Joss Whedon and the Feminist Pedestal: A Reading List

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I don’t remember when Joss Whedon went from being a garden-variety household name to being someone I refer to on a first-name basis. I quote Joss, I verb Joss, I adjective Joss. As a woman who was once a teenage girl who grew up with Buffy, I’ve internalized more than my fair share of lessons from Our Lady of Buffdom. For the better part of twenty years, I’ve known Joss Whedon as the creator of a feminist hero.

For the better part of the same twenty years, Kai Cole knew Joss Whedon as her partner and husband. He was just Joss to her, too — far more intimately Joss than to any of his first-name-basis-ing fans.

This weekend, Cole wrote about her divorce with Joss in a post on The Wrap. She writes about how, on their honeymoon in England in 1995, she encouraged him to turn his script for Buffy the Vampire Slayer — which had just been misinterpreted as a film — into a television show. Joss apparently hadn’t wanted to work in television anymore. I repeat: As of 1995, Joss Whedon “didn’t want to work in television anymore.”

Yet on March 10, 1997 — two years after their honeymoon — Buffy aired on The WB.

According to Cole’s post, Joss had his first affair on the set of Buffy, and continued to have affairs in secret for fifteen years. I believe Cole. I believe that when she quotes Joss in her post, she is quoting him verbatim. I’ve quoted him verbatim, too.

(Or have I? I wonder, knowing more now than I did then about writers rooms, whether every line I attribute to episodes credited as “Written by Joss Whedon” were, in fact, written by Joss Whedon. Every time Jane Espenson tweets credit for specific lines to specific writers on Once Upon a Time — or retroactively to Buffy quotes — I wonder. Every time I watch UnREAL, a show co-created by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon that sends up how often women are discredited in television, I wonder. I don’t doubt that Joss was responsible for the vast majority of what I’d call classic Joss dialogue. I’ll just never know which lines weren’t actually his.)

After I saw Joss Whedon trending and read Cole’s post, I scrolled through other longtime fans’ and non-fans’ reactions on Twitter. Many were not surprised. I texted friends about my own lack of surprise, punctuated with single-tear emojis: “I almost can’t even call it disappointed. As though it would be actually inhuman to expect something else.”

Cole quotes a letter Joss wrote to her when their marriage was falling apart, when he was “done with” lying to her about the truth of his affairs. He invokes the inhuman in his confession, too — or, as is so often the case with Joss, the superhuman: “When I was running ‘Buffy,’ I was surrounded by beautiful, needy, aggressive 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.”

Was it superhuman for Cole to expect her husband to resist that kind of power? Would Joss have been running Buffy, if he hadn’t married Cole? “I was a powerful influence on the career choices Joss made during the 20 years we were together,” Cole writes. “I kept him grounded, and helped him find the quickest way to the success he so deeply craved. I loved him. And in return, he lied to me.”

As Marianne Eloise notes below in Dazed, it remains to be seen whether Cole’s letter will impact Joss’s career, most notably as director of the upcoming Batgirl. In the meantime, his fans are left to resolve tense, charged questions, none of which have easy answers: How do we come to personal decisions about whether or not we can separate the art from the artist? Will consequences come in the form of a public fall from feminist grace, or cost Joss professional opportunities he’s been enjoying for decades as a self-proclaimed feminist artist? Do feminists, male or female, need to be perfect to count?

In “Lie to Me” — Season 2 Episode 7, “Written by Joss Whedon” — Angel asks Buffy if she loves him. Buffy answers, “I love you. I don’t know if I trust you.” For fans and collaborators who are working through hard questions about love and the loss of trust this week, here is some guided reading on feminism, fandom, and fidelity for Whedonverse enthusiasts:

1. “Why I Am A Bad Feminist” (Roxane Gay, BuzzFeed, August 2014)

I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying — trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself: a woman who loves pink and likes to get freaky and sometimes dances her ass off to music she knows, she knows, is terrible for women and who sometimes plays dumb with repairmen because it’s just easier to let them feel macho than it is to stand on the moral high ground.

I am a bad feminist because I never want to be placed on a Feminist Pedestal. People who are placed on pedestals are expected to pose, perfectly. Then they get knocked off when they fuck it up. I regularly fuck it up. Consider me already knocked off.

2. “I Believe Dylan Farrow” (Matt Zoller Seitz, RogerEbert.com, May 2016)

I feel what I feel. You can’t just decide not to feel the way you feel. The human personality doesn’t work that way.

More importantly, trying to suppress that reaction would be tantamount to denying that Allen molested Dylan.

I can’t do that.

As a witness to, and survivor of, domestic abuse in childhood, I just can’t do that.

It’s not worth it to me, going through that. Not even for a couple of hours, or a few minutes.

I’ve gotten a lot of pleasure from Allen’s films over the decades, but they are not so important to me that I’m willing to deny what my gut tells me is almost certainly true, and deny my own experience, which affects how I treat people in real life, not just how I react to particular films and filmmakers.

