, viewed as a whole. Works can have (or be read as having) completely conflicting messages, and there's nothing to say that a piece with strong elements of misogyny and feminism is really "about" one or the other.
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22nd-Jul-2008 01:56 pm (UTC)
Well the problem is that so few authors/creators/whatevers actually bother doing it that fans rely on the few that do. You're left saying things like, "Well I've spent the past couple months watching shows and reading comics and viewing movies where the chicks do nothing but cry and then get raped and/or murdered, but it's okay, because Joss has something new coming out!" And then the same thing happens, and it's another nail in the coffin. You know?

p.s. Your icon is really intimidating to reply to! He just keeps glaring at me, jeesh.
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22nd-Jul-2008 01:51 pm (UTC)
There are a lot of people doing all 3 of these. If you opted for a), I doubt you've read this far anyway.

Lies! Because I did!

And I like your take on it. It's one that I hadn't seen/thought of before. (Me, I was of the, "this was something they did to amuse themselves while the strike was on," and just didn't give it much sway either way.)

I enjoyed it quite a bit, but you're also right -- when people don't feel strongly about something, they don't blog about it. And I didn't, so I didn't.

Um. It's too early for me to have a point.
22nd-Jul-2008 01:58 pm (UTC)
*Vegemite*, please - none of that Marmite crap! ;-)

And here's where I am crap at this kind of analysis - I just read the "women get damaged in the crossfire of men's pissing contests" as the "only" (to me, at any rate) meaning in the story. I never even thought of the "Two boys fought over a toy until she broke" interpretation.

I gotta get me sum lesssssons to get betterer at dis!
22nd-Jul-2008 02:03 pm (UTC)
You've been in the antipodes waaaaaay too long. Come back to us!
22nd-Jul-2008 02:02 pm (UTC)
I laughed, I enjoyed it, I don't really see why it's taken the internet by storm though I do plan to get the soundtrack and learn all the words and embarrass people I don't like at parties by singing it with people I do like. But I don't really have a strong opinion of it.

I mean, the Trio were like, my favourite part of Buffy, of course I love Warren and Andrew's supervillain lovechild. And the plot was decently Tragic (in the Greek or Shakesperian sense more than the usual Joss-Believes-In-Hurting-Your-Soul way.) But I understand that it's not for everyone, and I honestly don't feel the need to blog about it, or rec it in case someone missed it, or fight with everyone who hated it, or dissect it. It was just an internet thing. Joss was involved! So were some other people! Nathan Fillion has a surprisingly good voice!

Then again, I'm still undecided on Marmite, too.
22nd-Jul-2008 02:04 pm (UTC)
Yeah. I think you're me, but more concise.
22nd-Jul-2008 02:37 pm (UTC)
See, I'm conflicted about the whole Sing-Along Blog thing.

To me, Joss got his friends to do a wacky musical fanvid and he had fun with it. He played with classic tropes and idea, because making a radically new story with music in 45 minutes is simply not going to happen.

Now, I really enjoyed Acts I and II. Act III made me ambivalent, because post Penny's death, time compresses so much that it felt like... it was trying to be more epic than one should try in a short time span. Throw in that last shot of Billy and it left me severely, severely confused.

Not to mention, I actually shared this whole thing with -my mom-, and she liked it up until Act III and she really got lost there.

Now, a rewatch helped me formulate one idea of interpreting it all. And I'll admit that Act III grew on me, but it wasn't the same 'tee-hee' silly fun of the first two parts.

Now obviously, I'm on shaky ground as a feminist solely by not being a woman. But when Penny died, I still interpret it the way you do: Men get into a pissing contest, women suffer.

Now, I guess, every time a fictional female dies, a feminist gets their rage on, but still I just go... It's a 45 minute musical with characters such as Bad Horse and Moist. Maybe we should, as the tune goes "repeat to yourself it's just a show, I should really just relax".

Then again, with the new wank about the whole Dr. Steel thing (which I'll be posting myself about, later), I just think you're right. Joss Whedon brings all the debate to the yard.

...also, I miss marmite. One of the few positive things from my trip to England was discovering marmite.
22nd-Jul-2008 02:45 pm (UTC)
I avoided it because it was popular, and I guess that was a good choice because I'm not generally a fan of tragedies (excepting Shakespeare's Othello) or Whedon. Or songs about penises. :/

So I guess I should just get off the internets. XD

Also wow, fandom is really weird about using a work to attack a creator.
22nd-Jul-2008 05:12 pm (UTC)
lol There are no songs about penises. The douche of a hero tells Billy (Dr. Horrible) that he is going to sleep with Penny ONLY because Billy/Horrible likes her. And he says, "She's with the Hammer. And these *holds up fists* are not the hammer. *walks away*" Camera shot stays there on Billy with the empty space where Hammer was, but then he comes back into the shot after a few seconds, "...The hammer is my penis." As if he needed to explain it! It's delivered SO PERFECTLY by Nathan Fillion and that's why it's THE popular quote. It's really not the line, it's the genius actor delivering it as the biggest douche/idiot ever. Believe me, I'm not one for these kinds of jokes, but when an actor can make me laugh at those kinds of jokes? Absolutely brilliant.
22nd-Jul-2008 05:29 pm (UTC)
Random visitor here, via Google alerts. :)

