By Lisa Anderson
Even casual fans of Joss Whedon know that strong female characters are important to him. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Echo from Dollhouse, and Zoe from Firefly are only a few examples. What casual fans may not realize is that women behind the scenes—Whedon’s fellow writers and producers—have also helped make his storylines beloved to so many fans. They include Jane Espenson, Marti Noxon, Maurissa Tancheroen, and Felicia Day.
Jane Espenson showed an interest in TV at an early age, submitting a spec script for M*A*S*H when she was still a teenager. It was not accepted, but the one she wrote for Star Trek: The Next Generation as a graduate student at Berkley was. She wrote or co-wrote 23 episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, including humorous ones like “Band Candy” and “Pangs,” and pivotal ones like “I Was Made To Love You” and the penultimate “End of Days.” She has also worked with Whedon on Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse, as well as writing for Gilmore Girls, Caprica, and Torchwood, among others.
Martha “Marti” Noxon wrote twenty-two episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, starting in the show’s second season. She was promoted to co-producer in the third season, around the same time that Espenson came on board as a writer. As Whedon focused on Angel, Noxon was given more production authority in seasons four and five, and was executive producer for the show’s final two seasons. Since the final televised season of Buffy, she has written and produced for Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, and Mad Men, and more.
Noxon is one of the more controversial figures among Whedon fans. Buffy’s supernatural threats had always been a metaphor for the journey to adulthood, but in later seasons, the show dealt more directly with real challenges, such as depression, addiction (albeit to magic), and attempted rape. Perhaps most divisive was the death of a beloved character, one who happened to be another character’s romantic partner. As pop culture blogger Sady Doyle writes in the article “Ellen Ripley Saved My Life”: “[People] almost literally set the Internet on fire with intense personal criticism of Marti Noxon, which lasted for years . . . This is another thing about Strong Women: We like them considerably more when they’re fictional, rather than, say, running a TV show.” (Check out the whole article—it has a lot more about the significance of Whedon’s work.)
Joss Whedon himself responded publicly to the criticism, saying online, “Marti . . . and I shaped this year very carefully, and while we made mistakes (as we do every year), we made our show. We explored what we wanted to, said what we meant. You don’t have to like it, but don’t think it comes from neglect.”
On a lighter note, you may recognize Noxon as the woman with the parking ticket in the Buffy musical episode, “Once More with Feeling.”
As the 2008 writer’s strike dragged on, Joss Whedon ventured into uncharted territory, both musically and commercially, with his serialized web musical, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog. One of his co-writers on this project was Maurissa Tancharoen, an Occidental College graduate who also sang and acted in the project. In the end, Dr. Horrible won a Streamy Award for Best Comedy Writing for a Web Series.
If you’ve heard Commentary! The Musical, an extra on the Dr. Horrible DVD, then you’ve heard “Nobody’s Asian in the Movies,” in which the Thai-American Tancharoen hilariously skewers Hollywood racial stereotypes. Dr. Horrible is not the only web project for which this multi-talented woman has sung, however; she also lent her voice to The Legend of Neil and The Guild. (She can even be seen dancing in the video for “(Do You Wanna Date My) Avatar.”)
“Mo,” as she is nicknamed, picked up her pen again for Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse—in which, of course, she also had a bit part and wrote and sang music. Now she writes for Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, along with her husband. Oh, that’s right: He happens to be Joss Whedon’s bother Jed, who she married in 2009.
No discussion of women writers and Joss Whedon is complete without mentioning Felicia Day. No, she’s never written for him—although she did appear in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog, and Dollhouse. However, after her role as Dr. Horrible‘s innocent idealist Penny, she went on to write and act in The Guild, based on her own experiences in gaming culture. She found herself again on the cutting edge of web entertainment, as The Guild won a pioneering distribution deal with Microsoft. Recently, after drumming up months of Twitter buzz about a “mystery project,” she announced that she had written and starred in Dragon Age: Redemption, a six-part web series based on the Dragon Age video game series. It will be released later this year.
Obviously, Joss Whedon has a healthy interdependence with his female creative collaborators. They have helped make him what he is, and their work with him has been a springboard for many of them. Whatever the future may hold for Whedon, we can look forward to more quality entertainment from his former co-creators, and further partnerships with talented women.