So, Woody Allen has gone, in my mind, from “One of the great American filmmakers” to “One of the great American filmmakers, and probably a child molester.”

It’s a different lens through which to view a director’s work, that’s for sure.

But I didn’t do that to Woody Allen. He did it to himself.

3. “The Legend of Vera Nabokov: Why Writers Pine for a Do-It-All Spouse” (Koa Beck, The Atlantic, April 2014)

Twenty-three years after her death, Vera Nabokov remains a revered figure in capital “L” Literature—not necessarily for her own work, but for devoting herself fully to that of her husband, the great Vladimir Nabokov. Vera not only performed all the duties expected of a wife of her era—that is, being a free live-in cook, babysitter, laundress, and maid (albeit, she considered herself a “terrible housewife”)—but also acted as her husband’s round-the-clock editor, assistant, and secretary. In addition to teaching his classes on occasion (in which Nabokov openly referred to her as “my assistant”), Vera also famously saved Lolita, the work that would define her husband’s career, several times from incineration, according to Stacy Schiff ‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2000 biography, Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov). With Vera by his side, Nabokov published 18 novels between 1926 and 1974 (both in Russian and English). Through 1976, the year before his death, he also published 10 short story collections and nine poetry collections along with criticism, plays, uncollected short stories, and translations.

4. “What’s Wrong With Infidelity?” (Emily Bobrow, 1843 Magazine, December/January 2017)

Reliable statistics on infidelity are hard to come by as there are few incentives for candour and definitions vary. Numbers of those in Western countries admitting to some sort of infidelity range from 30% to 75% of men and 20% to 68% of women. Now that more women enjoy financial independence and jobs outside the home, the gap between philandering men and women is narrowing swiftly. “There is not a single other taboo that is universally condemned and universally practised,” says Perel. Basically, cheating is something we don’t want and don’t like, but it is something we do and do often.

“It’s because fidelity is the last thing left that defines a marriage,” she says. “You don’t need to wait to have sex, you don’t need kids. You don’t even need marriage anymore. The only thing that distinguishes it is that, after years of sexual nomadism, you suddenly say ‘I have finally found the one. You are so extraordinary that I am no longer looking for anything else. For you I promise to be suddenly exclusively monogamous’.” The only hitch, says Perel, is that sexual nomadism doesn’t prepare you for exclusivity. “It’s not as though you got it out of your system. Love and desire aren’t the same thing.”

5. “A Chat With Mimi Pond on the Service Industry, Cocaine, and Writing the First Episode of The Simpsons” (Anna Fitzpatrick, The Muse, August 2017)

MIMI POND: I was never invited to be on staff, and I never knew why for the longest time. No one ever called me or explained to me or apologized or anything. And it wasn’t until years later that I found out that Sam Simon, who was the showrunner, didn’t want any women around because he was going through a divorce. It had remained a boys’ club for a good long time. I feel like I was just as qualified as anyone else who came along and got hired on the show, and it was just because I was a woman that I was, you know, not allowed entry into that club. I always wind up being the turd in the punchbowl because the show is so beloved and everything, and I’m sorry to burst bubbles but [laughs]. It wasn’t a pleasant experience for me.

JEZEBEL: I know you said the ordering of the episode was arbitrary but you were still largely responsible for bringing that family to the masses.

POND: Like every TV script ever, every script is rewritten in the writer’s room. So I can’t claim that responsibility. It’s always a group effort. Just in terms of being denied the opportunity to participate in something that became that big is kind of a drag. And then having to explain this over and over is the biggest drag of all.

6. “10 Things I’ve Learned About Gaslighting As An Abuse Tactic” (Shea Emma Fett, Everyday Feminism, August 2015)

“Maybe a better way to put this is that gaslighting is a type of manipulation, but not the only type. Manipulation usually centers around a direct or indirect threat that is made in order to influence another person’s behavior. Gaslighting uses threats as well, but has the goal of actually changing who someone is, not just their behavior. It’s important to recognize that gaslighting and garden variety manipulation are not the same. Both will degrade your self esteem, but gaslighting, when effective, will actually damage your trust in yourself and your experience of reality.”

7. “Joss Whedon and the problem with ‘male feminists’” (Marianne Eloise, Dazed, August 2017)

Joss Whedon has built his empire off the back of claiming to be a feminist and a Good Man. His work is good in its own right, but his glowing public profile is based on pretending to be a feminist, and it was only a matter of time until the cracks that were always showing completely burst open. Whether or not these accusations will actually impact Whedon’s career remains to be seen. There is every chance that he will get off scot free; that, as is so often the case, the people who hire and idolise him will brush this off as a domestic issue. But there is a lesson in Cole’s essay for all of us: never, ever trust a self-titled male feminist who is comfortable with how ‘good’ for women he is.