Whedonesque Women

Joss Whedon is a writer and director responsible for creating a number of television programs including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly. His career began as a script writer for the television program Roseanne. He worked for a number of years as a script doctor, contributing to films like Toy Story and Speed. One of his earliest experiences writing for films was his script forBuffy the Vampire Slayer. The original movie was more lighthearted than Whedon’s original script. Five years later, he was able to resurrect the concept as a weekly hour long television program starring Sarah Michelle Gellar. The program was a critical success and ran for seven seasons before continuing as a series of comic books.

Whedonesque Women is an article about using the work of Joss Whedon to teach concepts of representation. It was published in Issue 61 of Screen Education. Feel free to use the resources below to help teach a unit of work based around the film Serenity. For a broader look at Whedon and his work, you can buy the article on the Screen education website.


All films and television programs are constructed. During the production process, decisions are made about how parts of the narrative – places, people and events – will be represented. When audiences watch films, they are often so absorbed in the narrative, that they don’t think about how the text has been constructed.

Film and television programs are constructed using a complex series of codes and conventions. By understanding these codes and conventions, we can explain how filmic representations have been constructed.

• Camera Techniques. Shot size (extreme long shot, long shot, mid shot, close up, extreme close up). Camera angle (overshot, high angle, eye level, low angle, undershot).Camera movement (tracking, pan, tilt, crane, handheld, steadicam, zoom, dolly). Focus (deep focus, narrow depth of field).

• Lighting. Including the use of key light, fill light, back light, high key lighting, low key lighting.

• Visual Composition and Mise-en-scene. Including costume, the use of colour and make up.

• Acting. Including body language and tone of voice.

• Sound. Including dialogue, music and sound effects.

• Editing. Including cuts, cross dissolves, fade in, fade out.

• Written language. Including titles, text, credits and subtitles.

When we examine the work of Joss Whedon, we’ll be examining how he constructs female characters.


In 2006, Whedon was honoured by the organisation Equality Now for his contribution to representing women as strong, independent and intelligent.

Meryl Streep: Mothers are often the vanguard of cultural institutions and transformation and tonight, as well as paying tribute to Joss Whedon and the wonderful female characters that he’s created, we’d like to pay special tribute to his mother, the late Lee Stearns. It’s nice when children credit their mothers for their success. And, I’ve heard a lot about Lee, whose radical ideas about women’s strength and independence and passion and empathy inspired Joss to create not only Buffy the Vampire Slayer but many other strong women characters in Firefly, in Serenity and his other work. Lee Sterns also inspired the creation of this organization, Equality Now, which was co-founded by Jessica Neuwirth, one of her — one of Lee’s, favorite high school students. She would have been very proud of you, Jessica and Joss, for all you’ve done and continue to do, and, her spirit is here with us tonight. Joss also has an extremely energetic and ubiquitous fan base that’s organized fundraisers across the country for Equality Now, his super hero’s favorite charity. So it’s my great, great pleasure to introduce our special honoree, Joss Whedon, the wonderful man who’s about to bring us Wonder Woman. We commend him for his outstanding contribution to equality in film and television. Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Joss Whedon.

Joss Whedon: Thank you. I — I didn’t know when I came here tonight that was going to happen. No, I knew I’d be here, the part about my mother, and — and I just want to thank Meryl Streep and — and everybody for — for speaking so eloquently about her. I’m surrounded tonight by people of extraordinary courage, and I know a thing or two about courage myself because I read a book with some courage in it one time. And it sounds really like a lot of work so I’ll just keep writing.

I write. The most courageous thing I’ve ever done is something called a press junket, which is actually pretty courageous, believe me, because they ask you the same questions over and over and over and over and over and over. I’ve done as many as 48 in a day, these interviews, and they really — they don’t come up with the fresh stuff. So, there is one question that I’ve been asked almost every time I’ve been interviewed. So I thought tonight, briefly, I would share with you one question and a few of my responses. Because, when you’re asked something 500 times, you really start to think about the answer. So now, I will become a reporter. It’s going to be amazing, the transformation.

