The Rise and Fall of Joss Whedon, and the Myth of the Hollywood Feminist Hero

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The Rise and Fall of Joss Whedon, and the Myth of the Hollywood Feminist Hero

“I hate ‘feminist.’ Is this a good time to bring that up?” Joss Whedon asked. He paused knowingly, waiting for the laughs he knew would come at the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer making such a statement. It was 2013, and Whedon was onstage at a fundraiser for Equality Now, a human rights organization dedicated to legal equality for women. Though Buffy had been off the air for more than a decade, its legacy still loomed large; Whedon was widely respected as a man with a predilection for making science fiction with strong women for protagonists. Whedon went on to outline why, precisely, he hated the term: “You can’t be born an ‘ist,’” he argued, therefore, “‘feminist’ includes the idea that believing men and women to be equal, believing all people to be people, is not a natural state, that we don’t emerge assuming that everybody in the human race is a human, that the idea of equality is just an idea that’s imposed on us.”

The speech was widely praised and helped cement his pop-cultural reputation as a feminist, in an era that was very keen on celebrity feminists. But it was also, in retrospect, perhaps the high water mark for Whedon’s ability to claim the title, and now, almost a decade later, that reputation is finally in tatters, prompting a reevaluation of not just Whedon’s work, but the narrative he sold about himself.

In July 2020, actor Ray Fisher accused Whedon of being “gross, abusive, unprofessional, and completely unacceptable” on the Justice League set when Whedon took over for Zach Synder as director to finish the project. Earlier this month, Charisma Carpenter described her own experiences with Whedon in a long post to Twitter, hashtagged #IStandWithRayFisher. On Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel Carpenter played Cordelia, a popular character who morphed from snob to hero—one of those strong female characters that made Whedon’s feminist reputation—before being unceremoniously written off the show in a plot that saw her thrust into a coma after getting pregnant with a demon. For years, fans have suspected that her disappearance was related to her real-life pregnancy. In her statement, Carpenter appeared to confirm the rumors. “Joss Whedon abused his power on numerous occasions while working on the sets of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and ‘Angel,’” she wrote, describing Fisher’s firing as the last straw that inspired her to go public.

Buffy was a landmark of late 1990s popular culture, beloved by many a burgeoning feminist, grad student, gender studies professor, and television critic for the heroine at the heart of the show, the beautiful blonde girl who balanced monster-killing with high school homework alongside ancillary characters like the shy, geeky Willow. Buffy was very nearly one of a kind, an icon of her era who spawned a generation of leather-pants-wearing urban fantasy badasses and women action heroes.

Buffy was so beloved, in fact, that she earned Whedon a similarly privileged place in fans’ hearts

Buffy was so beloved, in fact, that she earned Whedon a similarly privileged place in fans’ hearts and a broader reputation as a man who championed empowered women characters. In the desert of late ’90s and early 2000s popular culture, Whedon was heralded as that rarest of birds—the feminist Hollywood man. For many, he was an example of what more equitable storytelling might look like, a model for how to create compelling women protagonists who were also very, very fun to watch. But Carpenter’s accusations appear to have finally imploded that particular bit of branding, revealing a different reality behind the scenes and prompting a reevaluation of the entire arc of Whedon’s career: who he was and what he was selling all along.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered March 1997, midseason, on The WB, a two-year-old network targeting teens with shows like 7th Heaven. Its beginnings were not necessarily auspicious; it was a reboot of a not-particularly-blockbuster 1992 movie written by third-generation screenwriter Joss Whedon. (His grandfather wrote for The Donna Reed Show; his father wrote for Golden Girls.) The show followed the trials of a stereotypical teenage California girl who moved to a new town and a new school after her parents’ divorce—only, in a deliberate inversion of horror tropes, the entire town sat on top of the entrance to Hell and hence was overrun with demons. Buffy was a slayer, a young woman with the power and immense responsibility to fight them. After the movie turned out very differently than Whedon had originally envisioned, the show was a chance for a do-over, more of a Valley girl comedy than serious horror.

It was layered, it was campy, it was ironic and self-aware. It looked like it belonged on the WB rather than one of the bigger broadcast networks, unlike the slickly produced prestige TV that would follow a few years later. Buffy didn’t fixate on the gory glory of killing vampires—really, the monsters were metaphors for the entire experience of adolescence, in all its complicated misery. Almost immediately, a broad cross-section of viewers responded enthusiastically. Critics loved it, and it would be hugely influential on Whedon’s colleagues in television; many argue that it broke ground in terms of what you could do with a television show in terms of serialized storytelling, setting the stage for the modern TV era. Academics took it up, with the show attracting a tremendous amount of attention and discussion. In 2002, the New York Times covered the first academic conference dedicated to the show. The organizer called Buffy “a tremendously rich text,” hence the flood of papers with titles like “Pain as Bright as Steel: The Monomyth and Light in ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’” which only gathered speed as the years passed. And while it was never the highest-rated show on television, it attracted an ardent core of fans.

