Feminist Values in the Life and Fiction of Joss Whedon

Over the weekend Joss Whedon’s ex-wife Kai Cole wrote an article on The Wrap saying that Whedon had “multiple affairs” during their marriage, including with women he had authority over on shows he ran. Obviously, social media’s reaction to Whedon has not been gentle.

When I first saw Chinatown I wasn’t aware of Roman Polanski’s crimes, and so I was (and to an extent still am) able to think of it separately from it’s director. Maybe it’s because I formed an opinion on the art before I knew about the artist, or because the film is an excellent neo-noir that is incredibly compelling and immersive, but I’m able to keep my opinions of the two separate. Even though Polanski appears on-screen in a significant role, I’m able to draw a line in my mind and consider it as a story in its own right.

When Polanski adapted Robert Harris’ novel The Ghost, his involvement caused controversy throughout production. (Though he’s always directed steadily, this was a fairly big name cast, including Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor, alongside Kim Cattrall and Tom Wilkinson.) I felt the film was a slightly inferior adaptation of the novel, which lost a bit of the tension but added more action. But I also felt a little uneasy about the film’s existence before watching it, and the extent to which McGregor seemed willing to defend Polanski struck me as self-serving. That’s not to say that I totally condemn McGregor’s statements – the fact that Polanski’s victim has forgiven him and wants the conviction dropped complicates the issue. But I doubt I’ll be able to watch another Polanski film without a sense of unease.

I like Whedon’s shows, even if I think his over-stylised dialogue can be irritating at times. I think I’ve seen most of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and I think I’ve seen all of Dollhouse and Firefly, as well as his three most notable films. I much prefer Whedon’s style of tongue in cheek playfulness to Anne Rice’s more po-faced take on the supernatural. He creates fun worlds that I’ve enjoyed spending time in, while often packing a decent emotional punch.
I’m not really sure what impact the ‘feminist’ values of Whedon’s work had on me, as I’d already been watching The X-Files and Star Trek: Voyager before Buffy made it to the UK so I think that the idea of intelligent women in power already felt normal to me. But of course it’s good to have a multitude of shows carrying that message, rather than one being left to carry the torch alone.

Buffy_The_Vampire_Slayer_cast2 by Patrick Lee 2003-04-18 flickr
Members of the Buffy cast in 2003. / Patrick Lee, Flickr

Even before Sunday’s revelation I’d heard the argument that Whedon’s works aren’t feminist – that for example that he likes the idea of women beating up men. The majority of Whedon’s female characters are, in one way or another, unusually good fighters. Firefly‘s Kayleigh, Angel‘s Fred and Buffy‘s Tara are rare in Whedon’s oeuvre as women who have to deal with the everyday female fear of being surrounded by people who are physically stronger than them.
There is often sexism present in Whedon’s fiction, for example in the form of a male-dominated authority. The slayers in the Buffyverse were created and guided by a ‘Watchers’ Council’ who were mostly male and British.*

It can be hard to deduce an artist’s ideology purely from their art. It may be that they are merely saying that this is the way things are, not the way things should be. It may be that having the male Watchers’ Council take it on themselves to use young women’s bodies in their fight against demons was a deliberate allegorical play on how the entertainment industry, religion and the family have often given men control over women’s bodies to some extent or another. His (often physically) powerful women may be a fantasy on their behalf where, across Whedon’s oeuvre he over-corrected against the real world. And it’s important to consider that in the final season of Buffy, the ‘potential slayers’ all have their supernatural fighting abilities activated at once, going beyond what the Watchers had intended. This is perhaps the most overtly feminist statement in Whedon’s work.The Watchers’ Council deliberately kept the number of slayers limited to one at a time – perhaps to allow them to maintain their control and dominance, but granting the entire field access to their potential made it impractical for the patriarchal establishment to constrain them any longer.

The problem is that we now know how Whedon himself behaved behind the scenes. In Cole’s telling of Whedon’s words he said that

“When I was running ‘Buffy,’ I was surrounded by beautiful, needy, aggressive young women. It felt like I had a disease, like something from a Greek myth. Suddenly I am a powerful producer and the world is laid out at my feet and I can’t touch it.”

This sounds like Whedon, the supposed celebrator of powerful women, enjoyed having power over them. Enjoyed being in a position of strength akin to the position the Watchers’ Council hold in his fictional world. The problem with trying to separate the art from the artist is that the artist’s morality and worldview inevitably impact on their art. Did writing scenes of Giles training Buffy arouse him? Did the Watchers’ Council represent the part of himself that he hated? Whichever way, Whedon’s worldview is relevant to understanding his fiction.