So, Joss, I, a reporter, would like to know, why do you always write these strong women characters?
I think it’s because of my mother. She really was an extraordinary, inspirational, tough, cool, sexy, funny woman and that’s the kind of woman I’ve always surrounded myself with. It’s my friends, particularly my wife, who is not only smarter and stronger than I am but, occasionally taller too. But, only sometimes, taller. And, I think it — it all goes back to my mother.

So, why do you write these strong women characters?

Because of my father. My father and my stepfather had a lot to do with it, because they prized wit and resolve in the women they were with above all things. And they were among the rare men who understood that recognizing somebody else’s power does not diminish your own. When I created Buffy, I wanted to create a female icon, but I also wanted to be very careful to surround her with men who not only had no problem with the idea of a female leader, but, were in fact, engaged and even attracted to the idea. That came from my father and stepfather — the men who created this man, who created those men, if you can follow that.

So, why do you create these strong, how you say, the women — I’m in Europe now, so, it’s very, it’s international — these — I don’t know where though — these strong women characters?

Well, because these stories give people strength, and I’ve heard it from a number of people, and I’ve felt it myself, and its not just women, its men, and I think there is something particular about a female protagonist that allows a man to identify with her that opens up something, that he might — an aspect of himself — that he might be unable to express — hopes and desires — he might be uncomfortable expressing through a male identification figure. So it really crosses across both and I think it helps people, you know, in — in that way.

So, why do you create these strong women characters?

Cause they’re hot.

But, these strong women characters…

Why are you even asking me this?! This is like interview number 50 in a row. How is it possible that this is even a question? Honestly, seriously, why are you — why did you write that down? Why do you — Why aren’t you asking a hundred other guys why they don’t write strong women characters? I believe that what I am doing should not be remarked upon, let alone honored and there are other people doing it. But, seriously, this question is ridiculous and you just gotta stop.

So, why do you write these strong women characters?

Because equality is not a concept. It’s not something we should be striving for. It’s a necessity. Equality is like gravity, we need it to stand on this earth as men and women, and the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and women who’s confronted with it. We need equality, kinda now.

So, why do you write these strong female characters?

Because you’re still asking me that question. Thank you very much for including me tonight. Thank you all.


‘We both know that there are real monsters. But there’s also real heroes that fight monsters. And that’s me.’
– Buffy Summers

Whedon has a reputation for writing strong female characters. As he noted in an interview with Darkhorse Comics, the idea for Buffy the Vampire Slayer came from “watching a lot of horror movies with a funny, gregarious, somewhat dim blonde who invariably gets killed, and I always felt bad for her. So I thought it would be funny to have that girl go into a dark alley where we knew she would get killed and actually have her trash the monster. From that came the idea for Buffy.”

As Gina Wiker notes in her essay Vampires and School Girls: High School Jinks on the Hellmouth, strong female characters like Buffy Summers have been around for a long time. “Buffy, as vampire slayer, lover of a vampire, teen heroine, is also in a long, interrupted, line of teenage fictional heroines. Late nineteenth- and twentieth-century girls’ novels, and the annuals/comics of the nineteen-fifties and sixties are full of stories which feature young girls with energy and power who use the tactics normally found in male sleuths to track down crime, right wrongs, and return order. They are morally driven avenging angels, but also subversive schoolgirls. In their energetic activities these young women question and trouble the conventional representations of women’s lives in the movies and magazine images of the period. Popular cultural forms such as fifties and sixties films, and magazines for women consistently concentrate on woman as homemaker. Women’s magazines contain recipes, patterns for clothes making, and articles about gardening and how to make your husband happy. Younger girls’ magazines often concentrate on looking pretty, makeup, how to find the right boyfriend and keep him. Each peddles a very conservative version of womanhood. In the cinema we see an uneasy mixture of film noir femmes fatales who are punished for their energy and daring, and the light romantic comedy female roles: all Doris Day and singing, Mom, girl next door and domestic bliss. Such conservative representations of women were not surprising given the aftermath of a war which needed to return women to the kitchen so the men could regain their ground in the workplace and the home, in the economy and in the hearts of their families. But the schoolgirl novels, comics and annuals developed a very different kind of version of young womanhood, energetic, adventurous plucky, imaginative—boy-like in fact. Sexuality was not an issue here, and the adventurous young women fought singly or together to re-establish a moral status quo. They did not seek boyfriends.”

