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19 January 2022

Joss Whedon is a disappointment to Buffy fans – but the show never solely belonged to him

Many may want to disavow Buffy the Vampire Slayer now its creator’s hollow “feminism” has been exposed. But to disregard it entirely disrespects the women who worked on it and the fans that made it their own.

By Marianne Eloise

There is a theme running through Lila Shapiro’s Vulture profile of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon: he never seems to have done anything truly terrible in his life, ever. He doesn’t directly deny many of the accusations of wrongdoing levelled at him through the years: affairs with young actresses, mistreatment of actors, maintaining a stressful environment while running his sets. But he does have some pretty nifty excuses tucked away: he was “powerless” to resist the young women throwing themselves at him; Ray Fisher was driven by a “malevolent force”; and when it came to on-set tantrums, well, sometimes he “had to yell”.

He does deny some specific accusations, like calling Angel actress Charisma Carpenter “fat” when she was pregnant, or grabbing a costume designer’s arm so hard it left marks. But he seems to own up to the broad strokes of his nastiness while assigning cosmic reasons to his behaviour with a passivity that borders on the supernatural. There were few disappointed fans left to be disillusioned by this latest insight into Whedon the man, after a series of revelations over the last couple of decades have shattered the image of him as some feminist genius.

To most people in the world, Joss Whedon is hardly a household name. But to others, that name represents something larger than the very fallible man it belongs to. He rose to his brand of niche fame in the 1990s with the creation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a horror comedy film that became the supernatural teen drama series about a cute, quippy teenager with the ability to defeat vampires. The show was a critical and commercial hit, spawning a creative fandom, conventions, books, spin-offs, comics and even academic courses. Nothing before it had had that kind of impact. It was also lauded as a feminist landmark for reasons that seem quaint now (like centring a hot woman who can also do martial arts). 

Buffy was followed by its spin-off Angel. At the same time, Whedon was working on the much-beloved but swiftly cancelled Firefly. Whedon’s trademarks were clear in the writing and style of these shows, and he was worshipped by legions of dedicated fans who watched everything he released. He quickly gained a reputation not just as a writer and creator of funny, smart shows that nerds liked, but as a very pushy boss. People on set called Buffy “Buffy the Weekend Slayer” because of its long hours – its young cast and crew were worked hard. The timeline of Joss Whedon’s toxicity coming to the fore is a long, painful one for his fans.

There are pivotal moments in that timeline, like when it came out in the 2000s that Charisma Carpenter, who left Angel abruptly, had been mistreated by Whedon during her pregnancy, something she reaffirmed in 2021 in support of Ray Fisher, after he accused Whedon of racist and abusive behaviour on the set of Justice League. Numerous actresses, including Michelle Trachtenberg, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Amber Benson spoke up to confirm that Whedon ran a toxic set on Buffy, with male co-stars David Boreanaz and James Marsters backing them up. In 2017, his ex-wife Kai Cole published an open letter about his alleged affairs with young actresses. She wrote: “He used his relationship with me as a shield… so no one would question his relationships with other women or scrutinise his writing as anything other than feminist.”

While some fans leap to his defence, many find it impossible to – after all, these are things that many Buffy enthusiasts have long known. Whedon may allege that things like yelling and pushing stars too hard were necessary to craft the shows that fans came to love – but alleged actions such as affairs with young actresses, pushing out a pregnant star and the racist treatment of an actor are indefensible. Some fans of Whedon’s work are critical of Lila Shapiro and Vulture for platforming him at all, for giving him space to explain himself. That is their right, but as others have pointed out, Shapiro gives Whedon a shovel to keep digging his own grave. By interviewing writers, actors and women that Whedon allegedly had affairs with, her profile gives a much clearer picture that moves beyond vague allusions. In its specificity, it makes forgiveness much harder. A lengthy insight into his childhood, the chip on his shoulder about being a nerd who couldn’t get girls and therefore “had to” sleep with young women who threw themselves at him well into his middle age, gives an unflattering image of how Whedon came to be – and what monsters hero worship can create.

Disavowing Whedon’s creations, particularly those that are so acclaimed because of his “feminism”, is understandable. But who really owns these shows? What makes Buffy, for example, so enduring is not the work of Joss Whedon. It’s the charisma and dedication of its stars, particularly the women: Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Trachtenberg, Eliza Dushku, Carpenter, Emma Caulfield. The men, too: Anthony Head, Marsters, Boreanaz. Its writers and producers, particularly women like Marti Noxon, Rebecca Rand Kirshner and Jane Espenson, may have been riffing on a format Whedon invented, but they took Buffy to the places it would go. To disregard the show entirely feels, in part, disrespectful to the team that worked itself to the bone in stressful conditions to pull everything together week after week.

Not only that, but these shows belong to their legions of fans across the world. Fans who watch every episode over and over again, who get Buffy tattoos, who dress up for conventions, who lead academic courses, who write books. For full disclosure, I once queued up for a photo with Jewel Staite, who plays Kaylee Frye in Firefly, at a convention. That isn’t because of Joss Whedon, anymore than the time I queued up to meet Gillian Anderson has all that much to do with X-Files creator Chris Carter. When you put something out in the world, particularly something crafted by a team of hundreds, it evolves into something far beyond your small ownership and reach. It belongs to the people who loved it so much it took on a life of its own.

I hope that, if nothing else, is a small comfort to the fans of Buffy or Angel or Firefly who feel let down that the messaging of their favourite show doesn’t match up with the actions of its one puny creator.

[See also: BBC drama Rules of the Game shows how toxic culture spreads through workplaces]

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