In today’s patriarchal society, it is men who are often recognized for their feminist efforts above others. When a man embraces the title of ‘feminist,’ everyone “ooh’s” and “ahh’s” at his bravery and thanks him for his efforts, despite the effort often just being the statement of feminism. The reality is, many male “feminists” do little else besides claiming the title of feminist. In fact, many men use the title itself to avoid being “#MeToo’d” or to evade being questioned as sexist. In particularly insidious instances, such as the case of former New York politician Eric Schneiderman who voted in favor of laws that would advocate for women’s rights while at the same time abusing his wife and mistresses, these men will actively participate in advocating for feminist issues while being horribly abusive and misogynistic behind closed doors.
In the entertainment industry, the man in the hot seat of this issue right now is Joss Whedon. Whedon is perhaps best known for one of his earliest works, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. By placing a bubbly, meek-looking, shoe-loving teenage girl in the driver’s seat of this action-packed monster-of-the-week series, Whedon subverted all expectations of gender roles in television at the time. Since the show aired, it has been analyzed and beloved by academics for its gender-subverting themes and outwardly feminist ideals, which have been explored in its own academic journal, Slayage, created by the Whedon Studies Association. However, since Whedon’s darker side has been coming to light in recent years, it’s important to take a closer look at the underlying messages Buffy was actually sending to the girls and women who grew up looking to this show as their image of girl power and feminism. What does it mean for viewers when a closeted misogynist makes feminist media? What lessons can we learn twenty years post-Buffy; is the damage already done? How can we as consumers and creators of media prevent misogynist ideals from seeping into our work and our society?
Buffy The Vampire Slayer was a force of nature, both the show and the character. In watching the show, Whedon’s feminist merits are clear and it’s immediately obvious why so many girls and women love Buffy. One important point of the show was that despite being the “one and only” slayer, Buffy never worked alone. Whedon surrounded Buffy with powerful women allies like Willow, an extremely powerful witch with a knack for hacking and technological research; Anya, a former vengeance-demon whose emotions are arguably the most powerful thing about her; Cordelia, who, despite being your stereotypical popular mean girl, proves to be a fierce fighter; Dawn, Buffy’s younger sister who starts as a meek child but blossoms into a primary researcher and confident fighter; Tara, a kind and empathetic witch; as well as countless other fierce women who come and go throughout the series.
Whedon has been praised for these consistent displays of powerful femininity in its many different forms and for putting women in positions of power while pushing men into the passenger seat. In fact, acts of toxic masculinity are not only discouraged but actively punished within the show. One of many Buffy academics, Angelica Divito, states in her essay “I Want to be a Macho Man’: Examining Rape Culture, Adolescent Female Sexuality, and the Destabilisation of Gender Binaries in Buffy the Vampire Slayer” that “Whedon routinely punishes macho masculine fantasies and behaviour in BtVS when they centre on diminishing women to inflate male illusions of power.” Additionally, unlike other sci-fi or action stories of prior days, Whedon chose not to masculinize Buffy for her to be considered a “strong woman.” While it can be argued that Buffy performs masculinity in the violence she ensues and therefore is reaffirming patriarchal superiority, she still maintains her own personality and femininity in her style, way of speaking, and interests. Despite being violent, aggressive, and blunt, she still has emotional breakdowns, leans on her friends for emotional support, and indulges in fun, teenage activities like having movie marathons and going to prom. All of this subverts the expectations of an action hero in general, especially subverting the expectations that a female action hero needs to be masculine in order to be as effective as the traditionally male heroes. Whedon wanted to not only challenge the idea of “the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie” to “create someone who was a hero where she had always been a victim,” as he detailed in the DVD commentary for season one, but also to resist the invincible, masculine hero stereotype and to “keep that quirkiness, that vulnerability… She’ll make the joke, she’ll get scared, she’ll be a person in that situation and not just Superman.” Due to these subversions and emphases placed on women being powerful because of their womanhood, Buffy the Vampire Slayer became a fast favorite amongst teenage girls looking to see themselves reflected in media. Subsequently, Whedon became the face of feminist television of the late ’90s and early ’00s, even being honored by Equality Now for his “outstanding contributions to gender equality in film and television,” speaking on multiple occasions about his passion for gender equality and affinity for representing powerful women in his stories.
