On Joss Whedon, Part Three: Do We Still Get to Like Things? | Vol. 4 / No. 43.1c

Photo: SounderBruce, CC BY-SA 2.0

This is the final part! For parts one and two click below:

Part One: Wonder Woman and Why I Care

Part Two: The Allegations and What They Mean

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Someone asked me what my thoughts were when Kai Cole’s letter came out. To answer that question, I first have to go back a little bit, to Avengers 2. I was one of the fans who took Black Widow’s discussion of what had happened to her in the Red Room and the announcement that she was infertile directly followed by the declaration that she was a monster, to be saying that Black Widow was calling herself monstrous because of her infertility. A lot of fans thought the same thing I did, and Joss Whedon quit Twitter following the criticism. A whole year later, Whedon returned and explained what he intended by the line: “She said she was a monster because she was an assassin,” he wrote. “Being rendered infertile made her feel unnatural, made her feel cut off from the natural world. But it was her actions that defined her. Her murdery actions. That’s what ‘monster’ meant.”

Now, I still maintain that the line was awkwardly written and edited (the line about Bruce not being the only monster on the team comes directly after her discussion of her infertility, not her discussion of her upbringing as an assassin), that this emotional moment was somewhat shoehorned in (possibly to make up for the fact that Black Widow still doesn’t have her own movie to better delve into her origins), and that the romance between Natasha and Bruce is awkward as fuck and came out of nowhere. I don’t think the fans were entirely wrong to get upset, even if we apparently misunderstood what Whedon was going for.

But to help explain the ferocity of the response that Whedon received at the time, I think it’s important to understand the fans’ sense of betrayal: he was one of the good ones, and he was seeming to let us down. Someone who was responsible for so many amazing female characters, someone who had so many professed feminist ideals, was seeming to reduce the only woman on a team of superheroes to her biology. He was seeming to say that she considered herself monstrous because of her infertility, and that we should, too. He was bringing up her fertility at all—while a totally common thing and something that honestly should probably come up more in movies, it’s always somewhat disappointing when it seems to be the token female character who is the only one who discusses it.

At the time, I tried to explain my reaction, and fellow fans’ reactions, to a friend. It was because we expected better of him that this seeming betrayal hurt so badly. I don’t expect feminism or even something approaching a consideration of women as people from Michael Bay films, though I would like to see it. He made it clear long ago that he only thinks of women as objects. So when Megan Fox gets sexually objectified for the zillionth time in one of his films, I’m disappointed in general but not surprised. But when Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy, seems to muck up a major point for the (at the time) only female Avenger? That disappoints and surprises, because I expected better. That hurts more.

That feeling returned when I read about Cole’s accusations, though perhaps actually to a lesser extent. I was still disappointed, because I still expected better. But I was less surprised. I still felt betrayed, because it’s a wretched feeling to see one of your idols turn out to be a manipulator, and to see one of the only vocal male feminists in pop culture be exposed as a hypocrite. But I’d already gone through that pain over Black Widow. I’d already heard about the disappointing Wonder Woman script. I’d already had the thought, “If Joss Whedon supports women in cinema so much, why doesn’t he suggest that a woman take over directing for Batgirl?” I was very disappointed, because cheating on your wife and sleeping with your employees are much graver sins than writing a bad script where you slut-shame your protagonist, but I was at least less surprised.

But Whedon’s actions bring us to the question, “How should we, or how can we, still enjoy his work?” Am I still allowed to like Buffy? Was my entire upbringing, my reliance on Buffy in my formation of myself, a lie?

I’ve written before on how we can, or how we should, separate art from the artist. In short, it’s complicated. Terrible people can make great art. And we often have to come to our own moral reckoning with what we can put up with. We also have to come to our own conclusion about when accolades for the work someone has done become accolades that seem to dismiss or forgive the harm that they have caused in their personal lives. (Looking at you, Casey Affleck.) If I continue to consider Buffy one of my favorite shows, if not my favorite show, am I implicitly dismissing Cole and all of the other women that Whedon has likely hurt along the way?

At least in my case, my answer is, “hopefully not.” And there are a few things that go into this answer. (Shout out to one of my friends who helped me get my thoughts in order and provide some much-needed feedback to help me sort myself out enough to write the following.)

First, I do feel there’s a difference between the work being done on Buffy and the work in say, a Woody Allen film. While some of the things that make Whedon come off as creepy—strong women who are okay being strong as long as they are still pretty, wondering which actress he slept with in order to cheat on his wife—are still present in the work, they aren’t the focus of the work. There’s a lot of legitimate, feminist material left in Buffy. There is a lot of good that can be separated from who Whedon is as a person. Meanwhile, pretty much every Woody Allen movie is about a neurotic older male who is suddenly loved by a much younger, beautiful woman. In that case, the art matches the sin—predatory, older white male power dynamics.

Second, as Rachel Simon points out, even though Whedon was the creator and major showrunner, many other people are responsible for large portions of the show, including some of the most important breakthroughs and themes, including the introduction of Tara and the inclusion of major storylines about grief. To say that the success of Buffy is only due to Whedon, or that it is only Whedon’s feminism that shines through, is disingenuous.

And while it may just be me believing what I want to believe, I do think that the characters on Buffy remain important both despite Whedon’s failures, and in some cases actually gain depth because of them. I was speaking to a friend and fellow Buffy fanatic about this problem. Regarding the revelations about Whedon, she said, “If anything it makes me better understand how Angel, and Riley, and Xander, all manage to be both sympathetic characters abut totally shitty dudes most of the time but takes nothing away from how much I love Buffy and Anya and Faith and Willow and all their badassery.” It’s very easy to see Whedon exorcising some personal demons in characters like Xander, who constantly belittles and critiques his girlfriend and most of his female friends, yet remains a beloved core component of the Scooby Gang. And Whedon’s actions don’t retroactively make Anya less amazing or Willow less groundbreaking—in some ways it’s a near miracle that they were able to become the feminist icons they are if they were co-created by a philandering dick.

I think it is important that we not forget Whedon’s foibles when we are engaging in his work, and I think at the very least we must doubt and/or put serious pressure on future claims of feminist cookie-deserving. But we also can’t discount the reception study side of things. Joss Whedon’s creations have been part of the pop culture consciousness for twenty years now. The women and men who have been inspired to become feminists because of Whedon’s work are still feminists. The communities we formed and the fandom we created and the things that we have shared don’t go away because Whedon is not the stalwart that he appeared to be.

Sometimes your heroes aren’t who you thought they were, but a work can be greater than its creator. We need to be critical and we need to be aware, but we don’t have to be ashamed to continue loving what we have loved.

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That’s the end of part three, and there are only three parts! Tune back in on Friday for something not about Joss Whedon (probably).

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Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not writing long literary analyses of pop culture media for this blog, well, she still studies gender in popular culture.

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