In the wake of Kai Cole’s personal essay about how her ex-husband Joss Whedon “hid multiple affairs and a number of inappropriate emotional ones,” his feminist fans have already begun to grapple with Cole’s call to action at the end of her piece. “I want to let women know that he is not who he pretends to be,” she wrote. “I want the people who worship him to know he is human, and the organizations giving him awards for his feminist work, to think twice in the future about honoring a man who does not practice what he preaches.”
For some of those fans, finding out that there were discrepancies between the feminist values Whedon often espouses and the way he lives his personal life seemingly makes his art unwatchable. For others, the separation between art and artist is enough to leave their love for Whedon’s creations, including the iconic piece of feminist pop culture that is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, intact. But infighting between the two camps misses the point: Whedon was hardly a perfect avatar for the feminist movement in the first place, and signing up to his following on the basis of his supposed personal feminism was probably always a meaningless exercise.
As Laura M. Browning pointed out at The A.V. Club, the signs that Whedon wasn’t exactly Gloria Steinem were there all along. For starters, there was that idea in Buffy that sex could steal a man’s soul (a little prescient, given Cole’s allegations that Whedon’s infidelity began on the show’s set). And there was his 2013 Equality Now speech about how “feminist” is such a mean-sounding word that we should all discard. Then there was the Black Widow subplot in which she reveals that she was forcibly sterilized and thinks herself a “monster.” (Whedon later swore the “monster” line was actually a reference to her “murdery actions” and not the immediately preceding reveal.) Oh, and also his sexist, but never produced, Wonder Woman screenplay.
So maybe the question feminist consumers of pop culture should be asking themselves is not how Whedon allegedly hid, from first his wife and then his fans, that he was no paragon of feminism, but why we ever wanted — let alone needed — him to be.
First and perhaps foremost, there is no paragon of feminism of any gender: We’re all inculcated in a sexist society, and — at absolute best — we are going to imperfectly live up to the values expressed by the movement at large. Some of those imperfect expressions are going to be minor; others are going to be major. In a flawed world that is sometimes outright hostile to feminism and female autonomy, everyone is going to navigate the rough edges of their politics, their socially influenced desires and their lived experiences in different ways. (Roxane Gay wrote a best-selling book about this idea.)
But, as Bitch Magazine co-founder Andi Zeisler wrote in her 2016 book We Were Feminists Once, the problem with feminism is that, as it’s become more socially acceptable and even popular, it’s become a commodity that can be sold to audiences. And, for audiences consuming culture, “feminist” has become shorthand for “culture in which I can engage without guilt.” As Zeisler said in a 2016 interview, “There is an idea very much in the culture now around redefining things as ‘feminist’ even when there’s no apparent feminist aspect. To me, a lot of that strikes me as people wanting to do what they want to do anyway, but feeling like they need to justify it to both themselves and to the larger world as something ‘feminist.’”
So, to some, Buffy couldn’t be seen as feminist unless Whedon was seen as feminist, because — in part — feminists wanted to feel good about enjoying and celebrating the show, which happened to be created by a man, as part of the feminist canon.
Plus, the industry was selling the Joss Whedon brand based, in part, on his performance of feminism. Making even part of his personal brand about the performance of feminism, however, missed the point of feminism in the first place: It is a sociopolitical movement for gender equality, not a series of binary choices between “good” art and “bad” art, or between “good” men and “bad” men.
Watching (or creating) Buffy instead of The Bachelor doesn’t automatically make you any more of a “good” feminist — and telling everyone that you’re doing so is just the same sort of virtue-signaling that has ultimately hoisted Whedon on his own alleged petard.
There are, of course, actions Whedon could have taken to live up to his supposed feminist values, other than not cheating on his wife with “his actresses, co-workers, fans and friends,” as Cole claimed his did. (Because, if he did what he’s been accused of, it denied his wife the choice to safeguard her own physical and mental well-being, and engaging in sexual relationships with subordinates can be coercive or discriminatory.) Whedon also could have hired more women writers, directors, crew members, showrunners and producers on all of his productions, expanded his regular coterie of female actors far beyond the ones with whom he normally worked, pushed the organizations that wished to honor his work to instead honor the work of women, and even just spent time, after his Wonder Woman script never got off the ground, reflecting on how and why he failed to give voice to one of the world’s preeminent feminist characters.
(And, if it’s true that he told Cole that “he admired and respected females, he didn’t lust after them,” exploring the idea that admiration and respect for women was divorced from sexual desire for them would’ve probably been a good thing for him to have covered in therapy, as that’s the definition of a toxic Madonna-whore complex.)
Whedon had — and grew — the power to do far more for a movement for gender equality than simply proclaim himself a feminist and reap the monetary and psychic rewards for it. And while it’s great for feminists to spend their time and money consuming culture that reflects a (somewhat) more equal view of the world, created by people who espouse that view, it is not — and has not been — enough to simply demand that its creators pledge fealty to the word “feminism” so that we can feel less guilty about what we would likely consume anyway.
Plus, even if they do... it’s just a word. Feminists are people, and people are flawed, trying to navigate a flawed world. Feminism is supposed to be about more than just putting new people on old pedestals; it’s supposed to be about tearing the pedestals down and trying to build something better together. With Whedon off his pedestal, at least when it comes to a lot of feminists, maybe we should just try not to put anyone else on it — for our own sakes, as well as theirs.