Whedon, Fandom, and Cancel Culture

By Alissa Whitmore

“A guy who goes around saying ‘I’m a feminist’ usually has an agenda that is not feminist. A guy who behaves like one, who actually becomes involved in the movement, generally speaking, you can trust that. And it doesn’t just apply to the action that is activist. It applies to the way they treat the women they work with and they live with and they see on the street.” – Joss Whedon, 2014 (with credit to Kelly Faircloth, who featured this quote in an article about the current allegations against Whedon) 

On February 10, 2021, Charisma Carpenter, who played the role of Cordelia on pop culture touchstone Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1996-1999) and it’s spinoff Angel (1999-2004), accused showrunner and geek god Joss Whedon of a pattern of on-set cruelty, abuse, and creating a hostile work environment. While this was not the first report of Whedon’s abusive behavior, Carpenter’s detailed allegations offer a public and more detailed window into the writer/director/producer’s harassment and extreme lapses in professionalism. 

Carpenter says Whedon’s abusive behavior was ongoing while she worked for him, but identifies her pregnancy while working on Angel in 2002 as a focal point, during which he accused her of getting pregnant to sabotage the show, criticized her weight, attacked her character and religious beliefs, and fired her once her child was born.

During the pop culture convention DragonCon in 2009, Carpenter described her relationship with Whedon as strained and attributed her character’s odd story arc (in which heroic Cordelia was possessed by an evil god-like entity, which forced her to seduce her love interest’s son, get pregnant, and give birth to it in corporeal form, ultimately resulting in her death) as the result of Whedon’s anger over Carpenter’s own pregnancy. She also shared that, despite 8 years working on Buffy and Angel, she learned that she wouldn’t be returning for the next season when the press asked about it, and that Angel producers later lied about their plans for her character so that she would agree to return. 

Overwhelmingly, Carpenter has been publicly supported by her Buffy and Angel cast members. While Anthony Head and Eliza Dushku indicated that they were previously unaware of Carpenter’s experiences, other Buffy alums added to the allegations against Whedon. Amber Benson notes that “Buffy was a toxic environment and it starts at the top.” Michelle Trachtenberg, who acted on Buffy as a teenager, said that Whedon’s behavior was “Very. Not. Appropriate,” and at a certain point, he was “not allowed in a room alone with Michelle again.” 

Other Buffy cast and crew members have also alluded to Whedon’s questionable behavior. Buffy lead Nicholas Brendon acknowledged that “there were transgressions” and in his own relationship with Whedon, “there’s a lot of kindness. But also, not, you know?” While James Marsters notes that he didn’t know of Carpenter’s experiences, he states that “the Buffy set was not without challenges.” In 2020, Marsters previously shared in an interview that Whedon, apparently angry that fans were romantically attracted to his character Spike, “backed me up against a wall one day, and he was just like ‘I don’t care how popular you are, kid, you’re dead. You hear me? You’re dead! Dead!’” 

Screengrab from Marsters’ interview with Michael Rosenbaum, here recreating Whedon’s outburst: “You’re dead. You hear me? You’re dead! Dead!” Credit

Buffy stunt coordinator Jeff Pruitt and stunt double Sophia Crawford alleged in 2020 that Whedon and other showrunners asked Crawford stop dating Pruitt if she wanted to return to the show, and when the couple refused, Whedon told them “no one will ever hire you again after this.” Jeff Mariotte, who collaborated with Whedon on Buffy and Angel books and comics, has said that Carpenter’s allegations align with what he has seen and heard about Whedon, who “pretends to be a feminist.” Jose Molina, who wrote for another Whedon show, Firefly, in 2002-2003, supported Carpenter’s assertion that Whedon was “casually cruel” and added that he enjoyed making female writers cry.  Kater Gordon, who worked with and has spoken out against harassment from tv showrunners with Buffy writer and producer Marti Noxon, has said that Whedon’s bad behavior was well known in some circles prior to 2020.

