On Joss Whedon, Part Two: The Allegations and What They Mean | Vol. 4 / No. 43.1b

Photo: Ronald Woan, CC BY 2.0

This is part two of a three-part post! Check out part one here.

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Kai Cole had been with Joss Whedon since 1991, aka, “since Joss Whedon basically became Joss Whedon.” As she describes in her piece for The Wrap, she was with him for the creation of the original Buffy movie, and encouraged him to work on turning it into a TV series when they were disappointed by the end results. They were together for twenty years, and married for sixteen. Again, basically the main and most popular arc of Whedon’s career. But for much of that same career, Cole alleges, Whedon was unfaithful to her, engaging in multiple affairs.

Now, as Emma Teitel points out, infidelity on its own is not enough to revoke your feminist credentials. (Though I would argue that, as seems to be the case here, infidelity in a marriage where the female partner is encouraged to let her career take a back seat to her partner’s and to take on the role of homemaker has a couple anti-feminist undertones.)  But there is a lot going on in Cole’s assertions, and in Whedon’s alleged defenses, that raise a lot of red flags, and that do bring some of Whedon’s convictions into question.

First, there is the list of women Whedon is alleged to have had affairs with, which include “his actresses, co-workers, fans and friends.” That first one is the one that really concerns me. There is often a serious power imbalance between a director and/or producer and an actress. Actresses are often expected to do everything they can to get and keep a part, including a willingness to be nude or partially dressed, or even giving sexual favors.  Even if the affair is seemingly consensual, there are some distressing power dynamics at play, similar to an affair between a boss and employee or a teacher and student. Depending on which specific actresses he was sleeping with, the actress in question may have been more or less desperate to do what Whedon wanted in order to ensure her career kept advancing.  So if Whedon was engaging in affairs with the actresses on his show, he was doing so with the knowledge that he was in an explicit position of power over his partner.

My second concern is the way that Whedon described his partners. According to Cole, Whedon explained, “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.” Let’s look at that language. He describes the women as “needy” and “aggressive,” hardly the language you would use for someone you were going to engage in a mutually respectful relationship with. It also pivots a lot of the blame for the affairs to the women—they’re sexually aggressive and needy, pursuing Whedon instead of the other way around. Whedon basically gives up agency in this situation. He’s also obviously acutely aware of his own position—he is a “powerful producer,” surrounded by temptation. This links back to my last concern about power dynamics. It’s clear that Whedon did not consider himself to be on the same level as the women he was having affairs with, which means that a self-described feminist, one who is presumably familiar with workplace sexual harassment and power dynamics, knowingly engaged in sex with women who were in little position to be saying no to him.

Then we have the way Whedon sought justification for his adultery. Cole points out repeated instances where Whedon made it clear he wanted to have his cake and eat it too—to be in these extra sexual relationships, but also to have his wife and the life he built with her on the side. He also comes up with a very convenient reason why he cheated—it’s the patriarchy! “In many ways I was the HEIGHT of normal, in this culture. We’re taught to be providers and companions and at the same time, to conquer and acquire — specifically sexually — and I was pulling off both!” Now first of all, yes. Cultural influence is very powerful. Half of the things I write about on this blog are about the power of culture, and how representation matters. And Whedon is right, in that male gender norms encourage men to be both strong providers and sexual conquerors. But the key word here is “encourage.” Patriarchy did not hold a gun to Whedon’s head and force him to have an affair. That is a choice he made, influenced by culture and his own desires.

Next, we have the way that Cole describes herself as being used as a “shield” to keep others from questioning Whedon’s relationships with women or his commitment to feminism. Again, infidelity isn’t necessarily a feminist-killing action, but it is not particularly feminist to consciously and deliberately use one’s wife as a cover for infidelity, or to avoid critiques of the potential hypocrisies in your life.

Finally (at least in response to Cole’s allegations) we have the issue of gaslighting. Wikipedia describes gaslighting thusly:

Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s belief.

Gaslighting is a common abuse tactic, one that allows the abuser to destabilize their partner while still seeming to be in the moral right. And there are a couple of instances where gaslighting seems an appropriate topic of discussion in relation to Cole’s claims. First, there is the section where she describes what Whedon was doing to destabilize her and make her doubt herself in relation to his infidelity: “He made me doubt my own instincts and watched me move further away from my personal values and social mores, trying to connect with him, never telling me it was impossible.” Reading between the lines here, it seems as if Cole sensed something was wrong and kept trying different tactics to change her behavior to better suit Whedon. Whedon, knowing something was wrong with the relationship (namely that he was having an affair) never told Cole what the obstacle in the relationship was, and never revealed why there were problems, instead continuing to let Cole feel as if things were her fault. In another section, Cole describes her discomfort with the particular attention that Whedon paid to women, and the ways in which Whedon made it seem as if Cole was simply being oversensitive:

There were times in our relationship that I was uncomfortable with the attention Joss paid other women. He always had a lot of female friends, but he told me it was because his mother raised him as a feminist, so he just liked women better. He said he admired and respected females, he didn’t lust after them. I believed him and trusted him.

Whedon’s seemingly rational explanations for his attentions are designed to make Cole doubt her own instincts and doubt the uneasiness she is feeling. If Cole were to remain uneasy or jealous, her behavior could be written off as “unreasonable” because Whedon had explained his (very feminist) reasons for spending time with so many women.

