Friday, February 12, 2021

Joss Whedon is a Creep. So?

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.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps, because we no longer have a unified culture or religion, some have made a religion out of popular culture.

David said...


I take it that, now that Trump is no longer president, the whole thing about let's be kind and patient and sympathetic with everyone is over.

John said...

I think it's very important to be kind and patient. If my boss treated me the way Carpenter says Whedon treated her, I would quit. If she is telling the truth, she should have quit. That she didn't makes me question the whole thing.

But none of my bosses every achieved anything remotely comparable to Buffy.

I have always said that I perfectly understood why Trump's followers ignored his blustering style and found excuses for his many sins. They wanted a fighter for their side. Hollywood has long tolerated abusive producers and directors because they get the job done. In some cases this has involved actual rape and in one famous case a possible murder, and to me that is not tolerable. But I opposed Trump because of his philosophy, not his mannerisms.

The question, I suppose, is whether the mannerisms and the philosophy are at base the same thing. That's why I was so impressed that Richard Rorty predicted, not just a resurgence of ethno-nationalism, but a resurgence of nasty jokes about women. He saw a connection.

How real is that connection? Can you be a feminist and also a raging jerk who says nasty things to your female employees?

If all of our artistic institutions were run by nice people, would we have better art? I feel certain we would have the opposite. Does it matter?

John said...

Also, I don't recall saying that being nice is the highest value. I have repeatedly argued that you cannot change people's votes by being nasty to them. If your goal is to change votes, I think anger against voters is a terrible approach.

That doesn't mean it might not be exactly the right approach in some other situation.

David said...

Wikipedia's article on Joss Whedon has a nice little section on his bad reputation. Apparently complaints have been going on for years, and the issue with Carpenter is just one among many (although there is the suggestion that he's always treated her particularly badly). Male actors complain too. None, male or female, are reported as having quit; instead they go to higher ups and get Whedon reprimanded--which I find to be a much more satisfying outcome than the victims just quitting.

For me, Wikipedia is The Source Of All Truth--but one should take it with a grain of salt.

I suppose one could delve into the issue and try to find out just how much assholery is essential to getting cultural work done. I suspect it's a bit of a myth--but then again, I think it would be very hard to get anything remotely like an objective analysis on this issue. A lot of people are devoted to the "creative monster" myth (I'm not saying you are--I'm thinking more of folks like Camille Paglia), and a lot of others over-identify with victims of top-dog assholery. I'm obviously one of the latter, and probably incapable of being objective, which is why I like it so much that Whedon is getting corrected in public (by the way, it's important to roll those "r"s on corrected--very satisfying).

As for mannerisms and ideology, I too was especially impressed by that aspect of Rorty's quote. The connection is complex, but I think it's definitely there. That said, personally I think it's more important for bosses to be kind to underlings, including the ones that get paid a lot, than it is for ideological opponents to be to one another. Again, we're looking at personal taste, inter-individual variation and all that. I find ideological combat both bracing and necessary (also scary and frequently depressing, when certain folks seem to be winning; but that just makes it more necessary). Directors, coaches, professors, and the like being assholes to underlings seems both nasty and unnecessary to me.