Am I justified in maintaining my love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer despite the ongoing revelations about Joss Whedon? Should we separate the art from the artist?
The producers of The Expanse have to edit out a major character in post-production after a wave of sexual harassment and assault allegations. The makers of The Mandalorian fire the actor behind an incredibly popular character because of (admittedly unconscionable) comments comparing being a Republican to being a Jew in Nazi Germany. And this year’s edition of Joss Whedon is a toxic misogynist masquerading as a feminist seems like a late season redux of early installments but is no less difficult for those of us who grew up on loving shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
In the case of actors, separating art from the artist is comparatively easier than doing so for a content creator like Whedon. After all, The Expanse is not a romantic show and the character played by actor Cas Anvar spent most of his time piloting ships and bringing Space Cowboy vibes to his laconic character, Martian Alex Kamal. So while I’m glad Anvar’s been fired, his presence didn’t detract much from my enjoyment of the show’s fifth season (although one scene where an actor was forced to kiss him made me dry heave). And this segues nicely into why this issue is greater for my second love, Korean dramas, than it is for my first love of science fiction. Korean dramas nearly always have a romance element to them and so while I could grin and bear Cas Anvar’s presence in this season of the Expanse, you couldn’t pay me enough to watch the disgusting Park Si-hoo and any poor woman forced to act alongside him.
And yet actors aren’t responsible for the art they appear in. Cas Anver’s presence in The Expanse won’t stop me from re-watching the show and the decision to fire him merely reinforces that. Just like Gwyneth Paltrow’s role in The Politician didn’t stop me from enjoying its second season even more than I enjoyed its first. (Yes even despite the Ryan Murphy element, which I’ll describe loosely as narcissistic diversity for want of a better way to express my discomfort with his body of work).
Joss Whedon, however, isn’t an actor. He’s a writer, director and producer. He’s a content creator, a driving creative force. A show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer IS Whedon in a way that a show like The 100 IS the toxic Jason Rothenburg but a show like the Mandalorian is NOT Gina Carano. So the question of being able to separate the art from the artist becomes more complex and messy.
Firstly, a disclaimer. I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I have always loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This has not and will not change. But this post is not to justify that, nor is it to question that. It is to hopefully parse out my own thoughts on this issue to help others parse out theirs. Is it acceptable for me to continue to love the show despite everything we know about Joss Whedon? I don’t know. But hopefully by explaining why I do it might help progress the conversation.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer burst onto the scene at the perfect time to entrance me. I’d finished my degree and was working full time. I was thrust into the workforce and forced to deal with the embedded and systemic sexism and misogynism of the Australian newsroom. My degree – a hodge podge of subjects from semiotics and media analysis to economics and geopolitics sprinkled with sound engineering and broadcasting under the improbable heading of a business degree – had taught me how to view media critically. Buffy with its emphasis on slaying our demons, fighting for what’s right rather than what’s easy, and asking hard questions about when and how we should use the power we have entered my life at precisely the right moment. “Punch up, not down” is a timeless message for life and for journalism and combined with Buffy’s feminist themes and multiple representations of femininity, it quickly became a favourite.
But, also, Buffy the Vampire Slayer tells a damn good story. And that hasn’t changed. The season construction, pacing and characterisation of Buffy remains nearly unparalleled. Episodic television within a resolved seasonal arc that doesn’t rely on cheap cliffhangers or twists to keep interest remains the holy grail of seasonal television and I defy anything except the best of the best to compete with Buffy in this respect. Buffy’s greatest strength was not skinny women kicking arse. It was in its use of characterisation to drive plot and to give those characters believable growth over time without compromising them.
I didn’t pick up the show Angel when David Boreanaz left Buffy for his own spinoff show. I watched the first few episodes with a friend while drinking bourbon and laughing at how comparatively shallow and borderline ridiculous it was. I never was a fan of Noir and the attempt to marry Noir with vampire detectives did not work for me (this is unfortunately an entire genre and while Angel did not start it, it did spark attempts to replicate it resulting eventually in the hilariously terrible Moonlight). More importantly, Noir as a genre is inherently misogynistic with its Lone Warrior males and femme fatales and I didn’t think Whedon was trying to subvert the genre so much as embrace it.
