The Politics of Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

The Politics of Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog


Joss Whedon. Mr. Whedon. Joss. We have such a complicated relationship, Joss. I mean, shows like Buffy and Firefly were
formative to my childhood experience in a way that still affects my tastes and preferences
to this day. Once More With Feeling is a masterclass on
how to do a musical episode, and I still feel little pangs of nostalgia whenever I hear
You Can’t Take The Sky From Me. Characters like Zoe or Kaylee or Buffy were
some of my first exposures to complex women with their own unique forms of strength, and despite the pernicious
way their story ended, the relationship between Willow and Tara on Buffy was one of the first
of its kind that I ever saw, and that’ll always be meaningful to me. But then, there’s everything else. There’s the time you fired an actor for becoming
pregnant. There’s the allegations that you cheated on
your wife for fifteen years while gaslighting her every step of the way. There’s the way you keep slipping dated tropes
into your work, like killing off your only gay couple, implying a woman is a monster
for her infertility, and the use of one-dimensional stereotypes for many of your characters of
colour, like portraying the first slayer as a savage whom Buffy makes fun of for her
dreadlocks. I still don’t know how to feel about your
work. It’s problematic, sure, but I still love it. A lot of approaches primarily suggest
that we should completely separate the art from the artist, and I get that to an extent. I made an entire video explaining why lending
unconditional credence to authorial intent is often a bad idea. But oftentimes, that kind of context matters
when examining a work. If we know someone’s writing a story primarily
about their own experiences, we might take that into account when examining their story
and notice certain nuances that we may have missed otherwise. When we’re looking at a Woody Allen film where
a man in his forties dates a teenage girl, it’s probably worth being aware that Woody
Allen’s a sex creep. Example borrowed from Linsday Ellis, when
we’re looking at The Fault In Our Stars, a story about a teenage girl with terminal cancer,
we might be able to better understand it if we know it was written in honour of a real
teenage girl who died of cancer and was friends with the author. Or, in Joss Whedon’s case, when he keeps writing
socially awkward nerdy guys who are super attracted to our leading women but are kinda
douchebags in their own nerdy way, we might glean some new insights from examining those
characters through the lens of what we know about Joss Whedon. What that means for me is sometimes I have
trouble reconciling my nostalgic love for his works with my increasing discomfort with
some of what I know about him, both things that show up in the works and outside of them. I mean, on one hand, the mythical morally
pure work that never has any problems and passes every single kind of quality test simply
doesn’t exist, and that’s not a reasonable standard to which we hold the media we consume. On the other, simply saying “everything is
problematic so who cares” isn’t really satisfactory either. Like, yeah, everything’s “”problematic””,
but there are different degrees of bad. I’m still gonna love it, and I’m still gonna
criticize it, but I wanna go a bit deeper than that. When it comes to works that can be interpreted
in particularly progressive or particularly regressive ways, I wanna look at these multiple
possible interpretations and see where we stand with that. So what I wanna look at today is one of his
cult classics, the musical miniseries Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. The series came out 11 years ago, and I’ve
had complex feelings about it for a while. Namely, it’s one of those works that could
potentially serve as criticism of harmful attitudes , or could just end up reproducing
those attitudes. I’ve seen it taken both ways, and so i wanna
go a little bit deeper into it. So, if you haven’t seen it before, it’s essentially
about this aspiring supervillain named Billy, or Dr Horrible. He’s madly in love with a girl named Penny,
who he sees on the regular at the laundromat, but has never actually spoken with. He ends up accidentally introducing her to
his nemesis, the douchey superhero Captain Hammer, and the two start to date. Meanwhile, he learns that in order to get
into his coveted supervillain league, he needs to kill someone, which he really doesn’t want
to do. After Captain Hammer figures out Billy’s secret
identity and taunts him about the relationship, Billy resolves to kill Captain Hammer. At the last minute, though, his weapon backfires
and kills Penny instead. Hammer is humiliated and Billy gets into the
supervillain league, ending the series feeling lost and numb. Ad the often-repeated fanquote goes, he got
everything he wanted, and it only cost him a Penny. It’s an interesting story with some catchy
tunes, and it gave us villain Neil Patrick Harris and hero Nathan Fillion ten years before
A Series of Unfortunate Events did. If you like musicals and have an extra 45
minutes of time, I would definitely recommend checking it out, both to understand this video
better and because it’s a pretty solid series on its own. As with any work, it’s gonna be interpreted
differently based who’s doing the interpreting and from what context are they approaching
the work, and things like that, but I think there are three different readings that I can pull out of this story that might
tell us a little bit more. There’s what we can take from it at face value,
there’s Dr Horrible Bad, and there’s Dr Horrible Good. I wanna go through each of of these readings
and hopefully come out of it with some better answers as to how we’re supposed to feel when
it comes to works like this. So let’s get started. So, one thing it’s important to ask,
putting aside all these questions about whether Dr Horrible was actually super feminist or
super bad, is “what is the story actually about”? Well, it’s about a lot of things, and one
theme that consistently pops up throughout this series is this theme of vulnerability. So, there are two formats throughout which
the story is told. There’s Billy’s Dr Horrible vlogs, where he shares his life updates with
his in-universe followers, and then there’s the more traditional storytelling style where
we follow Billy throughout his daily life. With a few notable exceptions, which we’ll
talk about in a minute, Billy is in costume as Dr Horrible during his vlogs and Billy
in the outside world. There’s definitely a shift in the way he talks
and behaves in each persona; as Dr Horrible, he often engages in a sort of posturing where
he emphasizes how villainous and clever he is, whereas as Billy, he’s downright socially
awkward and more honest about his feelings. Even when he admits his faults in costume,
like when he admits he needs a vocal coach to practice his evil laugh or complains to
his viewers about his plan failing, he always quickly recuperates and covers it up with
some kind of bragging. There are, of course, exceptions to this;
there’s one particular scene where after a particularly awkward and embarrassing encounter
with Penny before a heist, Billy realizes time is running out and he needs to go through
with the heist, and do it quickly . He changes costume midsong after telling us “a man’s
gotta do what a man’s gotta do” and his demeanour very quickly changes with it as he gets to
work on stealing the van. Notably, this talk about what man’s gotta
do very much ties masculinity to a lack of vulnerability, as him doing what he’s gotta
do entails him moving away from it. The most jarring example of this comes at
the end of the story, where Billy has successfully made his way into the supervillain inner circle,
or the “evil league of evil”. He’s decked out in a brand-new supervillain
costume, showing us what he had to give up and how evil he now is. A few seconds later, the very last lines are
delivered in front of the vlogging camera, with Billy dressed as himself once again as
he admits in this heartbreaking tone that he doesn’t feel a thing anymore. The costume serves as a means for Billy to
mask his own emotions and desires, and he’s a lot more vulnerable without it. This new heightened costume also represent
a heightened masking of his feelings, and it’s only when we we see him as Billy again
that he allows himself to be vulnerable. Contrast that with Captain Hammer, who’s very
much portrayed as this stereotype of hypermasculinity. He’s only ever in his superhero costume, even
after what we’re meant to believe is an intimate moment with Penny. If he has any sense of vulnerability, we never
really get to see it, and he’s equally insistent on covering up anything that might break the
illusion of effortless machoness. There’s this one moment where he asks Billy
if the two know each other from the gym, before he very quickly corrects himself. Have I seen you at the gym? At the gym. I don’t go the gym, I’m just naturally like
this. We never even learn Hammer’s real name; in
a sense, he represents his ultimate lack of vulnerability. Once again, this is very much tied to his
masculinity; this is particularly noticeable at the end of the series. After being injured for seemingly the first
time in his life, he starts crying for “someone maternal” and running away; we later see him
sobbing in therapy in a way that’s very much meant to emasculate him. His only expression
of vulnerability coincides with him crying for his mother and breaking this hypermasculine
illusion of power. It’s also worth noting that this is meant
to be pretty degrading for him, and it’s more or less played for laughs. When it comes to Penny, who obviously does
not have a secret identity unless we get a really badass sequel tomorrow where she comes
to life and justifiably murders everyone in the story Vanya-style, Maurissa, please do
this, she’s a lot more up-front about being vulnerable. She’s unabashedly passionate about her activism,
more than willing to tell Billy about her various struggles in life, and makes no effort
to conceal her feelings for Hammer, which deepen very quickly. She’s also very much portrayed as nurturing
and feminine, being an idealistic activist for homeless people, a vegetarian, and an
all-around comforting figure. If Captain Hammer represents someone with
no vulnerability, Penny is full of it. So how do all these pieces fit together? Well, if we view Penny as the series’ purest
representation of vulnerability and Captain Hammer as the purest representation of lacking
it, Billy’s two identities can definitely be understood in the context of beating Hammer
and losing Penny. Penny’s own death is, of course, the catalyst
for Billy joining the Evil League of Evil, and shedding his previous identity. And yet, at the end of the story, where we
see that one last glimpse of Billy as himself, we clearly see that this is not a desirable
thing. He’s unbelievably sad and lost behind the
veneer of the costume, and it’s clear that joining the Evil League of Evil doesn’t bring
him any sense of personal satisfaction any more. As it turns out, he probably would’ve been
happier just ditching the career in evil altogether and just getting a nice cottage with Penny
somewhere. But his own quest for getting revenge on Hammer
after being challenged by him directly led to Penny’s death, and prevented that from
ever being a viable future for him. In short, it’s pretty much tragic, and the
story is clearly framing Billy’s loss of Penny, and thus, of his vulnerability, as a bad thing. It seems like we’re getting kind of contradictory
messages here. When it comes to Captain Hammer, his lack
of vulnerability is directly tied to his strength and masculinity, and we’re meant to kind of
laugh at his only showing of it. It emasculates him, and makes him seem silly. But when Billy loses it, there’s this tragedy
associated. He’s clearly an unhappy person as a direct
result of this loss, so in the story, some degree of vulnerability is a desirable trait
in order to have some base happiness as a person. Strap in, ’cause this story’s not gonna get
any less contradictory from here on out! Despite the somewhat confusing way in which
the story frames these topics like vulnerability or masculinity, the primary tragedy of this
story is indeed the loss of Penny’s life and what that means for Billy. His actions are the catalyst for her death,
and her death is the catalyst for Billy gaining everything he ever wanted while losing everything
he ever needed. This relationship between Billy and Penny
