• Rueben Vargas

Joss Whedon and the Celebrity Culture of Performative Wokeness

(Art by Keri Garcia)

Joss Whedon is a creep. All his works, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the first two Avengers films, all feature an undercurrent of misogynistic resentment towards powerful women. Whedon is the manifestation of three regressive attitudes that are unique to white celebrity culture. First, is the white privilege that allows mediocre talents like Whedon to find success. Second, is the celebrity impunity to exploit and brutalize people below them and the mutual silence that surrounds it. Third, is the performative wokeness and fake allyship these same celebrities display to their fans and the public at large, which is little more than empty gestures meant to acknowledge their privilege without the willingness to surrender it. The current civil unrest has created a unique environment where all sorts of individuals in the larger entertainment industry are being exposed by brave victims who refuse to remain silent. From online streamers to Hollywood to the videogame industry, abusers are being exposed for the monsters they are-and Joss Whedon’s situation is emblematic of this trend.

While I was never a fan of Whedon’s, I will acknowledge he was always good at setting trends or otherwise adapting to them. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel were huge cult hits and cultural mainstays for Millennials like myself. His brand of clever dialogue, badass protagonists, and the divergence between contemporary settings and a paranormal underworld certainly permeated other aspects of genre fiction throughout the nineties. While he might not have been a direct influence, his works were part of the same trend that was present in movies like Men in Black and Blade-both which were released later on in the decade. During the early aughts, Adult Swim broadcasted Cowboy Bebop, Outlaw Star, and Trigun. All series were part of the space western subgenre, which contrasted the grandness of the space opera with the moral complexity and frontier sensibilities of westerns. Whedon released his own space western series Firefly around this time. Eventually his cult status as genre whisperer, dialogue savant, and accomplished writer got him the keys to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Whedon’s style of too-cool, dismissive smarminess in the face of intense action would define the house style of the Marvel Studios films. And a core aspect to all these projects was the “strong female character”, a fiction cliché that, while not invented by Whedon, was popularized by his works. In short, it’s a stock character which stands in contrast to the damsel in distress-a female character displays capable skills, assertive attitude, and aggressive behaviors which are considered exclusively male traits. Whedon was a self-stylized feminist, one who cited his mother and characters like Kitty Pryde as his main influence in his feminist sensibilities which dictated how he wrote his female characters. Whedon’s true intent in creating these characters was never female empowerment. Quite the opposite, they were intended as vessels to channel his regressive proclivities though.

My first exposure to Whedon was Firefly. While nerds alike would swear by the series as gone to soon, I saw it in a different way. What stuck out to me was the treatment of River Tam, the mysterious girl the crew discovers naked in a box on their ship. River is depicted as having superhuman abilities and possibly being trained as an assassin. Yet she needed Simon, her handler, to keep her from losing control. And throughout the series she’s treated and portrayed as something akin to a lion on a leash. It was watching the two Avengers movies he directed that my suspicions about how he chooses to portray women in his works. Throughout Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, there’s a curious relationship between Black Widow and The Hulk. Watching Avengers for the first time, it occurred to me how it didn’t make sense to send Natasha to recruit Dr. Banner. Tony Stark would’ve been the better option as both he and Banner had mutual respect towards each other as geniuses and should Banner turn into the Hulk, Stark could easily get into his Iron Man suit to contend with him. It became clear to me towards the middle of the movie when Banner finally turned into the Hulk. He zeroed in on Natasha for “lying to him” and chased her down through in a claustrophobic chase scene that was reminiscent of the Xenomorph chasing Ripley in Alien, or Mike Myers stalking his victims in Halloween.

This dynamic became more intentional in Age of Ultron. In an article published on Vox, writer Emily VanDerWerff detailed the problematic gender dynamics between the two characters. In a scene towards the middle of the film, Natasha tries to convince Banner to run away with her by convincing him she’s a monster like him-“They sterilize you. It's efficient. One less thing to worry about, the one thing that might matter more than a mission. It makes everything easier — even killing. You still think you’re the only monster on the team?” The relationship between these two characters is framed as a quasi-maternal one at the beginning of the film, as she’s the only one who can get him to calm down. This top SHEILD operative was placing her worth as a human being to the ability to have children, and because she can’t, she’s been reduced to a monster like him. Black Widow’s relationship to The Hulk is revealed to be one between a victim and her abuser. She meets the monster and the monster turns on her. But eventually she comes to accept their relationship as normal and becomes codependent. This is Whedon’s MO, to build up his female characters and then undermine them through a traumatic experience to seek the affirmation of a strong male presence. By the time his failed Wonder Woman script was leaked, it became clear to me that this was a pattern of his; as he intended to reduce Wonder Woman’s relationship in a similar cycle of independence, trauma, then codependence.