While I later picked up Angel and eventually watched it all the way through, I became increasingly uncomfortable with it as it progressed. Then Firefly gave me its Whore With a Heart of Gold and Arse Kicking Girl Child and while I had not yet given expression to my mounting unease (I put the masculinity issues of that text down to its Space Western roots), I did tune into Dollhouse and then I really started to feel it. Joss Whedon, we were told by all (but especially Joss Whedon) was a feminist who produced feminists works of art. So why was Dollhouse so damn creepy? Was the show critiquing the objectification of women as it claimed to be or was it guilty of the same crime it was supposedly examining?
There is an episode of Dollhouse in its first season that troubled me greatly. Man on the Street tells the tale of an internet entrepreneur who creates a moment he missed by the premature death of his beloved wife. She supported him while he was trying to get his business off the ground but then died before he could unveil the dream house she’d always wanted. He hires a doll every year to create this moment that death took from him.
The main character, Echo oohs and aahs through the house as he shows it to her. He then plans of course to have sex with her. This was a moment he had dreamed of and it was taken away from him. The lobotomised sex doll allows him to finally realise his dream. Should we identify and sympathise with this poor man who has lost his wife? Or judge him for his need to objectify and use an agentless woman to fulfil his masculine fantasy of providing? The character himself seems torn; well aware that his behaviour is wrong but driven by an overpowering emotional need. A man who has a moral code that he cannot reconcile with his own actions.
While I was watching Man on the Street – and Dollhouse as a body of work – way back in 2009 or 2010 or whenever it finally aired in Australia, I was struck with a deeply disquieting thought that what I was watching was the moral flounderings of Joss Whedon himself. The entire show seemed to be written by and for a man who was not what he wanted to be: an attempt at self-examination alternating between self-flagellation for his moral and ethical failings and sympathetic buttressing of the belief that as a man his actions were unfortunately unavoidable. The artistic equivalent of the slave to his genes theory of evolutionary male behaviour.
But Dollhouse also solidified for me what was the most wrong with Whedon’s self-professed feminism and penchant for “strong female characters” – all of whom were fit, skinny arse kickers. Whedon believes that men are fundamentally, genetically flawed and so it is the responsibility of women to fight for things to be better. Men can’t help it, women need to force them to change. There is simply no other conclusion that a man like this could come to when he himself couldn’t control his own base impulses and be the man he pretended to be. At least that was what I took from Dollhouse as a work of Joss Whedon. He was a man who did not live up to his own vision of himself. But also one that saw no issue with creating shows of hot scantily-clad arse kickers to appeal to the men who shared his same masculinity issues. The type I have no broad label for but is a special class of entitled geek: the Nice Guy who spouts feminism because he thinks it gets him laid and then inevitably gets angry when it doesn’t.
Considering the messages I took from Dollhouse, I was not surprised – angry and horrified, yes, but not surprised – by the unfolding revelations about Joss Whedon. Not after watching Dollhouse. Like most of his works, Dollhouse was a rollicking good story. But I could never shake the uncomfortable feeling that I was simply watching Joss Whedon’s personal issues play out on screen. Just like I could never enjoy the Space Cowboy antics of Firefly as much as others or watch that season of Angel without wondering why Whedon was clearly punishing Charisma Carpenter for being pregnant (is it really that hard to work around a pregnancy? The latest season of The Expanse says ‘no’.).
And yet, even while I was critically rejecting Whedon’s later works, I still loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I still do. Is this justified? Should I condemn it to the waste bin of history because it’s tainted by the finger prints of a deeply insecure and insincere man whose sense of internal impotence caused him to ape a feminist in public while being a misogynist in secret?
I genuinely don’t know the answer to this question or whether my response to it is based on logic or simply mired in my emotional attachment to the show. For Buffy at least, I see a text that I made mine at a time when I most needed it. So I choose to still love it even though I possibly shouldn’t. Whedon may be a terrible human being but Buffy is an objectively great show.
Is ‘Love the Show, Not the Showrunner’ a philosophy that’s justifiable when I will happily refuse to watch anything created by Stephen Moffatt, whose gross misogyny infuses his texts until they’re uncomfortable to watch? I don’t think so. And yet here we are. I love Buffy and the expanding revelations about Whedon can’t change that. So I guess this post is my own Man on the Street. What a sobering thought.