Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog – why Penny matters

Joss Whedon's online musical mini-series is over, and the finale was, well, disappointing. Sarah laments that another female character just got sidelined...

Penny

Joss Whedon’s work tends to attract a certain kind of desperately loyal fandom. I’ll admit that Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed my life; I was addicted to the show from the first episode until the last. I watched all of Angel, and then fell head over heels for Firefly, too – along with pretty much everyone else in the known universe. It’s great that he writes genre fiction with trope-subverting ass-kicking women characters who don’t have to wear skimpy skin-tight costumes to be awesome.

But. And there’s always a but. Despite the fact that Whedon identifies as a feminist, and despite the fact that there are lots of fantastic things about his work, it’s not perfect. He’s fallible, like everyone else, and somehow the fact that he’s done so much that’s great makes the not-so-great things much more disappointing.

On Saturday, the final episode of Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was published. I watched it first thing in the morning and then rushed to get a review up because I knew I wouldn’t get near a computer all weekend, which meant that that review was very much my initial visceral reaction. I’ve since had a chance to watch Act III a few more times, and although I haven’t changed my mind about it, I’ve just been thinking and thinking and thinking about it and reading other people’s reactions and, mostly, wondering what the hell happened.

See, I fully expected that we’d find out Penny was actually a lot more kickass than she appeared. I was suspicious that she just happened to be around when Dr Horrible was pulling off the Wonderflonium heist, and when Captain Hammer announced that he was going to give her a tour of his command centre, I thought for sure it would turn out that she was secretly in the Evil League of Evil (or at least trying to be). That she seemed so sweet and optimistic and lovely could just be a cunning ruse designed to throw people off the scent. So the conclusion of Act III floored me. Instead of getting to demonstrate any kind of strength (and I don’t just mean physical – intellectual or emotional strength would be great!) she just… demonstrates a teeny, tiny bit of agency, a little doubt about whether Captain Hammer is really as great as everyone says, and then she gets accidentally killed.

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The real kick in the teeth is the fact that her dying words are “Captain Hammer will save us.” So that moment where she storms off in disgust at his horrible speech is completely meaningless, ultimately, because she didn’t see through him at all. As much as I would have loved for her to turn out to be a villain, I don’t have a problem with her being just as idealistic as she looked; endlessly perky and unable to see anything but the good in everyone. That’s pretty much Kaylee from Firefly, and she’s brilliant. It’s just that there’s no self-awareness, no sense of irony. Penny’s death doesn’t matter, because she was only ever there for the boys to fight over. Neither of them is actually interested in her as much more than a trophy they can lord over the other one; Captain Hammer brags at one point that “I’m going to give Penny the night of her life. Just because you want her. And I get what you want.” We don’t even really get to feel her death as a tragic thing in itself, for her own sake – it’s just another element in Dr Horrible’s journey to the dark side. She dies in order to affect him; like I said in my first review, she just gets stuffed in the fridge.

But is it as simple as that? I mean, Joss Whedon isn’t stupid, and he’s fully aware of all the conventions of the genre; he knows comic books, he knows this happens all the time, so… is he maybe trying to send up the convention of killing off women merely to hurt men? Are we supposed to feel how wrong it is that the only good person in the whole series, the only one who’s actually working to effect social change for the better and not just for purely egotistical reasons, is the one who dies?

The series of newspaper headlines about her death, all of which focus on her relationship to Captain Hammer, demonstrate some kind of winking at the audience, but somehow it’s just not enough. The point isn’t made clearly enough. I know, it’s an extremely short series without much room to fully flesh everyone out, but rather than a subversion of the trope, it just seems like yet another example of it.

And it’s not like Whedon isn’t capable of making his points very explicitly. Look at Dr Horrible’s song, right after he zaps Captain Hammer with the freeze ray – in that moment, we stop seeing him through his eyes and start seeing him as he appears to the general public. In his own mind, he’s just this shy and slightly incompetent guy who has a rather sweet crush on a girl he’s too afraid to talk to. But from the point of view of, well, anyone else, he’s a dangerous psychopath. All the slightly creepy things he’s been doing, which seemed forgivable and even sort of endearing, suddenly come sharply into focus. He’s not a nice guy, he’s a lunatic. He doesn’t love Penny, he’s obsessed with her – and stalking her. There’s no happy ending for him because he’s made bad decisions: he’s chosen to be evil, to try to steal and bully his way into power, rather than just acting like a responsible grownup.

And then there’s Captain Hammer, the essence of obnoxious hyper-masculinity. Nathan Fillion is probably going to be haunted for the rest of his life by the “the hammer is my penis” line, but – that’s not exactly subtle, is it? So perhaps it’s not coincidence that Penny is killed by phallic-shaped debris from an exploding gun. Caught in the crossfire of Dr Horrible and Captain Hammer’s pissing contest, she’s the one who gets hurt. There’s something there, but the point is just not made clearly enough. As it stands, her death just plays as another of Dr Horrible’s failures. And it should have been handled better.

The itch to write a better ending is affecting much of the fan community already – personally, I would’ve liked to see an ending where Dr Horrible managed to kill Captain Hammer, but then got zapped by Penny with the freeze ray and carted off to prison. That would’ve been in keeping with the characters as drawn. Alternatively, she could have just showed some goddamn agency and entered into the fray – she could have talked Dr Horrible down, or stopped Captain Hammer from pulling the trigger (let’s not forget, he’s actually the one who kills her). Or, she could have been injured, but not killed, and lived to reject both Hammer and Horrible and get on with her life in her own way.

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There are lots and lots of alternate endings that could have subverted the woman-as-love-interest and woman-as-victim-to-drive-hero-onwards tropes. Instead, she’s left unexplored and undeveloped, constantly ignored and pushed aside, literally and figuratively – Captain Hammer “saves” her by throwing her into a stack of bin bags! The show doesn’t treat her much better than the characters; she’s constantly being drowned out by the two guys. Her higher-pitched, quieter voice gets lost in the mix. (Check out how much harder you have to listen to hear what she’s singing immediately after the heist; Captain Hammer booms over her, and though Dr Horrible’s asides are audible enough, making out what she’s singing is much more difficult. It took me several goes.)

And since she doesn’t even get a decent solo to make up for it, we never really engage with her. Dr Horrible, as the star of the show, gets plenty of opportunity to monologue in verse, and Captain Hammer gets a really, really, really long song all to himself at the opening of the homeless shelter, but Penny? She gets a timid six lines when she’s asking people to sign her petition, and her longest stretch of uninterrupted singing comes in the laundromat, when she’s trying to cheer Billy up. There’s the merest glimmering of character, there, as she reveals that she isn’t actually as cheerful as she seems, that her life hasn’t been all sunshine and puppies, but it’s swiftly stubbed out by Hammer and Horrible’s bickering.

It’s just so frustrating. Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is great in many ways: it’s well-produced, well-acted, with great songs and comedy, and yet it could have been so much better if it had only realised that just because the hero and villain both fancy the same girl, that doesn’t stop her from being a person.

If you missed Dr Horrible, you can access it via iTunes – see the official site for more info. Alternatively, read Sarah’s reviews of Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 7 here.