The Glorious Rise and Inevitable Slightly Downward Slide (We’re Talking Like 100 Yards Max) Of Joss Whedon

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Joss Whedon is going to be okay.

He’s a millionaire; his latest movie Avengers: Age of Ultron was the second biggest opening weekend in movie history, falling behind Marvel’s The Avengers, which he also helmed. He’s credited with creating several cult favorite television shows as well as the Dr. Horrible webseries. Whedon has also won three Eisner awards for his work in comics, including his work on Astonishing X-Men in 2006.

Joss Whedon is going to be okay.

Joss Whedon’s fans, current and former, well — We are a different story.

When Buffy The Vampire Slayer debuted in 1997, it was this rush of revolutionary air for many reasons. A show that portrayed a young woman with superpowers and great responsibility who spent her time fighting evil and fighting to maintain her sense of self despite being told what she should be because She Has a Destiny and, spoiler alert, considering what has happened to every other girl before who’s shared that destiny, that destiny really REALLY sucks. That in and of itself was not only novel, it was also positively identifiable for a lot of young woman who found the show. The show portrayed high school as literal hell and made it clear that the problems you face at 16 or 17 are REAL problems. There were sidekick characters who were interesting in their own right: Willow was the nerdy girl who didn’t need her un-nerding makeover to figure herself out, Cordelia started as a one-dimensional snob and eventually evolved into an extremely complex character. Giles had a dark past hidden behind his initial stuffy British caricature. And Xander…well. He. Um. Xander was there, too, I guess.

And in a landscape that had even less faith in the commercial viability of female-led genre projects, well, Buffy was this magnificent thing you never believed could exist. And the creator identified as a feminist and seemed determined to change the landscape of media.

Looking at media in 2015, you can argue that Whedon, or at least Buffy, did. There was a move towards smart shows with quippy dialogue and, a certain percent of the time, awesome female leads. Whedon’s visibility has increased exponentially, and it seems like everyone should be happy.

Except.

Part of Whedon’s increased visibility is that he became a go-to icon of Hollywood Feminism. Whether he ever courted the idea or claimed the title for himself doesn’t matter; he definitely profited from it. And yet, examination of his version of feminism and critical looks at his works have been raising eyebrows for years. Basically: Joss Whedon is not the perfect media feminist icon that you seek.

Here is where it gets difficult. Because here is where it gets into some uncomfortable grey areas that fans and detractors alike don’t seem to be able to wrap our heads around.

There is a real desire not to belittle what Joss has done. It makes sense, for a lot of people, myself included, because his work has been very important through our lives. It was a new feeling: someone was truly and visibly making an effort for us in media and that effort was actually successful. Joss Whedon proved that there was an audience just salivating for more feminist media.

But there is part of the problem: we were an audience just begging for more feminist media. Any feminist media. Anything was better than what we were being offered. Whedon’s work happened, and it was like finding an oasis in a desert. Here was somewhere we could survive and possibly thrive, and it was good.

But upon examination, the feminism of Buffy, or of any Whedon project, inevitably falls flat. It becomes clear that the feminist message in the work is at best heavily flawed, at worst purely superficial. And really that isn’t shocking. It’s a feminist work written by someone who absolutely seems to admire strong women, but does not have the life experience that comes with being a woman. It’s a very, very good and compassionate imitation of what life is like for women, but it’s still several layers removed from being the real thing.

Yet, I’m betting there are a lot of people who just read that paragraph and got upset. This is where the inevitable argument becomes “But it’s better than other things!” Or “Well, at least he tries!”

I’m not saying those things are untrue at all. Trust me, I would much rather sit and rewatch the first season of Dollhouse than willingly expose myself to a show like Supernatural which goes out of its way to call women “bitches” on a regular basis. Whedon has always absolutely put forth the effort in his work that other creators don’t even consider. And that’s great.

But anymore “just trying” and “better than other things” isn’t enough.