After Carpenter’s public allegations, Variety published a report based on interviews with 11 individuals who worked on or were familiar with the productions of Buffy and Angel, and who were guaranteed anonymity. The report states that Whedon and other writers were openly dismissive of Carpenter’s acting and that the studio forced him to hire her. During Buffy and Angel, Carpenter confided in at least one coworker, saying that Whedon was verbally abusive. A source confirmed that Whedon was kept from being alone with Trachtenberg after an improper verbal exchange, and that Trachtenberg’s mother was frustrated by the set’s atmosphere, which included adult and hurtful jokes. Several people likened the set to high school, with Whedon playing favorites and openly critical of those who were “out”. And that there were frequent rumors of the showrunner’s workplace affairs with female subordinates.

The Cult of Whedon

Whedon gained a tremendous amount of fame, credibility, and power through the creation of Buffy, Angel, and later, cult hits Firefly and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Buffy scholar Matthew Pateman notes that Whedon built a brand as a celebrity producer by engaging with Buffy fans on online discussion boards, at conventions, and through dvd commentaries. Television critic and Buffy fan Robyn Bahr argues that Whedon became a star as much as any of his characters or actors. Fans wrote songs about him and idolized him as a god. There was an annual convention, Whedoncon, celebrating the works of the “Whedonverse.”

This shirt was popular in the late 00s / early 10s.

Whedon and Buffy were embraced by academia for their social commentary and use of myth and allegory, with countless articles, books, and book series published about the creator and his works. The scholarly Whedon Studies Association has been studying Whedon’s works since 2009 (the show went off the air in 2003), producing the peer-reviewed, open access journal, Slayage: The Journal of Whedon Studies, twice a year. Buffy was incorporated into numerous college classes to provide an entry point for students studying philosophy, psychology, anthropology, feminism, language, literary tropes, and the media.

Most of all, with the creation of Buffy and its depiction of powerful female characters, Whedon was heralded as a feminist, a moniker which he embraced into his brand. Jezebel senior editor Kelly Faircloth notes that in the media landscape of the late 1990s, the character of Buffy stood out and that she “was so beloved, in fact, that she earned Whedon a similarly privileged place in fans’ hearts and a broader reputation as a man who championed empowered women characters.” Buffy defined feminism for a generation of fans, replacing the trope of the damsel in distress with a small, blonde cheerleader who defeats monsters, and the show helped Whedon win several awards from and a place within the feminist organization Equality Now years later.

Feminist Critiques of Whedon & the Whedonverse

In spite of the beloved status of Buffy and Whedon, fans and tv critics have questioned the feminism portrayed in Buffy and Whedon’s other works, particularly as time has passed.

Rewatching Buffy during the pandemic, fan and writer Alison Stine noticed the jokes about breasts and lesbianism which she missed as a teen, and how the main character Xander romantically pursues an uninterested Buffy and slut-shames his female friends. Spike’s attempted rape of Buffy is contextualized within the show in a way that perpetuates rape culture, with Buffy being silenced and the event never meaningfully discussed, making it easy for viewers to forget that it occurred and accept Spike as a hero the following season (Fall 2018). In Angel, the three main female characters are killed off to further the story arcs of male leads, and according to Executive Producer Tim Minear, one of the first Firefly stories that Whedon pitched to him included the gang-rape of Inara, after which the male lead finally stopped slut-shaming her for being a courtesan. Looking back on Whedon’s Dollhouse (2009-2010), The Mary Sue editor Jessica Mason notes how pervasively the show objectifies female characters and regularly and uncritically depicts rape. Bahr notes that Whedon and his shows cemented the sci-fi, fantasy, and action trope of empowered women as young, sexy, physically strong, and violent, who gain power primarily through loss and victimization. 

