US TV Channel HBO announced they have greenlit a new series from Joss Whedon called The Nevers, about a group of Victorian women with supernatural abilities. The reception has not been all positive — the women of the world have a few questions.
Some fans were delighted by the news. Other reactions online ranged from exhaustion at Whedon writing female characters rather than letting a woman do it to questions about his use of rape as a metaphor and plot device in the past to jokes that the show is set in Victorian times so that he will be able to keep it completely white and oppress women. For many, his portrayal of women characters has not stood the test of time, and they would like to see Whedon and HBO pass the baton on female-fronted projects.
Whedon is slated to be the writer, director, executive producer, and showrunner on The Nevers, putting him in him every position of power possible on set. It begs the question: if Whedon is a feminist and an ally, why isn’t he using his platform to advance women’s careers? If he is going to tell women’s stories, why doesn’t he seek out a woman to help him do so authentically?
The statistics about gender inclusion behind the camera are daunting. A study from the Annenberg Institute taking into account film, television, and digital streaming series finds that only 15% of all directors are women. Less than 30% of screenwriters are women. And female characters make up merely a third of speaking roles, while being sexualised more than three times as often as male characters.
With the visibility of the Time’s Up movement in Hollywood, I am skeptical of any man who still thinks it’s okay to tell women’s stories without including them. This project signals that Whedon hasn’t really been paying attention, or just doesn’t get that women need their own seat at the table. His characters may kick ass, but they’re so drenched in the male-gaze that their interiority gets lost and they come off like sci-fi Barbie dolls. Watching Buffy as a 15-year-old, I wanted so badly to be empowered by the vampire slayer. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that she was created for men’s eyes and that, at the end of the day, what was most important was to be sexy for those eyes. It was a hard pill to swallow. When I read his 2006 Wonder Woman script, it was the sexual descriptions of Diana’s body that got to me — and that’s saying something in a movie where the lead is introduced as “THE GIRL,” she does a seductive dance to get a leg-up on the bad guys, has a character called Hooker, and in which an unnamed Girlfriend is thrown across the room like a doll. His Wonder Woman is the script of a man writing a world that exists for his own pleasure, not to empower the women who inhabit it and certainly not for the women watching. If Whedon thinking" that he doesn’t need a woman at the helm with him to make The Nevers certainly doesn’t indicate that he has learned and changed since then.
There has been a positive push towards inclusivity and diversity in entertainment from within the industry. Many celebrities are using their platform to balance the scales, like Reese Witherspoon whose production company Hello Sunshine encourages projects that are female-lead both in front of and behind the camera. After Frances McDormand’s 2018 Oscar speech, a wave of filmmakers publicly committed to inclusivity riders as a concrete step to support racial diversity and gender parity. That includes several influential men: Michael B. Jordan announced his company Outlier Society would commit to riders, and Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Pearl Street Films followed suit.
Whedon identifies as an outspoken feminist and built an empire on projects with strong female characters, from the iconic Buffy to the disappointing Dollhouse. But even with good intentions, trying to tell women’s stories without their collaboration combined with HBO’s recent history of depicting unnerving sexual violence against women on shows lead by men like Game of Thrones and Westworld, opens the door to disaster.