I really enjoyed this entire post. And as I mentioned, Google alerts - I'm coming across so many entries/articles as well about this topic. And I just find it so utterly ridiculous. He writes ONE no-so-strong female character and everyone is up in arms. No matter that they gave her a cause worth fighting for, that wasn't for selfish reasons. And in the end, SHE was the hero. No, somehow she had to have more than that in a 40 minute musical that revolved around a supervillain origin story. Where are the people sticking up for Hammer simply coming across as a douche/idiot? Not to mention, he gets hurt for the first time and goes to therapy because of it. lol Or what about Moist? An evil assistant who wasn't that evil, couldn't be of much help, and ruined things. People are too touchy. Not everything has to be an issue. Joss was telling a story and everyone served their part in said story. Penny's fate was sealed ever since Act I and maybe that's what everyone doesn't like? And fine, don't like it - but it makes sense. Did they all not want Dr. Horrible to have his victory and get into the ELE? When you've got a comic origin story at your hands, or any classic tragedy really, it's usually the love interest[s] who is endangered. Did anything throw a fuss about Sydney's fiance being killed in the first episode of Alias, so as to push her into destroying SD-6?

I honestly think people were just thrown off by the mood change in the series. But really, the signs were there all along. Act III is basically Act I, just with a better outcome for Dr. Horrible - hence it's darkness. He is evil after-all! Basically, why did this all of a sudden become an issue only when Penny died? She was being fought over before the end of Act III. I don't know, like many have said...people are overreacting and it's silly. So silly.
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22nd-Jul-2008 08:39 pm (UTC)
Please don't say you're not a feminist unless you really truly are OK with the status quo with regards to gender equality. Don't let one radical voice turn you off a cause.
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23rd-Jul-2008 02:14 am (UTC)
In a way, it seemed very Dantean to me. Well, I'm a medievalist, but all the same ... Dante's conception of Hell contains spaces for people to get what they wanted all along ... or what they thought they wanted. Hell is the place where they get their way, for all eternity, except that all the self-deluding comforting lies are stripped away, and they are left only with the tawdry, petty reality. Horrible has gotten what he wanted, lost his humanity -- only to realize that what he thought he wanted was int he end worth nothing but he has to live it anyway. Hammer, too, has had his fantasies made grittily real, and he cannot bear it even as well as Horrible can.

Of course, it's always at the expense of the woman; why the hell must we continue to teach men and have the lesson be our lives?
23rd-Jul-2008 02:42 am (UTC)

And again, I'm late to the party. I'm a devoted Whedon-ite, of course. And yet....

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that Joss, having been raised by his mother in an 'Equality Now' environment, takes feminism as one of the foundations of his creativity and runs from there. But the man runs fast, and the result can be works like Dr. Horrible which actually do have a feminist interpretation, but at first blush (or even the second or third) appear to be just the opposite.

I'm certain that's the spirit in which he's approaching Dollhouse, but I agree with you, Debi. The whole premise makes me queasy, and if Joss takes his eye off the ball (like he did during Buffy S6 and S7), leaving creative choices in the hands of another Noxon-type, the result could be appalling. I understand he probably wants to keep his projects edgy, but....

In any case, my irritation with DH Act III is that it's too jarring a shift in tone from Acts I and II. Yes, the first two acts have their darker elements, but Act III is a blunt instrument, and I just don't see the point of that.

Add to that the fact that, even aside from the feminist issues regarding Penny's death, her end isn't surprising. It's just another tiresome tragic end to a potential romance. Congratulations, Joss. Your predictability in this respect is starting to make me yawn. Good job.

And I am SO tired of the 'Gee, people get so upset', knowingly, smirky act in his interviews. He rolls that out EVERY fucking time, and it's getting old.

(Not to mention that it's indistinguishable from a person taking a shit on anyone who dares to care passionately about what he does--which is a little odd coming from a creator.)

Finally, I am perfectly fine with holding certain creators accountable for the political or cultural content of their work. In Joss' case, he has actively cultivated a feminist following for what he does (even if he does also come by it honestly). That is a significant factor contributing to the loyalty of his fanbase, and I don't begrudge him that. But if he's going to reap the benefits of it, then it's not at all unreasonable to call him to account when he seems to be undercutting it or even just taking it for granted.
24th-Jul-2008 08:36 pm (UTC)
Wow. Joss writes something without a "strong female character" and gets dumped on. Surprise. She was the only (okay, naively) nice person in it, but the others weren't exactly rounded people. When everyone's an extreme stereotype, and the homeless-shelter fundraiser *deliberately* exaggerated as overly nice, you can't complain too much about realism or deep social context.

a) laugh at the penis line and get on with your life.

The script wasn't amazing, but the actors were. I could watch Fillion do deadpan every day and still laugh. NPH has an amazing voice too - some of the melody lines went all over the place at speed and he made it sound easy.
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