It was little surprise to me when the accusations began. Kai Cole, Whedon’s ex wife, accused him of being a massive hypocrite who would preach feminist ideals while committing infidelity and gaslighting her into thinking he was too good of a feminist to hurt women. Recently, Justice League actor Ray Fisher accused Whedon of being incredibly unprofesional towards him during the production of the film. Fisher’s accusations parallel what Eddie Murphy said in a Playboy interview about his experiences working on Coming to America. In the interview, Murphy spoke on how director John Landis habitually harassed Murphy and did everything in his power to dehumanize him during production of the film. What ties Landis and Whedon is the motivation of their harassment towards non-white and female individuals. It comes from how these mediocre white men amassed success not through merit but through parentage or connections within the industry. Therefore, when they observe someone outside of their group who’s attained comparable success, they turn resentful. In another situation, Angel actress Charisma Carpenter was written out of the series midway when she revealed to Whedon she was pregnant. It’s this kind of pettiness that’s central to Whedon’s antagonistic behaviors towards non-white and female crewmembers-motivated by smallness and a lack of overall character.

An important aspect of this sort of behavior is performative wokeness-appearing as an ally of the underprivileged-immigrants, non-white people, women, and LGBTQ individuals. Whedon is open and outspoken in his liberal politics. He openly supported Obama during his reelection campaign. After the debut of Avengers in 2012, he released an eyeroll inducing video about how Romney’s economic plans would lead to a zombie apocalypse. Like every other lib in Hollywood, he considers the orange man bad. It comes back to him being an outspoken ally of women, though. As long as he says the right things, commits to certain actions, and otherwise does certain things that are ultimately hollow gestures, Whedon can justify whatever terrible attitudes he has towards women-both in how he writes his female characters and how he acts towards women in real life. Liberal apologia of performative wokeness is not unique to Whedon-it’s a performance that celebrities and corporate leaders alike engage in in moments of social unrest or scrutiny.

Videogame companies can turn their social media avatars into rainbow flag patterns for Pride month and pledge donations to LGBTQ causes. White voice actors can ask animation productions to cast a person of color to voice POC characters instead of them. Streaming companies can pull episodes of our favorite shows with actors in blackface or put up some sort of disclaimer in front of them. It doesn’t change the fact how the videogame industry turns a blind eye towards the homophobic culture of its fans. Or how these shows still profited off either denying opportunities from POC talents or, even worse, repeating incredibly regressive humor against those same minority groups. These actions are inconsequential because there’s no way any real change would come about said efforts. People are demanding substantial change to how our society treats the underprovided amongst us. The poor, the undocumented, persons of color, women, and LGBTQ individuals. But Whedon and the rest of his cohorts are more committed to performing meaningless gestures rather then using their privilege for actual good.

Joss Whedon’s abuses are bigger than him. They’re symptomatic of a larger disease that plagues the entertainment industry at large. The larger deference towards small men of varying degrees of talent with massive egos and undeserved privilege abuse those beneath them and are protected by a culture of silence that coerces victims from speaking out. We saw this with Bill Cosby, with Harvey Weinstein, with R Kelly and Kevin Spacey-how they lean on whatever influence they might have to traumatize the people beneath them for their own amusement. While Whedon isn’t the worst among that list, he’s still complicit in these behaviors and has so far avoided having to face real world consequences. It’s only a matter of time until the levee breaks and a torrent of accusations flood him. It’s on us to signal boost the victims and, more importantly, stop watching his films and shows.

There’s this larger discussion going on about “death of the author” and separating problematic creators from their creations. But death of the author is an academic theory and not a material one. As much as we'd like to continue enjoying Buffy or Firefly and buying merch we’d still be supporting a resentful and antagonistic misogynist whose bigotry still permeates in his works. If we are to stand as allies of the underprivileged, it’s incumbent on us to divest and boycott companies and entrepreneurs alike who profit from their abuse and hate-even if we may have emotional attachment to what they have produced.