Joss Whedon is a household name when it comes to pop culture.
This is not surprising.
Whedon, after all, is the man behind iconic cultural touchstones such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and — through his numerous stints as a comic book writer — The X-Men and The Runaways.
He is also a self-described feminist, who, in his address during the 2006 Equality Now Tribute, noted that equality is a “necessity” and not merely a concept that we should be striving for.
“Equality is like gravity. We need it to stand on this earth as men and women,” Whedon said.
The public — myself, included — lapped it up. And why wouldn’t we? Weren’t his female characters — Buffy, Willow, the women of Firefly — all strong, intelligent individuals who, for lack of a better term, took no shit? Weren’t his shows and books proactive when it came to embracing diversity and inclusivity? Weren’t his works just brimming with brilliant ideas on female power?
Judging by all of that then yes, Whedon, by all means, can be considered a feminist. But, as what we have since come to know, Whedon is also a hypocrite.
In a deeply personal and scathing essay, Kai Cole, a producer and architect who was married to Whedon for 15 years, noted that this image that Whedon has — that of an affable, self-deprecating, progressive and feminist filmmaker and creator — was simply his way of disguising his abusive and manipulative behavior towards women.
According to Cole, Whedon used his image as a “good guy” like a shield, wielding it in such a way that, for the most part, he was able to prevent other people from placing him, his actions, and his body of work under more critical lenses.
This, however, does not mean that there is a total absence of criticism surrounding Whedon and his works’ supposedly feminist ideals.
In a column for The Mary Sue, for instance, writer Natasha Simons noted that the majority of Whedon’s female characters — yes, even the leads — are actually weak, their displays of strength notwithstanding. Proof of this, Simons argued, are their storylines, most of which are often bent, twisted, and changed — sometimes even on the fly — just to advance those of their male counterparts.
And, as what I have observed after binging on the series, they are also frequently fridged.
Take, for example, Whedon’s treatment of Darla, Fred, and Cordelia in the Buffy spinoff Angel.
As noted by many critics, these women, aside from being wonderfully complex characters for that time, all had one other thing in common: they were all subjected by Whedon to quite brutal — if not altogether harrowing — deaths in order to further the series’ plot.
Darla, played by Julie Benz in the series, for instance, killed herself upon giving birth to her child with David Boreanaz’s Angel, all because she’s afraid of becoming an unfit mother. Fred, played by Amy Acker, meanwhile, is violated by an ancient, parasitic deity — an arc that eventually resulted in her death.
Cordelia’s treatment at the hands of Whedon, however, is on a whole other level.
First introduced in Buffy as a run-of-the-mill high school queen bee, Cordelia — played with gravitas by Charisma Carpenter — eventually became a fighter, an important member of the Scooby Gang, and, in Angel, a formidable and tireless warrior fighting against the forces of darkness and evil.
And then she was written out, her character killed off unceremoniously by the end of Angel‘s fourth season — a development that, according to Carpenter herself, apparently, had more to do with personal grudges than actual storytelling.
Carpenter, in a lengthy statement posted on Twitter, argued that Whedon came up with her character’s death — and her subsequent removal from the show — as a way to retaliate against her pregnancy at that time, adding that Whedon would often make passive-aggressive remarks towards her figure, her pregnancy, and her religious beliefs during filming.
Carpenter ended her statement with a message of support for “Cyborg” actor Ray Fisher who, after making similar revelations about Whedon’s toxic behavior while on the set of Warner Brothers’ 2017 blockbuster Justice League, has since been removed from the studio’s upcoming slate of films, including The Flash.
At the risk of sounding like an overdramatic fanboy, reading and learning about Whedon’s toxicity and the abuse he inflicted on people just crushed me.
I had been a Whedon fan for as long as I could remember: I enjoyed Buffy, Angel and Firefly during their runs, and Astonishing X-Men played a major role in my becoming a full-fledged comic book fan.
But the admiration, I think, has to stop there.
It’s true that Whedon is a genius when it comes to creating dynamic, groundbreaking, action-packed and yet nuanced stories — I especially admire what he did with Kitty Pryde and Emma Frost in Astonishing X-Men — but as what we have come to know, genius does not excuse abuse, and that applies to him too, iconic works of his be damned.
Whedon, as Cole mentioned earlier, used feminism and inclusivity as a smokescreen for his abusive and toxic behavior and so it is just fitting that those two ideas — and in their purest forms, nonetheless — be used to take a more critical, more unflinching, look at the problematic threads and elements that continue to run in his work. Case in point: his scrapped Wonder Woman script and his handling of Black Widow in The Avengers.
There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to Whedon’s brand of toxic, performative feminism and to be quite honest, I am still grappling with some of them. One thing is for sure, however: I will never be able to look at Whedon’s works the same way again.
Right now, there is an uptick in comics and television shows made by actual progressive creators that feature heroines and storylines that don’t make a mockery of feminism. These include comics like Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet, Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona, and Marjorie Liu’s Monstress, as well as shows such as Wynonna Earp, Umbrella Academy, and Lovecraft Country. It’s time we give them — and not performative, faux-woke a**holes — our complete and wholehearted support.
So, goodbye, Joss Whedon. We won’t be missing you.