Whedon’s forays into the Marvel and DC Universes also have problematic portrayals of female superheroes. His script for Wonder Woman, written in 2005-2006 and unshot, provides an introduction to Diana which objectifies and sexualizes her body, which is “curvaceous, but taut as a drawn bow.” In Whedon’s Wonder Woman, Diana dances sexily to distract the bad guys (and delight the good guys) and is chained in a “torn and tawdry outfit” by the villain, who demands that she submit. Blogger Kereea describes the script as an outmoded feminist fantasy, in which women need to prove men wrong. In Whedon’s Wonder Woman:

“both the heroic and villainous men act like creeps and belittle Diana, sexualize Diana, lecture Diana … guys who are heroes are going to treat women as badly (or even just almost as badly) as the bad guys and the only difference is the heroic guys are the ones who change their minds when she ‘proves herself’ … It’s simultaneously discouraging to women and insulting to men by saying that all men are pigs and women just have to deal with that … The idea of a guy who’s not a pig is not a thing … Women having to ‘prove’ ourselves more than men before being taken seriously is not aspirational fantasy anymore.”

Bloggers have also noted Whedon’s sexualized introductions of Black Widow and Maria Hill in his 2012 Avenger’s script, and his Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) has also been critiqued for a scene in which Black Widow calls herself a monster for being infertile, reductively associating femininity with motherhood and functioning reproductive organs. 

A powerful and overarching critique of the Whedonverse is that its feminism centers upon the white, middle and upper class and lacks intersectionality – the idea that race, class, sexuality, gender, and other facets of identity combine to shape how someone experiences the world, discrimination, and privilege

There is an entire book devoted to the “Whedonverses’ often-problematic depictions of race and ethnicity that frequently reinforce the very social hierarchies and oppressive institutions they simultaneously challenge” (Iatropoulos & Woodall III 2017, 6). Buffy fans, scholars, and even show writers have highlighted the lack of racially diverse actors, with Mr. Trick, a Black vampire in Season 3, remarking that it is “strictly the Caucasian persuasion in the ‘Dale.” (Faith, Hope & Trick, Ep. 3.03). Whedon has stated that he didn’t make a point to hire people of color for Buffy, or female directors, and while he originally wanted a Black actress to play Cordelia, the WB was unwilling to depict an interracial romance (Gross & Altman 2017). Fans have noted that Buffy’s few Black characters die quickly, and sometimes for no apparent reason, and Mexican culture is trivialized and used as set dressing. While the First Slayer, whose power created all future slayers, was Black, “her portrayal was deeply primitivist. Depicted as a noble savage, she also lacked any autonomy.” Viewers are introduced to her as a person with “no speech, no name,” and she initially can only communicate through the voice of a white woman (Restless, Ep. 4.22). Firefly and Serenity depict a universe with a single global culture made up of a mish-mash of Asian elements (ie. geisha figures, cursing in Mandarin, saris, and chopsticks), establishing an exotic, Other future by appropriating Asian cultures while featuring no Asian actors in significant roles (Wright 2005).

Sineya (The First Slayer), who is here voiced by Tara (in the background, wearing a vaguely Indian-inspired outfit). Screengrab from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Restless, Ep. 4.22

Buffy and her friends frequently use ableist language and a one-off episode teases an institutionalized Buffy, whose mental illness may have created the last six seasons of the show. Firefly and it’s movie sequel Serenity continue the theme of mentally ill people as “out of control, violent, and unnatural,” and incurable (Ferguson 2018, 141). The unstable character River is the victim of government experiments, which have given her martial arts prowess, psychic powers, and schizophrenia. The series’ terrifyingly violent and cannibalistic Reavers, who are portrayed overwhelmingly by and coded as people of color, are later revealed to be people who have been driven mad by another government experiment (Ferguson 2018).

While Buffy was an early show that prominently featured a lesbian couple, Tara’s death from a stray bullet aligns with the Bury Your Gays trope, in which gay characters more frequently die and couples rarely live happily ever after. Tara’s death is primarily a plot device to push her magic-addicted girlfriend Willow to the dark side, and Willow not only kills Tara’s murderer but also decides to destroy the world. Bisexual women in Buffy and Firefly are portrayed as oversexed, immoral, predatory, untrustworthy, or confused, with their bisexuality portrayed as a phase or restricted to only one relationship or encounter (Liddell 2017).

