Have We Surpassed The Need For Joss Whedon?

Joss Whedon has a pattern of misogynistic behaviour has always been present in his art. It's time to ask, have we surpassed the need for his work?

Joss Whedon

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Joss Whedon has now been officially accused of abusive conduct on the sets of his shows twice. The allegations come from Ray Fisher who played Cyborg in Justice League, and Charisma Carpenter who played Cordelia on Buffy The Vampire Slayer. It’s time Whedon’s patterns of abuse are recognised and condemned — and it’s also worth investigating how misogyny and regressive depictions of women are shown in his work.

Back in July last year, Ray Fisher accused Joss Whedon of being, “gross, abusive, unprofessional, and completely unacceptable,” towards crew on the set of the 2017 Justice League film. Since then, Warner Media launched an investigation into Fisher’s claims, and concluded on December 11 they would take remedial action.

Now, Charisma Carpenter has come forward, accusing Joss Whedon of abusive behaviour toward her on the set of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. In a statement published on her social media, Carpenter alleges Whedon  “abused his power on numerous occasions,” creating a “hostile and toxic work environment” while she worked with him on Buffy and Angel.

Despite all this, we still have a Whedon helmed show set for release in 2021.

The question we must now ask is an age-old one, only becoming more and more prominent as the entertainment industry is forced to reconcile with its role in facilitating and uplifting abusers and systems of abuse. What do we do with their art?

Whedon’s particular way of writing women has long been subject to critique– from his early days as Buffy The Vampire Slayer‘s showrunner, to his stint as a major director in both the MCU and DCCU — Joss Whedon’s way of writing women has always carried an underlying condescension, speaking to a pattern of misogyny and racism that’s thrown into a disturbing light considering the recent allegations.

Critiquing Whedon’s body of work was not something I had on my 2021 bingo card at all, but then I saw the trailer for The Nevers. The Nevers is an HBO original series that follows a group of pointedly hot Victorian era vigilante women who all have supernatural abilities. Joss Whedon was The Nevers‘ showrunner until earlier this month.

Whedon is still credited as the series’ creator. But his influence on a piece of media about women’s empowerment is still something to be wary of, because Joss Whedon’s specific brand of female empowerment is outdated, and even in its heyday had its very valid critics.

The feisty feminine fighter of the Whedonverse — from Buffy to Black Widow — is usually a collection of specific traits. She is usually beautiful, white, and straight. She is usually physically capable, but not so much that she doesn’t often need a man to help her regularly. Despite being capable, a Whedonverse woman usually has to answer to a man in some way. If she is a warrior her fighting attire is usually required to be feminine, sexy and revealing in some way of her figure, even if it’s impractical. She is usually naked at some point too.

A Whedonverse woman — even if she defies the expectations of traditional womanhood because of abilities — must still desire traditional womanhood. But overall, the warrior women of the Whedonverse, despite being beautiful, capable and desiring traditional heterosexual womanhood and girlhood are defined most by how they are punished for their strength.

On the surface, these women may seem empowered — and the punishing plots that Whedon subjects them to a meta-commentary on the ways in which women are abused for expressing their autonomy. But portraying violence is not the same as critiquing violence.

“Take all that away, and what’s left?” – “Me”

Buffy has long been considered a feminist icon of her time, and you won’t hear me arguing. She was both a groundbreaking character, and a commentary on the depiction of women in pop-culture.

However, there are elements of Buffy’s characterisation that point to Whedon’s narrow exclusionary ideas about what kind of women are allowed to be empowered on screen, and how that empowerment is still defined by men.

Buffy is beautiful, and unmistakably feminine. Her gender-defying role as a slayer doesn’t spill over to her expression of her gender, which still aligns with traditional heterosexual girlhood in almost every way. She wears cute dresses and skirts, wants to date boys, wants to go to parties and be a normal beautiful teen girl, apart from being a slayer.

That’s before we even delve into how Whedon wrote Angel’s infantilisation of Buffy during their romance, Spike’s un-atoned sexual assault of Buffy, or Xander’s continuous refusal to take Buffy’s ‘no’ for an answer. None of this is to say that toxic relationships don’t have a place in media, they absolutely do,  but the way these relationships are framed and contextualised within stories matter.

Whedon consistently used these elements of Buffy’s relationships as fodder for her empowerment or redemption for other male characters — rather than critically examining and condemning the ways in which the traumatic misogyny affects her. Spike’s assault of Buffy actually inspires him to redeem himself by reclaiming his soul, but this redemption doesn’t stretch to apologising for raping her. Buffy is never permitted to confront Spike, or Angel for their harmful sexist behaviour or for the two men to experience genuine consequences.

