There are several things you can count on seeing in a series created by Joss Whedon. There will be witty banter. There will likely be some awesome fight scenes where a woman kicks ass and takes names. There will often be a brunette who, beaten down by society, will at some point wander around in bare feet. There will be absent fathers. But Whedon's work also continually and interestingly explores the idea of institutionalization as a form of controlling and punishing women. There are several women who are institutionalized in Whedon's work.
In Buffy, there's Buffy herself, who discusses having been institutionalized after the events of the Buffy movie; she hallucinates being institutionalized a second time in the episode "Normal Again." Across Buffy and Angel, we learn of Drusilla's past. She initially joined a convent before Angelus, obsessed with her purity, hunted her down and drove her insane by torturing and killing the other members of the convent in front of her. Also across both series, we see Faith, described by multiple people associated with the Buffy-verse as "insane" or "crazy," learn to take responsibility for her actions; part of this involves spending time in prison for her crimes. In Angel, the fifth season episode "Damages" introduces potential Slayer Dana, who again was tortured into insanity. When she gains Slayer powers she escapes from the asylum she was placed into, until she is later captured by Angel and taken by the Council of Watchers to points unknown.
In Firefly, River Tam is experimented on by the military industrial complex until driven crazy while her parents believe she's at a high quality school for gifted youngsters. In Dollhouse (if one puts aside the legitimate interpretation that all of the Dolls have been institutionalized), Sierra (nee Priya) turns out to have been drugged into "insanity" by a scorned man, and is later put in the Dollhouse as a new Doll for Topher to imprint. When he realizes in "Belonging" that she didn't actually have schizophrenia, he is horrified and repentant. And, of course, that series ends with Topher having been "driven mad" by guilt. Across all of Whedon's genre shows, we see exploration of issues of sanity, insanity, and institutionalization, especially as it pertains to women's experiences.
Sometimes these women are institutionalized to shut them up or keep them out of the way. Buffy's hallucination in "Normal Again" is brought on by the Trio wanting to eliminate her. Dru's insanity makes her not only unable to accuse Angelus of his crimes against her, her family, and her fellow members of the convent, but also makes her a perfect victim to sire as a vampire. River's insanity makes it impossible for her to properly accuse the military men who experimented on her. Sierra is essentially put on ice for the amusement of her rapist, and by having her institutionalized in the Dollhouse, he keeps her from accusing him publicly of his crimes—assuming anyone would believe a "schizophrenic" in the first place. With Faith, her institutionalization is supposed to be a form of atonement, a way of beginning on the correct path. She's guided there by Angel, who views her as someone he needs to save as part of his own redemption.
What I believe Whedon wants to explore in these works is how institutionalized power—and in Whedon's work, this power is always wielded by men—can be used to abuse women. Like in Sucker Punch, we see how this can lead to rape, to physical violence, and to the destruction of a woman's entire life. However, in these same works Whedon perpetuates a lot of stereotypes about what insanity looks like. "Insane" women are almost always violent. Buffy is driven by her insanity to try and murder everyone she loves so she can "let go" of the Sunnydale "delusion." Drusilla is, of course, violent throughout her run in both shows, delighting in torturing others while muttering "insane" prophecies that may or may not be insightful. Faith is "crazy" because she's violent and murders people, putting her trust in the Mayor, the first adult who doesn't insult or belittle her. Dana is first seen violently tearing apart an insane asylum, and then murders a number of people and cuts off Spike's hands. River is randomly violent against the crew of Serenity, using both a gun and a knife in her attacks—she spends a lot of the early series being drugged and muttering nonsense that may or may not be insightful. While Sierra isn't violent, she is kept highly drugged in the asylum that Topher finds her in, and then, when released from the Dollhouse, murders the man who sent her there. Afterward, she begs Topher to make her a Doll again so she doesn't need to feel guilty.