Whedon’s reputation as a feminist also took a hit in 2017, when Kai Cole, Whedon’s ex-wife, wrote a column describing the end of their marriage five years prior. She alleges that Whedon had multiple affairs with “his actresses, co-workers, fans and friends,” and that the first of these was on the set of Buffy. He categorized his female co-workers as “beautiful, needy, aggressive young women” and that “suddenly I am a powerful producer and the world [read: women] is laid out at my feet and I can’t touch it [them].” Cole notes that Whedon used out-dated gender norms to justify his affairs, saying that “I was the HEIGHT of normal, in this culture. We’re [men] taught to be providers and companions and at the same time, to conquer and acquire – specifically sexually – and I was pulling off both!” She calls out Whedon’s hypocrisy, arguing that he used their marriage to hide his affairs and denied her the agency to make informed decisions about their relationship, and shared that she was diagnosed with Complex PTSD after Whedon’s confession.

Cole’s column in 2017 didn’t create any problems for Whedon professionally, with Faircloth surmising that “his reputation was just too strong; the accusation that he didn’t practice what he preached didn’t quite stick … Many minimized the essay on the basis that adultery doesn’t necessarily make you a bad feminist or erase a legacy.” While the fan site Whedonesque shut down and urged fans to make contributions to organizations supporting those with C-PTSD, overall condemnation of Whedon didn’t take place. Lorna Jowett, then Vice President of the Whedon Studies Association, notes that the accusations against Whedon were overshadowed by those against Harvey Weinstein a few months later. Jowett writes, “whilst both are abuses of authority and power, having affairs with work colleagues is not the same as persistent harassment, assault and rape.” While Jowett, writing in 2017 before Carpenter’s allegations, was trying to place Whedon’s behavior in the context of Hollywood’s culture of abuse and inequality, this comparison with Weinstein minimizes Cole’s allegations, harms survivors of psychological abuse, and glosses over the power dynamics of Whedon’s on-set adultery, since – as showrunner – he held a position of extreme power over all his co-workers.

Joss Whedon’s Justice League

“It’s not about right. It’s not about wrong … It’s about power.” — Buffy / The First Evil (Lessons, Ep. 7.1)

Carpenter’s 2021 public allegations against Whedon came to light as a part of a WarnerMedia investigation into Whedon’s behavior during his 2017 reshoots of Justice League. (Whedon joined the film after Director Zack Synder stepped away after a family tragedy). In July 2020, Ray Fisher publicly accused Whedon of “gross, abusive, unprofessional, and completely unacceptable” treatment toward the cast and crew. In subsequent social media posts and several interviews, Fisher expands that while on set, Whedon regularly belittled and mocked actors, crew, and their previous work and threatened someone’s career.

Fisher has been publicly supported by some of his co-stars, the first of whom was Jason Momoa, who said that “serious stuff went down” and that the “shitty way we were treated during the Justice League reshoots” needs to be investigated. Gal Gadot has stated that her experience with Whedon “wasn’t the best” and confirmed that he threatened her career. The actors have shared few other details, but numerous unnamed sources in an April 2021 The Hollywood Reporter article allege that Whedon threatened Gadot’s career after she pushed back on his writing and then bragged that “he’s had it out with Gal … he’s the writer and she’s going to shut up and say the lines and he can make her look incredibly stupid in this movie.” Others have speculated that Gadot didn’t want to film a sexist Justice League scene that has Flash landing with his head on an unconscious Wonder Woman’s breasts. 

Poster for Whedon’s Justice League. Credit

In response to Fisher’s accusations, WarnerMedia launched an investigation into Whedon’s conduct, which concluded on December 11, 2020 with unspecified remedial action. A few weeks prior, Whedon had announced that he was stepping back from the Victorian era sci-fi drama, The Nevers, which he was creating, writing, directing, and producing for HBO, with the network confirming that “we have parted ways with Joss Whedon.” 

