Joss Whedon is to my mind one of the great geniuses of television. I would rank Buffy the Vampire Slayer as my third favorite TV series, after Star Trek and The X-Files. I really enjoyed what little there was of Firefly.
When I heard there were "allegations" against him, I thought, oh, great, who did he rape?
But honestly I am having trouble figuring out exactly what Whedon did wrong. Here is Slate's version:
On Wednesday, actress Charisma Carpenter accused Joss Whedon, the celebrated screenwriter and director behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Avengers, of “abusing his power” when she worked with him.
“Joss has a history of being casually cruel. He has created hostile and toxic work environments since his early career,” Carpenter wrote in a statement posted to Twitter. “I know because I experienced it first-hand. Repeatedly.”
Carpenter is best known for her role as mean-girl-turned-demon-fighter Cordelia Chase on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff show Angel. In her statement, Carpenter says Whedon berated her over her appearance — reprimanding her for getting a tattoo, calling her “fat” when she was pregnant — and became vindictive when, after refusing multiple phone calls from her agent, he learned of her pregnancy.
Carpenter has stated publicly before that she believes she was written off of Angel in 2003 as retaliation because she became pregnant. . . . .
But in her new statement, for the first time, Carpenter says that upon learning that she was expecting a baby, Whedon asked her if she was “going to keep it” and then accused her of sabotaging the show. She also adds that after her doctor recommended shortening her work hours, she was told to report to set at 1 am, and in the midst of the resultant stress, she experienced Braxton Hicks contractions. “It was clear to me the 1:00 AM call was retaliatory,” she writes.
Gee, if you hate your boss and think your work environment is toxic, maybe you should, I don't know, quit? And if you stay because you think the million a year makes it worth it, you have just lost all my sympathy. For all that she complains about the toxic environment, Carpenter's biggest gripe is that she got fired. She didn't see it as a release? If it was so awful, why not?
Whedon comes across as a monomaniacal jerk who cares not a whit about the personal lives of the people around him and expects them to be as relentlessly devoted to the show as he is. Like, I don't know, all the famous directors and producers of the whole twentieth century.
Repeat after me: all creative geniuses are monsters.
It isn't literally true, but it is pretty close, and honestly Joss Whedon is minor league compared to many of the other big art world figures of recent decades. Balanchine. Andy Warhol. Francis Bacon.
I found it interesting that Anthony Stewart, the only grown-up among the Buffy regulars, says he had no idea there was anything unpleasant going on. I imagine this is because having already spent 15 years on stage and in television he was used to high-pressure acting, and he probably considered Whedon no worse than other directors he had worked with. For the young stars who grew up on the show, Whedon was all they knew. I suppose that did give him power over them, and made his insults hurt. But not because he was worse than many others.
Or perhaps Anthony Stewart just isn't the kind of person who feels abused. One of our themes here over the past year has been "nothing makes sense except in light of inter-individual variation," and maybe that's what we're seeing. But anyway, whatever Joss Whedon was doing, half the crew didn't think it was worth commenting on.
But various online commenters have tied all this up with Whedon's work since Firefly, which they find insufficiently feminist. I don't watch superhero movies, so I don't have much to say about The Avengers. But here is Slate again:
The feminist backlash against Joss Whedon began in earnest in 2015. Back then, it centered on a scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron, written and directed by Whedon, in which Black Widow appeared to say that because she can’t have children, she’s a monster.
“What about me, Joss Whedon?” wrote one disillusioned fan. “Do you think my broken ovary and useless fallopian tube make me a monster?”
Um, maybe you shouldn't have your self-esteem wrapped up in the pronouncements of comic book superheroes? But even Slate admits that was a misinterpretation of Black Widow's actual words, and Whedon was guilty only of "clumsy writing." In a superhero movie? I am completely shocked.
The backlash developed further in 2017, when Whedon’s unproduced 2004 script for Wonder Woman leaked, mostly because of a lengthy sequence it contains in which Diana is put into chains and forced to say, “I submit,” repeatedly.
The scene is clearly intended to critique the patriarchal power structures that force Diana into submission. But it’s a sharp contrast to the joyous empowerment offered by 2017’s Wonder Woman (written by Allan Heinberg and directed by Patty Jenkins): Instead of glorying in Diana’s iconic stride through No Man’s Land, Whedon’s imagined audience is instead asked to suffer through her humiliation with her.
And where the Patty Jenkins Wonder Woman is explicitly told from Diana’s point of view, Whedon’s leaked script frames the character through the point of view of her love interest, who speaks in the signature quippy patterns Whedon usually grants to his authorial avatars (think Buffy’s Xander, Dollhouse’s Topher, or Firefly’s Wash). One viral Twitter thread described the script as “viscerally insulting.”
Anyone puzzled that Wonder Woman should be tied up and abused never saw the comic, because that happened in nearly every issue. And anyway Wonder Woman is an unbelievably stupid character with an unbelievably stupid story, and if you take it seriously you have far worse problems than Joss Whedon.
The narrative these critics are pushing might be summarized as "Joss Whedon should never have been a feminist hero." And I agree! If you take your cues about the important things in life from entertaining television, you're committing a category mistake. Whedon has a fascination with attractive young women who turn out to be really tough. That is not feminist philosophy. If your idea of feminism is, "women should kick men's butts on television," you're not getting it.
If star artists commit crimes, they should go to jail like anyone else. I have no patience with rapists. But going public with a bunch of complaints about other people being jerks isn't progressive politics. It's demeaning for everyone, but especially for the people doing the whining.