I can kiss away your tears.

What the hell is with the Enrique Iglesias reference? We all know I have better taste in music. But I think it’s interesting that this pop song equates heroism with emotional support. I think the idea of a hero as emotionally engaged with the people they save is implicit in much of our superhero fictions. However, it’s rarely made explicit, except through romantic connections male heroes often form with women they save.

Heroic roles involve not only physical skill and moral integrity, but a level of emotional investment. And heroism is often depicted as a job as much as a calling; grief and loss are therefore occupational hazards, as they are for a firefighters, soldiers, or sea rescue services – those deemed ‘everyday heroes’ in wider media. I explored this ‘active caring’ characters undertake as a depiction of what sociologist Russell Hochschild terms ‘emotional labour’.[1] Emotional labour covers all human interactions – being polite to your co-workers, remembering events like birthdays in your family or friendship circle, being empathic when someone is failing even when you are succeeding. Other sociological studies focus on the gender dynamics of emotional labour: since this work goes unremunerated when it is left out of the official job descriptions and, due to cultural assumptions about gender, women in working environments are the ones then expected to organise social events, ensure cards are bought for birthdays etc. Sociologists Mary Guy and Meredith Newman term this the ‘penalty for caring’.[2]

In mainstream superhero media we see this gender divide in the X-Men comics; the emotional glue for Logan, what enables him to act like a hero, is almost always a woman or an emotional attachment to more vulnerable people – he is otherwise a lost homosocial, arguably homicidal, soldier. In Netflix’s Daredevil, it is Claire the nurse and Karen the legal secretary who emotionally support Matt and Foggy. As Karen’s own emotional burden becomes too great, she is no longer able to anchor the men and this long-standing partnership begins to break apart – neither of the men notice that she is displaying signs of trauma. I argue here, that Whedon’s heroic fictions do not follow this pattern.

Xander Harris kisses Dawn Summers forehead

In Buffy, Xander’s official role in the Scooby gang becomes the guy who puts things back together – physically and emotionally. He is a carpenter who rebuilds the High School, Buffy’s living room window, and at least tries to save her coffee table. In his personal life Xander may often break things apart – as his relationships with Cordelia and Anya show– but over the series he is increasingly positioned as the one who repairs. He ensures that the gang function as a working team, like when he praises Dawn in her acceptance of her support role when she isn’t called as a Slayer in ‘Potential’.

In this, Xander has had plenty of male role models in Sunnydale. Sunnydale High School’s male staff are presented positively in terms of emotional labour, and Rupert Giles, school librarian and member of the Watcher’s Council, is a central character. Giles tries to ensure that Buffy is not only physically prepared for the stresses of the role of the Slayer, but also spiritually and emotionally. We see him encourage her to relax between crises, to meditate, and to mediate. Giles is adept at managing workplace relationships, seen in his ability to continue to work with Principle Snyder – who is irrational, overly-emotional, corrupt and unpleasant to his employees. Principal Robin Wood only got one season on the show, but he was another excellent example of a man whose job involved emotional support, when his extra curricula activities were connected with a more violent heroism.

Blood smeared Captain America trading Cards fan out in Steve Roger's hands.

In The Avengers/ Avengers Assemble, SHEILD Commander Nick Fury seems to be a hyper-masculine leader; he is commanding, intolerant of failure, and shows little emotional response other than anger or frustration, yet he is  very emotionally attuned to his team. When SHEILD Agent Phil Coulson is stabbed by Loki, Fury smears Coulson’s prized collection of Captain America trading cards with blood, and reminds the team how much Coulson respected them all and their mission. He says that ‘they needed something to fight for’, uniting them through their emotional reaction to Phil’s death. This tactic worked, in part, because Phil Coulson also worked very hard at professional emotional labour.

Whedon builds on Coulson’s previous presentation as affably blank. In the Iron Man films, Coulson was unobtrusive, never letting on how important his role or his agency were, appearing to be just another dull government representative to Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. When he arrives to recruit Tony to the Avengers in the wake of Loki’s initial attack, however, Pepper greets him enthusiastically as Phil, whereas Stark responds ‘his first name is Agent.’ Phil’s awkward attempts to connect with his hero, Steve Rogers, are also rebuffed – that Steve never gets round to signing the now ruined collectible cigarette cards similarly motivates him, like Tony, through guilt. Coulson’s performative wokplace niceness and desire to connect with people is a key plot point.