Social Justice Movements, Fandom & Cancel Culture

In many ways, Fisher’s accusations laid the groundwork for the Buffyverse cast and crew to speak out publicly and attest to Whedon’s history of abusive behavior. Charisma Carpenter expressed “an overwhelming sense of responsibility” to Fisher for not speaking up earlier and recently stated that she decided to go public after learning that Fisher lost his role as Cyborg after he spoke out. Fisher’s tweet in July 2020 also predates Marsters, Pruitt, and Crawford’s comments about Whedon’s behavior on the Buffy set later that month. 

Recent social justice movements and digital activism have also created the cultural space for public allegations like those against Whedon. In their article on #Ferguson, Anthropologists Yarimar Bonilla and Jonathan Rosa note that minoritized groups use Twitter to contest injustice, police brutality, and media representations which victim blame and portray people of color as threats. Social media posts and hashtags about harassment and violence build upon one another, highlighting that these are not incidents isolated to a single place, time, or group, but are “long-standing systemic forms of violence” (Bonilla & Rosa 2015, 10; Furmage & Rubin 2015). The #MeToo movement further normalized using social media to reveal the abusive behavior of people in power, and have these complaints taken seriously. Carpenter references the Time’s Up movement for helping her understand her reactions to Whedon’s behaviors, and Fisher felt compelled to publicly speak out after seeing Black Lives Matter protestors marching during the pandemic.

After Cole’s 2017 allegations of Whedon’s adultery and emotional abuse, many fans and scholars argued that we should separate Whedon’s personal and professional life. Constance Grady, in a 2018 article spurred by Amber Heard’s domestic violence allegations against Johnny Deep, traces the history of this idea in literary analysis, highlighting different approaches to engage (or not) with art made by predators, abusers, and harassers. If people create and recreate a book or film’s meaning as they consume it, as postmodernism argues, it is unnecessary to consider the flaws, intentions, and person of the creator, which can give them “interpretive power (over how we think about their work) and institutional power (over how they get to treat people without consequences).” While fans and scholars surely have new, unique interactions with Buffy and Whedon’s other works, this postmodern approach views art in a bubble devoid of cultural context and ignores the institutional power that artists typically already possess. New Historicism provides a different approach to interpretation, arguing that to understand a work, we must know the social and historical context in which it was created and is being consumed. Based on this theory, Grady argues that we can and should assess whether a work of art echoes its creators’ amoral acts, particularly if it encourages the viewer to be complicit in or reproduce these actions.  

Fans are still discussing whether to separate Whedon from his work, but the accusations by Fisher, Carpenter, Molina, and others provide a new lens – it is increasingly difficult to divide Whedon’s personal and professional lives. Whedon has noted that “my politics are all over my shows,” which frequently have themes of social (typically, gender) justice and feature a small group fighting against oppressive, evil, and unjust institutions (Iatropoulos & Woodall III 2017). But fans are grappling with the realization that Whedon’s behavior may align him more with these institutions than those fighting against them. People who helped create Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Justice League were harmed by Whedon during the process. Abuse and trauma were baked into these shows, and this knowledge should shift our perception of the creation and the creator, in a way that allegations of an artist’s infidelity may not have

Given the allegations against Whedon, fans are grappling with whether to cancel Whedon and his shows. Fandoms are often spaces of community, comfort, and shared identity, and Professors Alison Joubert and Jack Coffin argue that fans often “cancel” those who threaten or violate these norms, even the creator. Canceling is the public withdrawal or denial of support, frequently on social media, from public figures in response to an offensive statement or action. It is a communal effort to diminish the target’s present and future cultural influence and remove them from prominent public platforms or careers, through boycotts or petitions to employers to hold the individual accountable. 

