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On Not Knowing How to Feel About the Joss Whedon Controversy

Joss Whedon’s ex-wife, Kai Cole, claims in an op-ed for TheWrap that he’s a hypocrite who uses his reputation as a feminist to deflect blame and suspicion away from his many transgressions, which apparently includes years of extramarital affairs.

Joss Whedon says…well, not much of anything on the matter other than his ex-wife’s argument is full of misstatements and inaccuracies but he’d rather stay silent about it out of respect for her and their 2 kids.

In response, the inevitable thinkpieces have come fast and furious (e.g., AVClub says Whedon was never really a feminist anyway). Whedonesque.com, the premiere Joss Whedon fansite for the past 15 years, just closed down. The people behind the site are now urging their former readers to donate to organizations which deal with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition Cole now suffers from as a result of the emotional whiplash from years of staunch support and marital bliss being betrayed by Whedon’s stunning admission of his various affairs.

But is it okay to not know how to feel about this? Is it automatically victim-shaming to even entertain the idea the situation might be more complicated than we can possibly know? Is it an abandonment of feminism to prefer to simply step back from all of this and let Cole and Whedon work it out on their own? Must this be ironclad? Must we burn our Buffy box sets (once we dig them out from wherever we stored them since no one watches box sets anymore) and hold up the controversial Black Widow sterilization storyline in Age of Ultron as proof Whedon was indeed a misogynist in feminist clothing this whole time? Because doesn’t that fly in the face of years of evidence to the contrary?

The messenger, as it turns out, may have been flawed, but the message wasn’t, no matter how much revisionist bullshit you want to throw at Buffy to say otherwise (all of that show’s flaws and weaknesses remain unchanged to me).

We worship celebrities at our own peril. Much like the many deliciously flawed characters Whedon created over the years, our heroes fail us. They rarely live up to the ideal we build up for them. When it crosses over from mere human fallibility to condemnable behavior, though, is when that hero actively deceives us for years for their own gain. Think Lance Armstrong or Gene Roddenberry, who cultivated a notion of him being a great futurist when he, in fact, he was a philanderer whose sci-fi ideas were usually bettered by collaborators he was loathe to fully credit. However, that shouldn’t take away from everything that’s great about Star Trek.

Similarly, if Cole is right and Whedon has indeed been a hypocrite this entire time then, yeah, we have every right to feel upset. But you know what hasn’t changed?




Dr. Horrible.

Everything he’s ever done. Every career he’s kickstarted. Every piece of pop culture that has come along to mimic him or been made by someone who used to work for him:

For example, Emily Andras is killing it right now as showrunner for SyFy’s pulpy slice of feminism known as Wynonna Earp just as she did on Lost Girl before that, but she’s following the Joss Whedon-Buffy playbook in the process because he’s the one who set the template for how to do this kind of thing.

As she told THR:

When I was pitching Wynonna Earp I said that it was Buffy meets Justified. I truly believe Buffy is the beloved cult hit because it deserves to be. It speaks volumes that 20 years have gone by and we’re still talking about that show. People see it for what it was, which is groundbreaking. I can’t even pretend that Buffy didn’t influence me, but I don’t want to say Wynonna is derivative. I hope it’s not. Joss really taught me what an action heroine could be, which is a completely three-dimensional girl or woman with all those complications who can also kick butt.

And nothing Joss did or didn’t do to his wife changes that. The work he did and work he influenced and continues to influence remains the same. After all, this isn’t Bill Cosby or Nate Parker. Joss isn’t being accused of rape.

In recent years, we tend to use pop culture to litigate larger societal sins. So, celebrity rape cases become stories about male privilege and the broken justice system. Actresses not being paid as much as their male co-stars become damning examples of the gender gap, and signs of progress in that area somehow empowers us all. #OscarsSoWhite becomes about institutional racism.

And it’s all true. Our society is all kinds of fucked up, and what happens in pop culture reflects that and often helps those more social activist-minded among us shine a light on the things we should really be more worried about.

As such, an outright rejection of Joss Whedon and embrace of Kai Cole isn’t necessarily about either of them; it’s about standing up for women at a time when it seems like society has turned the clock back a couple of decades in the area of gender relations. And Cole’s words, which also included anecdotes about how much of Whedon’s career first required her support and occasional gentle nudging to get going, likely resonate with anyone who has ever felt betrayed by a spouse.

But I have no idea what really happened between these two people, and I don’t know what to think about Joss Whedon, the person, right now. I do know, however, my opinion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and all those works it inspired remains the same.

In many ways, Whedon is the internet’s first boyfriend, having been the first TV showrunner to embrace fansites and message boards, and the first to not only embrace but also insanely profit off a web series. We’ve been separated for a while, though, after he quit Twitter over the Age of Ultron backlash. Now, we’re filing for divorce, but you do realize that we get to keep Buffy and all the good it brought to pop culture in the settlement, right?

Have at me in the comments. Let me know how wrong (or right) I am.


  1. As a general rule, I don’t care about what famous people are up to in their private life. I frankly don’t care, I only care about what they deliver. And sometimes I encounter an actor or director I dislike because I feel that a certain worldview I am uncomfortable with bleeds into his work (*cough* Snyder *cough*), but this is still about the work in front of me. This in mind I always found the worshipping of Whedon kind of amusing. Not that I don’t get it, I have my own set of people whose work I like so much that I will at the very least check out what they are doing. But I would never make the mistake of assuming that I know anything about them.

