[Photo: Everett Collection; Illustration: Dillen Phelps]
Over the last several years, we’ve learned that, while some of our favorite entertainers may be good at making us laugh or feel or appreciate art, they might be pretty awful human beings. And then, as fans of the culture they created, we have a choice: do we stay loyal to the stars we love, find a way to divorce the person from the media they create and enjoy it regardless, or do we end our adoration and boycott all past and future culture products that they create? And thanks to Joss Whedon, this question isn’t just theoretical.
Whedon is best known for creating the popular series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and has had a hand (either writing, directing and/or producing) some of your favorites like Toy Story, Roseanne, Firefly, The Avengers, and more. Recently, Kai Cole, Whedon’s ex-wife posted an essay detailing his pattern of cheating throughout their marriage. Folks aren’t upset (with some even boycotting his work) because he cheated on his wife, but rather, because he portrays himself as a Male Feminist™ and not only used his power position as director/producer to his sexual advantage with co-workers and actresses, but also deeply gaslit his ex through it all.
As we’ve seen before with tons of others (Louis CK, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, etc…) folks have strong feelings over whether or not to continue supporting a creative person’s work when their personal life is complete trash. We reached out to our favorite feminists — many of whom are diehard fans of much of Whedon’s work — to find out what they think.
Where do we draw the line as consumers of entertainment when “your favorite is problematic”? Should/do you separate the person and his choices from his professional product, or do you drop your support?
Rachael Berkey: “I think it’s important to engage with the entertainment we consume. I can enjoy the products that people create, without showering them with praise, when I think that their behavior is less than feminist. The slippery slope is when you start defending a creator’s feminist behavior blindly rather than actively listening to critiques. Just because you find something benign doesn’t mean that others aren’t offended by it. It’s important we continue having these conversations.”
Ruth Dawkins: “It’s not so much that I make a conscious choice about whether to continue supporting someone’s work when their bad behaviour has been exposed; it’s more that it’s an instinctive reaction. If I know that an actor has been abusive to his wife, for example, I have a pretty visceral reaction to seeing them on screen. That means that no matter how good the movie is, I’m not going to get any enjoyment from it, so I will definitely avoid it. If I’m forced to sit and consume something (film, tv show, music etc) involving someone problematic — e.g. I’m at a work or school event I can’t get out of — then I’ll make a point of saying something like ‘great actor, shame he’s such an asshole’ — in an attempt to open up a conversation about it.”
Molly Tolsky: “First off, I just want to say that I still have no clue who Joss Whedon is. But anyway, this is a question that plagues me all the time and I still haven’t come up with a solution I feel good about. Of course I don’t want to support misogynists, rapists, very bad people. But I also, on principle, believe in separating the art from the artist. And I know that it’s impossible for me to know the personal histories of every artist, musician, and writer I love, so there’s a chance I’ve been supporting/championing bad folks all the time. Which makes me sad. This is all to say that I really don’t have an answer to this question!”
Jennifer Pozner: “I take a hard line as a media critic when Hollywood or the music industry actively profit from and are complicit in sexual assault or other kinds of violence by its cash cows (think R. Kelly, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Jian Ghomeshi). Culpability rests with the industry that props up celebrity abusers for profit, rather than on individuals who listen to a song or watch a film — though fans share some responsibility for continued support of artists enabled to keep perpetrating abuse because of their fans’ financial fuel. Still, I’m not sure it’s fair to ask fans to stop enjoying the work of artists who are simply assholes, but not violent or aggressively discriminatory.
So, for example: I enjoyed dancing to cheesy Ace of Base songs like other 90s kids, but I won’t sing them at nostalgia karaoke after learning that their lead singer was a neo-Nazi skinhead before he turned to whitewashed (sad pun intended) pop. His lyrical attempts to radicalize listeners into embracing hatred of and violence against Jews, Black people, immigrants, and others is a clear reason to shun his work. On the other hand, the growing tendency to discard any public figure who says or does something we don’t like can be shortsighted when their behavior doesn’t rise to broader sociopolitical relevance. As gross as Joss Whedon’s comments about being ‘surrounded by beautiful, needy, aggressive young women… Suddenly I am a powerful producer and the world is laid out at my feet and I can’t touch it’ on the Buffy set were, and as disrespectful as his affairs were to his wife, that doesn’t rise to the level of requiring fans to throw away his work (though like any artist, the content of his work itself is always fair game for substantive critique around gender, race, sexuality, and more). He’s not a feminist in his personal relationships, but douchey behavior isn’t the place where the ‘discard this person as a creator, and discount their work’ line should get drawn. It would be different if he sexually harassed or discriminated against coworkers, but lying/cheating seems an unreasonable standard: if we extend the line to assholes, how much art would we have left to consume? Shady jerks are everywhere in the industry.”