Often, those calling for cancellations have less social and political power than the offenders. Social Justice activist Loretta Ross has argued that “call-outs are justified to challenge provocateurs who deliberately hurt others, or for powerful people beyond our reach. Effectively criticizing such people is an important tactic for achieving justice.” Tracing the history of the term cancel culture, Aja Romano notes that while the phrase gained regular use on Black Twitter in 2015, the concept has roots in 1950s and 60s Black empowerment movements. In an interview with Romano, Dr. Anne Charity Hudley likens cancel culture to Southern black boycotts, stating that “if you don’t have the ability to stop something through political means, what you can do is refuse to participate.” In this way, cancel culture provides an option for those who feel powerless to change structural inequalities like racism or sexism, Charity Hudley argues, “it’s a collective way of saying, ‘We elevated your social status, your economic prowess, [and now] we’re not going to pay attention to you … the power I have is to [ignore] you.’” 

The #MeToo movement also connects with Black empowerment movements and was founded by Black activist Tarana Burke, whose work for decades has supported Black and minority survivors of sexual assault and highlighted systemic inequalities and harms to communities of color. Journalist Sarah Jaffe notes that the #MeToo movement also functions as a way for those who feel powerless against a system which protects the most powerful and is “designed to fail survivors of violence and harassment.” In the face of this system, Jaffe argues, “telling stories about men we thought were ‘good’” provides a small bit of justice for those who would otherwise get none.

Social media call-outs of harassment, abuse, and injustice – and subsequent cancellations – can be seen as acts of everyday resistance which are being publicly transformed into wider political movements against sexism, racism, and structural inequality. In Anthropologist James Scott’s research on domination among peasants in Malaysia, he argues that people often resist domination in small, often unnoticed ways – everyday acts of resistance, including gossip, feigned ignorance, or refusals to cooperate (Scott 1985). While gossip and whispered warnings have long functioned as weapons for those navigating and resisting harassment, movements like #MeToo collected these whispers and made them public through social media posts and online spreadsheets documenting “Shitty Media Men.” The same banal virtual spaces in which one can watch cat videos, follow celebrities, and share photos of food have become places where survivors of sexual harassment can find solidarity and healing in sharing their experiences. And places in which hashtag campaigns can draw attention to “the particular ways in which racialized bodies are systematically stereotyped, stigmatized, surveilled, and positioned as targets of state-sanctioned violence,” unmasking contemporary racism in “an age of alleged colorblindness” (Bonilla & Rosa 2015, 9).

The Limitations of Cancel Culture and Moving Toward Systemic Change

While removing a newly recognized harasser can be a powerful and affirmative act for an individual – and widespread cancellation of a public figure might impact the offending individual or dissuade others from acting similarly – the long-term effects of cancelling may be of limited significance. Few cancelled public figures face serious repercussions or ended careers as a result of their behavior. Romano offers numerous examples of “cancelled” entertainers who did just as well, or better, after their cancellation, including increases in J.K. Rowling’s book sales, Louis C.K. continuing to sell out shows, and ever popular streams of Michael Jackson and R. Kelly’s music. Anjana Susarla, a Professor of Information Systems, notes that the same social media algorithms that make outrage and cancellations go viral can also revive cancelled entertainers, and that partnering with controversial individuals is generally considered good for business in the entertainment industry.

While cancellation may help an individual recognize that their behavior has offended, it does not necessarily provide incentive for them to change. Joubert and Coffin argue that while cancel culture is intended to foster public accountability, this accountability is lost when there is no opportunity for the cancelled individual to change or grow. Calling-in (calling out inappropriate behavior with love in private, or with respect in public) may be a more productive avenue for creating change at an individual level. But it is fair to ask whether powerful individuals who have done wrong are owed a public stage for their change and growth, and whether those they have harmed are bearing the cost of their offender’s second (or third, or fourth …) chance.