This is where a lot of the anger aimed at Whedon and Whedon’s position as a media feminist comes into play.

Joss Whedon has failed to evolve as a writer and a director. People who are longtime Buffy fans saw Age of Ultron and complained about how quippy the dialog was. That quality has always been part and parcel of a Joss Whedon project — it has long been one of his trademarks. When the question was how could people who loved Buffy be surprised by this, I could only venture a guess:

We are suddenly, sadly realizing Joss Whedon is a one-trick pony.

Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy those tricks and there is nothing wrong with that! I am in no way saying that I haven’t enjoyed Joss’s work and won’t continue to in the future. But it does hit a point where it is almost 20 years since the debut of Buffy and you suddenly realize Whedon is just writing the same thing over and over again. No matter how much you like garlic bread, you can’t eat it all the time or you’ll get sick of it.

Beyond just the dialog, though, Whedon’s views of feminism haven’t grown. Resources are at our fingertips, access to all kinds of different POVs is available, and feminism is being discussed and debated and forced to adapt. There is no excuse for someone like Whedon to be so far behind.

But there is a huge reluctance to admit he’s not the idol many had believed him to be. So much energy has been expended in propping him up and using him as an example, it seems to be like admitting defeat to backtrack and say “Wait, wait. No, he’s not.”  And I’m not even going to pretend there aren’t people who will twist that for their own ends: “Oh, even the great JOSS WHEDON isn’t good enough for the FEMINISTS any longer!”

But the sad truth is he’s not.

Since Buffy debuted, we have seen so many projects influenced by Whedon that there are people who are out-Whedoning Whedon at this point. The landscape isn’t as barren as it was when I was a high school freshman: while female-focused geek media is still constantly challenged, there are enough companies and creators who have caught on to the idea that feminist media is in demand, and they have been providing. The Buffy oasis isn’t our only source of water anymore.

And we’re past the point of patting people on the back for “just trying.”  That should be the basic expectation of media these days. We EXPECT you to try to include three dimensional portrayals of women in your work because you don’t have an excuse not to. It’s not about “appealing to female fans.” It’s “recognizing that you HAVE female fans.”

But all of this is very hard to accept and sort through. So it becomes a war between wanting to keep worshipping Saint Whedon or wanting to make him into the actual, literal devil made flesh. Taking sides like it’s some kind of Civil War, which Whedon isn’t even DIRECTING, where both sides take things to such extremes is actively embarrassing because, guys, look at how much ire you have worked up over this, and please consider this is the STUPIDEST. FIGHT. EVER.

And all of this is horribly ironic because the grey areas between good and evil are constant themes in the work of, you guessed it, Joss Whedon.

So let me reiterate:

Joss Whedon is going to be okay.

 

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About Author

Ashly is a writer, part-time ghost tour guide and magical girl wrestler. One time she kicked a pigeon and she still feels awful about it

30 Comments

    • Raymond Banks on

      Excellent article, I think you made several extremely relevant points. My only issue is when you state, “Since Buffy debuted, we have seen so many projects influenced by Whedon that there are people who are out-Whedoning Whedon at this point.” you neglect to follow up with any examples. Who do you think has out-Whedoned Whedon?

    • Okay, now that I have more time to comment properly: Thank you for writing this. It’s amazing how many people get defensive when anyone dares say anything “bad” against Joss Whedon, without recognizing that he’s not infallible and that it’s okay to be *constructively* critical even of something/someone you love.

      I do like his work, but what you said about the sudden realization — that’s very much what AoU felt like for me. It was the “awakening.” I will most certainly still check out his future work, but I really hope he grows and learns with what comes next. Perhaps he already has, but I feel like, because he had to cram so much into AoU, that it was just easier to rely on the Joss Tropes we know.

  1. Thank you for writing this. I think this is a yes-and conversation. Yes, he’s written important works of pop culture that helped inspire a generation of feminists, AND aspects of his work are problematic, AND he’s not an icon or feminist savior, but a fallible human being.

