What Joss Whedon’s Alleged Faux-Feminism Means For His Legacy, Fans, And Future
Joss Whedon fans have long been notorious for their die-hard dedication to the brain behind Buffy; while responses to his award-winning reputation as a feminist have historically been mixed, his knack for quippy one-liners, action sequences, and emotional storytelling long-cemented him as something of an icon. With wildly successful projects like The Avengers under his belt, Justice League and Batgirl ahead, and moving videos made for organizations like Planned Parenthood, Whedon had seemingly become unstoppable – until last week.
Last week, Whedon’s ex-wife Kai Cole (to whom he was married for 16 years) published an essay at The Wrap alleging that Whedon’s carefully-constructed, decades-long reputation as a feminist was exactly that – constructed and contrived. “I want to let women know that he is not who he pretends to be,” she wrote. Cole detailed how she fell in love with Whedon and the birth of the Buffy series, and revealed that she was often uncomfortable with the “attention Joss paid other women.” While she trusted him, she claims he later confessed to having his “first secret affair” on the set of Buffy, and essentially blamed his infidelity (which allegedly continued with multiple women over the next 15 years) on patriarchal constructs.
When I was running Buffy, I was surrounded by beautiful, needy, aggressive young women. It felt like I had a disease, like something from a Greek myth. Suddenly I am a powerful producer and the world is laid out at my feet and I can’t touch it,” Cole says Whedon wrote her. “Despite understanding, on some level, that what he was doing was wrong, he never conceded the hypocrisy of being out in the world preaching feminist ideals, while at the same time, taking away my right to make choices for my life and my body based on the truth.”
Whedon declined to comment on the piece “out of concern for his children and out of respect for his ex-wife”, which only fueled speculation further. There are many ugly, upsetting revelations in Cole’s essay, but the central conceit of it all – that his “lovable geek-feminist” persona has been a lie all these years, and that he’s perhaps been the toxic “nice guy” he claimed to rally against – is one that confirms many fans’ worst fears and throws his entire legacy into question.
As a woman who has long admired Whedon’s work – and can credit Buffy for changing my life in many ways – the implication that it’s perhaps all been a façade is painful, but sadly, not shocking. The years-old whispers about Whedon’s potentially problematic nature have not been lost on me – I’ve read my fill of these stories, long contemplated whether or not such allegations would affect my feelings about his body of work and seemingly positive, forward-thinking intentions. The notion that he’d fired Charisma Carpenter from Angel for unexpectedly becoming pregnant disturbed me, but I foolishly convinced myself that his rhetoric was more important. The overwhelming feelings I had about Dollhouse and Firefly as misogynistic male fantasies were silenced by the others that told me Buffy mattered more and The Avengers was a Marvel masterpiece (though Age of Ultron admittedly got me concerned again). His appallingly sexist leaked Wonder Woman script left me nauseous, but it was in the past, right? He couldn’t possibly stand by that screenplay. The ever-pertinent debate around storytellers like Woody Allen about separating artists from their art poked at me from the back of my mind for years, but the package that Whedon presented – one that seemed like a man could deliver strong, dynamic female characters and stand alongside us in the name of equality – was too tempting for me to resist, and I know I’m not the only one who fell victim to this illusion – and feels shame about it now.
It’d be one thing if Whedon hadn’t spent years building a personal brand out of this performative feminism, if he’d simply had a few hits and misses when it came to writing women – but he’s been shouting it from the rooftops for years. His feminism has always been complicated – there have been no shortage of flaws in his approaches to sex and the representation of women of color – but the “strong female character” was Joss Whedon. A negative reaction from the fans who bought into this veneer for decades – particularly women – is entirely warranted. Whedon’s perennial insistence that he’s a card-carrying feminist who calls out Hollywood’s misogyny and writes strong female characters “because you’re still asking me that question” should have elicited dozens of red flags years ago – but when art holds a special place in your heart, it’s hard to accept that your hero might be just as bad as the rest of them. I know now to be wary, to exercise extreme caution when it comes to men who walk around crying feminism; who are they trying to convince, and why? How come their actions and body of work don’t manifest such beliefs?
It’s likely that Whedon’s work will be consumed with more scrutiny in the future; Buffy may remain a meaningful, important piece of art for me, but questions about the real factors at play in Whedon’s mind are already plaguing me. The idea that Batgirl is in his hands is nothing if not disconcerting, and the idea that he might have taken advantage of his power over women in professional settings is frankly horrifying. It’s easy to try to discredit Cole as embittered, but riddle me this: what does she have to benefit from this? Why would she potentially cause more strife and heartache for herself and her children? I believe women, even if believing them means bidding farewell to a hero of mine – and Whedon is no exception.
Whether or not Whedon’s reputation has been permanently tarnished remains to be seen, but the foundations of his girl-power brand are undoubtedly crumbling. His largest fan site, Whedonesque, shuttered last week after 15 years. Twitter has shown little to no mercy for Whedon, painting a fascinating picture of “I told you so’s” and devastated reactions from fans wrestling with these revelations. It’d be a stretch to say that Whedon’s career will take a serious hit from Cole’s allegations, as we’ve been giving male directors free passes for wildly egregious offenses for years. Whedon’s feminist street cred has certainly been called into question, and the repercussions of these implications – and how we judge him for them – will evidently say more about us than it does about him.