Movies and tv shows are the culmination of the work of thousands of individuals, so an actor or showrunner’s cancellation can also impact their coworkers. Tina Sikka, a Lecturer in Media & Cultural Studies, argues that we often fall victim to the Great Man theory: the misguided idea that a single genius was solely responsible for the creation of a scientific, cultural, or artistic work. When we cancel a “genius” and everything they have created, a wider group can be penalized for the behavior of one individual, as was the case when Roseanne Barr’s 2018 tweet led to the cancellation of Roseanne (though such an outcome is not inevitable, as evidenced by the continuation of House of Cards after Kevin Spacey’s departure). While Whedon had much creative control over his television shows and movies, Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Justice League were the sum of the work of countless performers, stunt and special effects artists, crew members, and writers, and studio execs who steered other decisions. Considering these shows to be the sole creation of Whedon and cancelling them as a result, de-centers and obscures the work of the women – including Carpenter, Crawford, Gadot,  and writers / directors / producers Jane Espenson and Marti Noxon – who also created them.

But Loretta Ross argues that the greater danger of cancel culture is that it focuses our attention on a single individual, distracting us from wider systemic inequalities which enabled their abuse and the groups which profit from it. Anthropologist Charles Menzies, writing about university scandals, likens the public twitter shaming of administration, and the occasional resignations or firings that follow, to rituals of rebellion – actions which initially seem to challenge authority by replacing leaders, but ultimately allow “social dissatisfaction to be vented in ways that reinforce existing relations of power.” Menzies argues that removed university leaders are often replaced by individuals of similar backgrounds, classes, and identities, so no transformative change nor fundamental restructuring ultimately occurs.

While Fisher brought to light Whedon’s inappropriate behavior, he has been adamant that the problem is not with Whedon alone but that there are systemic issues at Warners and DC for which others should also be held accountable. Fisher alleges that Whedon’s behavior was enabled by producers Jon Berg, Toby Emmerich, and Geoff Johns, and accused DC Films president Walter Hamada on numerous occasions of attempting to protect Johns, Berg, and Emmerich and dissuade Fisher from coming forward with his allegations.

Fisher accuses Berg, Johns, and Emmerich of numerous instances of racism, including a conversation in which the group said that Justice League could not be centered around a version of his character Cyborg that was “an angry Black man.” Comparing Whedon’s Justice League with the recently released Zack Synder’s Justice League (aka, the “Sydner Cut”), it is also clear that numerous actors of color were entirely or mostly cut from the 2017 film, the responsibility for which Fisher attests lies not only with Whedon, but the film’s producers.

In 2017, when Fisher shared with Whedon and Justice League studio heads examples of racial insensitivity in their proposed changes, he says that Johns made retaliatory threats to his career. In response to Fisher’s 2020 public critiques, the studio released statements criticizing his character, which Fisher labeled a smear campaign to destroy his credibility. WarnerMedia’s head of communications and inclusion later acknowledged that these statements should not have been made and some were based on inaccurate information. Seemingly as a result of his public critiques of Warner and Hamada, Fisher lost a role in the upcoming The Flash movie and now has an uncertain future as Cyborg.

Conclusions – What does Justice look like?

“I don’t want them excommunicated from Hollywood, but I don’t think they should be in charge of the hiring and firing of other people … If I can’t get accountability, at least I can make people aware of who they’re dealing with.” – Ray Fisher

In March 2021, Charisma Carpenter published a follow-up column and call to action on how to support survivors of physical and psychological abuse. She asserts that individual abusers must be held accountable, because “justice for the abused is an integral part of the healing process. It’s hard for a traumatized person to move on when they watch the transgressors move up the ladder and gain power even as they repeat patterns of toxic behavior without answerability.” Carpenter calls for workplaces free of sexism, microaggressions, and job-security threats, and for employers to hire those who have spoken out against abuse.

The latter is a genuine concern. In his The Hollywood Reporter interview, Ray Fisher repeatedly expressed concern about exposing the identities of other Justice League crew and cast who experienced problems with Whedon or other execs, for fear of them losing their jobs. He has called for wider accountability for those who express, or downplay the significance of, racially insensitive behaviors and comments, noting “I don’t believe some of these people are fit for positions of leadership.” Fisher also remarks that he would also appreciate an apology.

