Joss Whedon and Gorram Performative Feminism

Joss Whedon

Well gorram, that was disappointing. The ‘that’, of course, being the emerging news that geek-culture creator Joss Whedon is a bit of a douchebag.

I’m not your usual type of nerd; I don’t sit at my keyboard googling every last piece of information about every show I love, and all its cast, crew and filming locations – but when I love a show as much as I love Firefly I will re-watch it, encourage others to do so, and have a mock battle with my daughter on Twitter consisting almost entirely of Firefly gifs. Yes, that last one is absolutely true. In short, it becomes part of my life, which is why finding out that the show creator is such a misogynist hurts so much.  

“While professing to be a feminist, Whedon was merely learning how to use patriarchy as an excuse for his terrible behaviour.”

And then there’s the other reason it was disappointing to find that yet another idol had feet of clay – his alleged feminism, which seems to have been surface deep only. Fans of Buffy in particular have seen it as a feminist rallying cry, an example of how shows can be made with strong, capable, female characters who are central to and drive the plot, something that has been sorely lacking in the vast majority of mainstream film and TV shows.  

While professing to be a feminist, Whedon was merely learning how to use patriarchy as an excuse for his terrible behaviour, in a ‘See, it’s not really me, patriarchy is the real villain here’ way. This is no more convincing than someone guilty of domestic violence claiming that the person they hit made them do it by being unreasonable, and it is just as shoddy. 

“The evidence that Whedon is not quite the pinnacle of ‘male feminist’ he was often made out to be has always been there.”

In retrospect, there were warning signs. Whedon’s appalling rejected script for Wonder Woman was leaked in June this year for all to see, but it was easy to miss if you were paying more attention to Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman film, released at around the same time. And BAME women have long been talking about Whedon’s issues when it comes to race and whitewashing – most prominent in Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, his most celebrated pieces of work. The evidence that Whedon is not quite the pinnacle of ‘male feminist’ he was often made out to be has always been there… a lot of us just didn’t see it, or didn’t listen when it was talked about by minorities. 

It seems that Whedon is to join the ranks of performative male feminists, who turn out to be only two out of the three elements needed to fulfil that description. I’ve always been a believer that actions speak louder than words, and had seen Whedon’s shows as actions I could trust, but it appears that it was all a show, a performance – and for what? There’s no doubt that his reputation as a ‘feminist’ got him massive kudos generally, but even in Hollywood–a place that isn’t known for rewarding morals or ethics over the ability to make money from film–he got work and opportunities based on this reputation.  

Most importantly, though, it allowed him to deceive, cheat on, and nearly destroy his wife’s mental health. If we feel let down by Whedon and disappointed in his behaviour, how must Kai Cole, his wife since 1991 and mother of his two children have felt when she found out? It’s tempting to nod our heads and say, ‘Yeah, we get it, I was totally taken in by him too’, but we mustn’t because it’s very far from being the same and it totally undermines the experience that Kai Cole went through, and will still be going through. Whedon himself said, after he left, that he understood: “It’s not just like I killed you, but that I’d done it subtly, over years. That I’d been poisoning you. Chipping away at you.”  

“We must remember that the people at the heart of all this are Kai Cole and Whedon’s children, and we should accord them with the respect that Whedon apparently cannot.”

The experiences she describes in her statement are a classic case of gaslighting – and the effects of that are devastating and take years to overcome. There is no way to adequately describe the way gaslighting strips your whole being away from yourself, damages not only your ability to function but your ability to know who you are and what reality is any more, and that is not something to be taken lightly, scoffed at, or appropriated. Especially as it seems that Whedon himself has learnt nothing, and is still attempting to manipulate the way his wife thinks, to undermine her, and paint her as someone to be not trusted in his response to her comments…

 “While this account includes inaccuracies and misrepresentations which can be harmful to their family, Joss is not commenting, out of concern for his children and out of respect for his ex-wife.”

So yes, Joss Whedon fooled many people and we all need to be warier of performative feminism, measure someone by what they do in private as well as in public, but the public are not the real victims here. No matter how big a fan we consider ourselves to be, no matter how outraged we are as feminists that Whedon has passed himself off as one for years while doing untold harm, we must remember that the people at the heart of all this are Kai Cole and Whedon’s children, and we should accord them the respect that Whedon apparently cannot.

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