If you've ever been in the same room as me and an episode of Buffy (or Firefly, or Angel...), then you probably know that I've got a problem with Joss Whedon.
No, that's not quite true. I have many problems with Joss Whedon. Unfortunately, some of them I still haven't quite figured out.
There are elements of many of Whedon's works (movies, TV, comics) that have always bugged me, but for reasons which I have difficulty verbalizing precisely and/or backing up properly. For instance, I feel that even though he's often lauded as a feminist writer, Whedon's "strong female characters" too often end up being "strong FEMALE characters" rather than "strong characters (female)." But this is only a vague, undefined feeling of mine, and to dissect that feeling would require much more time and effort than I'm willing to expend. (Moreover, I'd have to actually define what I consider to be a "strong character," and that alone would be a doctoral dissertation.)
Just recently, though, I unraveled a small part of the Whedon Paradox, decoded a portion of the whole document that defines in exact terms why his works leave me cold. What have I discovered, you ask? Just this, gentle reader: Joss Whedon has an adolescent's view of romantic relationships.
First, note the grammar: I didn't say he had an adolescent view of relationships, I said he had an adolescent's view of relationships. For those of you who don't care about or are bad at grammar, what I mean is that he only knows as much about romance as your average adolescent does. Which is to say, he only has two basic models for intimate relationships, and these two models are the only ones that appear in his work.
Your average American middle-class teenager—and according to the little I know about Whedon's early life, he was your average American middle-class teenager—is likely to have close knowledge of only a few romantic relationships. The first is that of their parents, who (generally, on average, in most cases) have been married for years, are familiar with each others' behaviors, quirks, habits, histories, etc., are occasionally intimate, and reasonably happy. (Even for those adolescents whose parents' relationship doesn't fit this mold, this is still the "default" relationship presented in most television, movies, etc.—the nuclear family is still the American ideal, especially in the media that Whedon would've grown up watching.)
The second type of relationship is the adolescent romance: the first crush, the heady rush of sexual awakening, the sudden entry into a new emotional world. This is the kind of love that gets rhapsodized about in crappy poetry and pop songs (or is that redundant?). Everything seems fresh and new; one is overwhelmed with sensation and cannot think straight. When speaking to the object of one's crush, one becomes tongue-tied and confused; one's thoughts are occupied solely with the beloved.
Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with either of these two relationship archetypes; real people can, and do, have relationships like these. What bugs me is that these are the only two relationship types you see in Whedon's works.
I have wracked my brain for weeks now, trying to think of a romantic relationship depicted in any of Whedon's works that does not fit into either of these two patterns, and I'm coming up empty. Every romantic pair I can recall is either the mom-and-pop relationship of two people in a comfortable routine, or the first blush of puppy love. In the young love category, you've got Kaylee and Simon, Mal and Inara from Firefly, Gunn and Fred, Wesley and Fred, Angel and Cordelia from Angel, and Buffy and Angel (and Riley, and Spike), Giles and Ms. Calendar, Xander and Anya, and Willow and Tara from Buffy. (Those last two pairs are interesting in that they both transition from the young-love type to the mom-and-pop type over the course of the show.) In the mom-and-pop category, there's Wash and Zoe in Firefly and the aforementioned pairs from Buffy, plus a few more I'm doubtless forgetting.
Relationships on a Whedon show invariably start only after a period of mutual awkward stammerings and Freudian slips, and they inevitably end up with two characters in a happy, familial rut—assuming they last that long. Whedon has a reputation for killing off characters just as they're on the verge of starting a relationship with their long-desired mate; I believe that's partly because he doesn't know how to write the "midgame" of a relationship, when the two characters have been together for a while and are reasonably close, but still not entirely certain they want to spend the rest of their lives together. He rarely shows couples having genuine issues that they have to either overcome or break up over. (The one exception I can think of is Xander and Anya in Buffy: Xander leaves Anya at the altar because he's not sure he can commit to such a long-term relationship. However, even here, they were back in their snappy back-and-forth, mom-and-dad routine with a few episodes.) Thus, either these relationships end early (usually with the death of one of the participants) or they simply transition from one type to another, skipping over the intermediate stages. (And yeah, I'm aware that, in reality, some relationships really do proceed like this—jumping right from puppy love to marriage-in-all-but-name—but again, it's not that this progression never happens, it's that it's the only progression in Whedon's work.)
Further bugging me is the fact that even characters whom you would expect to have at least a little romantic experience suddenly turn into stammering teenagers when confronted with the object of their attraction. Mal of Firefly is a veteran of a bloody civil war and a mercenary of great repute, yet he can't talk to Inara without tripping over his own tongue. Spike in Buffy and Angel is a murdering psychopath who's tortured and maimed his way across whole continents, yet his affection for Buffy takes the form of a schoolboy crush. There's something to be said for reversing expectations and turning the skilled, experienced tough guy into a meek kitten when meeting his beloved, but when this happens to every tough guy, it's not so much "reversing expectations" as it is "writing the same damn thing over and over again."
I wonder if Whedon's inability to write any other types of relationships speaks to his own inexperience in such matters (not that I'm in a position to comment there), or whether it's connected to his own brand of feminism, in which he's so dismissive of "traditional" masculinity that anything which smacks of heteronormativity or patriarchy, including men being able to express affection for women in a mature and straightforward manner, must be stamped out. I'd guess the latter, but that's a whole 'nother can of worms.