Loki, like Spike the vampire in BtVS, uses his knowledge of the team’s interpersonal dynamics to sow disharmony amongst them. His knowledge is gained through his manipulation of scientist Eric Selvig and Avenger Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye. His end-game once captured is angering Dr Banner into releasing the Hulk persona. So many of the key plot points in The Avengers revolve around how well a group, the majority of which are men, know about each other and their emotional triggers, though their major connection is through the workplace, and a military one at that. Just as in BtVS many plot points relied upon Xander or Spike’s knowledge of the ‘Scoobies’ as a functional team and group dynamic as much as individual psyches. Spike’s ability to observe others and manipulate their emotions is remarked upon by many; it’s is the specific reason he is recruited by Walsh’s monster, Adam in ‘The Yoko Factor’.

Nick Fury looking into camera, with quote from The Avengers laid over the top.To defeat Loki,  Fury refuses the official ‘stupid-ass’ decision of the World Security Council, led by the typical white men of politics, to sacrifice the diverse and heavily populated city of New York to a nuclear strike. Just as the Watcher’s Council, the ultimate representation of knowledge collection and veneration in BtVS, is shown to be unbalanced and dismissive of non-rational thought and experiential skill learning, and thus ineffective and wrong-headed, so too is the World Security Council. The group lack confidence in Fury, and lack an appropriate emotional valuation of, and investment in, New York and its inhabitants.

Critical voices from within fan communities and scholarship have accused Whedon of centering a mediocre white man as a ‘Mary Sue’ character among more skilled or ‘super’ characters. By making Xander Harris or Phil Coulson an emotional core, comparatively mediocre white men become essential to the teams whose other members outperform them. In Age of Ultron, Phil Coulson is thought to be ‘dead’, and it is Clint Barton’s home that provides a physical and emotional respite for the team, his heteronormative family life is supposed to anchor them in a soothing normality. Have men thus retained the central position – even in Buffy the show that Whedon, as a self-proclaimed feminist, had hoped to subvert with his action heroines? Well, clearly yes.

However, Whedon’s presentation of working team relationships that focus on emotional intelligence suggests the importance to him of socially ‘feminised’ models communication and respect among colleagues and team mates. It is the absence of qualities like compassion and the undervaluing of other people (loosely defined) that make the Initiative, Watcher’s Council and World Security Council the bad guys, and bad organisations moreover. Buffy insists, after Giles is fired for caring too much about her, that he is reinstated in his role as Watcher and receives back pay – his caring role is not only legitimised, but remunerated. The role models in the series are often teachers – paid to care and support. It is worth remembering that Barton, Fury and Coulson (along with Black Widow) are the official employees of SHIELD, unlike the more physical heroes like Thor and Hulk, and techno-wiz Stark. In highlighting how these ’employee’ character’s interpersonal skills and emotional values are sidelined by organisations supposedly dedicated to the ‘heroic’ act of saving the world, Whedon offers a clear critique of real world equivalents.

The lone wolf model of so much superhero media is not representative of real world heroism. Lack of emotional and psychological understanding of the impact of this lack of support has led directly to the problems of homelessness and underemployment of victims of abuse and military veterans, and the undervaluing of those professionals who practice the skills that could support them. In making the mediocre white men an emotional stronghold Whedon shows us just how important he thinks emotional labour is in the world. Because we don’t need yet another straight white man doing the traditional lone hero pose. Yes, we do need the mediocre white men who, through structural inequality and power distribution inevitably end up at the centre of things, to perform and value emotional labour. This is what it looks like when an otherwise unnoticed man steps up to do the work already expected of a hero, but too often thought of as ordinary, really saving people. For too long our media heroes have been implicitly caring, now they’re explicitly so. The subtext becomes text, and reveals the flaws in the metaphors. However, once again heroism becomes a man’s world, through their over-representation.

Royalty-free clipart picture of a caucasian male super hero flying with one arm forward, on a white background by Rosie Piter, COLLC0023. This image is protected by copyright law and may not be used without a license. No free use allowed.
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[1] Russell Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

[2] Mary E. Guy and Meredith A. Newman, ‘Women’s Jobs, Men’s Jobs: Sex Segregation and Emotional Labor’, Public Administration Review, 64:3, (May/June 2004),  p.292

This weekend, at the biennial academic conference on the work and influence of Joss Whedon – Slayage – I presented the argument that in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and both Avengers films Whedon makes the implicit emotional work of heroism explicit. This is a short version of my formal paper.