is really the emotional core of the story, and that’s the most important thing most viewers
might take from the story at face value. Billy has caused the death of this very important
person in his life, and has lost himself as a result. This is very very sad. This tragedy is indeed the primary takeaway
of the miniseries. So, there’s some spicy analysis for you guys! I could probably end the video here. But I don’t wanna. I just got my makeup done at Sephora for filming
this and I want to milk it for all its worth. D’you think I know how to do this? Instead, let’s dive a bit deeper. I mean, this was made in 2008, and as a viewer
in 2019, plus as a Real Life Woman, there are definitely a few things in the story that
are a bit … unfortunate. So let’s talk about that. So, one thing you might have noticed about
the previous reading is that it doesn’t really take Penny’s feelings into account at all. And, on the whole, it really is a story about
Billy, and about how Billy feels about how Penny’s effect on his life. And, unfortunately, this is about as much
depth and agency as we get from Penny in canon; her primary purpose really is as a plot device
for most of the story. Before her death, she mostly functions as
a prize to be won, to be fought over by the two men in the story. Her desirability isn’t really tied to any
particular traits or values of hers, as Billy thinks he’s in love with her before the two
had ever actually spoken and he seemed surprised to learn what she does in her spare time. Even her own death isn’t really about her;
we’re not sad that she died with goals unfulfilled, or for all the potential she had in life,
or for how she must have felt in her final moments. We’re sad because the death made Billy sad,
and we care how Billy feels. So, in this sense, Penny is really reduced
to an object for most of the story, someone who isn’t really a fully rounded person with
agency, but moreso just serves to motivate the main character’s desires for revenge or
happiness or whatever it is he’s suppsoed to want at that moment. I mean, this is pernicious in and of itself,
but when it comes to Billy as the protagonist and the only person we’re really encouraged
to empathize with, this relationship with Penny gets a bit stranger. I mean, it’s so sad for Billy, right? She didn’t date him, and instead went for
that asshole Captain Hammer, even though that nice guy was right there in front of her. And she’s essentially punished for this by
the narrative; she doesn’t have the sense to date Billy, Billy needs revenge against
Captain Hammer for this relationship, Penny dies instead. There’s definitely this theme across Whedon’s
work about female characters essentially being punished by the narrative for sleeping with
the wrong people. I mean, this happens to Buffy constantly,
whether it’s in the form of her boyfriend tunring into an evil vampire hellbent on killing
her or being trapped in a house filled with vines because she got too intense with her
military boyfriend.. We also see simialr things happening to characters
like Cordelia, Dawn, or Inara on Firefly. It’s weird theme that seems to pop up, and
there’s definitely a possible avenue of interpretation in terms of Penny’s death being the result
of her relationship with Hammer and her failure to see him for what he really is. And narratively speaking, yes. If she had just gone out with Billy instead
of Captain Hammer, she probably wouldn’t have died. Which is already kinda yikes when you
think about it for too long. I mean, we’re meant to empathize with Billy
in this situation, but he kinda sucks. Like, why would she date him? She’s never spoken to him before, and when
they first speak, he’s super weird, belittles her petition, and “texts” most of the time. He’s so distracted that she ends up walking
away from him wthout getting a goodbye back. On the exact same day, from her perspective,
she’s saved by a handsome guy who actually focuses his attention on her. Billy’s reponse to this is to be bitter about
it. He stalks her on dates, belittles her boyfriend
in front of her, and never makes any attempts to express romantic feelings towards her or
ask her out. He blames her for his own change in attitude,
with the line “there’s a darkness everywhere and Penny doesn’t seem to care that soon the
dark in me is all that will remain”. He doesn’t care that she’s happy, as long
as she’s not happy with him. It’s a pretty shitty, entitled attitude. This lowkey blaming of Penny for not dating
him, even though he’s done nothing to make himself apparent as either romantically interested
or romantically appealing is pretty consistent throughout the series. And like… his descent into actual evil isn’t
even really motivated by anything particularly awful? He vows to kill Captain Hammmer because Hammer
bragged about how he gets to sleep with Penny and Billy couldn’t. This very specific form of anger directed
towards both Penny and the man she chooses to date was definitely a lot more normalized
in 2008 when this was made, but if we look at it in a modern context, the first word
that would come to mind for a lot of people is “incel”. I especially wanna thank Maxie Satan Official
for a really good post where she correctly identifies that this narrative very closely
parallels the radicalization that a lot of incel types seem to experience- particularly
in the fact that his desire to kill Captain Hammer really is ego-based and isn’t borne
out of any particular desire for social change except to his own position in life. One nowadays might use the term toxic masculinity. So, quick note on this. When people use the term toxic masculinity,
a lot of misconceptions and emotions can be brought up, both from people using the term
and from people reacting to it. We all know that one of these ideas is that
this is an indictment of all masculinity, and that people using the term are saying
men aren’t allowed to enjoy chopping wood or fishing or cracking open a cold one with
the boys any more. Of course, this isn’t what the term means,
only that there’s a version of that masculinity which is harmful. People like Terry Crews or Nick Offerman are
traditionally masculine in non-harmful ways, for instance. But another popular conception is that this
term only refers to a very specific type of person; that, is the hypermasculine jock. This is the kind of character that we see
in Captain Hammer, and the narrative absolutely frames him as a bad person. But we don’t really see that same scrutinity
and negative framing applied to Billy and his attitudes towards Penny; rather,
his feelings for her are portrayed as something genuine and wholesome. But again, he kinda sucks and makes no attempt
to romantically pursue her and is kinda a dick to her. Like, at least Hammer actually does stuff
for Penny, like help her get her homeless shelter. I mean, it’s certainly not because he cares
about her as a person; he’s very clearly only interested in her because he wants to sleep
with her. But based solely on actions, it’s no wonder
she prefers him. Related to that, a youtuber named Pop Culture
Detective has a really great video about how harmful ideologies towards women can manifest
in nerd culture in unique ways, specifically talking about The Big Bang Theory. I would definitely recommend giving it a watch,
and I’ll link it below. The short version is that there’s this very
specific style of toxic masculinity that is present throughout nerd circles. There’s still a very specific ideal that it
aspires to; it’s not the jock, but instead the hyper-rational renaissance man who can
attract women through his superior understanding of art and culture and science. These things are framed are primarily masculine
traits that women don’t or can’t possess to the same degree as men. This often leads to a lot of condescenscion
towards women or the idea that these men would be constantly getting girls if these women
were smart enough to see what was right in front of them. And this is definitely something we see in
Billy. Throughout the story, Billy repeatedly expresses
this underlying, very paternalistic belief that Penny is unable to make her own choices
if her choice doesn’t result in her ending up with Billy. She’s somehow incapable of understanding Hammer’s
true nature, and she’s overly naive. Him sneering at her in the first act when
she mentions starting a petition is really indicative of his attitude towards Penny. He doesn’t see her as a fully developed human
with the same capacity for reasoning and intellectual thought as him; he sees a pretty girl, who
he wants, who he’s built up in his head to have specific idealized characteristics. He imagines her going along with whatever
he says, understanding his desires for supervillainry, and blindly falling in love with him, even
when presented with evidence to the contrary. And when Penny doesn’t meet the expectations
that Billy has crafted for her in his head, Billy grows bitter. Basically, Billy is the only character we’re
really meant to empathize with, and the only person really framed as in the wrong
in terms of how they treat Penny is Hammer. If not an endorsement of Billy’s lowkey sexist
attitudes towards Penny, it seems like the work is at the very least turning a blind
eye to it. This is particularly true when taken in concert
with the fact that Penny has virtually no agency in the story, and primarily serves
as a prize to be won for Billy. So, we could stop here. Okay. Dr. Horrible is problematic and contains a
lot of bad attitudes towards women. It’s basically just “Nice Guys: The Musical”,
and we’re rooting for Eliott Roger. You can still like it, but don’t take it as
anything more than it is. But, this doesn’t quite feel right either. I mean, sure, Penny’s character was handled
poorly, and Billy’s character is certainly an example
of like, Nice Guy Nerd Masculinity, but does that mean that the series itself necessarily
endorses Billy’s behaviour? Are we supposed to be rooting for him, or
is this more of a condemnation of his behaviour? Is the primary purpose of Dr Horrible not
to just serve as an example of these tropes, but instead to take them and turn them on
their head, to point out the harm in them? Was the true hammer in the story not Nathan
Fillion, but the hammer and sickle bestowed upon Comrade Whedon for his super subversive
musical? Actually, before we answer that… Hey. Do you like Dungeons and Dragons? Do you like content with me in it? What if I told you, you could have both those
things at once? Well, you can, because I’m in an actual play
DND podcast called Trials & Trebuchets! Basically, the premise is that we play these
kids at a secretive, elite magical school, and we’re makin’ friends, having some good good
anime tropes, while also uncovering the school’s deepest mysteries. And maybe saving the world? I don’t know, we haven’t gotten there yet. I assume we’re gonna save the world. It’s a nice, lighthearted podcast, it’s a
good time, I play a bard, we have a Discord server… If you like DND, or me, or you just like one
of those things and you’re interested in learning more about the other thing, I would definitely
recommend you check the podcast out. So, I’ll going to be leaving links in the
description for our Discord server and for websites where you can listen to the podcast,
see previews, and learn more about us! Back to your regularly scheduled… actual
video essay now. So, is it actually a condemnation of Shitty
Nerd Masculinity? I mean, the fact that a popular interpretation
of the story is “oh, it’s so sad that Penny didn’t date Billy, the relatable nerdy protagonist”,
might lead some people to just say no. I mean, there are a lot of works that try
to serve as a subversion of these shitty ideals- Fight Club, Bojack Horseman, Rick and Morty- In all of these cases, you have guys not viewing
the protagonists as the way the work is trying to portray them; that is, as super flawed people, but instead
as icons whom they should aspire to become like. And so, a lot of people criticize these works
for not being explicit enough in their framing of these characters. Basically, the idea is that if something is
supposed to be a criticism of a bad idea, but then people come out endorsing the idea, it
has failed as a criticism. This is a fair point, but I think there’s
a type of person who will see a shitty nerd character and identify with them
no matter how unlikeable an author makes that shitty nerd character? Like, for Heaven’s sake, Kylo Ren is like
the most snivelling little weenie, and people still identify with him. So, I think the question is still worth asking,
even if it is telling that we have to ask the question at all. I mean, once again, there’s still that question
