An article dropped on Vulture yesterday by Lila Shapiro which details the fall from grace of Joss Whedon following first an open letter his ex-wife wrote on her way out the door of their life together, and then the Justice League debacle, which led to a lot of allegations coming to light going all the way back to Whedon’s Buffy days.
I’ve been connected to Whedon’s worlds both as a fan and as a pro since the late 1990s. I was a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly, and I wrote four Buffy books (a novelization, two novels, and I worked on one of the official reference books) and novelized Serenity and wrote a Firefly role-playing game adventure. As a result, I was always heavily plugged into the intense fandom that grew up around his creations.
And I found myself concerned about the near-deification that went on surrounding him. The “Joss Whedon is My Master Now” T-shirts and the “trust in Joss” mantras — and just generally, referring to him as “Joss” as if he was their friend.
This always twigged me a bit. For starters, he was still a Hollywood producer, for all that he proved himself to have a certain geek cred. Also, this level of hagiography regarding him is the sort of thing that can go to a person’s head. Plus, his flaws as a writer tended to get overlooked or explained away, whether his laziness in world-building or the severe lack of presence of people of color in his productions (brought into sharp relief when he took over Justice League and practically wrote Cyborg out of it) or his creating an Asian-centric science fiction setting but neglecting to cast a single Asian.
And then there was his inaction with regard to Serenity novels. While there are now Firefly novels from Titan, which is great, the original deal back in 2005 that Simon & Schuster made was for three books: my novelization of the movie and two original novels. Several authors pitched to S&S (including me), and those pitches were met with resounding silence from Whedon’s office, to the point where S&S had to cancel the other two planned books due to Whedon never approving any of the pitches.
My concerns proved to be, if anything, underestimating the case. Revelations from Whedon’s ex and from Ray Fisher showed that the hero had feet of clay.
The interview is the first time Whedon has spoken publicly since he was all but hung in effigy by the entire universe, and he didn’t waste any time inserting his foot once he opened his mouth. At no point does he take responsibility, and he spends lots of time making excuses. He unconvincingly denies many of the allegations, or tries to downplay them.
The worst is how he responded to Shapiro’s questions about the affairs he had with people working under him on his TV shows.
“I feel fucking terrible about them,” he said. When I pressed him on why, he noted “it messes up the power dynamic,” but he didn’t expand on that thought. Instead, he quickly added that he had felt he “had” to sleep with them, that he was “powerless” to resist. I laughed. “I’m not actually joking,” he said. He had been surrounded by beautiful young women — the sort of women who had ignored him when he was younger — and he feared if he didn’t have sex with them, he would “always regret it.” Looking back, he feels shame and “horror,” he said. I thought of something he had told me earlier. A vampire, he’d said, is the “exalted outsider,” a creature that feels like “less than everybody else and also kind of more than everybody else. There’s this insecurity and arrogance. They do a little dance.”
What a spectacular load of tripe.
Almost as bad is his response to Gal Gadot’s description of the harassment she received on the set of Justice League: “English is not her first language, and I tend to be annoyingly flowery in my speech.” So it’s her fault for misunderstanding him, because her foreign self can’t understand how beautifully he expresses himself. Gak.
Whedon’s horrendous behavior doesn’t change the good work he’s done, any more than JK Rowling’s toxic transphobia changes the good work she’s done. But it’s why it’s often important to separate the art from the artist. Because the artist can be a total piece of garbage and still create great art.
Just don’t assume that the artist is great because the art is. This sort of thing is why I tend to be self-deprecating and modest about my own work. I’ve seen what fulsome praise does to some creative folks, and I don’t want that to happen to me.