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Joss Whedon's feminist legacy unraveling has been a long time coming

  • Vox

    Charisma Carpenter alleging Whedon abused his power and created a toxic culture when they worked together on Angel is the latest sign that the geek auteur's feminist cred wasn't all it was cracked up to be. "To a time traveler from 2003, when Buffy aired its final season, all of these accusations against Joss Whedon might seem shocking, even unbelievable," says Constance Grady. "Back then, the conventional wisdom on Joss Whedon was that his feminist credentials were unimpeachable. Whedon, after all, was the man who wrote a whole series from the point of view of the blonde who dies in the first scene of a horror movie, and who dared to make that blonde not just a main character but an action hero. His brand was the brand of strong women kicking a** and taking names. He won awards for his feminism. But in 2021, these accusations against Whedon feel as though they have been a long time coming. Whedon went on to become a celebrated Hollywood director, helming The Avengers in 2012 and Avengers: Age of Ultron in 2015, and he has a new TV show, The Nevers, set to premiere on HBO in April. Meanwhile, Buffy the Vampire Slayer remains a beloved TV icon. But Whedon himself and his feminist legacy have been undergoing a long and painful reexamination." Grady points out that "the Whedon fandom’s growing ambivalence regarding his particular version of feminism came into focus with his short-lived 2009 series Dollhouse. Written as a showcase for Eliza Dushku, Dollhouse imagined a technology that wiped people’s minds into blank slates, fashioning them into 'Dolls' onto which could be projected a new identity and new personality. Many of the Dolls were attractive, scantily clad women, and they were programmed by a self-loathing nerdy programmer named Topher who, like most of Whedon’s avatars, dressed in schlubby clothing and spoke in a quippy stream of pop-culture references. As a metaphor for Whedon’s career, Dollhouse was hardly subtle. And as a show, it seemed ideologically torn between decrying the objectification of its heroines and taking a deep, sleazy pleasure in objectifying them...Part of what made Dollhouse so disturbing to some Whedon fans was that it made textual and explicit what had always been deep, deep subtext in Whedon’s other work. Most Whedon shows feature beautiful women who dress up in sexy outfits and kick a**. Most of those women are well-written characters with fully developed personalities, and they all received those personalities courtesy of Whedon’s pen and, sometimes, his camera. In the past, it had been easy to think of the writer-actor relationship in the context of creation and collaboration. And Buffy was so iconic and so beloved that many viewers were eager to do just that. But Dollhouse recast Whedon’s relationship with the actresses who worked for him as an icky, sexualized act of exploitation. It made every gratuitous shot of Buffy in a miniskirt or Firefly’s courtesan Inara in bed with a customer feel just a little bit gross." But it wasn't just Dollhouse that called into question Whedon's feminism. Whedon's 2015 film Avengers: Age of Ultron and the 2017 release of Whedon's unproduced 2004 script for a "god-awful" Wonder Woman movie led fans to start reconsidering his work on Buffy and Angel. Whedon's ex-wife Kai Cole calling him a “hypocrite preaching feminist ideals" also hurt Whedon's reputation. All this was before Ray Fisher accused Whedon last year of "abusive, unprofessional" behavior on the Justice League set. "So what we’re left with is a man who created one of the most beloved feminist heroes in TV history — and who has been accused by a number of the real women who worked for him, along with at least one actor of color, of creating a toxic workspace and retaliating against an actress who dared to get pregnant," says Grady. "Who’s been accused by his ex-wife of emotional abuse, and of having affairs with his employees. Whose later work seems to largely lack the feminist bona fides of the show that made him famous. Buffy the Vampire Slayer might be immortal. But Joss Whedon’s feminist legacy is not."


