The Whedon Conundrum

Before commenting on the recent news about Joss Whedon, I want to make my position clear. I am one of those people who quite literally credits Buffy the Vampire Slayer with saving my life. The very fact that there are so many people who feel the same way exemplifies just how powerful this show really is. I have followed Whedon for 20 years as is evidenced by Buffy’s 20th anniversary this year. I celebrate her birthday every year, as I too was born on the cusp between Capricorn and Aquarius, and Buffy was the first show I put on after I gave birth to each of my children and was moved out of the delivery room. To say that Buffy has had an impact on my life is an understatement. That said, I have seen problems in the Whedonverse for a long time now. With every viewing, loveable Xander bothered me more and more. I didn’t want to see it, but I did. I saw touches of the same kind of veiled sexism in Angel, Dollhouse, Age of Ultron, and the Wonder Woman script. I am not saying that there is a complete lack of feminism in these works, but it was complicated by passing comments and plot points that were clearly running counter to it. Recently, The Wrap confirmed my worst fears when a guest blog from Joss Whedon’s Ex-Wife Kai Cole titled “Joss Whedon Is a ‘Hypocrite Preaching Feminist Ideals'” was released online. As I scrolled through Twitter reading the reactions to it, my heart continued to drop. Assuming these statements are truthful, his ability to label himself a feminist is greatly diminished, but for reasons much more complicated than the fact that he cheated on his then wife.

While cheating on a partner is indeed awful, feminists can and do cheat. The problem starts when the person does not own up to their mistakes and make appropriate reparations. According to Kai Cole, Whedon made an even graver error in judgment. What Cole describes is gaslighting. This is quite frankly abusive. Gaslighting is when an abuser wears a victim down by making them question their sanity.  They are known to lie to their partner whatever evidence the victim may have. They also confuse, project, and exaggerate. In other words, their actions do not match their words. This can and does cause PTSD. Cole describes being uncomfortable with the attention that Whedon would give to other women and questioning why he had so many female friends. His response was to use feminism as a shield. In a letter which we are told is from Whedon himself, he states: “As a guilty man I knew the only way to hide was to act as though I were righteous. And as a husband, I wanted to be with you like we had been. I lived two lives.” This not only reveals that the gaslighting appears to be a conscious effort, it directly calls Whedon’s feminism into question. His desire for them to be like they had been before caused him to make egregious decisions for them both without her consent; furthermore, this objectifies her emotions by making them into some desired goal. On some level, He stopped seeing his wife as a person who had the right to make informed decisions. In his famous Equality Now statement he says, “You Either Believe Women Are People Or You Don’t.” If we apply this sentiment to his actions, we can see just how separated from his ideology he had become. Now, it should be noted that he did send her this letter showing that he did come to some kind of realization about this, but the letter reveals something else that is also painful to discover.

We are only given excerpts from the letter to go off of, but it appears that there is a theme of placing the blame on society itself running throughout it thereby creating a distance between himself and his guilt. He even goes as far as to mythologize it. Calling it a Greek myth to be surrounded by desirable women that he can’t touch makes any effort he made in not touching them sound somehow heroic, when, in fact, it is just the decent thing to do. He was in a position of power and should have acted accordingly. Additionally, it makes his eventual surrender to his libido sound inevitable. Thinking back on Xander’s exclamation that “Nothing can defeat the penis!” makes me cringe even more now. Making excuses such as these perpetuates rape culture. Turning once again to the letter, Whedon states: “In many ways I was the HEIGHT of normal, in this culture. We’re taught to be providers and companions and at the same time, to conquer and acquire — specifically sexually — and I was pulling off both!” This is the part the bothers me the most. There is a sense of pride at the end of this that just hurts. He is basically saying that society made him that way, but he did it better than society expected him to. We need better from our male allies. For more on this particular subject, Ash Darrow, a marvelous colleague and fellow Buffy lover, wrote a companion piece that I encourage you all to check out:

This information is hard to process considering I have spent so much of my life idolizing Joss Whedon. There is an editor’s note following Kai Cole’s guest blog including a statement from a Joss Whedon spokesperson about how there are “inaccuracies and misrepresentations” in this account and that he is not commenting out of concern for his children and respect for Cole. I spent a lot of time thinking about how much it matters what she got wrong or right. We now know for a fact what many of us worried was true: Joss Whedon is not the man we wanted him to be. At the very least, he is a feminist in its most abstract form. He knows the points he is supposed to make and he has spent the last several years doing just that. His personal decisions, while deeply flawed do not ruin what he created. The feminist characters he wrote in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, X-Men, Runaways, Cabin in the Woods, and others are still the powerhouses they were before. We just have to remember to stay attentive. We need to separate the good from the bad and continue to call out the bad whenever we see it. For example, even when he was known as a feminist writer, producer, and director, he did not appropriately include nor address the issues women of color face and his works suffered from multiple instances of bierasure. Critiques like these remain a crucial tool in our attempts to make real social change. In the end, I still hold out hope for Batgirl because he is an excellent writer who does make amazingly feminist characters. As such, Whedon needs to come out and make a statement. This is an opportunity to help others who have done similar things learn why their actions are wrong, and, more importantly, show his fans that he knows what real feminism is. This doesn’t have to keep being a bad day for Joss Whedon or his fans.