of authorial intent that I talk about extensively in my JK Rowling video. Should we look at what we think Whedon intended
to portray? Or, should we narrow our scope exclusively
to the film itself, and what a casual viewer, not knowing anything
about Whedon or his other works, might take from it? Y’all already know I don’t like examining
things primarily through the lens of authorial intent, mostly
because it lends itself very easily to bad-faith reinterpretations. That being said, if we do try and do that
here, the result is kinda a resounding “eh”. I mean, Whedon’s works have absolutely been
critical of Nice Guy Nerd Masculinity in the past, particularly with the Trio’s presence on Buffy
The Vampire Slayer. The Trio consists of three guys who serve
as the big bads on the show’s fifth* season. They’re both deeply nerdy: talking in Doctor
Who references, displaying social awkwardness around women, and building spy gadgets, and deeply misogynistic. In particular, the trio’s leader, Warren Mears,
views himself as entitled to the women in his life; he tries to brainwash a woman into sleeping with him and
murders her when she rejects him. He ends up building an entire robot solely
for the purpose of simulating a relationship, and then leaves her to die. Basically, he sucks. So, if we are looking at authorial intent,
there’s definitely evidence that Whedon is aware of this problem, and is willing to criticize
it. On the other hand, he’s also created nerd-type characters with unfortunate attitudes in situations
where this isn’t really criticized; in particular, Xander on Buffy begins with a lot of entitlement
to the women in his life, and is never really called out or punished for it. So, Billy’s character could be an attempt
to create someone we’re not supposed to like, or to create a cute relatable nerd guy. Jaboy Joss has done both. Of course, Whedon wasn’t the only person responsible
for creating Dr. Horrible; there’s also the influence of his brothers and icon Maurissa
Tancharoen. So, examining the actual content of the story
only through the lens of what Whedon intended creates a limited picture of the overall content. So, let’s look at the actual text itself. I’m mostly going to be looking at the end
result of the story; that is, Penny’s death and Billy’s resulting emotional devastation,
because that is kind of the emotional core of the story here. If we’re looking at cause and effect, it’s
still true that Penny choosing not to date Billy ended up leading to her death, and we
can certainly view that as the narrative punishing her for
her choices. Indeed, her choice of who to date is really
the only agency we see her express in the story. But, one could just as easily make a case
that the person being primarily punished for their actions is Billy. Once again, the supposed turn to darkness
where he decides he’s going to kill Captain Hammer isn’t motivated by any real injustice,
but the fact that his ego is bruised. He feels entitled to dating Penny, and feels
anger at Chad- I mean, Captain Hammer- as a result. And, it’s this entitlement to Penny, and his
resulting violence, that ends up ultimately killing her, and this entitlement is his fatal
flaw. And it’s very important here to remember that
Billy ultimately has a significant amount of agency and placed himself in the majority
of the harmful situations we see him in throughout the narrative. Hammer’s a dick, but he didn’t force Billy
to try to freeze ray a mayor, or to try and kill Hammer. These are all choices that Billy makes fueled
by his entitlement, and he’s experiencing the consequences of his own actions. He did this to himself. Furthermore, even though he’s not framed as
being as bad as Hammer, and we’re certainly meant to sympathize with him, he’s definitely made fun of at certain points. For example, even though he makes fun of Penny
for her naivety in thinking a petition is going to help the LA homeless, he has similarly idealistic and simplistic
beliefs. In his villain song, he has a line talking
about how he’s going to create: Anarchy! That I run! “Anarchy that I run”. Which is very much not how anarchy works? Or, in his very first monologue, he ends up
getting an email where he’s asked if he’s ever actually spoken to Penny; if she even knows he exists. And she absolutely doesn’t at that point;
the email dude’s right! This fantasizing over Penny and projecting
his own ideas of what she’ll be like onto her is certainly not a desirable trait. Taken in concert with everything we know about
Billy and his own attitudes, there’s definitely a case to be made for this story as a cautionary tale about radicalization
and entitlement. Billy essentially drives himself to these
harmful actions through his own ego, and the story can be viewed as the process of watching
that happen to him step by step. We see how that crush turns into stalking,
which turns into violence against her partner, which turns into (albeit accidental) violence
against her. And Billy experiences real consequences for
those actions in a way that can absolutely be interpreted as a condemnation of this very
toxic way of viewing the world. Here, the story says “no, people aren’t your
playthings. They have real thoughts and real feelings,
and attempts to control them and make life go according to your wishes while ignoring
their own will end up hurting both you and them”. But what about out-of-universe, Penny’s own
lack of agency in the story? Once again, she’s definitely portrayed more
as a prize to be won for Billy than as her own person, and we’re only really meant to
feel sad about her death as it pertains to affecting Billy. But there’s certainly a degree of self-awareness
about this coming from the story itself. I mean, it literally cuts to a news segment
saying Country Mourns What’s-Her-Name, and there’s an earlier song where a group of fans
were commenting upon Penny’s personal life as she becomes increasingly well-known as
“Captain Hammer’s Girlfriend”. So, perhaps this isn’t the fridging trope
played straight so much as an attempt to call it out, to call out the way that women are
often treated as powerless by these popular narratives. Like, she does all this work for the homeless,
and she’s still reduced to What’s-Her-Name and Captain Hammer’s Girlfriend, even though she does more good for the world
than he ever will. And like, this is a really apt observation! Oftentimes, women who do a lot of work still
end up getting sidelined in favour of guys who do very little, and women often have to
do a lot more to prove their contributions and agency! Like, look at the recent news story with the
picture of this black hole, where people were scrambling to find a way to dismiss all the
work this woman put into it, even though she never took sole credit for
the project. Even I’ve experienced it; I made a joke about
Breadtube once and it prompted like an entire comment war about whether I was Breadtube
enough to count! People won’t be satisfied until I’ve poured
some kind of liquid on my face, which I’m really not inclined to do right now because
I did just get back from Sephora. And like, this is such a minor example. I’m not curing cancer or helping the homeless
here; it’s just videos. What happens to Penny, dedicating extreme
amounts of time and attention to this really noble cause, dying at a celebration of that
cause, and then barely being recognized or remembered,
is a really sad and real example of something that happens quite often. Maybe the story here is taking it to the extreme-
having a news segment literally call her What’s-Her-Name, to draw attention to how silly this is. There’s definitely a fine line between invoking
Thing as satire to point out how ridiculous it is, and just doing Thing and saying it’s satire,
and the distinction is often difficult to describe in words. Just doing something shitty and pointing it
out isn’t inherently good satire. See: Riverdale calling out Kevin’s existence
as the one-dimensional token gay friend, but still continuing to have him be the one-dimensional
token gay friend. It’s not really a commentary; they just tried
to use self-awareness as a get out of jail free card. But like, this can be done right! Think about the perennially underrated show
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, whose main character does a lot of stalking and
other generally unsavoury things for the purpose of love. The theme song to one season is a quirky ingenue
song where she sings in a cutesy voice about how she ♪ can’t be held responsible for her actions
♪ ’cause she’s just a girl in love! And that ends up being really effective, because
it draws attention to how ridiculous it is that we tend to excuse these things when they’re
framed as being done for the sake of love. So, which is the “right interpretation” here? Is the entire narrative a cautionary tale
about entitlement and radicalization and how we should all be drinking more Respect Women
Juice? Or, is it just an uncritical portrayal of
that entitlement in a way that doesn’t meaningfully challenge those concepts? Well, let’s discuss! When we put everything on the table and take
a look at this series eleven years later, it really comes out feeling like a mixed bag. It promotes vulnerability in some men while
using it as a tool of shaming in others, it calls out some creepy attitudes towards women
while drawing less attention to others, and it parodies a lack of female agency in some
situations while just invoking it in others. The whole thing ends up feeling like a mess
of contradictions that it’s particularly difficult to decide how to feel about. Fans can, of course, draw their own conclusions
as to where Billy went wrong and what caused Penny’s death, but the narrative stops short
of really showing Penny’s death as a direct and immediate consequence of either Penny’s
actions or Billy’s. There’s no singular, clear examination of
the root causes, which is why you have some people calling it a love story, some people calling it subversive, and some
people calling it problematic. And, truth be told, there’s also no such thing
as a singular, uniquely valid interpretation of the work. Especially when we do away with the idea there’s
only one right way to view it, and that’s what the author wanted. We can look at how other people react to it
to see how well it fulfilled its purpose, and we can look at the text itself, but at
the end of the day, both of these interpretations can be right or neither of these interpretations
can be right. But if you really wanna know how I feel after
this whole thing, I think the series was a bit of both. I mean, I think there was probably a real
effort there to parody the way women are treated in the public eye, hence “What’s-Her-Name” and the entire So They Say
Number. But, it didn’t really take the situation to
intense enough lengths to be much of a biting satire, either. Billy is absolutely entitled, and once again,
there’s definitely a real effort to make sure we the audience knows that he’s naive and has a poor conception
of how the world works. But, the series really stops short of examining
the way those traits led to the consequences, only really driving home that Penny’s death
was indeed a tragedy. I absolutely wouldn’t call the series a biting
takedown of Nice Guy Nerd Masculinity, but I also wouldn’t call it an endorsement of
it either. Ultimately, I think Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along
Blog has some bad and some good. Read through a feminist lens, it definitely
functions as an interesting case study about how radicalization and toxic attitudes
lead to violence, but the story itself doesn’t quite make those connections enough for me
to justify me calling it subversive. But, there’s also enough meaningful criticism
of Billy and his actions that just calling it an ode to Nice Guys isn’t really accurate
either. Looking back on the series eleven years later,
I think the most important thing to take from it is that we’re not owed other people. Even when we feel those people aren’t doing
what we think is best for them. It’s a hard pill to swallow, especially when
frozen yoghurt is so much easier to swallow. But it’s necessary. Brand New Day slaps, and it’s OK to like it. I like it. But, if you’re not feeling great about your
choice of media for the day… just watch Megamind. No, seriously, watch Megamind. It has literally all the same commentary about
entitlement and woman as prize, but does it like, ten times better. Plus the soundtrack is almost as good. Oh my god. Rule of threes. I have to do this, don’t I? [BreadTube baptism splash] WHY DID I DO THAT, oh my god. In addition to all my patrons, I would like
to specially thank Benjamin Maier for joining my $20+ tier.

