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: