Joss Whedon: Fuck you

And so, from the bottom of teenage Sophie’s heart—fuck you, Joss Whedon. We’ve got it from here.


Meet Joss Whedon. Screenwriter, director and producer by trade, Whedon made a name for himself in the 1990s with his hit TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Since then, he’s exploded into Hollywood, best known for directing and writing for the Marvel and DC cinematic universes. But another characteristic element of Whedon’s filmography is his penchant for putting powerful women on screen. The wittier, stronger and more capable the leading lady, the better!

Needless to say, by the time I was sixteen years old, Joss Whedon had become my hero.

As far as I was concerned, he had gifted me on-screen feminist phenomena like Buffy and Black Widow, and it was the coolest shit my lowly teenage mind could ever have hoped to perceive. But then I grew up. Or rather, the world grew up around me, and I sat back and watched as the headlines spewed forth. 

The last ten years have seen a wave of allegations, frustrations, and general disparagement levelled against Joss Whedon’s writing and directorial work, particularly relating to his treatment of women. His behaviour is by no means unprecedented (sexism in Hollywood? No way!), but it has attracted particular attention due to how portrays himself: as a feminist creator. A “woke bae”. Someone who loves, respects and admires powerful women. Someone my sixteen-year-old self could look up to.

And now, at the ripe old age of twenty-three, I’m pissed. How could someone I regarded so highly have let me down so badly?

If you’re not in the loop about Joss Whedon’s various, let’s say… creative discretions, allow me to enlighten you. Because even now I hear his praises being sung—directorial mastermind, feminist ally, geek culture at its sexiest, blah blah blah. Maybe to a certain extent these things are still true. Or maybe we’re just looking at yet another cis/straight/white Hollywood bigshot who can’t help but abuse his power. Whichever the case may be, I feel like I owe it to my younger self to investigate Whedon’s catalogue. More specifically, the parts I like(d), and the parts that have been soured by his problematic legacy.

There is only one logical place to begin: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003).

If we’re talking ‘pros’ for the show, you can’t get much better than the general premise: damsel-in-distress type character turns out to be a badass heroine who saves the world (a lot). To me, Buffy is a goddamn icon. She’s clever, lethal, and above all, capable. Moreover, she makes no attempt to sacrifice or downplay her femininity, proving to audiences that you can be both conventionally feminine and unapologetically badass. Joss Whedon has accordingly been credited for bringing third-wave feminism into pop culture.

And yet, Whedon’s behaviour behind the scenes of Buffy could not be further from the show’s feminist proclamations. The first formal allegations came out in early 2021, as Charisma Carpenter (‘Cordelia’ in the show) claimed Whedon harassed and bullied her behind the scenes of Buffy, as well as its spinoff show Angel. According to Carpenter, Whedon emotionally abused his cast, the women in particular, by commenting on their bodies, threatening to fire them, and going out of his way to publicly humiliate them. Since making these accusations, Carpenter has been joined and supported by other cast members from Buffy, including Sarah Michelle Gellar who played the titular role. Following Carpenter’s statement, Gellar issued one of her own on Instagram, reading, “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 goes on to advocate for survivors of abuse, thereby making her opinion of Whedon crystal clear.

It’s also worth acknowledging Whedon’s backstage misogyny almost certainly had an adverse effect on Buffy’s on-stage storyline: repeatedly punishing women for their sexuality, subscribing to the ‘kill your gays’ trope, and making trauma a strict prerequisite to women’s strength. For instance, (spoiler alert) Buffy losing her virginity in season 2 magically turns her boyfriend evil and sends him on a murderous rampage.

Whedon has been the subject of several subsequent scandals related to his depictions of strong women. His writing for Black Widow in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) kicked up considerable controversy, as he concentrated Black Widow’s entire character arc on her romance with the Hulk, as well as her inability to have kids, while all the other superheroes got to focus on saving the world. And then it’s implied that the real reason Black Widow likes Hulk so much is because she identifies with his monstrosity. She can’t have kids. He destroys major cities. Same difference, right?

This also seems like a good time to bring up Whedon’s leaked Wonder Woman script, which really doubles down on his sexist reductions of women superheroes. In Whedon’s version, Wonder Woman isn’t even the protagonist of her own film—introduced as ‘THE GIRL’ with a ‘curvaceous’ body—and all from the point of view of Steve Trevor, her male sidekick.

These misogynistic creative decisions seem to translate to Whedon’s personal life, too. In 2017, Whedon’s ex-wife Kali Cole issued a statement about his various affairs during their marriage. Cole pulled direct quotes from the letters Whedon wrote to her, in which he describes himself as being “surrounded by beautiful, needy, aggressive young women.” He goes on to equate himself to a tragic Greek hero, ‘diseased’ by his own desirability.

In a later statement to Vulture magazine, Whedon claims that he was simply powerless to turn down the women’s advances. And yet, defending such a dubious proposal seems impossible in the case of actress Michelle Trachtenberg—only fourteen-years-old when she joined the cast of Buffy—accused Whedon of “very. Not. Appropriate. [sic]” conduct on-set. Following Carpenter’s and Michelle-Gellar’s 2021 statements, Trachtenberg opened up about her time on Buffy, claiming, “There was a rule saying he’s [Whedon’s] not allowed in the room alone with Michelle again.”

Cole’s statement and controversies since revealed demonstrate Whedon’s hypocrisy—branding himself a feminist who loves and respects women only to betray his wife and repeatedly mistreat women and girls under his direction.

I guess it should come as no surprise that feminists such as myself tend to get realllllyyy pissed off when Whedon shits all over our ‘militant’ attitude. In his words, we would rather attack him than “band together and actually fight for the cause”. Whedon has staked his Hollywood reputation on being a feminist ally for so long that to concede otherwise at this point would be a huge blow to his professional character. But denying the facts and the voices of his victims sure as hell won’t stop us from taking him to task.

In an age of highly corporatized, highly mediatised feminism where saving face with pretty words is the status quo, it feels appropriate to call this asshole out. And, in calling him out, I’ll give credit for his work only where credit is actually due.

Of course, there’s a whole other argument to be made about feminism failing under capitalism as revolutionary politics get swallowed up and reappropriated by the mass corporate machine that is Hollywood… but that’s a rabbit hole for another day. For today, it’s enough for me acknowledge Joss Whedon as a false feminist ally—one of many—and to only give credit for his work where credit is actually due.

Despite what I now know about Joss Whedon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer remains my favourite TV show of all time. The way I justify this to myself is not by divorcing creator from creation, nor even by accepting the bad with the good, but by understanding that whatever Whedon’s original intentions for Buffy may have been … the show has since far exceeded his hypocritical, narcissistic vision of ‘women’s empowerment’. If Buffy is an icon of third-wave feminism, it’s because we, the humble fans, have made it so, alongside the cast and crew who suffered through Whedon’s direction. Buffy endures not because of Joss Whedon’s influence, but in spite of it.

The same can be argued of his other contributions to cinema. Let me tell you, the first time I saw Scarlett Johansson’s fight sequence as Black Widow at the start of Avengers, my heart skipped a beat – not because Joss Whedon is some genius director, but because a badass woman had just shown up on-screen. I idolised and celebrated this woman on my own terms; Whedon merely helped formalise a character who thousands of us striving for women’s empowerment took into our own hands.

And so, from the bottom of teenage Sophie’s heart—fuck you, Joss Whedon. We’ve got it from here.

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