But what stood out the most was the show’s protagonist: a young woman who stereotypically would have been a monster movie victim, with the script flipped: instead of screaming and swooning, she staked the vampires. This was deliberate, the core conceit of the concept, as Whedon said in many, many interviews. The helpless horror movie girl killed in the dark alley instead walks out victorious. He told Time in 1997 that the concept was born from the thought, “I would love to see a movie in which a blond wanders into a dark alley, takes care of herself and deploys her powers.” In Whedon’s framing, it was particularly important that it was a woman who walked out of that alley. He told another publication in 2002 that “the very first mission statement of the show” was “the joy of female power: having it, using it, sharing it.”

In 2021, when seemingly every new streaming property with a woman as its central character makes some half-baked claim to feminism, it’s easy to forget just how much Buffy stood out among its against its contemporaries. Action movies—with exceptions like Alien’s Ripley and Terminator 2‘s Sarah Conner—were ruled by hulking tough guys with macho swagger. When women appeared on screen opposite vampires, their primary job was to expose long, lovely, vulnerable necks. Stories and characters that bucked these larger currents inspired intense devotion, from Angela Chase of My So-Called Life to Dana Scully of The X-Files.

Young women were constantly exposed to you-can-do-it messaging that juxtaposed uneasily with the reality of the world around them

The broader landscape, too, was dismal. It was the conflicted era of girl power, a concept that sprang up in the wake of the successes of the second-wave feminist movement and the backlash that followed. Young women were constantly exposed to you-can-do-it messaging that juxtaposed uneasily with the reality of the world around them. This was the era of shitty, sexist jokes about every woman who came into Bill Clinton’s orbit and the leering response to the arrival of Britney Spears; Rush Limbaugh was a fairly mainstream figure. At one point, Buffy competed against Ally McBeal, a show that dedicated an entire episode to a dancing computer-generated baby following around its lawyer main character, her biological clock made zanily literal. Consider this line from a New York Times review of the Buffy’s 1997 premiere: “Given to hot pants and boots that should guarantee the close attention of Humbert Humberts all over America, Buffy is just your average teen-ager, poutily obsessed with clothes and boys.”

Against that background, Buffy was a landmark. Besides the simple fact of its woman protagonist, there were unique plots, like the coming-out story for her friend Willow. An ambivalent 1999 piece in Bitch magazine, even as it explored the show’s tank-top heavy marketing, ultimately concluded, “In the end, it’s precisely this contextual conflict that sets Buffy apart from the rest and makes her an appealing icon. Frustrating as her contradictions may be, annoying as her babe quotient may be, Buffy still offers up a prime-time heroine like no other.” A 2016 Atlantic piece, adapted from a book excerpt, makes the case that Buffy is perhaps best understood as an icon of third-wave feminism: “In its examination of individual and collective empowerment, its ambiguous politics of racial representation and its willing embrace of contradiction, Buffy is a quintessentially third-wave cultural production.” The show was vested with all the era’s longing for something better than what was available, something different, a champion for a conflicted “post-feminist” era—even if she was an imperfect or somewhat incongruous vessel. It wasn’t just Sunnydale that needed a chosen Slayer, it was an entire generation of women.

That fact became intricately intertwined with Whedon himself. Seemingly every interview involved a discussion of his fondness for stories about strong women. “I’ve always found strong women interesting, because they are not overly represented in the cinema,” he told New York for a 1997 piece that notes he studied both film and “gender and feminist issues” at Wesleyan; “I seem to be the guy for strong action women,’’ he told the New York Times in 1997 with an aw-shucks sort of shrug. ‘’A lot of writers are just terrible when it comes to writing female characters. They forget that they are people.’’ He often cited the influence of his strong, “hardcore feminist” mother, and even suggested that his protagonists served feminist ends in and of themselves: “If I can make teenage boys comfortable with a girl who takes charge of a situation without their knowing that’s what’s happening, it’s better than sitting down and selling them on feminism,” he told Time in 1997.

It wasn’t just Sunnyd

When he was honored by the organization Equality Now in 2006 for his “outstanding contribution to equality in film and television,” Whedon made his speech an extended riff on the fact that people just kept asking him about it, concluding with the ultimate answer: “Because you’re still asking me that question.” He presented strong women as a simple no-brainer, and he was seemingly always happy to say so, at a time when the entertainment business still seemed ruled by unapologetic misogynists.

The internet of the mid-2010s only intensified Whedon’s anointment as a prototypical Hollywood ally, with reporters asking him things like how men could best support the feminist movement. Whedon’s response: “A guy who goes around saying ‘I’m a feminist’ usually has an agenda that is not feminist. A guy who behaves like one, who actually becomes involved in the movement, generally speaking, you can trust that. And it doesn’t just apply to the action that is activist. It applies to the way they treat the women they work with and they live with and they see on the street.” This remark takes on a great deal of irony in light of Carpenter’s statement.

