Since the early days of his career, Joss Whedon has been lauded as the most righteous of all things: A Feminist Man. By the 90s’ low bar, it’s not hard to see why: he created and wrote Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a film (and then a far more popular show) where a teenage girl, of all people, is strong and quippy all while being extremely girly and beautiful. He continued to court the feminist label, creating a few more shows and films with similarly strong, beautiful women, but never quite managing to escape accusations that he isn’t the feminist he claims to be.
Problematic threads run through a lot of Whedon’s work, but depending on how you read it, they’re hardly conclusive evidence that he’s a bad person. Now, though, Whedon’s ex-wife Kai Cole has written a damning blog for The Wrap on her 16-year marriage to him. It’s not an easy read, especially if you are a fan of Whedon or were previously under the illusion that he is actually any good for women. In the post, Cole accuses Whedon of multiple infidelities, and of being a hypocrite for how he treated her. Despite her usually private exterior, Cole says that she feels compelled to go on the record because she doesn’t think it is fair to her or other women “to remain silent any longer”.
Cole’s blog isn’t an easy read, but it’s maybe not actually a shocking one to anyone who’s watched Whedon’s career closely. His actions have never quite matched his ideals, most notably, allegedly firing Charisma Carpenter from Angel for being pregnant. It’s something that she’s discussed repeatedly in interviews, saying among other things “I’m sure Joss Whedon was disappointed in me for being pregnant, which I know he was”. Making your anger at an employee becoming pregnant known and consequently firing her for it is unacceptable in any circumstance, but for a man who made his career off the back of being lauded as a feminist, it’s especially hypocritical.
In the post, Cole cites Buffy as the turning point of their marriage, stating that “there were times in our relationship that I was uncomfortable with the attention Joss paid other women. He always had a lot of female friends, but he told me it was because his mother raised him as a feminist, so he just liked women better. He said he admired and respected females, he didn’t lust after them. I believed him and trusted him” she adds that, “on the set of Buffy, Joss decided to have his first secret affair.”
“He said he admired and respected females, he didn’t lust after them. I believed him and trusted him” – Kai Cole
Joss Whedon has always claimed that with Buffy, he was flipping the script of Hollywood so that the young, beautiful blonde got to do the killing rather than be sexualised and killed. He has also claimed that he didn’t even know feminism was a “thing” until he left home, which is ignorant enough in itself, but he claims that it wasn’t until he got to Hollywood and heard “the very casual, almost insidious misogyny that just runs through so much of the fiction” that he realised the world had a problem with women. He says that it was staggering to him.
Now, maybe Joss Whedon has never knowingly said or done anything misogynistic. But he perhaps did become the archetypal Hollywood sleazebag that he claimed to be so vehemently against. Cole states that when he wrote to her to confess his infidelities, he said that “when I was running Buffy, I was surrounded by beautiful, needy, aggressive young women. It felt like I had a disease, like something from a Greek myth. Suddenly I am a powerful producer and the world is laid out at my feet and I can’t touch it.” But, Cole says, he did touch it. He gave in and he had an affair, adding that he understood that he would “have to lie – or conceal some part of the truth – for the rest of my life”. He admitted to her that he had multiple affairs with actresses, co-workers, friends, and fans.
Cole’s blog is a sad, but not surprising, commentary on the way that so many so-called “male feminists” conduct themselves. There is something in being comfortable in that they call themselves a feminist; that they think it’s enough. They stop challenging themselves or being willing to learn and grow. There is an additional layer of insidiousness at play here, too, as the fact that Whedon apparently had affairs with co-workers and actresses hints at unfair power dynamics. Perhaps he didn’t realise that as the boss in charge of many women, many of whom were almost 20 years younger than him, he had the upper hand. Or perhaps he did know, which is worse.
Joss wrote to Cole that “as a guilty man I knew the only way to hide was to act as though I were righteous”. She directly attacks his hypocrisy as the figurehead for geek feminism, stating that Joss “never conceded the hypocrisy of being out in the world preaching feminist ideals, while at the same time, taking away my right to make choices for my life and my body based on the truth”. Damningly, she adds that, “I believed, everyone believed, that he was one of the good guys, committed to fighting for women’s rights, committed to our marriage, and to the women he worked with. But I now see how he used his relationship with me as a shield, both during and after our marriage, so no one would question his relationships with other women or scrutinise his writing as anything other than feminist”.
“He never conceded the hypocrisy of being out in the world preaching feminist ideals, while at the same time, taking away my right to make choices for my life and my body based on the truth” – Kai Cole
Cole cites the damage that Whedon’s affairs, and the covering up of them, have had on her psyche. She states that she “went from being a strong, confident woman, to a confused, frightened mess” adding that she was “eventually diagnosed with Complex PTSD”. She is clear on what she wants from her candidness: she wants “to let women know that he is not who he pretends to be”, for “the people who worship him to know he is human”, and for “the organisations giving him awards for his feminist work, to think twice in the future about honouring a man who does not practice what he preaches”.
A spokesperson for Joss Whedon told The Wrap that “while this account includes inaccuracies and misrepresentations which can be harmful to their family, Joss is not commenting, out of concern for his children and out of respect for his ex-wife” which, on the surface, can be read as actual respect. Or it can be read as cowardly and dismissive and another act of gaslighting his long-suffering ex-wife.
You can comb Whedon’s work and words for misogynistic content all day long. You’ll find a whole lot of it, depending on how you read it or what your standards for Good Male Feminist are. But that is up for interpretation: Kai Cole’s blog, and her brave confession, are not. It serves as a warning to all of us: we cannot trust men based solely on their word or the labels they give themselves. Whedon’s alleged behaviour comes as no surprise to those of us who’ve had to learn the telltale signs of a dangerous man, no matter how geeky or harmless or feminist they appear to be. Being a good ally to women isn’t as simple as calling yourself a feminist: it’s actions, it’s words, it’s actually defending the rights of women. It’s elevating the voices of women you don’t want to fuck. It’s being willing to be challenged.
Cole’s blog is disheartening, and all we can really take away from it is what we already knew – don’t trust a man based only on his word and the fact that he “loves women”. Because Joss Whedon does love women! He loves the fictional ones he writes to be strong and sexy and silent. He loves the ones who can’t talk back. He loves them until they want his loyalty or their own autonomy. He loves them as long as it gets him kudos and fame. Because make no mistake: Joss Whedon has built his empire off the back of claiming to be a feminist and a Good Man. His work is good in its own right, but his glowing public profile is based on pretending to be a feminist, and it was only a matter of time until the cracks that were always showing completely burst open. Whether or not these accusations will actually impact his career remains to be seen. There is every chance that he will get off scot free; that the people who hire and idolise him will brush this off as a domestic issue. But it can serve as a lesson to all of us.