From Buffy to Echo: Joss Whedon’s weird obsession with supergirls

Echo and the gang of The Dollhouse
Echo and the gang of The Dollhouse

Joss Whedon, most famous for creating and helming Buffy the Vampire Slayer thru several seasons of high-school angst and vampire slaying, has gone on to write and produce several other movies and television shows. But there remains a silver thread running thru them that has begun to seem… unseemly. Joss Whedon likes girls. A lot. With super powers.

Whedon likes his girls young, pretty, filled with secrets, possessed of awesome powers of destruction, and—if possible—programmable. Is it feminism or a pathology? You decide.

Whedon started his show business career writing for television shows like Rosanne and Parenthood. Parenthood was an early example of Whedon’s weird track record of having critically-acclaimed shows canceled out from under him with little explanation.

His first big project was the 1992 film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, starring Kristy Swanson and Donald Sutherland. The film is a famous example of the director not really understanding the writer’s intention, since it plays as a simple bit of camp (She’s a cheerleader! And a vampire slayer!) and is devoid of sophistication of the works Whedon would later produce himself. But it introduces Whedon’s obsession with teenage girls with super powers. Buffy is a normal teenage high school cheerleader who learns that she is her generation’s destined slayer of vampires.

Undeterred and still jonesing for a supergirl, Whedon wrote 1997’s Alien Resurrection, the fourth in the Alien series and the one with the weirdest and most confused plot. What exactly went wrong isn’t clear (Whedon has said the film-makers didn’t change his script; they just did everything wrong), but what is clear is Winona Ryder’s role as a (spolier alert!) pretty girl who is secretly a super-strong android. Previous androids in the Alien series were played by middle-aged men (Ian Holm and Lance Henriksen).

Then, in 1997, came Whedon’s big break. He was able to get Buffy the Vampire Slayer adapted to television and sold to Fox, this time with himself at the wheel. At last, he had control—and access to teenage girls aplenty. Buffy takes place in a high school, and his heroine, played this time by Sarah Michelle Geller, not only has super powers to kill vampires, but eventually gains a younger sister who turns out to actually be—unknown even to herself—an ancient magical artifact of tremendous power!

During the run of Buffy came 2000’s Titan AE, a somewhat jumbled animated adventure starring Matt Damon and Drew Barrymore. While not explicitly delivering a super-powered teen girl, the film does present Barrymore’s Akima as a not-yet-20 space pilot who knows karate.

In 1999, Whedon spun off the character of Angel to his own show and passed along another character, Cordelia, whom he then proceeded to give super powers. Charisma Carpenter turned her bitchy cheerleader into a proper Whedonesque heroine with the help of psychic visions.

Next came Firefly in 2002, the short-lived but critically-acclaimed Firefly. This featured Summer Glau as a mysterious teenager who had escaped horrible government experiments of an unknown kind. Her character, River Tam, was fully revealed in the 2005 film Serenity, which was produced as a follow-up/apology for canceling the series. River turns out to be—surprise!—trained as a killing machine and programmed not to know. She finally puts her talents to use against the space-crazed reavers.

During the writers’ strike of 2008, Whedon and his brother put together an independent production of Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog, starring Neil Patrick Harris and Nathan Fillion (who has previous starring in Firefly). Despite being all about superheroes and supervillains, the work strangely contains no secretive teenage super-powered girl, programmable or not.

However….

Now Whedon is hard at work on his new TV series, The Dollhouse, a story about a group of beautiful, young girls who are secretly programmed to carry out all manner of clandestine missions, including espionage, assassination, and love-making, and returned to have their minds wiped. Eliza Dushku stars as Echo, one of the girls who starts to fight the control of her overlords.

That’s right: a whole raft of secret programmable supergirls for Joss Whedon to fawn over for years to come. After this, what could possibly be next? A lost island tribe of Amazons fighting dinosaurs? A whole army of pretty girls fighting a war they don’t understand but are programmed to win? An entire planet populated only by teenage girls with super powers, fighting alien invaders and seeking compatible man flesh? Only Joss Whedon’s deepest subconscious knows for certain.

2 thoughts on “From Buffy to Echo: Joss Whedon’s weird obsession with supergirls”

  1. Thanks for the note! I’m all in favor of strong women. I mention in frequently in my movie reviews and audio commentaries. I just find it funny that Whedon keeps writing a very, very specific type of strong woman.

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