In recent years, Whedon’s reputation as an ally began to wane. Partly, it was because of the work itself, which revealed more and more cracks as Buffy receded in the rearview mirror. Maybe it all started to sour with Dollhouse, a TV show that imagined Eliza Dushku as a young woman rented out to the rich and powerful, her mind wiped after every assignment, a concept that sat poorly with fans. (Though Whedon, while he was publicly unhappy with how the show had turned out after much push-and-pull with the corporate bosses at Fox, still argued the conceit was “the most pure feminist and empowering statement I’d ever made—somebody building themselves from nothing,” in a 2012 interview with Wired.)

After years of loud disappointment with the TV bosses at Fox on Firefly and Dollhouse, Whedon moved into big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. He helped birth the Marvel-dominated era of movies with his work as director of The Avengers. But his second Avengers movie, Age of Ultron, was heavily criticized for a moment in which Black Widow laid out her personal reproductive history for the Hulk, suggesting her sterilization somehow made her a “monster.” In June 2017, his un-filmed script for a Wonder Woman adaptation leaked, to widespread mockery. The script’s introduction of Diana was almost leering: “To say she is beautiful is almost to miss the point. She is elemental, as natural and wild as the luminous flora surrounding. Her dark hair waterfalls to her shoulders in soft arcs and curls. Her body is curvaceous, but taut as a drawn bow.”

But Whedon’s real fall from grace began in 2017, right before MeToo spurred a cultural reckoning. His ex-wife, Kai Cole, published a piece in The Wrap accusing him of cheating off and on throughout their relationship and calling him a hypocrite:

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. He deceived me for 15 years, so he could have everything he wanted. I believed, everyone believed, that he was one of the good guys, committed to fighting for women’s rights, committed to our marriage, and to the women he worked with. But I now see how he used his relationship with me as a shield, both during and after our marriage, so no one would question his relationships with other women or scrutinize his writing as anything other than feminist.

But his reputation was just too strong; the accusation that he didn’t practice what he preached didn’t quite stick. (A spokesperson for Whedon told the Wrap: “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.”) Many minimized the essay on the basis that adultery doesn’t necessarily make you a bad feminist or erase a legacy. Whedon similarly seemed to shrug off Ray Fisher’s accusations of creating a toxic workplace; instead, Warner Media fired Fisher.

But Carpenter’s statement—which struck right at the heart of his Buffy-based legacy for progressivism—may finally change things. Even at the time, the plotline in which Charisma Carpenter was written off Angel—carrying a demon child that turned her into “Evil Cordelia,” ending the season in a coma, and quite simply never reappearing—was unpopular. Asked about what had happened in a 2009 panel at DragonCon, she said that “my relationship with Joss became strained,” continuing: “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.”

“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.”

In her statement on Twitter, Carpenter alleged that after Whedon was informed of her pregnancy, he called her into a closed-door meeting and “asked me if I was ‘going to keep it,’ and manipulatively weaponized my womanhood and faith against me.” She added that “he proceeded to attack my character, mock my religious beliefs, accuse me of sabotaging the show, and then unceremoniously fired me following the season once I gave birth.” Carpenter said that he called her fat while she was four months pregnant and scheduled her to work at 1 a.m. while six months pregnant after her doctor had recommended shortening her hours, a move she describes as retaliatory. What Carpenter describes, in other words, is an absolutely textbook case of pregnancy discrimination in the workplace, the type of bullshit the feminist movement exists to fight—at the hands of the man who was for years lauded as a Hollywood feminist for his work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.

Many of Carpenter’s colleagues from Buffy and Angel spoke out in support, including Buffy herself, Sarah Michelle Gellar. “While I am proud to have my name associated with Buffy Summers, I don’t want to be forever associated with the name Joss Whedon,” she said in a statement. Just shy of a decade after that 2013 speech, many of the cast members on the show that put him on that stage are cutting ties.

When Wonder Woman finally reached the screen, to great acclaim, it was with a woman as director

Whedon garnered a reputation as pop culture’s ultimate feminist man because Buffy did stand out so much, an oasis in a wasteland. But in 2021, the idea of a lone man being responsible for creating women’s stories—one who told the New York Times, “I seem to be the guy for strong action women”—seems like a relic. It’s depressing to consider how many years Hollywood’s first instinct for “strong action women” wasn’t a woman, and to think about what other people could have done with those resources. When Wonder Woman finally reached the screen, to great acclaim, it was with a woman as director.

Besides, Whedon didn’t make Buffy all by himself—many, many women contributed, from the actresses to the writers to the stunt workers, and his reputation grew so large it eclipsed their part in the show’s creation. Even as he preached feminism, Whedon benefitted from one of the oldest, most sexist stereotypes: the man who’s a benevolent, creative genius. And Buffy, too, overshadowed all the other contributors who redefined who could be a hero on television and in speculative fiction, from individual actors like Gillian Anderson to the determined, creative women who wrote science fiction and fantasy over the last several decades to—perhaps most of all—the fans who craved different, better stories. Buffy helped change what you could put on TV, but it didn’t create the desire to see a character like her. It was that desire, as much as Whedon himself, that gave Buffy the Vampire Slayer her power.

2/25/21: This post has been updated with a more accurate definition of Equality Now and the nature of the organization’s work. This post has also been updated to reflect the correct name of Sunnydale.

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