Don't you just love it when your ipod shuffle brings up something great you'd forgotten about? For me, this weekend, it was the random playing of the Doctor Horrible soundtrack that reminded me how fun that miniseries was.
It's charming, ridiculous, funny and heartbreaking, and in just 45 minutes, it plays with and breaks a lot of superhero tropes. The music was a lot of fun to listen to. Except, as I played through it, I noticed many uncomfortable tones that I had missed when the series first came out. Because although the show plays with our expectations and is nothing like a traditional superhero/supervillain story, in one way it is incredibly conventional: it fridges Penny.
Fridging is the old classic trope where a female character is killed to provide angst to the male protagonist and advance his character development and story. And Penny is such a clear example of this that she could be the icon on the TV Tropes page.
While Billy is a highly unconventional "supervillain," Penny plays precisely the role we expect from a hero's love interest, to the extent that her existence, and her interactions with Billy, mark him as the sympathetic protagonist. She's the girl that's swooning for the hero, and failing to fully appreciate the sweet, nerdy, apparently normal guy beside her. She is good and kind and in need of rescuing. And she is killed off to further Billy's angst, even though the result for Dr Horrible is flipped on its head, so that he's an unsatisfied but successful villain, rather than a super-motivated hero. She might as well be a comic book girlfriend from the 1930s. She has very little to offer of her own.
In fact, unlike characters like Mary Jane and Lois Lane, Penny doesn't have any depth of personality or ambitions of her own. Everything about her is designed to make her "good." She dedicated to helping the homeless, and she's a vegetarian. She's the figure of perfect goodness to counteract Billy and Captain Hammer's greyer morality. And that's pretty much the reason for her existence. She doesn't even die because of any action of her own. She's nothing more than a bystander, killed by a fluke, and her final lines are about one of the more important male characters, carefully crafted to break the heart of the other. Her entire role is to add depth to other characters.
However, Penny does get one trope subversion of her own. She's dating the superhero, Captain Hammer, but she's unhappy in the relationship. She's trying to convince herself that she's living the dream, but she'd be much happier if she just got together with Billy already. Yet this trope isn't subverted as a way to make Penny a more interesting or dynamic character. This subversion actually makes her less empowered as a character, because we then view her as a naive character who's unable to tell what she wants. We just want her to wake up and realize that Billy is the perfect guy for her!
All this, despite the fact that HE'S NEVER SPOKEN TO HER in the beginning of the story. He's not even trying to befriend her. As the opening sequence suggests, she barely even knows he's alive. Yet she becomes his primary motivation throughout the story. Not because of who she actually is, but because of who he's imagined her to be. They do talk and become friends, but only after Penny has started dating Captain Hammer and he's become motivated, in part, by jealous possessiveness of a girl that he hadn't even spoken to a few days before. Of course, Penny is unhappy with Captain Hammer and gets on well with Billy, so his behavior is presented as justified. Penny herself can't figure out who she's better off with or how she'll be happy, and so he is right to fight for her. She needs him to swoop in and make her life better, because she can't do it herself. And when she dies as a result of Billy's actions? Well, that's all about Billy too. We didn't get chance to get to know Penny outside of Billy's affection for her, and so the pain at the end is all Billy, how he screwed up and how his whole success is tainted by the death of his not-girlfriend.
Of course, it could be argued that the series lampshades the fridging of Penny in its final scenes, with newspaper headlines like "hero's girlfriend murdered" and "country mourns Whats-Her-Name." But tongue-in-cheek references to a problem don't then mean the problem goes away. Penny's role in Doctor Horrible wasn't a side joke or a commentary on women in hero stories. It was the one part of the story that was played absolutely straight. The entire narrative relies on Penny lacking real agency of her own, and on her dying pointlessly at Billy's hands to further his own story.
And all this from a writer whose street cred is built upon his supposedly revolutionary treatment of female characters. Sorry, Joss Whedon. For once, I'm really not convinced.