Author: Kevin Mason

100 thoughts on “The Politics of Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

  1. there is one important thing missing that i think skews certain readings of Dr. Horrible, that being Billy doesn't ultimately pull the trigger that kills Captain Hammer. He says "here goes no mercy…" hesitates, and ultimately does nothing. When Hammer has the weapon, he doesn't think twice about firing on Billy. He attempts to kill him without hesitation, and when he pulls the trigger the gun explodes killing Penny.

    I think perhaps it is much easier to read the narrative as unambiguously critical of Billy with this detail gone, because it feels like just another reinforcement of the "Billy is a nice guy, its actually CHAD who murders without hesitation" mindset

  2. Something I'd like to point out about this show I know I'm commenting before I actually finished it switches you know bad Advocate but I don't expect you to touch on this topic and I'm going to be getting a little busy right now so I'm going to have to stop early give me a second. One of the things I'm very fond of about the show is the reason behind it production aka the writer strikes. Let's just say I have very few kind feelings towards what went down I don't know the full extent of this event but we all experience did anyone around their twenties probably still remembers that time in which literally all their TV shows just stopped for months and then when everything came back it all sucked. Joss Whedon made this to basically Get Around The Writers Guild and the conflict and he did it with almost no budget. Whatever your feeling about the man's politics or personal life (I personally agree that there's problematic elements but I struggle to believe the domestic allegations) created a show that had a cultural impact and was one of the first television industry veterans to see the internet as an opportunity during a conflicting time. He also created a show unlike anything he has ever made before or since due to being forced to experiment with the limitations of the platform he used and was wise enough to pull it off as if he'd done this before. it's a perfect example of how you can create an emotionally investable story with multiple layers to it beyond the face value farce that it presents itself as and a testament of what a little discipline can accomplish from a production standpoint.

  3. That was a pretty long video of "Hi, I'm a Try Hard." A respectable Try Hard, honestly. But, still. I honestly don't know how anyone could see this series as anything other than a satire on toxic masculinity in multiple presentations and the lack of agency in female characters. Unless the person who sees it differently is as legitimately insecure and unwilling to critically think about their own drives as the overblown characters in the series are. Basically: Idiots. Idiots who don't understand the the medium, or nuance in artistic storytelling. It's made very obvious that we're meant to empathize with Billy (NOT sympathize) in order to better tackle our own tendencies toward these unhealthy characteristics, especially men. Joss Whedon certainly has his own unhealthy masculine tendencies. As does virtually every man alive in our society today. Including myself. While it's unlikely we'll ever be able to fully shed them, most of us who are aware enough of our own unhealthy tendencies are doing our best to influence the FOLLOWING generations of men to be better than we will likely ever be ABLE to become ourselves. I think that's the thing most people who have arguments about this sort of thing forget. Which DIRECTLY leads into instances like this where they just try too fucking hard at figuring it out when it's really just as a simple as "People, and their art, are complicated and imperfect, and we're just trying to influence future people to be better than we were." In short: No SHIT it's a mixed bag. Because it was supposed to be. Because that's fucking life.

  4. Does everything have to be a social commentary? It was a fun story that was done during a writer's strike with people who wanted to film a small project. It can simply be just that too you know…

  5. Damn good breakdown, a lot of my same thoughts, but one thing I think was missed: Penny walks out on Hammer.

    Like, it's a minor point, but I think it does speak to the character and her agency in a big way. In the middle of "Everyone's A Hero," she really comes face-to-face with how terrible Captain Hammer is and starts to low-key sneak off the stage. She might not be going off to run into Billy's arms, but she has decided on her own that she doesn't want any part of this. Then Horrible breaks in to have his dick-waving contest with Hammer and she gets killed in the middle of it.

    Not saying that detail makes her character an empowerment icon or anything, but I think it's a pretty important moment, emotionally and plot-wise. Penny's a big girl, she can figure out on her own that Hammer's a jerk, the whole "I can only have her if I kill him" thing is entirely in Dr. Horrible's mind.

  6. Am I the only one who felt the Black widow line wasn't trying to imply that but was just horribly horribly written? I mean I don't blame people for giving him shit for the line. I just view it as WAY too clumsy to be purposeful implication

  7. This had been my favorite movie for years but it isn't aging super well, I have been thinking about these things lately too. Knowing what I do about incels makes me super uncomfy looking back. Still enjoy it but can't watch it the same.

  8. I love Buffy so much ( honestly everything Whedon did for tv) and yet I had to write my English 101 final on how Buffy isn't a Feminist text. This is fantastic and I almost wish I had had the time to do an entire paper on the Whedon Oeuvre just so I could have gotten to do my own dive into Dr. Horrible, Firefly, and Dollhouse ( Oh God Dollhouse!).

