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.
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.