Whedon brushes it all up into the tapestry of what makes Buffy so powerful and beautiful. The boys never really atone for what they’ve done, nor is their abusive behaviour condemned in the story. What happens instead? They’re a pair of tragic heroes, gifted with their own spin-off to prove it, and Buffy is left to bear the punishment of their abuse as a badge of empowerment without any regard for how the trauma would affect her.

And all of this is just Buffy. It doesn’t even scratch the surface of the lesbophobia in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and the way Joss Whedon couldn’t resist burying the gays when it came to murdering Willow’s girlfriend, Tara Maclay. Nor does it even touch the sides of the series representation (or lack of representation) of race, and issues of racism within the series.

Whedon’s Marvel and DC Ventures

Between 2012 and 2015, Whedon directed The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron. The Avengers was beloved by many an MCU fan, despite Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) having the dubious honour of being the main ensemble’s only woman, and a few undoubtedly male gaze-y camera angles. Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff was for the most part still a strong, vulnerable woman with the unmistakable respect of the men around her.

However, Avengers: Age of Ultron was an entirely different story.  The long-awaited sequel shocked fans when Whedon wrote Black Widow into a romantic relationship Bruce Banner/The Hulk, a character she had only been shown being terrified of prior to their interactions in Age of Ultron.

True to Whedon’s form too, Black Widow’s punishment for her physical and emotional strengths come swiftly and uncalled for when she reveals that she was in fact sterile. Whedon wrote the reveal as a tragic, but supposedly romantic bonding scene between Natasha and Bruce in which they connect over being unable to be parents. “You still think you’re the only monster on the team?” Natasha asks Bruce.

Hopefully, I don’t need to elaborate too much on why writing a scene in which a woman refers to herself as a monster for not being able to have children feeds into regressive ideas about womanhood. The simple truth is implying women are monsters for not being able to have children for any reason is inherently sexist as it reduces a woman’s moral worth and identity as a woman to her ability and willingness to have children.

I’ve been a fan of Black Widow for a long time and it angers me to no end that Joss Whedon had the nerve to frame the trauma of Natasha’s forced medical sterilisation as something SHE had to be remorseful of — and in service of a forced romantic plotline whose prime purpose was to humanise a male character.

After the backlash for Avengers: Age of Ultron, Whedon stepped away from the MCU and into the DCCU where he took over production of Justice League from Zack Snyder. Not only was the film widely panned as a general disaster, but Justice League is now the source of Warner Media’s investigation into Whedon’s abusive conduct.

Also while Whedon was working with DC, his draft for an early Wonder Woman film was leaked.  In 2005, Whedon was recruited to write the script, but he left the project two years later. The script was leaked in June of 2017 and was widely condemned for its misogynistic gaze.

Unlike Patty Jenkins’ 2017 film Wonder Woman, Whedon’s script is entirely from Steve Trevor’s point of view. Diana Prince (Wonder Woman) isn’t even introduced in the script, simply described as ‘The Girl.” Diana is an object in her own film, rather than a protagonist. She is an object of the male gaze to be ogled, described with very little personal traits other than her beauty. To quote,

“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…”

The red in Whedon’s ledger is dripping. In 2000 words, I’ve not even had the time to mention Firefly‘s orientalism, biphobia, or how Whedon consistently used trauma to rob women of their autonomy throughout the series. This also doesn’t dive into the essay Whedon’s own ex-wife, Kai Cole penned for The Wrap, detailing how Whedon marketed himself as a feminist to cover up his numerous infidelities.

The last ten years has spurned a social reckoning for many abusive artists in Hollywood, leaving audiences with anger, pain and confusion at what we do with their art? What do we do with the long-beloved works of the Michael Jacksons, JK Rowlings, Harvey Weinsteins, and Joss Whedons of the world?

In some cases, these artists’ legacies are too large to be ignored, or to be rewritten, or shelved altogether. The most necessary course of action isn’t to pretend these artists or their problematic art doesn’t exist. It’s to recognise them and their work for the whole of what it has been, and stand with the survivors as they speak out against toxic artists and their art — not just to hold them accountable, but to make sure this never happens again.

We have moved past the need for Joss Whedon’s toxic masculinity masquerading as empowerment routine, both as it manifests in his art and in his professional practice. But we need to ensure as we move forward we don’t leave the survivors of his behaviour behind.

Merryana Salem is a proud Wonnarua and Lebanese–Australian writer, critic, teacher, researcher and podcaster on most social media as @akajustmerry. If you want, check out her podcast, GayV Club where she gushes about LGBT rep in media with her best friend. Either way, she hopes you ate something nice today.