With Dollhouse the comparisons get even creepier. Dollhouse is undoubtedly the weakest of Whedon’s four shows – an interesting science-fictional idea that never really takes hold. The central conceit is that a corporation have developed the ability to upload and download whole personalities, and are using it to program a group of mainly female prostitutes to be their clients’ ideal partner. (Both seasons end with an ‘epitaph’ episode set after this technology has caused the downfall of society as we know it, but otherwise the show doesn’t fully explore the implications of its central technology.) Although the ‘dolls’ each signed up for years of service whilst having their true personalities removed and stored to be reinserted later, they have no way to consent to or reject the sexual fantasies they are thrust into from week to week. They have their autonomy completely removed, and are at the mercy of others.

Of course Dollhouse is intended to be thematically dark, and somewhat dystopian. But compare that to Cole’s description of her discovery of Whedon’s affairs:

By the time he finally confessed the truth, 15 years after his first affair on the set of “Buffy,” I was broken. My brain could not fit my experience of our life together, through the new lens of his deceit. My entire reality changed overnight, and I went from being a strong, confident woman, to a confused, frightened mess. I was eventually diagnosed with Complex PTSD and for the last five years, I have worked hard to make sense of everything that happened and find my balance again.

Reality as Cole had originally understood it, and as she later understood it were completely different. She hadn’t been given the opportunity to consent to or reject the reality that Whedon wanted. Her autonomy over her life had been removed, and Whedon deceived her in order to make decisions over Cole’s life on her behalf. While it sounds like Whedon was weak rather than malicious, for a decade and a half he gaslit his wife.

Eliza_Dushku_2009 by Glenn Francis, PacificProDigital.com 2009-09-24
Eliza Dushku, recurring cast member of Buffy and star of Dollhouse / Glenn Francis, PacificProDigital.com

The Dollhouse technology is an exaggerated solidification of an abstract process, as science fiction often is. But Whedon was filtering the information his wife received so that she would make the decisions he wanted her to make. If Whedon had gone to her in the early years of Buffy, and asked either for permission to have a mistress or for help to resist his temptations, then the situation would be massively different. Cole would have maintained autonomy over her own life, the ability to make her own decisions, which at a fundamental level is what feminism is about. By lying to his wife, Whedon ensured that for fifteen years Cole was not living the life she thought she was, but was merely her husband’s doll.

It’d be easy to say that affairs are a normal part of life, that rich men have always slept with their secretaries. But nowadays even those men seem to realise that their actions are selfish, that they are abusing their power. By contrast Whedon has allowed himself to be celebrated as an ally of women. When discussing his affair he even romanticised his sleaziness by running it through the grandiose filter of classical myth.

As a man I’ve always been reluctant to call myself a feminist. This is mainly because for years I’ve seen men make arguments along the lines of “I’m a feminist but…” and then used their supposed feminist credentials to dismiss a feminist idea. The example that most immediately comes to mind is Sylvester McCoy speaking out against the idea of a female Doctor, back in 2015, but there will be many others.
Whedon’s behaviour has caused me to double down on this perspective – Cole has said that he used her “so no one would question his relationships with other women or scrutinize his writing as anything other than feminist.”
Dissecting the feminism of Buffy and Whedon’s larger body of work requires a more detailed analysis than I’ve gone into here, and there were already critiques of his feminism many years ago.

The impact of this revelation will have a longer-term impact on Whedon’s reputation – there’s already been articles arguing over how the revelation should impact on Whedon’s reputation.
Whedon’s real life actions shouldn’t be a reason to totally dismiss everything he’s said or created. For instance he’s created celebrations of Planned Parenthood as part of current campaigns against defunding of this important service. And by being so overt about his (supposed?) values, Whedon has probably contributed to young men feeling that there’s no need to be threatened by powerful women. But it’d be foolish to think that Whedon’s hypocrisy had no impact on his fiction.


2017-08 22 Joss Whedon

* This section originally claimed that the watchers were entirely male – in fact eight of the nine named Watchers seen on screen during Buffy and Angel were male, one was female.

3 thoughts on “Feminist Values in the Life and Fiction of Joss Whedon”

    1. Thank you! Obviously it’s difficult when someone who says positive things is shown to be a hypocrite, and while it taints their work to a degree, I still think there’s a lot to value in the feminist-themed ideas and metaphors that Buffy explored.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree – and what I do enjoy about Buffy, and Firefly, is that I always felt each character (female and male) was authentic. They had a personality and desires and behaviours that felt genuine. That, in itself, is important to me.
        Plus, not going to lie, I adore Buffy.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s