    • Charisma Carpenter's allegations against Joss Whedon are hitting Buffy and Angel fans hard: The allegations shouldn't be surprising following Ray Fisher's statements and his ex-wife Kai Cole calling out the “hypocrisy of being out in the world preaching feminist ideals” in a 2017 essay describing his alleged emotional abuse. "Situations like these involve fans in a few ways. We develop relationships, no matter how one-sided, with the people and stories we watch on screen," says Sage Young. "It can really be heartbreaking to find out that a piece of art that you love was created in an unsafe, unkind environment and that individuals you admire were terrorized in the process. Because of that connection, Buffy and Angel fans have been commenting in droves on the posts of the women who’ve spoken out, offering their condolences and thanking them for their strength. In this case, many who love the show are experiencing a special kind of betrayal. Buffy is a series beloved by fans in part because of its stereotype-busting female characters. It provided pop culture with some of its most visible, well-rounded depictions of teenage girls, who are rarely taken seriously or given much agency on screen. And then there’s deciding how to move forward with the art itself. In light of these accusations, we can safely say that Joss Whedon is not in fact a feminist, or at least not one who understands what the word actually means. That doesn’t mean that Buffy isn’t a feminist show. And the reverse is also true: Whedon can’t be called a feminist — or assumed to be a feminist — simply because he was the driving force behind Buffy. The implosion of a former genre darling like Whedon (HBO 'parted ways' with the showrunner on the upcoming series, The Nevers during the WarnerMedia investigation) is yet more proof that we can’t judge men in these positions of power by their output alone."
    • The #MeToo movement means that allegations against men like Whedon are less likely to be written off, but will there be lasting change?: "Executives are just trying to figure out when they’ll be forced to stop pretending everything is business as usual," says Lauren Strapagiel. "If anything has changed in the #MeToo era, it’s that claims of abuse or mistreatment are less likely to be written off as feuds, or rumors, or false accusations for publicity. That’s a step forward, undeniably, but the true reckoning won’t happen until there are lasting consequences. In cases where there’s not a criminal case to be easily made, abusive men may lose a bit of work here and there, but they’ll ultimately be fine. They have their money, their residuals, and the protection of executives who were always willing to overlook their bad behavior. They will get more work. They always do. Buffy was created by Whedon, but it wasn’t just his. The writers, the fans, and the actors made the show what it is. The character Buffy was special to me and so many others because she saved the world, even when it sucked, because someone had to. And if Buffy were a Hollywood executive, instead of a teen girl with super strength, she wouldn’t put up with this sh*t."
    • Michelle Trachtenberg says "there was a rule" on the Buffy set that Joss Whedon couldn't be alone with her following an unnamed incident
    • Buffy and Angel vet Eliza Dushku releases a statement praising Charisma Carpenter's "powerful" message: "My heart aches for you & I'm so sorry you have held this for so long. Your post was powerful, painful, and painted a picture we'll collectively never un-see or un-know," she wrote. "Thank you. I hadn't known it and I won't forget it."
    • Former Buffy star Anthony Head says he's "gutted" he didn't know about Whedon's alleged abuse: "I have been up most of the night just running through my memories thinking, 'What did I miss?'" Head said on ITV's This Morning. "This is not a man saying, 'I didn't see it so it didn't happen.' I am gutted. I'm seriously gutted because one of my memories — my fondest memory — was the fact that it was so empowering. Not just with the words in the script, but the family feel of the show...I am really sad that if people went through these experiences."
    • Prominent TV writer Nell Scovell, creator of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, recalled her offensive Joss Whedon experience: "I met Joss once when I interviewed to be a writer on Buffy," Scovell tweeted. "I was pregnant at the time. First thing he said to me: 'Boy, are you fat.' I laughed because it was an interview. But when I read (Charisma Carpenter's) post, I realized it was a pattern. And I didn't get the job."
    • HBO won't use Whedon's name in marketing The Nevers

    TOPICS: Joss Whedon, Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse, Anthony Stewart Head, Charisma Carpenter, Eliza Dushku, Kai Cole, Michelle Trachtenberg, Nell Scovell, Ray Fisher, Retro TV