Since finishing her run on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sarah Michelle Gellar has found it difficult to find similarly empowering roles. “I came from a television show that focused on women that were strong and funny and athletic,” she said in an interview with Radio Free. “And television is where women really do lead the way. But in films, we’re still working our way up the hill, and a lot of times, we’re relegated to the girlfriend, the wife, the sister, whatever. I can’t do that. It holds no interest to me.”


When you are describing a representation, it is essential that you use appropriate terminology to describe how the representation is constructed. Below are some descriptions of the film Serenity which attempt to explain how one of the female characters has been constructed. The response that describes the representation best is the one that uses terminology accurately to describe the representation in detail, explaining how it has been constructed.


Word Length: 750-1000 words
Due Date: Friday 21 March, 2008

1. Who is Joss Whedon and how does he represent the female characters in his films and television programs. Your discussion of this point should refer specifically to the Equality Now speech and article ‘The ladies’ man’ from The Age, using quotations when appropriate.

2. Describe the character River and how she is represented throughout the film. Your description of how this representation is constructed should refer to specific scenes, make use of appropriate quotations and refer very specifically to appropriate filmic codes (including camera techniques, acting, mise-en-scene and visual composition, editing, lighting and sound). Refer to the following scenes:

• 00:01:15-00:04:50
• 00:32:02-00:34:37
• 00:58:03-01:00:57
• 01:36:21-01:37:45
• 01:40:56-01:43:00

3. Breifly conclude giving an overview of how this character is represented and link back to what you wrote about Whedon in the opening paragraph.


Criterion 1: Describe representations in media texts.
Criterion 2: Compare the construction of different representations in media texts and across media forms.
Criterion 3: Use concepts of representation, selection and construction in the evaluation of media texts.


Here is a high scoring, sample student response to the construction of female characters in the film Serenity.

Joss Whedon identified as a feminist creates his female characters with inspiration from his mother. His passion of portraying the rights of woman to have equal opportunities and characteristics to those possessed by men is strongly represented throughout ‘Serenity.’

“Equality is not a concept. It’s not something we should be striving for. It’s a necessity. Equality is like gravity, we need it to stand on this earth as men and women, and the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance and the imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and woman who’s confronted with it. We need equality, kinda now.” Whedon thrives and whole-heartedly supports equality. He writes his female characters with power, passion, sexiness, coolness, funniness and dominance in order to maintain equality throughout his characters, no man is stronger, they are equal. Whedon is very strategic about emphasising woman power and equality. He creates strong female characters and is careful to surround them with men of similar strength who not only have no problem with the idea of a female leader, but, are in fact, engaged and even attracted to the idea. This approach emphasised the power of the woman and also that woman of higher dominance and masculinity are still as sexy and attractive.

The movie ‘Serenity’ follows the story of Mal a soldier fighting a galactic civil war alongside his ships crew; Zoe, Wash, Jayne and Kaylee, however their survival is threatened by two of the most redoubtable enemies; the Universal Alliance and the horrific, cannibalistic Reavers (savages who roam the edges of space.) On top of fighting the war, further complicating matters for Mal’s success include an additional two passengers to his ship, Simon and his telepathic sister River and a beautiful courtesan Inara a women who alternately inspires and infuriates him. However these obstacles he must endure to ensure his survival, his crew member’s survival, Simon and River’s survival, Inara’s survival and the survival of mankind.

