Theatre Thursdays: Is Dr. Horrible Sexist?

So when trying to decide what to write about, I realized that we’ve never discussed Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog in depth (although Bacula has done a great review here), which I thought was an atrocity that had to be remedied. Now I wish I’d never thought to write about this stupid musical.

Let me be very clear, I love Dr. Horrible, love it. It tells the story from the villains’ perspective, it asks questions about who is really good or evil (the hero or the villain), it has amazing songs, it was written by Joss Whedon, it starred Nathan Fillion and Neil Patrick Harris. What more could a nerd want? But when I started rewatching this little musical mini-series, I was struck by how much it romanticizes stalking and how it takes away any autonomy Penny might have.

dr horrible 1815

We first see Penny through the eyes of Billy, aka Dr. Horrible. He sings about how he loves her, and pines for her, and if he could just find the time to figure out what to say to her then they could be together. Now, this is fine, there is nothing wrong with Dr. Horrible wanting to date the girl at the laundromat—but as the story progresses, Dr. Horrible comes off less as the shy guy who can’t manage to talk to the pretty girl and more as the guy who creepily follows Penny around, obsesses over her, and takes pictures of her while hiding in the bushes.

dr horrible 1536As the musical develops Penny starts dating Captain Hammer, who is admittedly a tool. But while Captain Hammer is a terrible person, that doesn’t excuse Dr. Horrible’s actions. Throughout the song “My Eyes”, Dr. Horrible follows Captain Hammer and Penny around on their date. Penny shows Captain Hammer how the world is basically good and sings about how she is slowly falling in love, and Dr. Horrible stalks her by hiding behind bushes and posing as a volunteer in the soup kitchen where Penny works. Later, during the song “So They Say”, Dr. Horrible sings about how Penny will finally see his greatness when he’s finally succeeded in his evil plots. If you pay attention during the song, when Dr. Horrible is singing to a photo of Penny, it is very clear that he took the picture from the bushes at some point when Penny was alone in the park. This clearly showed that Dr. Horrible had been stalking Penny for a long time, even before she and Captain Hammer started dating.

On top of this, Penny is being used and manipulated by Captain Hammer. Captaindr-horribles-sing-along-blog-20080718071555811 Hammer meets Penny as he’s trying to stop Dr. Horrible from stealing wonderflonium, which Dr. Horrible needs for his freeze ray. Dr. Horrible’s remote-controlled van goes out of control, largely because Captain Hammer broke the device controlling it, and the van flies toward Penny. Captain Hammer “saves” her by pushing her in the garbage, and Dr. Horrible finally gets the van to stop, though Penny doesn’t realize that he was the one to stop it. Penny thanks Captain Hammer for saving her life, and the two seem instantly attracted to each other. They start dating and it seems pretty clear that Captain Hammer doesn’t actually like or care about Penny—he just wants to sleep with her. Now, it’s not clear if Captain Hammer knew from the start that Dr. Horrible liked Penny, but even so, after finding out that Dr. Horrible is infatuated with Penny, Captain Hammer says he’s going to sleep with her because just Dr. Horrible wants her. So even just trying to get Penny to sleep with him isn’t really about Penny; it’s about hurting Dr. Horrible.

And on top of the stalking and manipulation, Penny genuinely comes to like Captain Hammer, though she has some doubts about his “cheesiness”, and seems to also develop a great relationship with Dr. Horrible—maybe even begins to have feelings for him as well. Except it’s all a lie. Captain Hammer doesn’t really care about her. He is manipulating her. And Dr. Horrible is largely only able to form a close relationship with Penny, at least in part, because he was stalking her.

Except that it's actually not, because he's stalking you.

Except that it’s actually not, because he’s stalking you.

Near the end of the musical, Penny seems to realize that Captain Hammer is a tool, but she never really finds out about Dr. Horrible stalking her before she dies.

It’s worth mentioning at that there are moments in the musical that do attempt to show that Penny has a life outside accepting or rejecting the male lead—she volunteers for the soup kitchen and helps to get a homeless shelter built. She mentions failing to get a job and being fired from her previous job. She does laundry of her own accord twice a week, which, as insignificant as it may seem, is a character trait—Dr. Horrible’s sole reason for doing laundry seems to be to stalk Penny. Even Penny’s singing “after years of stormy sailing, have I finally found the bank” (in the song “So They Say”) hints at a deeper and darker backstory than what was shown. In fact, I actually heard one fan theory that suggested she was a part of the Evil League of Evil and was the one assigned to watch Dr. Horrible for Bad Horse. As cool as that could be, I really doubt it. It just seems too contrived and far-fetched.

ScreenHunter_101 Jun. 13 02.43We can’t get very far into Penny’s backstory because the show is from Dr. Horrible’s point of view, but the hints are there and she’s not just a sex object—which makes it worse when she can’t really affect the plot.

Penny being killed is the major turning point in Dr. Horrible. Dr. Horrible gets all the power and fame he wanted, and he gets accepted into the Evil League of Evil—but he lost Penny in the process, causing him to feel numb to the good things that happen to him after her death. So throughout the musical, Penny is used, manipulated, unknowingly stalked, and then killed to further Dr. Horrible’s storyline.

ku-mediumAgain, I love this musical, but you can watch something and realize that there are some problems with it at the same time. Penny’s character could have been given more control in the musical, but she is instead reduced to a bone that two men are fighting over. If anything, I think Penny’s character is so disenfranchised because the story was really using her as way to discuss masculinity, but that’s a post for a different time. For now, I’ll just say that I love Dr. Horrible and Joss Whedon, but that doesn’t mean that this musical isn’t problematic.

3 thoughts on “Theatre Thursdays: Is Dr. Horrible Sexist?

  1. um I understand what your saying…but I am pretty sure all the stalking stuff was written purely for comedic reasons. I know none of those people actual think stalking is okay. Plus we can’t expect Dr. Horrible to do the right things…because while Captain Hammer is obviously not the good guy, neither is Dr. Horrible.

  2. Pingback: Theatre Thursdays: A Man’s Gotta Do What a Man’s Gotta Do; or, Masculinity and Dr. Horrible | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

  3. I absolutely agree with all of your points – but I kind of thought that was the whole point.

    I see it as the classic story of a protagonist bringing about his own downfall. A Greek tragedy of sorts.

    The signs were there that Billy and Penny actually could have been a good match. They have similar world views, although different ways of expressing them. When he does finally have a conversation with her they become friends and seem to enjoy each other’s company.

    Had Billy just talked to her, like a normal human being, then the whole chain of events leading to her death would never have been set in motion.

    By stalking and trying to be a true villain in order to “win” Penny’s affection like a prize, Billy loses her. All through his own actions.

    Penny was the only truly good character in Dr Horrible, but goodness is destroyed by people who put their egos and self-interest ahead of everything else.

    It’s like a cautionary tale – don’t be an obsessive stalker. It is bad. Also, not all heroes are heroes, but being the anti-hero is not necessarily any more heroic.

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