Whedon has not responded to Cole’s accusations beyond a single statement from his spokesperson: “While this account includes inaccuracies and misrepresentations which can be harmful to their family, Joss is not commenting, out of concern for his children and out of respect for his ex-wife.”

Kaila Haile-Stern also points out the ways in which this response also has elements of gaslighting:

Asserting that Cole’s account “includes inaccuracies and misrepresentations,” but not specifying them, the statement is suggesting that anything—or everything—presented in the essay could be untrue or misremembered. It seeks to put the entirety of Cole’s essay on shaky ground. It might as well have said, “She isn’t recalling it correctly. It didn’t happen like that.”

Further, taking the time in such a brief, curt response to call out theoretical “inaccuracies and misrepresentations” as “harmful to their family” casts Cole into the role of a villain while at the same time trying to give Whedon the higher moral ground, by claiming that he “is not commenting, out of concern for his children and out of respect for his ex-wife.” That’s bullshit, because the first part of the statement sure as hell constitutes a comment from Whedon.

Here, Whedon-via-spokesperson is again casting doubt on Cole’s experiences, and trying to make it seem as if it is Cole’s behavior that requires an apology, not Whedon’s.

Cole’s piece, and the resulting debate about Whedon’s feminism, has brought back to light older, less savory actions of Whedon’s that have mainly gotten a pass from the media. Most troubling is the way he allegedly punished actress Charisma Carpenter for getting pregnant and spoiling his storyline plans.

Now, female actresses have been getting pregnant while shooting shows for about as long as there have been shows, all the way back to Lucille Ball. While an actress’s real-life life choices may not dovetail perfectly with what a showrunner wanted from a season, there are a multitude of ways that showrunners have dealt with their star’s pregnancy, from writing in sudden weight loss, to suddenly shooting from the waist up all the time,  to hiding the pregnancy with costuming, to writing the pregnancy into the show, to pre-taping segments, to body doubles, to digital editing, to suddenly having the character go on vacation or be kidnapped by aliens. In short, there are a lot of ways you can handle it.

Whedon handled it by performing character assassination on Charisma Carpenter’s Cordelia Chase. Cordelia had grown from one of the most stereotypical “rich bitch” cutouts to a complex, engaging, and empathetic character by the time she was appearing in season 4 of Angel. And if you haven’t watched season four of Angel… don’t. Just don’t. Spoilers!

In season 4, Cordelia, who had been doing a “will they, won’t they” dance with Angel for about 3 seasons, gets taken over by an evil higher being that makes her have an affair with Angel’s son, Connor, who has been conveniently time lapsed to just barely past the age of consent. Then she gets pregnant by Connor, has a baby that is also magically aged up, and falls into a coma. She seems to awaken for a single day in season 5 to perform some “women in a refrigerator” plot saving for Angel, but it’s apparently mostly just a vision in Angel’s subconscious, as he receives a call later that day informing him she died while still in the coma.

At the time, Whedon claimed that Carpenter had left the show because they felt her story had reached its logical conclusion:

“We felt like we had taken that story… about as far as it could go,” he said. “It just seemed like it was time because we were revamping the show, and then paring it down… it just seemed like a good time for certain people to move on.”

Since this “pared down” version of the show still included Harmony, a brand new being to inhabit yet another character, about ten new bad guys, and an episode where Angel gets turned into a puppet, fans called BS. But not many people would believe that uber-feminist Whedon would punish a female star for pregnancy. But later, Carpenter revealed… yeah, that’s basically exactly what happened:

“What happened was that my relationship with Joss became strained,” she revealed at the 2009 DragonCon convention. “We all go through our stuff in general [behind the scenes], and I was going through my stuff, and then I became pregnant. And I guess in his mind, he had a different way of seeing the season go… in the fourth season. It was my least favourite season actually.

“I think Joss was, honestly, mad. I think he was mad at me and I say that in a loving way, which is – it’s a very complicated dynamic working for somebody for so many years, and expectations, and also being on a show for eight years, you gotta live your life. And sometimes living your life gets in the way of maybe the creator’s vision for the future. And that becomes conflict, and that was my experience.”

I’ll admit, even as a Buffy and Angel superfan, I only really knew about this incident as an urban legend. I’d never seen Carpenter’s confirmation of that version of events, only speculation that Whedon had a habit of punishing his stars when they made life choices they didn’t like. (Somewhat similar things are said to have happened to Seth Green and Anthony Stewart Head, who wanted time to film movies and time to spend in England with his family, respectively.) But in light of Cole’s allegations, I’m newly troubled by the incident with Carpenter. It makes it clear that Whedon’s feminism stops where his bottom line begins, that he values his storyline over his actresses, and that he has little problem punishing them when things don’t go his way. Which brings me back around to my earlier point about power dynamics; if he’s willing to crush a character because the actress playing her got pregnant, what would he be willing to do if an actress refused to have sex with him? We can’t know for sure what went on between Whedon and the women he had affairs with, but we do know that he isn’t above exercising his role as a “powerful producer” to make his desires clear.

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That’s the second part—come back tomorrow for part three, “Do We Still Get To Like Things?”

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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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