Opinion by Holly Thomas
Updated: Sat, 22 Jan 2022 16:11:36 GMT
Editor's Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She is morning editor at Katie Couric Media. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
Joss Whedon -- filmmaker, "Justice League" director, and most famously, the long-celebrated creator of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" -- has finally responded to a slew of accusations that have accumulated over recent years of cruelty, discrimination and mistreatment on set. Charisma Carpenter, who played Cordelia Chase on "Buffy" and its spinoff "Angel" accused him of belittling her religion and pregnancy and calling her "fat" among other humiliations, while Gal Gadot said Whedon "threatened my career" during "Justice League" filming. (The entities that produced both works share a parent company with CNN.)
Throughout a car-crash interview with Vulture, Whedon denied the worst of the allegations, including those of a costume designer who told the magazine Whedon had grabbed her and dug his fingernails into her arm. He admitted that he used to "yell" and "was not mannerly" toward Carpenter, but insisted that he did not call her fat -- and denied Gadot's claims as well. In general, however, Whedon did little to dislodge the impression of a "casually cruel" boss (as Carpenter put it) who relished his own power over anyone — especially women — in his orbit. The more Whedon explained or sought to justify himself, the deeper he dug his own hole, adding confirmation after confirmation that the man who dreamed up one of the most-loved feminist TV shows in history is in fact a selfish egomaniac.
For so many fans of the show, myself included, reading Whedon's patronizing, demeaning words about women was heartbreaking. Buffy was formative. Seeing a tiny blonde heroine — the type who'd normally make shrieking baddie fodder or vacuous on-screen arm candy — cast as a hero meant everything to kids who already sensed they too were destined to be underestimated.
Though her universe was supernatural, the emotions which ran through the world of Buffy and her friends felt acutely real. She was the outsiders' champion, carrying the weight of the world in secret. Now, thanks to Whedon, she looks more like a veil, disguising her misogynist creator's true nature in plain sight. Can she ever be reclaimed by the fans who loved her?
For years after its finale, Buffy enjoyed the reputation of having stood the test of time where so many '90s shows hadn't. As Vulture notes, its audacious scripts and innovative narrative structure sparked a fervor of cult fandom rarely seen — and a wave of academic commentary that arguably focused disproportionately on Whedon himself.
Buffy was often framed as his most brilliant work of art, rather than the combined effort of its gifted cast and roster of spectacular writers. Its controversial sixth season, which featured far darker, more sexually abusive themes than those previously, was an aberration in an otherwise near-perfect story. But even before Whedon's downfall, fans were forced to admit that Buffy's idealistic credentials — and more importantly, his — were far from airtight.
The Buffyverse was overwhelmingly White, a fact some of its creators were apparently conscious of at the time. In a season three episode written by David Greenwalt, a Black vampire called Mr. Trick muses that Sunnydale is "not a haven for the brothers -- strictly the Caucasian persuasion in the 'Dale'." Meanwhile, characters of color who did make it on-screen were often stereotyped. But while these failings now look like a grim portent of future accusations of racism against Whedon, they — shamefully — don't distinguish Buffy from other hit shows of its time. The rankling hypocrisy of its creator does. For all Whedon acknowledges the influence of powerful women -- most notably his mother -- on his work, his description of her to Vulture as "capricious and controlling" only feeds into the sense of absurdity his former characterization as a "feminist" creator now invokes.
The question of whether Buffy is a feminist story has, until the claims against Whedon, tended to be answered "yes". The 225-year age gap between its hero and the love of her life, Angel, resonates very differently with 25 years' hindsight, but back then it was nothing Anne Rice hadn't prepared us for. Claims that Buffy's personal aesthetic was oversexualized weren't clear-cut. The friction between her sometimes "cheerleader"-like appearance and her true identity was kind of the point, and her male co-stars were every bit as likely to be sheathed in leather from time to time.
The later realization, that Buffy's emotional strength was often represented as a direct result of trauma, is harder to reconcile. How that trauma was manufactured is still more disturbing — and comes into sharp focus in light of Whedon's recent exposure.
