Kai Cole’s revelations about her ex-husband Joss Whedon’s manipulative behavior toward women don’t surprise me. I’ve dealt with this kind of man before—the one who says “I’m a feminist!” and “I believe in equal rights!” but turns around and tells clearly misogynist jokes (the “woke misogynist,” if you will) and is quick to blame you for anything and everything. “Lighten up, it’s just a joke!” he says, when you point it out to him.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer helped me get through 7th and 8th grade at an awful Baptist School that wanted me to be docile and pure. But there were always things about it that bugged me, especially in the spin-off Angel, where literally every significant female character (spoiler alert!) winds up dead. In the main show, I always felt that Buffy’s relationship with Spike was problematic. He’s repeatedly abusive, but she still takes him back. One could argue this is simply in her character, or that she’s messed up emotionally, but she demonstrates plenty of strength and moxie is other situations, so I’m not sure I buy that argument.
Even so, Buffy is a great show, and a great character. Sure, it has some flaws (*cough* Riley *cough*), but beyond Buffy, it gives us other awesome female characters like Willow, Tara, and Anya (okay, okay, and Faith).
Does Ms. Cole’s revelation completely invalidate all the good that’s come of Buffy and the positive, kick-vampire role model she provided for countless young women like me? No, not at all. Buffy can still be a feminist icon, because even though her character was created by Joss Whedon, he’s not solely responsible for the character or the show. And aside from the Spike thing, the show on the whole is pretty upstanding from a feminist perspective. I also don’t find much fault with Firefly in that regard.
If we invalidated every work of art that had a flawed creator, we’d have no art left. That doesn’t mean we excuse the bad behavior of artists just because they make good art. No. Judge the art on it’s own merits, and judge the creator on their own merits.
But like I said, I’m not surprised that Whedon has behaved this way in his personal life. Angel is a feminist dumpster fire, and The Avengers movies aren’t any better. Whedon has never been, in my opinion, the upstanding feminist he’s been portrayed as. It might not be so visible in Buffy or Firefly, but it’s there in his other work. As others have pointed out, Dr. Horrible is about a stalker that we’re supposed to sympathize with, and the main female character winds up dead at the end. Women are basically absent from the main Marvel movies, and they certainly don’t get to be heroes (but Black Widow! is not a valid argument, because why does she still not have her own movie?).
That’s basically systemic oppression in a nutshell. It’s so baked into our culture that even people who truly believe they are feminists might behave in very anti-feminist ways. Let me just be clear that I am not making excuses for Whedon’s behavior in any way, shape or form. Exploiting people you have power over is never excusable, and I’m saddened to learn it’s something that happened repeatedly (and is probably still happening).
The best way to fight it is to call it out and hold people accountable for their behavior. Will I still watch Buffy? Yes, absolutely. But will I rush out to drop money on the next big Joss Whedon thing that comes out? Well… probably not.