    I did not find the new Avengers movie nearly as problematic as others did. I think that’s because I never looked up to him as a symbol of feminism, but as a really good conjurer/storyteller. That said, I get why people reacted as strongly as they did. It really hurts when our heroes let us down, even a little.

  2. I do feel the need to point out, in his defence, the Whedon was severely hamstrung by Marvel at every turn, so AoU is not really a barometer of any sorts in terms of his ability, desire or evolution of developing great female characters. There was an hour of footage cut from the final film, and that’s not counting the stuff he wasn’t allowed to shoot (Including Captain Marvel!)

    He’s also stated, after a long deserved break, he wants to get back to original material (read: no all-powerful overlords).

    Lets consider all the variables before we tear him down, and give him a chance to put out some stuff of his own, for the first time since before his involvement with Marvel (2009?)

    Anyway, that’s my piece, cheers.

    • Yeah. CHEERS.

      Except I’m not taking one stance or the other on AoU. If you liked it, fine. If you didn’t, fine. Differing opinions are one of those things that happen in the world. The entire point of this column was NOT to take a stance on it, but to point out the rightness of both sides of the Whedon-as-feminist debate.

      If this were JUST about AoU, which I only mention…twice(?)…in the article, that would be one thing. But Joss has been getting rightfully criticized for years. AoU is just a point where a lot of people are coming to the realization that a lot of people who’ve taken highly critical looks at Whedon’s work before already reached. The accounts of what would have occurred to Inara in Firefly’s second season, 99% of the feminist/sexual politics of Dollhouse, even Dr. Horrible all have their serious flaws and those were all Whedon’s own projects (yeah, Fox hampered Firefly and Dollhouse, but Whedon was the one who kept including rape-y plots or subplots in his work, or at least giving them the go-ahead.).

      Not to MENTION the portrayal of Dawn in the Buffy comics. Which were, once again, Whedon’s project.

    • Men like Whedon try and get a “thanks for participating” ribbon while women actually DO but get rape threats for expressing their opinions and are still fighting for shit as simple as equal pay. That’s the world we live in. Like Ashley said, Whedon is going to be alright. He’ll survive criticism and he’ll get criticized because he’s no infalliable. Women, however, have to keeping living the experience he’s built his life’s work on but only one of them can turn off the computer unbothered.

  3. I personally loved AoU, but I also think that in the superhero/comics genre at least, I’m still happy to give out gold stars for ‘hey, you tried’. Hell, in print comics, I’ll happily give out gold stars for ‘not actively offensive 90% of the time’. Hey, you hired Joss, so at least, y’know, you tried. Thanks. (Also, I love Joss’s ‘quippyness’. It is delicious and perfect and I will eat garlic bread every day if I want to so there.) I suspect Joss got so much praise for his early work that he’s sticking with the same formula because that’s what everyone said they wanted… It’s always dangerous putting people on pedestals. Real people don’t fit on them very well.

    • Jay? Can I assume you’re a guy?

      No offense, just want to point something out:

      Guys, even guys who are feminists, don’t get to give out “hey you tried” points for feminism.

      Because, once again, it’s not YOUR lived experience, it’s not YOUR life/movement being put up on screen or on TV. As I said, Whedon does good stuff, as do many other guys out there who are writing awesome ladies and standing up in favor of awesome ladies.

      But you’re the ones trying.

      We are the ones who get to give out points to those who try.

      And yeah, he gets “you tried.” That’s great.

      Try. Harder. Expand your knowledge of intersectionality. Learn more about how feminism have evolved in the past 18 years. Don’t fall back on your same points and arguments over and over again. Trying doesn’t count when you quit trying after some kind of praise. Striving to be better is what viewers deserve and the industry needs.