For a notorious attempted rape scene in season six, Whedon reportedly asked Buffy's writers and actors to search their memories for the worst day imaginable. The result was a minute of television with no soundtrack in which Buffy, dressed in a bathrobe and already exhausted from fighting, just about manages to fend off her sometimes-lover Spike.
When the episode aired it felt distressingly out of step with the spirit of the show, even by the standards of that already-troubling period in the narrative. It was apparently so ghastly to film that James Marsters, who played Spike, found it agonizing to think of years afterward. Sarah Michelle Gellar later said she felt "betrayed" by the entire sixth season.
Whedon's narcissistic instinct to excavate his colleagues' pain in this way echoes a story one of his ex-girlfriends told Vulture, in which she describes how Whedon deliberately recreated her most traumatic breakup. Whedon didn't comment on the story specifically, but it was apparently possible to infer that he had been aware, "at least to some extent," of the pain he'd caused. It also chimes with Whedon's own account of himself. He told the writer of the Vulture profile that he knows he is damaged, and is in therapy to address some long-standing issues. Yet on the whole, his voice in the piece projects a sense of perceived victimhood. It suggests that in his eyes, it's justifiable to utilize other people's suffering for his own benefit, be that in service of his stories, or the real personal relationships he abuses.
As soon as he discovered he was able to, Whedon hurt strong women, he says, "usually by sleeping with them and ghosting or whatever." The quote brings to mind a glaring Easter egg for Whedon's true nature in Buffy — one that's niggled fans again and again, and can never now be unseen.
Xander is one of Buffy's best friends, but he's also the show's underdog. He has no special powers, and none of Angel or Spike's raw sexuality. Despite apparently being in love with Buffy, Xander betrays her out of jealousy at the end of the second season, with heartbreaking consequences. He cheats on his girlfriend Cordelia with their mutual friend Willow, and later jilts his fiancé, Anya. Throughout all this, he's still portrayed as sympathetic — as well as funny, dorkishly sweet — ultimately, a solid goodie. In a 2002 interview, Joss Whedon revealed that Xander — who appears in all but one episode of Buffy's seven seasons — was "obviously" based on himself (though, tellingly, he has also said he based the character of Buffy on himself as well).
This goes to the heart of what now distinguishes Buffy from its also-flawed contemporaries, and what will make it so hard to ever watch again. Rather than its shortcomings coming off as accidental products of its time, they now look deliberate. The connection Whedon clearly saw between inflicting pain on women and building their character is writ through Xander.
Alongside this, it must be acknowledged that while Buffy was born of Joss Whedon, he wasn't alone in nurturing her. Whedon's fake feminism and creative input was more than matched by the dedication of those around him — not least by Sarah Michelle Gellar herself, who brought a depth and intelligence to the role of Buffy even he hadn't foreseen.
For seven seasons Gellar carried practically every episode of the show, switching masterfully from humor to catastrophe and everything in-between on long shoots that regularly extended deep into the night. She understood that the point of Buffy wasn't that she wasn't the smartest or most popular kid in school.
What her audience — her female audience in particular — needed was an individual, confident in her own identity and full of courage. Meaningful storylines that Whedon happened upon almost by accident — like Willow entering into a gay relationship, because he figured "well, she's in college" — were elevated by the sensitive, thoughtful performances of his cast. Though he may not always have understood what Buffy meant to its fans, others did.
This is why letting go of Buffy feels so hard. Its one bad parent may have tarnished the show irreparably, but saying goodbye is still an enormous sacrifice for the legions of fans who've already assimilated all that was wonderful and empowering about it. That tension is clearly felt by the cast as well.
When Carpenter last February shared her account of the awful treatment she endured working for Whedon, Gellar posted in solidarity. She wrote: "While I am proud to have my name associated with Buffy Summers, I don't want my name to be forever associated with Joss Whedon." Perhaps this is the only way the show can exist now; cherry-picked in our collective memory. It never belonged solely to Joss Whedon. But I, for one, will never be able to watch "Buffy" again without seeing his shadow lurking in the background.