The One about Joss Whedon

Full disclosure: I never liked Joss Whedon, based on the little I knew about him as a person and for his work.  I am as non-Whedonite as they come, even though some of my best friends are Whedonites, “browncoats” (fans of his show Firefly), et cetera.  Being friends with his fans doesn’t justify me verbally mopping the floor with him; I simply state that I have exposure to his work, even if I don’t voluntarily, actively consume it.

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Two weeks ago, some unfortunate news came out about the personal life of director and all-around creator Joss Whedon, and the impact it has on to his professional life.  (I won’t bore you with the details here, as it’s not all sunshine, lollipops, and family friendliness; if you wish to, so sort through the facts and opinions at your own discretion.)  The feminist ladies at GrokNation discussed the following prompt:

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?

I attempted to offer my own two cents on the subject via Twitter; the result was rambly and weird, kind of like Joss Whedon’s award acceptance speech at Equality Now in ’06.  So here’s my attempt at fleshing out those thoughts.

The first time I heard of Joss Whedon, I was in high school and one of my creative writing homework assignments was to analyze a video of a public speech.  My choices were Steve Jobs giving a commencement speech at a prestigious university, Bill Cosby giving a commencement speech at a prestigious university (ironic, considering the subject we’re about to get into), and that speech Joss Whedon gave at Equality Now.  Because I could, I listened to all three, and ended up choosing Steve Jobs’ speech for analysis.  Cosby gave me the heebie-jeebies; and Whedon’s delivery was boring, poorly paced, and altogether offputtingly lackluster.

Suffice to say, I simply wasn’t sold on Whedon’s declarations of feminism or his competence in speech-giving. (To digress, I later learned that his sole contribution to the X-Men movie was a crude one-liner Wolverine says to Cyclops to prove he’s not a shapeshifter in disguise.  That didn’t impress me either.  Since the man doesn’t believe in G-d, you could say he has no G-d-given talents.  …Too soon?)

Then The Avengers came out, as well as its sequel. Though I never got into Buffy or Firefly, I watched these Marvel movies with interest.  I liked them; they were okay.  Poorly paced at times, a bit like that Equality Now speech, but decent enough that people can applaud genuinely, not out of pity.

But enough snark.  Here’s the thing: The more exposure I had to Whedon’s work, the more I picked up on things that I didn’t consider empowering for women.  (At the time, I wasn’t really aligned with feminism myself, because the feminist values I perceived in the world were so counter to my egalitarian values.  But I still saw things and made observations.)

Two particular instances that jump out in my mind are Black Widow’s “place” in the Avengers Team during Age of Ultron as merely Hulk’s pacifier (hat tip to Veronica at Viva La Feminista for putting it like that in her own article on Whedon), and the character Inara in Firefly.

I could never watch Firefly because I felt it was too sexually explicit for my liking.  I still feel that way, for the record.  I also feel that it is … how do I put this?  Sexually stupid.  The “Companion” Inara, according to Wikipedia, is essentially a comfort woman, a prostitute who not only satisfies a particular character’s physical desires, but his emotional/psychological ones as well.  Basically, she’s not only a prostitute – she’s a doormat too!

Inara, and the other ladies in her socially elevated circle, consider their services to be honorable and are offended when people suggest otherwise.  These alleged on-screen justifications of her line of work seemed to me like gaslighting on the screenwriter’s/creator’s part.

In general, I have serious objections with Black Widow in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.  She’s never had her own movie, she basically just served as eye candy in the standalone superhero movies she guested in, and the things she went through / had to do in Age of Ultron ranged from cringey to painful to hear/see.  I’m not blaming Whedon for all the stupidity surrounding Black Widow, but I do hold his part in it against him.

Now, to actually answer the prompt:

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?

Well, it’s complicated.  It’s easy to boycott the works of someone you already don’t like, whether it’s for their personal flaws or the flaws of their works.  For example, the alleged misdeeds of Woody Allen disgust me to the point that, aside from the fact that his work is simply not compatible with my sensitivities, I will not consume his artistic creations.

But I’m certainly not trying to equate Allen’s alleged misdeeds with Joss Whedon’s.  I suppose a fairer comparison, where I haven’t boycotted a creator for his personal transgressions, is that of Alfred Hitchcock.  I’m a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s post-code black and white thriller movies.  Suspicion – you know, the Alfred Hitchcock movie where Cary Grant is accused of being a criminal and it all goes downhill from there – has to be one of my all-time favorites.

Alfred Hitchcock made good movies, good art, especially for his time.  As a creator/storyteller, I am in awe of him, and I can accept that his flawed portrayals of women are not out of the ordinary for the time period.  But as a person, I find him deplorable.  Like the present-day movie director in question, Hitchcock used his position of power in Hollywood to harass Tippi Hedren, star of The Birds, and very nearly destroyed her career when she flat out refused to be his doormat.

While I would hate to work with someone like that as an actor (specifically, an actress); as a consumer, I’m somehow able to separate the creator’s good work from his personal misdeeds, while being aware of both.  In theory, that’s what I believe is the right thing to do.  (In practice, I’m of course subjective!)

What sets Hitchcock and Whedon’s work apart from, say, Woody Allen’s, for me, is how much redeeming value their work still has to offer.  As noted above, I picked up elements consistent with Whedon’s tendencies and actual views on beautiful women when I watched his contributions to The Avengers saga; but there was more to the plot.  I smiled more than frowned the last time I watched a Whedon-made Marvel movie.

I’ll probably watch Avengers: Infinity War (can we stop having wars among the Avengers, PLEASE?!?!) when my local library buys a copy.  I think that’s a nice, happy medium between never watching a Joss Whedon movie or show again; and going out of my way to buy a ticket to see it in theater, which (as far as I know) gives its crew/cast the most benefit.  I’ll probably even enjoy the movie about as much as the last one.  But my eyes are now opened to the director’s flaws; that’ll definitely put a damper on the movie’s entertainment value.

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