Serenity represents the structure in which Joss Whedon creates his female characters; resilient, indestructible, intrepid and intellectual. In spite of psychological trauma, River is still vastly represented as intelligent, physically strong and alert. Rivers strength and agility is first demonstrated when Simon frees her from the government society as she manages to remain tranquil whilst being strapped helplessly to a chair. We get an insight to River’s hyper intelligence and her power after she tells Simon “they know you’re here.” The mise-en-scene ties in well, as the lighting and background music is very veiled and intense, the camera shots are edited at fast pace, emphasising the tension and the risk of being caught.

“All of our subjects are conditioned for combat but River… she’s a creature of extraordinary grace.” The Bar scene in which River fights undeniably highlights her dominance, sovereignty and malleability and her extraordinary power as she defeats a roomful of people. As River watches the Fruity Oaty Bar commercial, the colour, lighting and sound effects of the scene change dramatically. There is a suspenseful reverb hum in the background, creating an imagery of danger, fear and confusion. Rivers facial expressions whilst watching the commercial emphasises she is confused yet intrigued as behind a cartoon lady with octopuses emerging from her breasts hides a subliminal message that triggers her to fight. By not showing the audience what River can see, Whedon has created suspense as we want to know why she is so mesmerized by the commercial. In lead up to the fight all imagery in the background becomes de-saturated as the focus pours onto River. The build up to the fight is slow and concentrated. Whedon cuts to a close-up of River’s back, which then cuts to a close-up of her feet as her robe drops to the floor. The slow editing here, amplifies the impact of the tightly edited fight scene as it contrasts her innocence at the beginning to her immense physical strength during the fight. The beginning of the fight is entirely in slow motion creating trepidation and intensity, there is diminutive sound except for the accentuated diegetic punches and kicks. A few seconds into the fight a kick in the head of a parton by River is emphasised as the footage returns to its normal speed and other diegetic sounds-particularly screams and painful moans of the patrons- returns, conveying River’s bodily strength. The lighting in this scene is minimal and still, to highlight the contrast of the rooms purity to River’s indignation. Whedon concedes “Amazing kick-ass adolescent heroines seem to be a disease of mine.”

Whedon created Zoe as a confident, powerful, resilient, and a highly determinate character. Before the heist, Whedon uses a mid-shot of Zoe and Mal entering together side by side, he cuts to yet another mid-shot of Zoe and Mal in the bank standing side by side, portraying equality between the female character and the male character. Whedon then cuts to an audience view through the security camera looking down on Zoe, in which she shoots and kills the image. Further into the scene whilst River slowly and graciously walks around, scanning the room, we see a shot of Zoe standing tall, gun raised in hand, in which her back is sunlight by a gap in the roof, creating an imposing and powerful silhouette of her. She is also represented as dominant as she stands looking down on her oppositions. River’s hyper intelligence is represented as the camera pans and moves throughout the civilians, Whedon then cuts to a shot of River pointing with intent to one of the men. Whedon then cuts to an extreme-close-up of the man drawing his gun, which is then interrupted by Zoe loading her gun next to his head. “Do you know what the definition of a hero is? Someone who gets someone else killed.” A dutch tilt shows Zoe standing over the man, gun pointing to his head, representing Zoe as chiefly strong and dominant. The man, threatened and defeated, throws his gun away.

When the Reavers arrive, the crew run back to their mule. This scene is tightly and quickly edited to portray intensity and desperation. “They want us alive when they eat us.” Whedon cuts to a shot of Zoe confidently climbing into the pilot’s seat, then to an extreme-close-up of the handbrake being released as they make their escape. The mise-en-scene throughout this scene changes dramatically with the action and dialogue, engaging the audience to the determination and passion of the characters.

Whedon very carefully constructs his female characters to appear dominant, strong, resilient and determined. He not only constructs his female characters to be powerful but he also uses camera angles, camera shots, lighting, dialogue and height levels to emphasise their power. His determination to open the public’s eyes with the need for equality is vastly represented throughout Serenity as both River and Zoe in many scenes’ overpower the men. “His ability to relate to female characters is instinctive.”

Photograph: maybeMaybeMaybe