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Show creator blends entertainment and empowerment

From the damsel in distress to the nagging wife, Hollywood gives women a bad rap and little credit. Flipping through television shows, one will find many uninspiring female characters, often portrayed by actresses who, in reality, lead fascinating lives. It seems most producers can’t see a woman in any role that doesn’t involve her being totally irrational or totally dependent.

One voice in Hollywood is trying to change this sad state of affairs: Joss Whedon.

Whedon turned the helpless waif stereotype on its head with the campy 1992 film Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The general idea behind Buffy was to take the damsel and remove the distress. He did so, and Buffy Summers put a serious hurting on the undead.

He achieved an almost cultlike following for the movie as well as his television shows Angel, Firefly and the long-running Buffy series. American viewers were hungry for a female character more reminiscent of real-life women than the overwhelming typecast female roles in most film and TV.

Whedon revels in the feminine. His female characters are not passive, one-dimensional women. The women in his shows live, work and love in a full and active way while embracing their womanhood to the fullest. He knows girl power. He feels girl power. One needs to watch only one or two of his shows to see it.

As a sincere advocate of gender equality, Whedon became involved with an organization called Equality Now. Founded in 1992, Equality Now works to protect and promote human rights of women around the world, according to its Web site. Working with national human rights organizations and individual activists, Equality Now documents violence and discrimination against women and mobilizes international action to stop these human rights abuses. Prominent actresses Meryl Streep, Marisa Tomei and Sarah Jones recently made a public service announcement supporting the goals of Equality Now.

Whedon’s works have brought two seemingly unrelated groups together: an active, loyal fan base that enjoys watching strong women and a human rights organization that could use as much public support as possible.

For the past three years, around his birthday, Whedon has sponsored a charity showing of the film Serenity, his spin-off of Firefly, to raise money for Equality Now. The events are held across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. In 2006, the showings generated about $60,000 in donations and immeasurable goodwill for an organization deserving of both.

Science fiction fans united with gender equality proponents for this year’s charity screening of Serenity at the Tampa Pitcher Show June 21, where all sales profits went to support Equality Now.

The events at the showing included people dressing up as their favorite characters from the show, a table selling themed gifts for the event and a raffle. Before the showing, a message from Whedon reminded the crowd of the cause they had gathered to support. Then the music rolled, the lights fell and the fans cheered, returning to their old friends and favorite imaginary world for a few hours.

Whedon’s support and activism is a testament to equality.

“There are two ways to fight a battle like ours,” he once said. “One is to whisper in the ear of the masses, try subtly and gradually to change the gender expectations and mythic structures of our culture. That’s me. The other is to step up and confront the thousands of atrocities that are taking place around the world on an immediate, one-by-one basis. That’s a great deal harder, and that’s Equality Now. It’s not about politics; it’s about basic human decency.”

Jason Olivero has received a bachelor’s in anthropology from the University of Florida and is pursuing a degree in electrical engineering.