Whedon's works also express the idea that what happens in an asylum is bad... if it's happening to someone who is actually "sane." People who are only temporarily "insane," as Buffy is in "Normal Again" and Sierra is in "Belonging," are our heroines, and what happens to them is wrong. Faith is "insane" and violent, and thus must spend time in prison. When she's no longer an antagonist, she breaks out of prison to help save the day with the other heroes of Buffy, cured of her "insanity." Both River and Dana are presented as victims of terrible crimes. River is given an entire story arc to show her true personality shining through, while Dana ends up drugged and tied up, never to be seen again. Drusilla is always crazy, always will be crazy, and is a long-running antagonist across both Buffy and Angel.
We also see that part of the tragedy of what happens to Whedon's heroines is that they are sane when they're experimented on, as River and Sierra are. The underlying message, especially in Sierra's story in "Belonging," is that her being forcibly and painfully experimented on is tragic because she doesn't actually have schizophrenia, not because it's wrong to experiment on people who can't meaningfully consent. Topher's guilt isn't that he imprinted a new personality on her, it's that she wasn't crazy enough to make that okay—an attitude one can see replicated in reading lists of unethical human experimentation in the US. (This list also includes experiments on prisoners, people who are considered to be "dying" in hospital [many lived well beyond the experiments], and soldiers. Many of the experiments were explicitly carried out on people of color, both those who fit into the other criteria and those who were deemed healthy. It's a sobering list.) What I find troubling in this is that Whedon, especially in Buffy, likes to take real-life situations and supernatural them up. High school is literally hell. You have sex with a dude and he literally is a different person the next day. Your teacher literally is a monster. However, abuse in asylums is a real situation that happens to real people, and the theory that what happens to "crazy" people is okay because they're "crazy" isn't somehow limited to the past. As well, by continually presenting his heroines as completely sane—unless driven insane by circumstances outside of their control—Whedon is telling us again and again that real heroines can't possibly be crazy as well. Real heroines are sane, or are fighting to be so. Crazy women are violent, and need to be locked up for their own good.
I like that Whedon explicitly explores the idea of institutionalization as an abusive mechanism that can be used to shut up "uppity" women, and, unlike Snyder in Sucker Punch, Whedon doesn't make asylums sexy. In "Normal Again," "crazy" Buffy looks haggard and worn out, as does Dana in "Damages." Sierra is hardly able to keep her head up due to the drugs in her system, while River's time being driven insane in "school" is brutal and depicted in shadow. In addition, while we can debate whether or not Sucker Punch was deliberately trying to make a point about misogyny, I have no doubt that Whedon's exploration on this topic is intentional. Whedon is trying to say something here, something I agree with. It's merely his execution that I have some concerns about.
Overall, I think Whedon is trying to discuss something very interesting and very relevant to the topic of "sanity" and "insanity" in pop culture. I have no doubt that in his future genre-work we'll see him return to this theme. I do hope, however, that he'll move on from the idea that sanity = good people, insanity = bad people, unless they're victims of horrible crimes. Some of us are born with the crazy, and we, too, can be heroines.
- Me: Itís Only Wrong if Youíre Sane: Pop Culture And Institutionalisation
- s.e. smith at This ain't livin': Whedon's Brunettes
- Sady at Tiger Beatdown: Dollhouse, Joss Whedon, and the Strange and Difficult Path of Feminist Dudes: Some Thoughts
- Starlet the Harlot at Whore to Culture: more than just a whore: sex work, firefly and audience engagement [Link goes to Wayback Machine]
- Thea Lim at Racilicious: Joss Whedon and the blurry line between homage and appropriation
- Saeva: It's Nikki Wood's Fucking Coat: An Essay About Race In the Buffyverse
- Thuviaptarth: Three origin stories
- NPR interview with Joss Whedon: Welcome to the Dollhouse
- Josh Nelson at Philmology: FEATURE: An Evening with Joss Whedon
Commenting Guideline: I'm really interested in hearing people's thoughts what themes they think Whedon is exploring in these shows, and talking about depictions of "temporary" insanity elsewhere in Whedon's work. What I am not interested in is comments that speculate on some incident in Whedon's life. "I think Joss is exploring the importance of kittens in the lives of women" is fine. "I think Joss comes back to these issues because of his personal grief over his parents forbidding him from watching reality shows staring kittens" is not.