What Joss Whedon’s return to TV means in the #MeToo era

Joss Whedon is making a return to television with The Nevers, which he will write, direct, executive produce, and show run.

After competition from other networks and services, including Netflix, the Joss Whedon science-fiction drama landed a straight-to-series order with HBO. It’s reported that the show will center on a group of Victorian women who learn they have special abilities, which starts them on a mission to save the world, even as they face enemies on all sides.

Many Whedon fans will applaud the return of the geek auteur to series television. After all, that’s where he made his name. Over two decades after it first aired, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is still a feminist touchstone. Further, while it was unceremoniously canceled by Fox during its original run, Firefly remains a cult favorite with legions of fans.

Because of Joss Whedon’s association with Buffy, in particular, he’s been touted as a feminist. And he’s used his feminist cred to his advantage, crafting a progressive image that his fans embraced and championed.

Yet, that image has been tarnished since the release of the Whedon-written and directed Avengers: Age of Ultron. That script featured an unsavory joke by Tony Stark about re-instituting prima nocta. It also contained a controversial line in which Natasha Romanov tells Bruce Banner she’s a monster. The line was juxtaposed with her tale of forced sterilization, causing many viewers to feel Whedon was implying a woman’s inability to bear children made her monstrous.

Then, last year, a blog by Whedon’s ex-wife Kai Cole was posted on The Wrap in which Cole accuses Whedon of cheating repeatedly during their marriage, gaslighting her, and using his position of power to attract and seduce his female employees and fans.

Cole’s piece came out just before the revelations about other Hollywood men that led to the #MeToo movement, and for those of us in the Whedon fan community, it was a big deal. It threw a spotlight on Joss Whedon’s private life that contrasted with the public persona Whedon fans were familiar with.

How could we reconcile these revelations with the geek-feminist icon we thought we knew?

Of course, what Joss Whedon did wasn’t on the level of Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, or many of the men toppled by the #MeToo movement.

While Cole wrote that Whedon had numerous affairs, no one has come forward to accuse him of inappropriately using his power to coerce them into sex. And the act of cheating in and of itself isn’t anti-feminist — wives cheat on their husbands, too.

Nevertheless, the idea of Whedon using his power to pursue affairs with subordinate women is problematic. That he was so intoxicated with his ability to attract young, beautiful women who wouldn’t look at him twice if he didn’t have his own TV show isn’t feminist. It’s the impulse of any male who just wants what they want from a woman and will take it if they can.

In the wake of what we know now, Whedon’s work is ripe for re-examination. This is the kind of cultural re-examination that seems inevitable as progress is made towards gender equality.

It’s hard not to admit that there were some moments in Buffy that don’t live up to the show’s feminist reputation. While the show was groundbreaking in its day and largely stands the test of time, there are certain plot points that today would likely be questioned by fans on social media. I’m thinking in particular of the almost-rape of Buffy by a former lover and the brainwashing and murder of a villain’s ex-girlfriend.

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There are moments like these throughout Whedon’s other work, too. Although in my mind, the two-season run of Dollhouse was the worst offender. While it remains a cult favorite, the first several episodes of the show featured an icky rape-of-the-week format as Eliza Dushku’s brainwashed Echo services men without consent.

For some people, the problems in Whedon’s public works are symbolic of the issues in his private life. Fans must grapple with how much the revelations about who Whedon is behind closed doors impacts how they view his movies and TV shows. How much can we separate the artist from the art?

Many factors go into this judgment call, and in the case of Whedon, it’s further complicated by the fact that many fans feel so connected to their favorite Whedon story.

In my upcoming book Finding Truth in Fiction, I discuss the stories I’ve collected from Buffy fans, many of whom shared highly personal narratives about how the show came along at just the right time in their lives and changed them for the better. This is a powerful thing. It creates a bond between a show and a fan, and the creator of the show by extension.

As a result, many fans feel personally attached to Whedon. So his betrayal of his pro-feminist stance in his private life also betrayed fans’ trust in him.

Ultimately, every fan needs to decide for themselves whether this means they can no longer watch Buffy and Whedon’s other work, including his upcoming HBO show.

Regardless, Whedon’s work should continue to be subjected to a critical analysis. I’m not talking about Twitter trolling or jumping to conclusions. I mean a measured viewing and constructive critique of what his work is saying, how it’s saying it, and what it communicates to us as an audience.

Before Age of Ultron and Cole’s revelations, Whedon’s reputation as a feminist was so widely accepted that fans often viewed his work as a safe feminist space, even when perhaps that wasn’t entirely true (see, for example, Loki calling Natasha a “mewling quim” in Avengers).

Whedon’s work, especially his new show, which once again appears to be very female-centric, should be scrutinized by fans. And when fans notice something problematic, they should say something.

Whedon shouldn’t be allowed to rest on his laurels. I hope The Nevers is a female-empowering triumph. But the world has changed since Whedon’s most well-known feminist work, and some of the tropes that worked then wouldn’t work today.

Joss Whedon must update his feminism for a 2018 audience. Fingers crossed for his success.

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