By the time New York Magazine published its thorough and extremely damning new piece on how Joss Whedon and his entertainment empire fell apart, I couldn’t summon much more than an exhausted sigh. After years of loving his work, followed by years of reconsidering everything I knew about it within the context of the serious allegations against him, Whedon’s downfall in my own world was so swift and complete that I couldn’t stomach the idea of reopening that door at all.
Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is the reason I first started thinking critically about television. I’d long been a fan of TV, but it wasn’t until I fell into Buffy’s Hellmouth that I learned what it meant to be an obsessive: someone who dissects every scene, glance, and joke to get the most of it and figure out what made it all work. Years before screenwriting websites and podcasts were easily accessible, the “Buffy” DVD special features became a makeshift school to teach me how a show came together. For a curious teenager who loved TV and existed somewhat on the fringes of her high school — neither popular enough to get invited to parties nor so reviled as to get banned from them — the snark and heart of “the Scooby Gang” felt aspirational. I didn’t know whether I wanted to write them or be them. In the meantime, I settled for absorbing them into myself, even adopting their speech patterns to feel a part of this show I treasured so much.
It was almost just the cherry on top of my obsession that “Buffy” fancied itself a more empowered version of a familiar, typically sexist story. By making a once helpless girl the most fearsome warrior of a generation, my favorite show wasn’t just fun, but feminist fun. Characters like Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), shy witch Willow (Alyson Hannigan), queen bee with a heart of gold Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), and blunt ex-demon Anya (Emma Caufield) appeared to twist archetypes into much more interesting and complex shapes. I felt cooler for knowing “Buffy,” and smarter for loving it. It didn’t bother me that a man had created it when that man was so outspoken about “getting it,” and wanting to give as much power to his female characters as possible. The show felt like it was in safe hands, and so loving “Buffy” felt safe, too — until it didn’t.
Watching Whedon and the cult of faux-feminist personality around him collapse with every new allegation of sexual harassment and workplace abuse has felt both crushing and inevitable. The more I learn about the entertainment industry and world surrounding it, the more I know to be wary of people who spend much of their time trying to prove their progressive bonafides. The more I interact with men who insist they’re the “nice” ones — as Whedon does to accidentally devastating effect in the New York piece — the more it’s clear they’re not. The more I see people deflect blame onto everyone else’s inability to understand him — as Whedon continues to do with all things “Justice League,” including suggesting that Gal Gadot literally couldn’t understand him — the more I suspect they’re the ones to blame. (For what it’s worth, Whedon’s recent claim that Ray Fisher is “a bad actor in both senses” has a clear counterpoint in Fisher’s turn in ABC’s “Women of the Movement,” a series entirely directed by Black women in which he’s really very good.)
And in a heartbreaking turn for my high-school self, when I look back at the TV “Whedonverse” — including “Buffy,” spinoff “Angel,” “Firefly” and “Dollhouse” — the more I see worrying patterns. I see jealous boyfriends and damsels in distress that go against everything “Buffy” was supposed to be about. I see women express their sexuality before suffering terribly for it. I see countless women trying to be independent and strong on their own terms only to have needy men consume them for the thrill of it. With the benefit of some distance from the show that was briefly my entire life, it’s simply become more obvious that the “Buffy” character for which Whedon felt the most sympathy wasn’t Buffy, but Xander, the former dork desperate to prove he’s just as tough and virile as any vampire trying to suck the life out of a world Xander sees as rightfully his.
This, at least, Whedon admits more freely now. According to the New York report, not even coming from a wealthy family with a Hollywood legacy and getting to run his own show at 31 years old could convince Whedon that he was anything but a Xander-ish dweeb. He came to understand his fixation with bedding and discarding beautiful women as some screwed up power play in which his only chance at evening the playing field was to degrade anyone he perceived as a threat, whether that be his employees, girlfriends, or wife. He even allegedly told an ex-girlfriend that he identified with the “Dollhouse” character Topher, the show’s resident nerd who spends most of his time wiping women’s memories blank in order to imbue them with whatever new personality he saw fit. But self-awareness isn’t the one size fits all excuse for bad behavior it might have been once, and someone pointing out a line as they step over it doesn’t make that violation less harmful. If anything, Whedon knowing his failings before indulging them makes his transgressions even worse.
As with any enduring franchise, “Buffy” no longer belongs entirely to the frustrating person who first created it. (See, for just one recent example, “Harry Potter.”) In the decades since Whedon first made Buffy an avatar of his own insecurity, so many other writers, actors, crew members, and fans have made their mark on her stories, and will continue to have an impact on their legacy beyond this or any other news cycle. It is, however, extremely depressing to know that a show that once felt so special exactly because it seemed to push back against Hollywood’s usual toxicity was, in fact, borne directly of it. For as much as Whedon insisted otherwise, he didn’t actually want to give women more power when he could strip them for parts instead.