Works Cited:


4 thoughts on “The Whedon Conundrum

  1. It’s never easy to watch your heroes fall – especially when there is an emotional attachment. I’m sorry you and so many people are having to deal with this. It’s never easy to wake up and discover that someone you trusted proved to be untrustworthy.

    I am someone who has been skeptical of Whedon for a very long time – and I’ve had to wait, patiently, at academic conferences glowing about Whedon’s feminism and Whedon’s label to explain some of the glaring issues I’ve had with his material – and to wait, patiently, as people argue that because Buffy was a show that made them *feel* good, it should be treated as a magical — even religious — artefact. That because Joss called himself a feminist, he should be treated as the spokesperson for feminism. That because he told emotional stories, he told *good* stories.

    I was at an academic conference once where the subject of the paper was how much better Buffy was than Twilight because Buffy was feminist and because Joss – as a feminist – could express the world of a young female heroine better than a woman could. The evidence given against Twilight: a 100+ year old male who has killed but now feels bad about it is chasing a 16 year old virgin. A young girl with special powers is seen as an object to collect by the men in her life. A young woman begins to self-harm when her 100+ year old boyfriend leaves her. And so forth.

    I argued against this, beat for beat, with evidence from Buffy that proves every point this paper was making to prove that Buffy was ‘superior’ to Twilight was absolutely in Buffy; eventually, the writer confessed that she had this opinion because Buffy ‘made her feel good’.

    I’ve argued in that conference as well as in other places that my main problem with Whedon is how he commodified women, and how he feminism – he packaged abusive patriarchy snake oil into a box that looked and smelled enough like feminism on first glance that people were happy to call it the new It product to buy into.

    He made women ‘feel’ safe and to accept abusive patriarchy because it was labelled ‘feminist’. Because the girl in the show had a weapon and the boys kept getting bonked on the head.

    He claimed it was grade-A genuine and authentic, that it was something magical and new, and that not only was it authentic and real, but that he used it himself as a life-altering product – one that anyone could – and should – buy into.

    He created characters and doused them with his snake oil. He made the men in his shows bumbling fools so the women would look superior in both power and intelligence – for ‘feminism’. He made the women in his shows stand on soapboxes praising his brand of feminism.

    He objectified women and used them as sex dolls in the name of ‘feminism’. He repeatedly put his young women in positions where they were commodified by others – they were ‘dolls’ – whether they were in Sunnydale or in the Dollhouse – women were dolls to Whedon, positioning them as he pleased for his own obsessions. But don’t pay attention to the problematic representations of women – nor of the problem that he felt it was his job to give a ‘voice’ to those women himself. Just keep reading the label on the box marked ‘Feminism’.

    The fine print on his box warned us not to read too closely into the racism, don’t read into the classism, don’t read into the glaring issues of representations of masculinity and femininity – just keep reading the label on the box marked ‘Feminism’. Never mind that the box is really only applicable to beautiful white, middle-class women in his universe – ‘Feminism’ is in such a nice, pretty box that it shouldn’t matter.

    It is that commodification – that appropriation – of feminism that I have the biggest problem with. People cheat on their spouses – I’m not saying this is okay, I’m just saying you can cheat on your partner and still believe in ‘feminism’. As for Kai, I make it a point never to question a woman who says she’s been abused or mistreated, because I would want someone to believe me when I talk of someone who has abused/mistreated me. So I believe her, without question. But I also believe her because he didn’t just gaslight his wife, he gaslighted everyone who believed in the package he was selling them.


    1. Edit – realised a word was missing! My apologies. Please see below:

      I’ve argued in that conference as well as in other places that my main problem with Whedon is how he commodified women, and how he *commodified feminism – he packaged abusive patriarchy snake oil into a box that looked and smelled enough like feminism on first glance that people were happy to call it the new It product to buy into.


    2. Not to distract from your point, but what conference would accept a paper on something being better than something else? That is just wrong all over. Regardless, it is unfortunate many people’s love of Whedon blinded them, willfully or not, to some of the issues you point out. I’m glad that it didn’t stop you and others like you from speaking out. Also, thank you for your last sentiments. I close read the letter as factual because I too side with the woman in these cases. The only reason that I included a few modifiers and the sentence toward the end is because, academically, I know that a one sided guest blog is not a reputable source.


      1. Well, I expect when she sent in the abstract she didn’t say ‘I’m going to talk about why I love Buffy’, but probably pitched it as a comparative article. But that’s what it turned into.

        I certainly wasn’t coming at you for your explanation that you are someone who has been a fan of Buffy, or for your modifiers trying to show an awareness of another side to the story – I hope you didn’t take it that way. You can see the flaws of something or something, and still love it – such is the way with academics and popular culture. For example, I adore M*A*S*H- it’s my favourite show ever, I think it’s one of the best shows of all time, and it has a *lot* of flaws.

        So, I hope you didn’t take any of my comments as aggressive. I admire you for being able to step back and critically approach something you have such emotional ties to – as we’ve both seen, not everyone does this!

        Being aware of flaws or of the fact that someone is not perfect doesn’t mean you can’t still love what it represents.

        Liked by 1 person

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