Fans Have Every Right to Feel Betrayed by Joss Whedon
In a corner of pop culture particularly prone to misogyny, even he was too good to be true.
Joss Whedon and actor Summer Glau. Image via Flickr user Gage Skidmore
We're always told that you should never meet your heroes, but maybe that rule should be extended to censor all the other more impersonal ways we can be disappointed by them. Like through revelatory blog posts written by their ex wives.
On Monday, fans learned that veteran sci-fi writer and director Joss Whedon—among other things creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel, co-writer of Toy Story, director of The Avengers—was unfaithful to his partner of 15 years, Kai Cole. Cole published a detailed account of their relationship on pop culture site The Wrap. Reading it, I felt desperately sad and angry. And I was far from alone—a significant portion of the internet lost its mind over Cole's claim that her ex-husband was, in her own words, a "hypocrite preaching feminist ideals".
As an outsider, it's probably difficult to fully understand how and why Cole's truths feel cutting to so many Whedon fans. Why those fans have been quick to conflate Whedon's private life with his public one. Why a popular Whedon fansite, online for the past 15 years, decided today it would shut down permanently. Does repeatedly cheating on and gaslighting his wife for more than a decade make a man a bad feminist? Maybe not. Does the fact said man, whose public image has traded on feminism, on quips about strong female leads, of viral anti-misogyny tirades, on loving his long term woman partner, change anything? Surely.
Heartbreaking in its simplicity, Cole's post doesn't employ particularly emotional rhetoric. Woman marries man, man embarks on multiple inappropriate emotional and physical relationships with young, vulnerable women he works with and holds considerable power over, all the while lying to his wife by claiming she has nothing to worry about. Over an incredibly long period of time. Her story prompts an immediately familiar feeling, subtle at first. A creeping disappointment characterised, mainly, by a lack of surprise. We're all becoming numb to the concept of the problematic fave. We've all been milkshake ducked, but this milkshake duck is admittedly loved by a lot of people, many of them young, geeky women.
As his ex-wife coldly outlines, Joss Whedon has a long history of publicly defending the autonomy of women—white and conventionally attractive women, at least. There's a 700-word section of his Wikipedia page dedicated to the topic of his feminism, watered-down and performative as it might be. Because Whedon has always been a little too good to be true—this is a man who, after all, once allegedly fired one of his show's cast members for becoming pregnant. With increasing frequency, as the 90s politics of Buffy have begun to feel inadequate, feminist critics have been attempting to call out a man who had become so deified within certain circles that he was almost infallible. Most of us barely listened, until now.
There's no need to cry for Joss Whedon. He's going to be okay. Women will continue to watch and enjoy what he produces and has produced because that is what they have always done. To enjoy pop culture as someone who is not a straight white man requires a spectacular skill for cognitive dissonance. When we watch almost anything, we must put aside our politics to a large extent. Accept that our concerns will likely not be represented on screen. Put aside any prior knowledge we have about an actor or director whose personal life doesn't quite hold up to scrutiny. When it comes to watching sci-fi or action movies, of course, we must hone this skill even further. What made Whedon special for many people was that he offered rare and admittedly only patchy respite within a genre that is historically one of the most unwelcoming to women and minorities.
Now, he will no longer fall into that category. Maybe we'll quote his shows and movies still, but it won't be the same, and reading that blog post yesterday I couldn't help but remember how safe I felt back in high school lying with a group of my female friends on someone's lounge room floor late at night, watching fourteen back-to-back episodes of Firefly and then Serenity. Our bad metallic red dye jobs and emo fringes, our closeted lesbianism, our objective uncoolness, and our burgeoning love of sci-fi. I can remember the moment I first heard the name Joss Whedon, and I can remember torrenting Buffy for the first time. I can remember feeling like maybe not all dudes were awful—just most of them.
For a lot of people—spare a thought especially for the thousands of late-twenties PhD students in the middle of writing their theses about Whedon's influence on feminist pop culture—Cole's revelations would have felt difficult, and sad, and heartbreakingly predictable in all the familiar ways. But it seems best to view them as an opportunity to break free from the idea that some middle aged white guy was ever our best option. It seems best to use them as more of an excuse than ever to consume pop culture thoughtfully, and to embrace those writers and directors in the background whose voices have always been softer, quieter, more vulnerable.
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