Casey O’Brien: “I have been thinking a lot recently about how we treat others and what that means for the identities we give ourselves. Can you say you care about the poor and refuse to tip the waitress? Sure, but you won’t be remembered by that waitress for your commitment to her struggle. The same applies to Whedon. He can call himself a feminist, but if in the most intimate of relationships he does not act with respect, the label is meaningless. If we forgive that behavior and compartmentalize it, we send a message to his wife that she doesn’t matter, that her voice has no weight in our community. Is that fair? Is that feminist? Absolutely not. Our behavior defines us, not speeches we give.“
K.M. O’Sullivan: “Do we lose our credibility when we don’t shun or condemn entertainers for their personal behaviors? Yes. No. It’s mood-dependent. The first step to balancing one’s principles with real life is to remember we’re only human. We will be imperfect. We will laugh inappropriately in one moment and the then come down too hard on others for their laughter. Despite our best efforts to live in a way that honors what we believe, we will undoubtedly fail if we don’t leave a little grey area in our lives for the world of arts and entertainment. I often give entertainers the benefit of the doubt when they screw up (and let’s be clear, I’m not talking about abuse or assault — those are non-starters). I give room for people to make choices in their personal lives. To do otherwise would be hypocritical and unrealistic, especially if I find the work of the artist to be profound and important. Many, if not all creators, will be unable to live up to what is edited into something for us to consume. They are entertainers, not saints.”
Veronica Arreola: “I know that there are people waiting to see if I renounce my Buffy fandom and stop quoting the show now that Joss is fully revealed. You too might have that person in your life salivating at watching you squirm and ready to remind you of your Cosby, Woody Allen, and Casey Affleck boycotts. They are probably the same people who ask you to outline in detail why you go to Target, but won’t set foot in a Wal-Mart. Well, ignore them. If you are like me, Joss and the universe he created means so much to you that you need time to mourn the myth.
If you cry at the end of [Buffy episodes] ‘Chosen,’ and ‘The Body’ is the only piece of pop culture that brings you solace after your mom’s death, I get ya. He made that for us. His art is still beautiful, even with the gigantic hole he blasted through it. But I am filing for custody.
But the hole he shot through the idea of feminist men is the hole I’m most worried about. Where is the line between men who support feminism, do the work, but stay back versus men who support the work but don’t show up? Is it as simple as asking them to step back and girls to the front? [more on this subject at author’s blog here]”
Esther Kustanowitz: “The Joss Whedon situation hit me hard, because I was a huge fan of his work and saw him as such a champion of women. (I even wrote about it once, and that last episode of Buffy, as girls everywhere wake up to their own power, still makes me cry even while writing about it. Seriously. Just watched it again, and waterworks.) I even remembered being jealous when I heard an early demo version of some ‘Once More with Feeling’ songs sung by Kai; I imagined them in an equally partnered space of feminism, respect, music, humor and love that I was envious of and wanted for my own. But this was a reminder again that you never know what’s going on in someone else’s relationship; that our idols have feet of clay; that in Hollywood, image is cultivated and constructed with a purpose. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be Kai, learning that her husband had betrayed and having to live in a world that idolized her husband for his support of women. But I also can’t put aside the culture he created — perhaps, at least with the earlier of his works, while his vision and leadership was at the helm, it’s worth celebrating the many many others who worked to expand ideas, creatively imagining and building those universes with him. For future works? This isn’t a ‘Cosby situation,’ so I’m not in the ‘boycott’ camp, but as I consume, and probably enjoy, the creative works where he’s had an impact, I’ll focus any appreciation on his writing talent, but will be significantly less worshipful of the man and his presence in the world.”