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Opinion Joss Whedon’s ‘Batgirl’ movie reveals a weakness in a key argument for diversity

Writer-director Joss Whedon in New York in 2013. (Dan Hallman/Invision/Associated Press)
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When the news broke last week that Joss Whedon, who created “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and directed the first two team-up movies in Marvel’s “Avengers” franchise, would be directing a “Batgirl” movie for DC, the response was a combination of enthusiasm and soul-searching. As Scott Mendelson wrote in Forbes, “If we lived in a world where Catherine Hardwicke had a shot at directing ‘The Fighter,’ or where it wouldn’t be considered noteworthy that Elizabeth Banks directed ‘Pitch Perfect 2’ and then was replaced for ‘Pitch Perfect 3’ by ‘Step Up: All In’ director Trish Sie, we wouldn’t necessarily care. If it were more common for the likes of Lexi Alexander to helm ‘Punisher: War Zone,’ then I wouldn’t care about Joss Whedon directing ‘Batgirl.’ But if you’re going to presume that a female director can’t make ‘Batman’ and can’t direct ‘Batgirl,’ where does that leave us?”

It’s a good question, and it invites another line of inquiry. One of the most prominent arguments advocates of equality and inclusion in Hollywood have advanced in recent years is the idea that female directors (as well as directors from other communities that are underrepresented both on-screen and off) should be hired because their perspectives are inherently different from that of their male counterparts, or because stories about women and girls must be informed by their experiences. It’s a compelling idea, especially when it’s paired with the sense that the entertainment industry has become stale and repetitive on other levels. It’s also conceals a series of potential traps.

On the first level, that idea could be leveraged to get women opportunities to tell some stories, but also to reinforce a gender essentialism that shuts them out of other projects. If I don’t want to live in a world where only men tell stories about women, I also don’t want to be a critic in an environment where we have to argue about whether Kathryn Bigelow has the necessary insight into male friendship to direct “Point Break,” or Michelle MacLaren understands the plight of a middle-aged cancer patient rebelling against his life as a beta by cooking meth fully enough to helm episodes of “Breaking Bad.” Hollywood being what it is, it’s inevitable that some male director will argue that his life experience better prepares him for a job than one of his female competitors. You can’t invoke the idea that men and women have wholly different views of the world and expect it will only be used to fight injustice.

On the second, this argument lets male directors off the hook for creating compelling female characters. If women’s viewpoints are essential to creating better, more ambitious roles for actresses, then male directors can just shrug off any criticisms of their work for failing to meet that high mark. After all, they’re dudes, so what did we expect? (Not to mention that if a female director gets dinged for her female characters, her alleged failure to represent her gender properly could become a strike against her when she seeks future jobs.)

The movement for gender equality in pop culture has always had two prongs: improved opportunity for underrepresented people behind the camera and improved representations of these communities on screen. We shouldn’t sacrifice one of those goals at the cost of another.

The scenario I’ve described could get women more opportunities with little net improvement in the representation of women. Alternatively, if more male directors were to start behaving like Whedon, and creating textured, compelling female characters, their work would undercut the idea that women’s frames of reference are necessary to achieve that result. The savviest thing that white male directors could do to protect their own jobs in the face of an insurgent diversity movement is to prove that they can see beyond their own experiences and tell stories that resonate with the audiences who want to see their own lives represented on screen.

None of which means that Whedon doesn’t have the credentials to direct a “Batgirl” movie, or that his “Batgirl” movie won’t be absolutely tremendous: All the available evidence suggests optimism is in order. A more equal Hollywood would include both more Joss Whedons and more female directors who receive the same opportunities to attain the same success.