    When it comes to Whedon, I don’t think that he is particularly good in writing romance. Just in general, he just isn’t. He is good in writing characters which then develop chemistry and this sometimes translates into a working romance, but whenever he tries to deliberately write one it is always soooo cheesy and juvenile. He also a has a staple of characters who keep popping up in his work. That is neither positive nor negative, it is just an observation. What I can say is that he made some bad decisions for Black Widow in AoU, but he was also the one who rescued her from the scrappy heap in the first place after a more than lukewarm reception for her appearance in Ironman 2. I can also say that no matter if the feminist label is deserved or not, he did put woman into non-traditional roles during a period when few writers did. And I will always give him credit for that, no matter what he is up to in his private life.

    In addition, a divorce should never happen in public. I tend to have little respect for people who fight over the press. If they have grievances, they should air it in court instead. So when it actually comes to this singular issue, I have more respect for Whedon for not commenting, than for his ex for attacking him this way. But that is just the surface, and it is impossible to judge a situation without knowing everything about it…and I actually have no desire to be the judge. So…is there place beside you in the neutral corner?

    1. “So…is there place beside you in the neutral corner?”

      If not, I’ll move over to make some for you.

      “But that is just the surface, and it is impossible to judge a situation without knowing everything about it…”

      That sums up the whole situation.

      “When it comes to Whedon, I don’t think that he is particularly good in writing romance. Just in general, he just isn’t. He is good in writing characters which then develop chemistry and this sometimes translates into a working romance, but whenever he tries to deliberately write one”

      A million women with cherished memories of the Angel-Buffy romance might disagree with you, but if you watch that stuff now you see that, yeah, so cheesy.

      1. It’s very teen. Whedon really loves to delve into overdone tropes when it comes to this. This was also my main problem with Nat/Bruce – not only did it make zero sense with what was established about those two characters up to this point, not only is Bruce nearly old enough to be her father, not only do I think that the story he was going for would have worked better if Natasha had betrayed him as an Avenger and not as a love interest, the actual romance itself had pretty much every romantic cliché I hate in it. The talk at the bar. The “other people see immediately that something is going on between those two”. It just didn’t work on any level.

      2. When it comes to romance, I feel like the Captain American people have made better use of Black Widow than Whedon (she was such a great work wife for Cap). Heck, there’s an element of his Widow/Hulk relationship which is just an updated Buffy/Angel.

      3. One of the things I love about The Winter Solder is that they have given Sam the role which usually falls to the love interest – emotional support.

  2. This hasn’t got anything to do with Joss Whedon, but I just want to say how insane it is that you’ve managed to write and publish 13 well thought out articles in less than 96 hours. I can just about pump out 3-4 a week, and that’s me really pushing myself. I’m starting to think that your love for film might legitimately give you enough energy to avoid sleep! 🙂

    1. Stop. You’re making me blush.

      [Don’t stop. Never stop. I live for applause].

      In truth, I’m partially trying to make up for the recent stretches where I didn’t write anything for a day or two. Plus, I have a packed schedule over the next three days meaning I don’t know how frequent my updates will be for the rest of the week. It’s also just that I’ve been doing this a couple of years now. When I actually sit and focus I can crank out …. hold on, am I really about to peddle some “If you put your mind to it you can accomplish anything” Back to the Future-ism? Man, I do love film.

  3. Like most of the other commenters, I feel it isn’t really my place to judge. Goodness knows that I’ve made mistakes like everybody else and people probably wouldn’t like me very much if every screw-up of mine was dragged into the public eye. Either way, Whedon is a gifted artist, and who knows where superhero cinema would be without his slick stylization of the avengers.

    1. We are faced with these decisions more and more it seems as dirt continually comes out on our heroes. But sometimes it comes down to what exactly you can personally forgive or at least understand. Rape, murder, turning out to be a Nazi sympathizer…these are obviously red lines for lots of people. A dude who maybe cheated on his wife? Dissapointing, but so disappointing that it has to detract from his work?

  4. From a Black woman’s perspective: I’ve always loved Whedons work. I didn’t love Whedon himself. I looked forward to whenever he had any new projects brewing and that’s about it. I never put much stock in his identifying as a feminist. Him calling himself that didn’t mean a whole lot to me, although I appreciated it making its way into his work. I think the people most upset about all this, are people who’ve never been deeply critical of his work. (As a WoC I’m critical of everything. Especially the things I love most. I kinda have to be.)

    There’s also the idea that him committing infidelities in his marriage (about which I really do not care) don’t have much to do with my ideas about feminism, although thats being painted as having a lot to do with the topic. His infidelity doesn’t mean anything to me. As far as I’m concerned, It’s a private matter between him and his wife.

    1. “As far as I’m concerned, It’s a private matter between him and his wife.”

      The whole thing is unseemly. The problem is that while this is ultimately a private matter his wife made it public in a time when nuance and patient reflection has gone the way of the dodo bird. So, of course the internet isn’t putting its best forward with its reaction to this.

      I think your larger point about the proof being in the putting, about us getting too caught up on labels (i.e., who cares if Joss Whedon labeled or did not label himself a feminist? that never should have made him immune to criticisms of his work in terms of gender and race, particularly Dollhouse) is apt and well-argued.

  5. Thank you Kelly, once again for articulating this situation in a way I would have wanted to, but I did not feel I needed a platform from which to speak.

    I could say more, if asked. My biggest problem with him having an affair is the Eddie Izzard Badger with a Spoon original sin joke.

    It disappoints me that a man known for ideas reverts so clearly to tired cliche instead of something more unconventional when dealing with a problem.

    1. “It disappoints me that a man known for ideas reverts so clearly to tired cliche instead of something more unconventional when dealing with a problem.”

      There is definitely a regrettable sense of, “I thought you were better than this, man. Turns out, you’re such a cliche.”

      “My biggest problem with him having an affair is the Eddie Izzard Badger with a Spoon original sin joke.”

      Not gonna lie – I had to look that one up. Now that I get the reference, though, might I say kudos. Very apt.

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