Obviously, things have taken quite the turn since then. The shift in public opinion of Whedon began in 2017 when Whedon’s ex-wife Kai Cole published a blog detailing his extramarital affairs. Initially, fans and critics were resistant to the idea that a private affair had anything to do with Whedon’s feminist accolades. In the letters Whedon wrote to Cole in which he admitted to the affairs, he wrote, “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.” While one’s marital issues are in no way necessarily correlated to their stances on feminist issues, this line is rather incriminating, as he describes himself as unable to resist his sexual urges towards young women as a person in a position of power. He knew his authority made any romantic or sexual interaction with coworkers or actors an act of coercion, yet he could not resist. More recently, in 2020, actor Ray Fisher took to Twitter to say that Whedon’s “on-set treatment of the cast and crew of Justice League was gross, abusive, unprofessional, and completely unacceptable…”, a statement backed by Gal Gadot and Jason Momoa who both worked on Justice League alongside Whedon and Fisher. Following Fisher’s statement, Buffy actress Charisma Carpenter released her personal experiences of the abuse she faced at the hands of Whedon primarily on the set of the spin-off series Angel. Carpenter’s experiences were backed by Buffy herself, Sarah Michelle Gellar, as well as countless other Buffy actors like Michele Trachtenberg, Amber Benson, James Marsters, David Boreanaz, Eliza Dushku, Buffy stunt double Sophia Crawford and stunt coordinator Josh Pruitt, and writer Jose Molina. To sum up, these actors and industry professionals all assert that Whedon was routinely “casually cruel,” “not appropriate,” “threatening,” an “ego-maniac” and a “hypocrite preaching feminist ideals.”
Now that we are equipped with this knowledge of Whedon’s true nature, what else is lurking in the subtext of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? One main pattern that runs continuously through the series is how Whedon uses female pain as plot devices. It could be argued that this is inevitable considering the titular character is a woman who battles evil daily. However, stacking it up next to what the men in this show experience will reveal a frightening lack of equality in trauma experienced. First of all, when seventeen-year-old Buffy has sex for the first time, it’s with her first love, the 240-ish-year-old vampire, Angel. In addition to the statutory rape angle, Buffy is immediately punished for having sex when Angel turns evil due to the act and proceeds to mentally torture her and her friends for the remainder of the season. He kills one of Buffy’s most coveted allies, the powerful “technopagan” and teacher, Jenny Calendar just to send a message; the first of the entirely unnecessary female deaths. The most notable being Willow’s girlfriend, Tara, whose death happened suddenly and without warning after being an established and beloved part of the show for two seasons.
Whedon maintains that Tara’s death was “necessary” in order for Willow to hit “rock bottom” so her character could complete her full arc, fulfilling the bury-your-gays trope. In the same episode — universally everyone’s least favorite episode — Buffy becomes a survivor of sexual assault after her vampiric former enemy-turned former lover, Spike hits his rock bottom in a harrowing scene that left many of the actors and viewers scarred. Whedon never allows Buffy to process this and the audience never gets to see the effects this has on her. “You tried to rape me — I don’t have the words,” Buffy said and Whedon wrote, refusing to take this opportunity to address a reality that many women experience and take a stance on violence against women. She never speaks on it again. However, Spike in turn gets a major story arc from this assault, leaving Sunnydale to get his soul back in a journey of redemption. The viewers are supposed to forgive him of these actions as Buffy does. Buffy’s involvement in this plot point had very little to do with her or her story. If the series were combed with a fine-tooth, so much more hair-raising, vomit-inducing anti-feminist messages would be discovered. As far as male trauma in the series goes — Buffy’s advisor experiences a great loss when Jenny is killed, as they were romantically involved, and that’s about it. The series explores past traumas of Spike and Angel, but none happen during the time the series takes place that has a lasting impact on the characters or the plot. Whedon almost exclusively uses the trauma of the powerful women he claims to admire and advocate for as the basis of his entertainment.
So what can be done now that we see the misogynistic imprint Joss left throughout Buffy? Unfortunately, there’s no way to ensure that rampant sexists don’t make popular television shows. However, we can continue to look at new media with the critical eye that many will denounce as “political correctness” or “cancel culture.” It is exactly this harsh examination — in real-time, not twenty years too late — that will help us evaluate the themes we’re consuming as a society and weed out the harmful ones. Teaching children media literacy will be a huge tool in this. Children absorb and internalize information at astonishing rates and in ways we still don’t fully understand. According to research compiled by Common Sense Research:
“In adolescence, media use is associated with more tolerant views of sexual harassment and more support for the belief that women are at least partially responsible for their own sexual assaults… including the tolerance of sexual harassment, acceptance of dating violence, and the endorsement of rape myths, a set of beliefs suggesting that women’s behavior and choices are to blame for rape.”
Adolescents watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer would not only internalize the deconstruction of gender roles and the images of powerful women who own their womanhood, but they would also take in the ideas that women’s trauma is a necessary part of life, that sexual assault isn’t a big deal, and that while men may not be a central part of the narrative, a woman’s decisions are always revolving around them. While Whedon imparted some important and valuable ideas of girl-power into the youth of the ‘00s, he also did them a huge disservice by serving up violently misogynistic themes alongside the feminist ones. Unfortunately, they flew under the radar while he hid his hatred and objectification of women behind a mask of equalism.
Dazed writer Marianne Eloise sums it up best by saying that “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.” We can’t erase or ignore Whedon’s significant impact on television and women in media, but we can keep a watchful eye, teach one another how to interpret the media we consume, and continue to challenge ourselves, our peers, and our leaders to listen to the voices of those we’re telling our stories about, and to only tell stories that reduce harm and make a statement.