  4. I’d be interested in some concrete examples of how joss’s feminism is substandard. Not saying I disagree, but you seem to take that for granted without providing any examples or analysis. I also second an earlier commenter’so request for some examples of people who are “out-wheedoning Wheedon.”

  5. Before I comment on the article, you do lose points for the ‘Jay, shall I assume you’re a guy’. You do this not because the commenter has said something about their beard, or their balls, or anything else that would insinuate – BEYOND reasonable doubt – that they are male… but rather because they disagreed with you, which I find quite sad and I know that it instantly means no matter what anyone says, if they’re not agreeing with you, they’re either wrong, or being sexist.

    (Furthered by your ‘mansplaining’ tweet you made earlier. Gross, sexist bullshit. And you say you’re into equality. Kiss my arse.)

    Typical feminist behaviour. I’m female. My name isn’t Meghan, I made that up for anonymity (one of the perks of the internet, I guess!), but rest assured I have the boobs, vagina and death-crampy PMS of any regular female. It’s quite sexist of you to assume ‘Jay’ is a bloke (I can only assume you’ll do the same with me). Jay could well be a bloke, and if so fair enough. But don’t judge Jay’s comment on their GENDER (you know what this is? That’s sexism, that is), judge it on what they actually have to say, whether it’s agreeable, sexist, or whatever. Feel free to disagree, but you’re judging what they say based on their balls or their vag, rather than their words.

    Anyway, on to your article. I totally agree: Whedon is that one-hit-wonder who people will throw money at because that wonder was indeed truly wonderful. He’s actually NOT that great of a writer (so important to remember that he CREATED Buffy, but many of the episodes were penned and directed by other people, so anyone giving him all the credit is a bit of an unruly fan-person, to me).

    BUT this feminism he’s been showered with employing… he didn’t give that to himself. He just wrote strong women kicking ass; there was NEVER an agenda there (which is what feminism is, an agenda). He’s never called himself a feminist. Women (and some men, I assume) did that. The internet did that. But oh, in true internet fashion, it then proceeded to enforce this rock solid ‘Joss IS A FEMINIST’… thing onto him. And it became festering and disgusting and got out of hand. So now, if he’s not praising women, and making them stronger than men in every way, he becomes this rampant sexist who must be destroyed.

    So now, poor little Joss makes one little harmless indiscretion that makes no dent in anyone’s day, and BOOM! Megadino vs Megasexist! FIGHT!

    Internet, please. Calm yourselves.. He wrote a series about a strong girl. He writes women to be funny, sexy, strong, weak, intelligent, pathetic, evil and good. That’s REAL women for you. Buffy was great because she was physically strong yet weak willed. Willow was great because she was strong willed yet physically weak.

    As a woman, I don’t feel that a person needs a vagina and a menstrual cycle to have an opinion on what’s good for me. What they do need is knowledge. Know-how. Intelligence. For instance, if a male doctor says ‘now Meghan, I need you to use a condom because you might get AIDS or pregnant from sex’, I won’t ignore him because ‘hey, he doesn’t have a vagina… or a womb… WHAT THE HELL WOULD HE KNOW!?’ I’ll listen to him.

    If a male said to me ‘Meghan, if you go clubbing wearing nothing but a square of cloth covering your vagina and two little peices for your nippes, you’ll get ogled at and bullied’. I’ll say ‘fuck me dude you are right because what a stupid way to leave the house’. I won’t say ‘don’t be sexist, don’t tell me what to do you MAN’.

    Now if some woman walked up to me saying ‘ABORTIONS ARE WRONG YOU DEVLISH WHORE’ (I use this example as I believe it’s the most FEMALE serious issue that women can ever come across) … I’d tell her to take her opinions, shove them up her hole and fuck off where she came from. I’d say the same if a man said it to me, too. Because this is not about gender. This is about intelligence: nobody but ME regardless of gender) knows whether I should have a baby.

    I digress here, but you get my point.

