Recent accusations have been made against the poster boy of the 21st Century empowered female, Joss Whedon. Whedon has been celebrated for writing strong, female characters such as Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, and having been presented with awards from organisations like Equality Now.He has risen to become an influential mover and shaker in Hollywood, directing two of the biggest summer blockbusters of all time, The Avengers (2012), and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). When Zac Snyder was forced to pull out of the much anticipated Justice League movie this year, Whedon was tapped to finish reshoots and edits. He has gone from cult icon to A-list director with an army of loyal fans at his back cheering him on. And all the while he has been waving the banner for female equality and empowerment.
So it comes as something of a blow to hear that he is alleged to have been carrying out multiple affairs with “actresses, co-workers, fans and friends, while he stayed married to [his wife].” If this is true, then it puts the lie to such a person’s respect of women, as well as the gender politics that such a person has been preaching. However, can someone be a serial adulterer and still respect women? Can we overlook the tremendous damage he has done to the one woman, his wife–perhaps we call that a weakness in his character, a sort of addiction perhaps, or something beyond his control–can we then take the art and the message as separate to the man and the artist? Can we allow Joss Whedon to be a flawed man but still a good feminist?
I would argue no, because the disconnect between the ideals championed and the politics preached are right there in the art itself. As someone intimately familiar with the movies and TV shows that Whedon has written and directed, as well as his entire comic book output (yes, even Runaways), there was always an element of his feminism that jarred with me, that didn’t quite fit, and that was how his female characters used sex. I believed it at the time to be just a difference of opinion between his idea of feminism and mine, but now I believe that it was an intentional seeding of misogyny with the intent to create an environment to enable a broken lifestyle. When I heard a report of the accusation immediately three elements of his work came to mind to support this: the character of Inara, the premise of Dollhouse, and the Firefly episode Hearts of Gold.
Inara Serra is a character in the TV show Firefly (2002) and the movie Serenity (2005). She is a “Companion”, or more regularly, a freelance prostitute. This is explained as a noble profession and a societal service. In a coarse universe, promising young women are trained as mistresses of sensuality and pleasure. Classy, and selective, she is empowered because it is her choice as to whom she will sleep with. This is a lifestyle that frustrates one of the male leads of the show, Malcolm Reynolds, who is in love with Inara and must watch her lead man after man into her room to pleasure for entire days at a time.
This character trait is not a one off, it is consistent through Whedon’s writing. In the Buffy TV show, when a female character becomes sexually aware, then they must use that sexuality by sleeping with someone. Even if that experience brings painful or unfortunate consequences, it is never an option not to sleep with someone. Sexual freedom is a large and complex issue, however, as Whedon writes it, it is relatively straightforward: women must be having sex, or they are not empowered.
I’ll admit that I haven’t seen much of Dollhouse (2009). The premise sounded promising, that a girl used as a bodily vessel for whatever personality rich and powerful people want to imbue her with starts to remember her past life and understand the dark origin of the company that is using her. I watched the first episode, thinking that it would start with a woman, in the act of the advertised act, realising that she is being abused and deciding to kick some ass, waging a one-woman war on a huge shadow organisation. And off the back of Buffy, that was not an unrealistic expectation. But that’s not what happened in the first episode at all. The outrageous wrongs of the situation were only mildly hinted at, mostly they were shown to be a useful tool for the protagonist to use–her new identity help bring down a child molestation ring. This formula continued in the next episode, and the next. The moral issue of the advantage taken of the female lead’s body was pushed into the background, not even as a B-plot, but as a series arc. Was this just weak tea, or was there also a more bitter flavour in the dilution? I chose to give the benefit of the doubt at the time and consider the project only misjudged.
The Firefly episode Heart of Gold (2003) is by far my least favourite episode of a very good series. Not officially written by Whedon, it is nonetheless consistent with the above notion and the script would have undoubtedly been okayed by him as series creator and executive producer. A group of men are exploiting women in a bordello and the crew of the ship Firefly step in to stop them. But the liberated women don’t stop selling their bodies to people, they only stop giving their male overlords a cut of their profits. As anyone who has any real knowledge of the sex trade, this idea is insidious if it is not laughable. The greatest myth put about by the industry is that the women who strip or have sex for money are there by choice, that it is their decision, and that they are empowered by doing so. This is not true in the slightest and the excuse is used to throw a blanket over a host of profoundly terrifying evils.
This is what I call the lie of modern feminism, that a woman’s sexuality is something like a sword, a weapon that is only powerful if it is used. And who does Mr Whedon say it should be used on? Why, really special guys, of course. People who are charming and funny, who really get women, who are powerful and sensitive. In truth, sex is something that is more devalued the more it is spread around. Sex means very little to the philanderer. He might enjoy it and gorge on it like so many cheeseburgers, but he doesn’t prize it as something uniquely beautiful. He won’t know the sacred intimacy that it can bring between two people because in the end he is left with only himself and the lie that he has become.
In this way the modern feminist of this stripe is really worse that the old patriarch because he is the ancient misogynist. In the old patriarchal system that we read about in Victorian novels, often criticised as being too chaste, women are often viewed as possessions, but ones that must be protected and kept pure. This is certainly wrong, but how much more is that wrong compounded by those that see women as beings or objects “to conquer and acquire — specifically sexually“? I now doubt that Whedon’s work is the result of a feminist of a different philosophical orientation, but not a feminist at all. And in all fairness, he may turn out to not be even half of what he has been painted to be–then again, he might be worse. In either case, he won’t be the largest predator in the entertainment industry–a business where men are all powerful and in which there is a high female turnover. But although we fight and rage against Herod all our lives, and though he might kill us in the end, it is Judas who hurts us most, even if his blow is just a kiss.