  9. I don't really agree with the reading of Captain Hammer here. He's shown to be someone who's overcompensating to hide his vulnerabilities through most of it. He's not really great with women either, although for different reasons than Dr. Horrible. He's never been on a second date for an example, and everything he does he does to make himself look better, he can't really share the glory

    And as for Penny's role, considering the entire story is from Billy's perspective, it makes sense. Billy only really sees her as a prize. He does not know her, yet he's got this grandiose idea in his head about how amazing she must be, just because she's good looking. To give Penny more agency, you would have to bring in more perspectives than just that of Dr. Horrible.

  10. The sleeping with the wrong people part isn't gendered in his work as far as I know. Xander gets pretty much punished every time he even tries to have sex. Of course you could analyse it as a women bad kinda thing, but it doesn't really make sense since our main characters don't fit that narrative. So, all in all it I think the message is know the person you want to be intimate with, if there is a message and it's not just a trope he likes to use.

  11. Oh man, haven't even finished your setup, and this video already speaks to me so much. I still haven't fully faced my complicated feelings for Whedon works

  12. I don’t know how I’ve gone so long without subscribing, I definitely thought I subscribed over a year ago, but I’m glad that I did it now. You go Sarah Z, sorry for being a bad fan of yours for so long lol

  13. I perhaps put too much emphasis on endings but I feel the ending is usually the key to what an author intended. And from that I take away a few things. One being if you value a woman as an object the relationship ends very badly ( divorce usually but more dramatic in this case). Second Egoistic obssesion leads to your own missery. And third being not to become too obsessed with your goal as being to obsessed will cost you much and reward far less than you expected.

  14. It seems like the contradictions would mean that it doesnt carrya given message. If a story equally advocates and criticizes a message thats probably not what its pushing

  15. Personally I never read it as penny being at fault at all. I felt that was pretty explicit. Plus Billy is totally lame. In that he us a lame person. I like him as a character. It's all totally his fault. I can only fathom that people side with him because Niel Patrick Harris is just so charismatic.

  16. Billy does briefly touch on wanting social change, but it's vague and muddled. We have no idea what a world under Dr. Horrible's rule would look like, as he doesn't really talk about his plans for once he's in charge.

  17. I think there's a reading of Cpt Hammer's breakdown that has something useful to say about his show of vulnerability at the end.
    He was injured for the first time in his life, and then was rendered vulnerable. this is a completely new experience for him. His entire self-conception seems to be tied up in his invulnerability, so by being forcibly made vulnerable he loses his sense of who he is. That breakdown is played for laughs, but rather than being an unsympathetic joke about weakness and masculinity, it's a more interesting depition of what happens when masculinity has no space fro vulnerability at all.

    Invulnerability isn't sustainable, and eventually one has to face vulnerability. If, like Penny or even Horrible, you are at least a little comfortable with it you can manage your vulnerability, whereas Cpt Hammer can't. He doesn't have any tools that are useful here because he has never allowed for the possibility.

    That parodical sort o masculinity leaves him completely unprepared for his, inevitable, vulnerable moment, and so when it comes he loses the place entirely.

  18. I love this video, you have a great eye for parallels in Joss Whedon's work and the Megamind reference was something I hadn't connected.
    I think the depth you expect in the first half of your commentary is too much. It's only 45 minutes, so I respect the decision to reduce everyone but the main character to tropes.
    There are, to my understanding, one big moment of characterization for each of the side characters: Penny, Hammer, and Moist. And that's enough to show that they are people without removing the focus from Billy's struggle.
    I actually loved the part that you most disliked: the incel ideology in Billy being promoted as a good thing. I was too young to know what the internet was like back in 2008, but when Dr. Horrible answers the reader questions, it's clear that the writer was not a self-inserting incel themselves. The series brings the ideology to the fore to heighten emotion, but has the representation of the 'fans' (us the watchers) comment on how creepy he's being.
    Thank you for making this video, Sarah!

  19. It's also interesting to note the lack of police, guards, etc. (except that one scene in his late-night vlog, after testing out the freeze ray, but Captain Hammer still ultimately stopped him). Captain Hammer is the only thing getting in the way of everything Billy wants. He's the only thing getting in the way of Billy wooing Penny, but he's also the only thing getting in the way of Billy being creepy. "Once I get Chad out of the way," Billy believes, "Penny will care for me and me only!" And of course, Penny doesn't necessarily care for him (that's his Headcanon-Penny). From her perspective, he's a friend of opportunity, whom she hangs out with when they're both waiting for their laundry to wash.

  20. Sarah this is a great analysis but there are some key points where I strongly disagree with you. To begin with, your right that Penny does narratively exist to be the love interest and then died. But there are some details that you left out that change the story. First as Capt. Hammer gives a speech and starts bragging and Penny realizes he’s an idiot and starts to leave. It’s a small part but it does show she has some agency. Second her last words are Capt. hammer will save us. This adds to the tragedy and reminds us that Billy is a villain. Third as I mentioned before the story reminds us Billy is a villain even if he is in a bad guy and Capt. Hammer is still the hero even if he’s an asshole. Billy at the end of the day is still causing harm to people while Capt. Hammer is trying to stop it.

  21. Holy crap I never realized how Racist You Are. You assume somebody's race because of dreadlocks oh my God every culture and every race has had dreadlocks since the dawn of human history

  22. Having people identify with the thing you criticise isn't necessarily and indicator for bad critique or too subtle critique.
    I mean there are literal nazis who identify with like the nazis in Captain America (because they are nazis) even tho that movie's protagonist is shown to be quite criticising of their ideology.

  23. I don't mean to berate this feminist video comment, but I don't believe any of plot with the three characters has anything to do with their sex, but their actions. Billie is a guy who represents evil trying to do good for his ego, hence evil. Hammer represents good, but is evil inside for his ego and sex, hence evil. Penny is a good person being good getting killed, because nobody sees or helps the good girl or guy. It's a story about how good loses out to bad people with a good story line. Penny in both this show and the Big Bang represents a good average person with common sense ideals in a world of people smarter and stronger than they are. In real life, even though I am a white guy, I can relate to Penny and my life seems to be similar. That is why I don't see this story as being about men bad, women good. Just sayin'.

  24. There are a lot of people both in history and fiction that I identify with, while realizing that the parts of myself which relate to those people are pretty bad.

  25. The thing about vulnerability is that it’s good when nerds do it and bad when jocks do it. The thing about women is that they should choose the person who has the potential to be the best for them, not the one who currently is. The thing about toxic masculinity is that at least you’re better than your peers because that’s not what you really want, you just fell victim to peer pressure.

  26. Captain Hammer's masculinity is played in a mocking tone, though. We're suppose to laugh at his super masculinity, it's not something to be applauded. It's cool you mentioned Megamind as doing most of this better since the captain hammer role is very much paralleled with the "hero" Metroman, who is also portrayed in a hypermasculine way and we're suppose to mock him for it. And when he also shows his "vulnerability" by eventually quitting being a hero to pursue his "dream", we also mock him for abandoning his responsibilities and being selfish while in most stories, pursuing your dream is considered a "good" thing and is often a point of vulnerability since it's often something you're not inherently good at or "suppose" to do based on societal expectations.

    With Captain Hammer, his vulnerability is portrayed, IMO, as seeing through his facade of masculinity. It's a reflection of how fake his masculinity really is since something as minor as feeling pain, destroys all his bravado. This is more of a poetic justice situation IMO.

    For a real world example, it's like how politicians who spend their life fighting against LGBTQ rights are found out as being gay. While for a normal person, exposing someone as being gay when they aren't ready is a horrible thing. But when it's from someone who has fought against gay rights being shown to be a hypocrite, we all get at least some level of schadenfreude from it.

    It's the same with Captain Hammer. He rejects all vulnerability with his hypermasculinity and we can see he doesn't really care about people but just is a hero for the fame. But when he is finally confronted with his own vulnerability, he collapses his entire facade and needs all the support that he really didn't give other people (unless it was to serve his own ego).

    That's my interpretation of events anyway.

    I agree with the rest. I was disappointed how little characterization Penny actually got. When there was discussion of a sequel, the main thing I wanted was for Penny to be back so we can get some actual story with her vs her just being a trophy. But with her being dead, that makes it a little difficult…

    In the end, the only real "message" I feel in Dr. Horrible is the "get who you want, not what you need" theme with it being personal realationships being more important than fame and money and power and whatever. Everything else I feel is pretty unintentional. Joss and the team probably realized a lot of the tropes (good and bad) that they were doing and put in self referential notes in there to try to upsell or downplay those points but I'm pretty sure these were all afterthoughts which is why they're not strong endorsements either way. I think this is why Buffy as a feminist text is pretty problematic because it wasn't MEANT to be a feminist text really IMO. It was meant to be a subversion of the trope of the blonde that gets killed in the beginning of horror movies. Since that is inherently misogynist in a lot of ways, the subversion of that becomes feminist but that wasn't the goal. Joss just wanted to tell a good story with the subversion of that trope and everything else just fell in place.