    Gender DOES NOT MATTER. When are feminists going to learn this? Men and women have intrinsic differences (which should be rejoiced and respected) that mean, in some instances, one will never ever understand the other (periods vs blue balls, for e.g.). But it doesn’t mean that both genders are denied the rights to opening their mouths – or their minds – about a topic.

    ESPECIALLY writers. They have a free fucking pass as far as I am concerned because it’s FICTION and being offended about it is very, very childish indeed. I am a writer, and I write occasionally some sexist jokes (harmlessly, of course) about men AND women. Because we all have nuances and habits that need a jolly little mock once in a while. Again, why can’t feminists just laugh at themselves? Why get angry all the time?

    And finally, feminism was designed in itself so that women could vote, give birth, have abortions, fight in wars, be doctors, cut their hair and wear trousers. It wasn’t invented so people could say ‘are you ENOUGH of a feminist? Is your feminism FEMALE enough for us?’ It wasn’t designed so that women on the internet could get pissy over something a writer does in the odd scene of a book or movie.

      • Nor is anyone barred from talking about it. Men included.

        So, it stands to reason…critical approaches are allowed from everywhere. Kind of the point of the article, no?

        Releasing art in the world means people will respond to it. Joss didn’t want to be distracted by that, so he left the nexus of the fight over the work that he completed. Smart, and probably necessary.

        But we’re still going to talk about it because that’s the nature of the beast.

        • Nowhere did I say men CANNOT TALK about feminism.

          I did say that men do not get to define feminism or give out feminist cookies.

          I am in favor of men talking about feminism, especially in cases where feminism helps men. But I am NOT okay with men saying “Well, I think Joss is a great feminist so it’s okay with me.”

          I also did try to be respectful to Jay, only assumed Jay was a man because of the display name, offered no offense and aimed the comment to men IN GENERAL because I knew this sort of thing was coming.

          Please, talk about feminism.

          But don’t talk about feminism like you own it or have any say in defining it because that’s pretty much the least feminist thing you can do.

          • No, I totally agree with you. I think that you might be taken that way, and there’s nothing in the article that excludes anyone.

            I’m the one being unclear, because I’m a little riled/confused by reactions.

        • (In case it wasn’t clear from the above, I think this article is a fairly diplomatic statement in an area where fangirling/boying is getting in the way of stepping back and taking a look at the issue.

          Love in one’s heart for a creator does not mean that creator always gets a free pass.

          Unless we want to admit criticism is dead. And if that’s the case, then art follows soon after.)

          • Sorry about snapping above, I was unclear but I’m also very on-edge. You have to be when you write about this kind of thing because you’re going to get reactions that are attacking and misunderstanding.

            But co-sign to this. Also, liking a problematic creator is FINE. People do it every day. As I stated, it’s the state of grey that gets very confusing for everyone involved.

    • Claire Napier on

      As a woman, I don’t feel that a person needs a vagina and a menstrual cycle to have an opinion on what’s good for HER.

      Chill with the BOOBS!PERIODS!VAAAAGINAAAA=woman stuff, right?

      • Yes! A+ comment. That’s exactly the point where I stopped reading what “Meghan” had to say.

  6. Article is fantastic. Your attitude in the comments is not. If you think your snippiness doesn’t set the feminist movement back, you’re quite mistaken.

  7. Claire Napier on

    Dixie PLEASE. This snippiness of yours is quite setting us back, apparently

  8. Thanks for writing this article.

    I was in 7th grade when Buffy started and it was a major influence on my life and my relationship with my mom. We watched it together in person until I went to college and then would call each other during commerical breaks during season 7. We even saw both Avengers movies together in theaters. I need to figure out a good balance of enjoying things on a surface level and still joining in on the conversation on critiquing that thing when it is problematic.

    • Claire Napier on

      Aw, I love this comment.

      Kacy, I have good news! When you get practiced, critiquing the thing you love is PART of the fun of it. Honest. :]