    Also agree, Kylo is such a wienie..

    Small correction, the trio were from Buffy season 6.

  27. Very insightful analysis. I love Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog and always took it as a cautionary tale about examining your priorities and goals. It's in Part 3 when Billy prioritizes joining the ELE over spending time with Penny that his life falls apart. I think the narrative makes it quite clear that if Billy hadn't attempted to kill Captain Hammer that things would've worked out a lot better for him and Penny.
    I also think it's telling that Moist, who's superpower is literally to be kinda gross physically, is more successful romantically than Dr. H because he puts in the time and effort, while Billy kinds just sits back and daydreams.

  28. I really felt that dr horrible's controlling behavior wasn't something we are supposed to identify with. We aren't supposed to identify with captain hammer and billy essentially becomes captain hammer due to his own controlling nature. He gets everything he thought he wanted and is left empty. Its essentially a condemnation of toxic masculinity in all of its forms.

  29. I really enjoyed this video- Enough to take notes and feel that airing them might be worth the effort for someone.

    -Hammer is laughed at for vulnerability
    I'd offer that he is being laughed at for his inexperience with vulnerability. He has a childlike response to pain, suggesting that he never improved his own ability to deal with pain. It's also the only comeuppance we can expect him to get, in the way that prisons are problematic but we still want to put offenders in one.

    -Penny has no agency outside of who to date
    Penny is shown to be the only person with desires beyond the self, and she is the only person who accomplishes something she doesn't regret. It's not tragic that she dies with unfinished goals, because she has no unfinished goals.

    -Billy is toxic
    Yes, this is true and observed. He's a villain trying to become a supervillain. The difference between Horrible and Hammer is that Billy has doubts and is open to the idea of change, if only he can be reached and engaged with. Maybe if he saw a certain musical, he could re examine his life and make some changes. The same applies to other Whedon characters, like Xander. We are all guilty of sin, the difference between good and bad is repentance and intent.

    -Billy wants a submissive Penny
    It's HARD to distinguish, in video, let alone musical, let alone short musical, between wanting someone who wants you the way you are and wanting to be the way someone would want you. We and Billy both know he's not what Penny wants- Yet. His fantasy is to change enough to earn her. This would be obvious in a makeover movie where he accomplishes those changes, but instead toxic villain-ity changes him for the worse.

    -Billy is responsible for his own consequences
    This is true and a big part of the point. I also think that we're asked to see him as the product of his environment. We see villainhood as a part of Billy that he can't give up- I'd say as part of who he is as much as his looks and orientation might be. He fantasizes about a world (possibly an impossible paradoxical one; Anarchy, that I run) where his undeniable attributes might be accepted and constructive, part of a utilitarian ideal. We also see, explicitly, that he and people like him have not accomplished that ideal and likely never will (you're gonna kill a baby?)

    -Incels identify with Billy
    Absolutely, in the way Nazis identified (identify? Ugh.) with Nietzsche. That doesn't make Nietzsche or his ideas bad in retrospect. They're an important school of thought to study, even if only to understand the enemy.

  30. I saw Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long blog as a story as told by Billy / Dr. Horrible about Billy / Dr. Horrible. Captain Hammer and Penny are not people. Moist is not a person. Nobody else is a person. They are objects, they are archetypes. It's all about this one person justifying his selfish actions and his conflicting emotions.

  31. Honestly, I NEVER understood why Whedon was ever held up as some feminist paragon in the media. Even before he was outed as a walking piece of shit, his work always came across to me like an awkward, creepy nerd filming his wank fantasies. Buffy The Vampire Slayer bored me because all the characters were walking snark-machines. And even as a kid; I couldn't get past the fact that the main character was this rail-thin, noodle armed waif who could somehow gain the ability to kick the asses of multiple men three times her size because she….trained really hard. I know it's magic and shit; but it still annoyed me enough to make me tune out.

    In Cabin in the Woods, multiple characters are basically raped (they're drugged into having sex to justify getting killed in classic horror movie fashion). And the movie frames those scenes as being funny/subversive/whatever.

    In Firefly the highest position a woman can attain in that society is working in a lavish mega-brothel! And Whedon paints this as a POSITIVE thing!!

    And then there's Doctor Horrible. Where the female love interest is nothing more than a pretty prop to move the arcs of the male characters along. She's not an interesting character in her own right and we're never given a reason to care about her aside from the fact that Doctor Horrible wants to date her. And he wants to date her because……she's a cute, nice redhead played by Felicia Day. That's it. That's her character.

    While I wish I was wrong about Whedon being a typical Misogynist In Woke Clothing (mainly because of all the pain his wife, his kids, and who knows how many other victims endured from him); it is somewhat vindicating to FINALLY see an end to people in fandom spaces treating him like some sort of Feminist Nerd God (or at least turning their Whedon-worship down a few notches)

  32. I am not disagreeing. And it has been an age since I've seen it.

    I feel Penny was a good of character as Dr. horrible or cap hammer. Yes, tropes were used. I will not argue if people found those entertaining or not, that is not my wheelhouse. It did go by a formula, for better or worse.

    As far as character goes, I think it is the doc, penny, hammer, then moist. Why does no one mention moist?

    I agree, Joss can do better. And I agree videos like this can nudge the narrative. I don't think joss is problematic, one can improve.

  33. I promise not to spam. I think your positions are thoughtworthy and very interesting.

    I always saw Joss's work as a satirical critique. The trio especially. I read it as, "this is how you should not behave". Similar to Doc, "don't neg, be a decent human".

    Perhaps I read those scenes completely differently than others. I don't know. I always saw them as cautionary tales, not wish fulfillment.

    Similar to Bojack. This isn't about a hero, he is delusional. Literally not in this world. He is the antihero and Caroline is the antivillian.

    Back to doc. The narrative structure is, in my opinion, to bring a character to maximum hardness and maximum despair. That is the story, clear and done.

    Unfortunately penny doesn't have a high stakes job to do. Also, neither does hammer. (Moist is even worse). Foils are common.

    Excellent analysis. Subscribed. 🙂

  34. 3:56 "…ending the series feeling lost and numb." Hmmm maybe the way we felt when watching the end was meant to mirror the way Billy felttttt hmmmmm.

  35. Though I respect this, it's a little forced perspective. You avoided several key aspects in the name of saying Penny was a plot device and nothing else and possibly for the worse. 1) Dr. Horrible is horrible. That's the title, that's his name, it doesn't hide that it's self aware and ridiculous. This is put more in depth by the fact that we see Billy as a human; that though he's horrible, he's human. Though he's a villain, he's human. Everyone else, Penny, Hammer, the side kick, are all plot devices…not just Penny. 2) His decision to kill Hammer wasn't just cause he doesn't get to sleep with Penny. Hammer figured out his identity and Billy did NOT like that. His face changed, his demeanor changed. Even when Penny and Hammer are lovey dovey, he is shifting, lulling his head, looking around, awkward. When Hammer says "Nice to see you again…Doctor…" His face turns cold, straight, he looks dead at Hammer. He shifts to the doctor even without wearing his disguise (which again is a self aware device cause of course everyone would be able to tell who billy is).That was a VERY defining moment in his decision and shouldn't be glossed over. Aaaannndd finally 3) Penny's death. Even though I personally think it's ridiculous trying to view this mini show through feminist lenses (even as a female myself), I can understand everything but the claim that her death was a direct result of Billy being selfish and that she was nothing more than a tool. It had its play, but again, you glossed over Hammer and what he directly does to cause this. He brags so much about having sex with Penny and how it was great and how he'd do someone like her again. That she wasn't his usual type but "nice". She awkwardly gets up, clearly done with him, clearly annoyed, clearly embarrassed, and starts making her way out. HAD HAMMER NOT DONE THAT, she would have been on stage, behind hammer, and out of danger of a faulty gun (that was hammers fault anyway, as DR. Horrible tried to warn him.) These politics seem so narrow in this conversation because it's not analyzing the whole, which I get would take time and effort that may not be the point of your video, but your points come across poorly when not looking at the play the other plot devices used. This is all without psychoanalyzing Wheadon cause I don't know the man or his past patterns. It was still interesting, but I did want to bring these to light for any further possible thought.

  36. The conflict with Joss Whedon is that he and his work are self-aware enough that he should be doing fewer shitty things. We get an understanding that he has underlying moral principles that we agree with, but he doesn't necessarily follow.

    We can hope he does better, but let's not let him off the hook without criticism.

  37. Penny is the only Hero of the story. Both men are portrayed as terrible human beings who are selfish and corrupted.
    How anyone could find either of the male characters to not be an indictment of these types of men, i don't understand.
    Penny on the other hand is selfless, caring, and works forthe greater good of humanity.
    If there are boys out there identifying with these men, it means they need serious help from their fathers.

  38. I know I'm late, but for me the reason it's so sad when Penny dies is because her last words are "it's okay, Captain Hammer will save us." She's deluded, after her 'savior' running away crying because he had been hurt for once. It's basically summing up the view of the common people in this world, that they're so dependent on the heroes.

    And yeah, Billy is a total incel, and he's also a literal villain, so I think it's okay to have his unreliable narration be quite flawed.

  39. I'm not sure I can really get behind the whole "if penny had simply chosen billy, she would have lived" interpretation that she's being punished by the plot for her "bad choices". Especially when paired back to back with the pretense that she doesn't have agency and is simply an object being acted upon by more developped characters.

  40. First of all this is a deep and very interesting analysis of one of my cult favorites. I really enjoy your multiple perspectives on the stories and characters. Full disclosure however, I know very little about Joss Whedon's personal life and have little motivation to re-examine his works in the context of his personal decisions. But back to Dr. Horrible. Forgive me if this is presumptuous, but isn't this series also an origin story, about a villain instead of a hero? I would say this series integrates many of the tropes about a hero origin story but inverts them to tell a villain story instead. In this vein I think we can recognize various plot points and character notes as satire of the typical hero origin story. I would posit then that humor is used specifically to add color and endear the audience to a grim topic – why does a 'normal' person become a villain. In this, I think the series succeeds. For most of the series I buy into Billy as perhaps an anti-hero at best. But by the end, his is inescapably a villain. When faced with Penny's death, he could react by embracing his vulnerability in the moment and recognize how his misplaced actions have destroyed the only person he loved. But instead he takes it is a sign that the universe will never let him be happy, so he instead double down to battle against the world – and becomes a villain. By the close of the series, there is no room to see Billy is an anti-hero. He is unequivocally a villain. Now rewind the story. At every turn we are seeing Billy's version of the story. He is harmlessly nerdy and socially awkward. His nemesis is a vapid and narcissistic caricature that only he can see through. And his romantic interest is the damsel in distress – pure in purpose, yet naive in her ambitions and otherwise without flaw, or depth. In his version of reality she is one dimensional because he is not developed enough to imagine a more real-life woman. As the series opens I delight in a subversive and light heart-ed story of an anti-hero. As it closes I am endeared enough to Penny and Billy to see it as a tragic, twisted love story with a dark ending. Which is fine by me – when done well tragedy is just as entertaining as comedy.

  41. There are a couple of points that I want to make here.

    I want to apologize ahead of time for sounding condescending, but after hearing your points I can only conclude that your perspective comes from a lack of understanding of the male psyche. I'm not explicitly trying to insult you by saying so. You're clearly an intelligent person. I just feel that your lack of male hormones blinds you to certain aspects of the story.

    First off, Captain Hammer is a joke from the very first time we see him. Maybe you didn't get the joke, but the joke was being made. Joss Wheden is a man and, like many men, we've all come across that one guy who seems oh so perfect on the outside, but then turns out to be some form of pathetic on the inside. Maybe this man is afraid of his own sexuality. Maybe he beats his wife. Maybe he's just being a bully so that other bullies will be less likely to pick on him. In any case, one can intuit that Captain Hammer is "compensating for something". He projects his hypermasculinity because he is deathly afraid of his own vulnerabilities. He is kindof a type. Him breaking down and crying is just a confirmation of what we already know about him: he's just as weak as anyone else.

    Secondly, I agree. The story is not about Penny. It's not about Captain Hammer, either. It's a little unfair to point out the fact that Penny is basically a plot device to tell Billy's story while ignoring the fact that Hammer is as well. There's a bit of complexity here and Feminists do have a point when they complain about the imbalance in gendered representation, but I would argue that the real problem has less to do with women playing bit parts in stories about men, and more about the total lack of stories about women. All stories will have bit parts. Some of those bit parts will be filled by women. That's just how storytelling goes.

    Consider spoiler warning Puella Magi Madoka Magika. In this story, Sayaka Miki makes a wish to heal the broken arm of a boy she likes. Then, when that same boy goes on to date one of Sayaka's classmates, Hitomi, Sayaka gets soul-crushingly jealous. While we aren't meant to villify Hitomi in any way, we are still meant to sympathize with Sayaka and her feelings. We don't call her a "nice girl" or put a fedora on her head. She tries to cope with this situation in a way that lets her remain a good person, but she fails at this. It's very similar to the story of Dr. Horrible but with the genders swapped, and the boy in this story is ultimately such a bit part that I often have trouble even remembering his name.

    Which leads me to my third point. In PMMM, Hitomi does her best to be very respectful of Sayaka's feelings. She gives Sayaka prior warning that she intends to date the boy that they both like. Hitomi also doesn't think Sayaka will act upon her feelings, and there's no reason why Hitomi should do without just because Sayaka can't own up to her feelings.

    Contrast this with Captain Hammer, who goes well out of his way to make sure Billy knows in explicit detail that he's going to go after Penny, that he's going to "give her the hammer" (I forget the exact phrasing), and does this knowing fully well that this is going to hurt Billy's feelings. Hurting Billy is the intent of this action, and in fact one can guess that Hammer is just manipulating Penny's sincere feelings for him in order to hurt his villainous rival. Hammer likely doesn't allow himself to have any genuine feelings for Penny because feelings are a vulnerability, and Hammer hates his own vulnerability.

    Penny's choice is perfectly natural and no one can really blame her on any logical basis. (Note: I am not claiming that people are logical.) Hammer's fakeness is something that she eventually would have figured out, and probably would have been heartbroken in the process. Billy clearly has room to mature.

    You make a lot of good and interesting points in this video and it's unfair of me to only focus on the things I disagree with, but this comment is long enough as it is and I'd rather not ramble on by talking about all the things I like about the video.

  42. Feminism is an appropriate way to look at a piece of media. But putting it on a dichotomy where if it's not adhering to a feminist agenda is automatically bad. Feminism is a good cause, but not the end all be all of the world. Just one of many ways that should shape it.

  43. 27:53 to your Riverdale point, a good example of having this commentary is to do the reverse. Silicon Valley has a brilliant moment where this entirely peripheral extra suddenly declares his love for the character Amanda during a pivotal moment in the story. But it’s not HIS moment. It completely satirized the romcom trope of the main character declaring his love for his coworker/girl next door who barely even knows him outside that context, and how everyone believes they’re the hero of their own story. If Riverdale had had the gay character be more of a central figure and then some nobody call him the “token gay friend” and kind of expose that this nobody views themselves as the lead of their own story when really they’re the peripheral one, it could’ve been more effective commentary on the trope

  44. Sigh… Widow didn't say she was a monster because she was sterilized, she's a monster because of who she was trained to be.

    MCU Black Widow has a dark past that we're never shown, but is a part of her background. Hawkeye knows it. Loki knows it. Presumably Nick Fury and SHIELD knows it. And if Tony's download of SHIELD's files, which somehow completely omitted both the HYDRA infiltration and the truth behind his parents' assassination, Tony Stark knows it, but we're not shown it.

    She's a monster because of what she was made into, not because she can't have children anymore…

  45. Your analysis is interesting. I'm not sure I completely agree with your stance on how Penny is not actualized. I saw it rather, as a story that was told primarily as Billy's story- and Billy is our POV character. He is also an unreliable narrater. We don't know Capt Hammer because Billy doesnt- we see him as a completely over the top idiot – because Billy does.
    Penny isn't a fleshed out girl. She is, like in many of John Green's novels, the idealized woman. He's too nervous to risk speaking to her in romantic way- so he does it in his head. Because Billy doesn't take advantage of the positive opportunities in his life- becoming Penny's friend, asking her out, Billy is alone. Left with little support or good influences in hís life, and feeling bitter, Billy chooses to attack Capt Hammer and accidentally kills his love. Billy literally & metaphorically lost everything in his quest to "show them all" & become powerful & "desirable" . (But that's just how I saw it.) I always saw it as a very sad morality play. I never really viewed Penny as real, she & Hammer always felt exaggerated.

  46. Nice Essay, I don't agree with all of it, but I think you make excellent points. Billy is a rough character to get thoughts around. One thing that I hardly see mentioned is that Billy's own life is in danger if he does not commit murder. While it is an active choice, it was not what he signed up for in the "Evil League of Evil" and doubts he can even do it. Bad Horse specifically has a song about how he will kill Billy unless he kills someone else, and that in turn is what kills Penny. The plot is still punishing her for the actions of not dating Billy, and that is not good, but does it frame the actions in a different light? Does this remove Billy's agency in the choice? Is this more like a Greek play in that the actions are unavoidable due to fate? I'm not 100% sure.

    Also, Kylo Ren is the most interesting character in the new series. I can't see why people think he is a weenie?

  47. I wrote a screenplay around the time Dr. Horrible came out, and this makes me really curious what you would have thought of it. I'm almost tempted to post the outline here in the comments knowing full well you probably wouldn't read it. Another problem is it's got ideas that I genuinely still like in it. On the other hand it's pretty outdated, and I mean literally the world has changed in a lot of ways since I wrote it, which makes the idea of protecting it seem silly. So as far as sharing I'm about as conflicted as you are about this webseries.

    I'll try to be vague about it. I wrote the story at the request of an acquaintance of mine, who was in film school at the time, and wanted to direct it himself. It was about a man and a woman who become the victims of a tragedy. The man then makes the decision to take extreme action on his wife's behalf, turning himself into a completely different person in the process, and does so without consideration for his wife's feelings. In the end she finds a way to destroy the thing he had worked so hard to give her, because she didn't ask for it, and he should have known she wouldn't want it.

    My partner wanted me to change the ending so that the male protagonist doesn't go through with it, or destroys the thing himself, out of some glorious, last minute epiphany. (Believe me, this is worse than it sounds.) So that he could have an "arc" as a character. In this case an "arc" being changing one's mind at one minute to midnight, of course. When I pointed out that he was asking me to remove the agency of my female protagonist, his response was that he would have agreed, if I'd presented him with a story where she'd played a more central role, like he'd "expected" but since the draft I gave him made the husband "more important" this avenue was more "cohesive" to the overall narrative. When I restated the importance of the wife reversing the husband's actions, since they were ostensibly taken on her behalf; regardless of who the focus was on – that was the whole point of the story – he told me that would be pointless because the husband had done "all of this work" and "hadn't gotten anything for it." to which I felt the need to explain the theatrical concept of a tragedy.

    Never mind the fact that if he destroys it himself he does all that work for "nothing" either way, (I guess he learns the lesson that he did a bad) but I digress…

    Needless to say I didn't think the story of a guy half-heartedly "learning his lesson" in a sudden turn was nearly as interesting or enlightening as a guy who ruins the only relationship he cares about because he can't get past his own selfish feelings, and so my "artistic integrity" has made me a never-was, ever since. I guess.

    I understand it would be nigh impossible to comment on such an abstract outline, but the point is a collaboration completely fell apart because I wanted one fictional woman to make one decision that affected her own life in my story, and I didn't think pinning a medal on a guy for realizing his flaws well after it was too late, or otherwise rewarding him with an "A for effort" set the right tone for the audience about how they should read the behavior of the protagonist, and this – if nothing else – conveys just how difficult it is to get a coherent point across with a collaboration of only two people who have differening opinions about what message is being communicated, and for what reason.

  48. I remember seeing it when it was knew and certainly felt it was about Dr. Horrible’s inept hypocrisy. Always felt there was some commentary about the framing nature of vlogs as well, how the story is told from Dr Horrible’s POV accounting for his absolute agency and warped perspective. Almost a kind of unreliable narrator aspect. I definitely don’t think it’s an endorsement of nice guy delusions

  49. The first time we see the frozen yogurt bit we see Billy bringing it, but when he's off and ignoring Penny she's sitting alone with two cups of frozen yogurt, meaning she actually did enjoy sharing it with Billy. Penny eventually saw that she was being reduced to being Captain Hammer's girlfriend and rejected that identity, leaving in the middle of Hammer's speech. Also, the scene when Hammer "saves" Penny is right after when Penny and Billy meet and Billy is just plain mean to her.
    I still hate that she was used more as a plot device, but I always saw it as Billy failing to actually connect with her by focusing on his ideal, being a villain and "saving the world" by ruling it. So by being entitled and dumb he lost the opportunity to be with Penny. I think they actually had a lot in common, they both wanted to help the world, Penny was just doing in a farly healthier and more selfless way, maybe he would have been happier helping in small ways, but he never even considered it. I think that by being a "nice guy" Billy unintentionally killed Penny.

  50. A totally different reading my dad had for the ending was that when we see Billy at the very end that us him coming to and the whole movie was basically a day dream because in the end he never had the guts to talk to penny. My dad has some very different takes on movies lol

  51. Upon rewatching Dr. Horrible over the years, I've definitely come to feel that the story is self-aware that Billy is not a nice guy, and is a bad person. He's just a different kind of bad person than Hammer. That Billy is suffering the consequences of his very voluntary actions is part of the framework; comic book heroes and villains being invoked in their most juvenile form, as big dumb characters hitting on each other for no reason other than to fight.
    I would agree that what undercuts the story and lends it some uncomfortable aspects is that Penny isn't fleshed out enough. The story is aware of this with the ending montage, but it could be an example of how you can't just remark on the trope, you have to subvert it for real. Otherwise you're just serving the trope.

  52. Billy is basically what would happen if Warren and Andrew had a child. But he is put in the role of the protagonist and is played by a popular, charming and cute actor – so people don't realize it.

  53. The dark is everywhere

    And Penny doesn't seem to care

    And soon the dark in me is all that will remain

    Its quoted wrong in the video; Penny doesn't care that "the dark is everywhere" its not that she doesn't care he's edgy

  54. It's an interesting story that has become more relevant with age rather than less. The big thing is that while Joss is sympathetic to Billy, he's not CONDONING Billy either. Which is probably why the story is still enjoyable. At the very least, Joss seems aware that the Xanders and Billys shouldn't be getting with the Buffys and Pennys of the world. Toxic nerd culture wasn't a thing in the media the way it is now so that Billy is now viewable in a much-much harsher lens. So, the alternate interpretation of the blog is actually to its credit. I kept this in mind when writing the The Supervillainy Saga.

  55. I'd argue that Penny is also the only person with agency in the story because she's not reactive (Hammer only succeeds because he stalks Billy) and Billy's problems are pathetic cries for help. She's a hero trying to make the world a better place. Billy and Hammer don't see her as a person and their misogyny is a fatal flaw because they don't know the real Penny or care to. She's an ideal or lust object but the narrative makes it clear she is a real person and better than both their images. They're both shitty boyfriends and her best chance would have been to get far away from them.

  56. I was a "nice guy" nerd when this came out, and I definitively took it as a cautionary tale. The fact that Penny liked Billy, and his blind belief that achieving his ambition would auto-get-the-girl really forced me to open my eyes and stop seeing women in that incel sort of way. I watched and re-watched the show, and there were two moments that kept punching this home. Penny sitting in the laundromat with two frozen yogurts and looking over her shoulder when someone came in and her excitement turning disappointment when it wasn't Billy (showing that she really did like Billy more than Captain Hammer, and I took the implication to be that if he had just been himself and not been evil he would have at least been her friend and likely had a chance for romance after the Hammer thing fizzled out) Then Doctor Horrible singing "And she may cry but her tears will dry when I hand her the keys to a shiny new Australia." Which screamed to me that he didn't understand her at all. So as a potential incel type, the message I took was to drop the standard narrative that girls like the jerks and are only impressed with looks, muscles, money, and status. N sample of 1, but that's the effect it had on me.

    Seriously though, that moment when she looks for Billy is the most emotional point in the story for me now.

  57. I like Sarah and her stuff but, and I am deeply offended by this, Big Bang Theory is not nerd culture. It's just a hodgepodge of nerd culture references.

  58. I have to say, your analysis is interesting but I disagree about how you look at Penny in minute 12, where you argue that punished for choosing Captain Hammer instead of Billy. You justify it by comparing it with Buffy and others, but more specifically with Buffy. I disagree because equally with Penny and Buffy, both female characters are absolutely necessary to the narrative because they are seen as the beacon of light, of morality. If both characters are to be blamed of something, is for their capacity to love and this is why they are necessary to the story. They are not punished for taking preferences over the wrong characters, which in both cases can't even be seen like that since Captain Hammer is "the hero" despite being a douche and both Angel and the military brat are also "good guys" in the Buffy narrative. In both narratives Penny and Buffy are suffering the consequences of actually loving someone. In my view of the Dr. Horrible's narrative, Penny was not punished at all. She simply died as a consequence of of Dr. Horrible's actions and her love for him needed to be seen as true love, otherwise the entire narrative would not make any sense. For Billy be able to become a true villain (Dr. Horrible), he need to loose his humanity although he did not knew this before it actually happened. Billy's humanity was tied to Penny's love. When Penny died, her love for Billy disappeared and at that moment when Billy saw Penny corpse, that was the moment when his humanity disappeared and Billy became Dr. Horrible.

    In my view, Billy punished himself because he wanted so desperately to be a villain, that he didn't even considered what a true villain is. He's so busy in wanting to be a villain, that he spends all is energy in trying to be that villain, when he could have spent his energy in establishing a communication path with Penny.

  59. Another angle– why does Billy even want to be a supervillain? As I recall, there's nothing about it in the video.

    Instead, I think we're seeing a consequence of the idea that the good guys aren't so good, which can lead to the idea that the bad guys aren't so bad. In this case, the bad guys really are that bad.

  60. WHY DID I DO THAT OH MY GOD!
    My thoughts throughout all my life, really…
    And yeah, Megamind rocks! Just like the soundtracks (pun intended)!

  61. You can’t be surprised the protagonist is a quirky nice guy who’s cockblocked by a chad when it came out in the midst of the Nice Guy insurgence.

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