While pursuing justice, we must deal both with individuals and systemic, cultural inequality. Kelly Faircloth notes that “Whedon benefitted from one of the oldest, most sexist stereotypes: the man who’s a benevolent, creative genius,” and our cultural preoccupation with geniuses created the scenario in which Whedon overshadowed other female creators and actresses. The larger danger of our “Great Man” and “creative genius” myths, however, is that they often allow these “special” individuals to harm others with impunity. 

Megan Garber notes that David Foster Wallace’s abuse of fellow author Mary Karr was more than an open secret, but was “strategically ignored. They were the collateral damage of a culture that prefers uncomplicated idols.” 

“Genius, after all, is a powerful force [and] a fealty to genius is its own kind of faith … the fact that gods, still, can walk among us … We have organized our art around its potential; we have organized our economy around its promise. We have oriented ourselves according to the light of its stars – and so when they flicker, even momentarily, we lose ourselves. And: We defend ourselves. We delude ourselves. We choose not to question the makeup of the firmament. It’s so much easier that way.” 

Garber argues that people often make moral compromises for those who create great art which plays a part in telling us who are, while those who were harmed by these geniuses become a footnote in their story. Author and former child actor Elly Belle argues that our myths of individualism and creative geniuses are prioritized over truth and justice. For too long, it seems that whispered allegations of Whedon’s behavior were written off as the cost of working with a genius. And while many may have born the burden of his behavior, I can’t help but notice that those who have spoken out most vocally against Whedon are marginalized individuals – an actor of color in his first major role and actresses, writers, and crew who aren’t household names – and will likely pay a greater cost in speaking up. In a recent interview, Carpenter shared that one of the largest risks that she took in speaking out was alienating her and Whedon’s fanbase, since much of her income comes from appearances at conventions full of Buffy and Whedon fans.

Fisher’s allegations against Warner & DC call attention to systemic racism and microaggressions in our culture and workplaces. To dismantle them, we must acknowledge their existence and create environments in which people aren’t penalized for bringing up concerns. We need to recognize that we are embedded in the unjust institutions that we are trying to overturn and do the hard work of analyzing the impacts of our own unconscious biases, instead of defensively credentialing our identity, family members of color, and support for LGBTQ representation as evidence of a lack of anti-Black bias. The ready dismissal of Fisher’s concerns about insensitive portrayals of race and disability in Justice League in 2017 is another type of microaggression. These microinvalidations “exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person of color,” often by asserting that it was a misunderstanding or wasn’t really about race (Sue et al 2007, 274). We see similar knee-jerk denials from Whedon to criticism about his portrayal of female characters, which he seems to write off as accusations of misogyny or that his work must be “not woke enough.” As Mary Ellen Iatropoulous and Lowery A. Woodall III note in their volume on race in the Whedonverse, “it’s important to explore our participation in exploitative institutions, even if we’re not participating consciously, even if our assent is unintentional, in fact, especially if it’s unintentional. In the unintentional, we can see the institutional” (2017, 20).

Turning the lens on ourselves, Whedon fans must reflect on why it took accusations from white women – Carpenter, Trachtenberg, and Benson – to spur us toward action. Why weren’t we moved by the statements made by Fisher – a Black man – back in July 2020, and how has race, gender, and implicit bias influenced our reactions?

While individuals who have abused and harmed others should be held accountable, if we just cancel them and then move on, the system which enabled their behavior will continue uninterrupted and abuse will continue. In addition to acknowledging harm and creating the space for survivors to define what justice would be for them, Belle suggests that we privilege the many creative geniuses – particularly those with marginalized identities – who haven’t been accused of abuse, and encourage studios to do the same.

Works Cited

Bonilla, Yarimar and Jonathan Rosa. 2015. #Ferguson: Digital protest, hashtag ethnography, and the racial politics of social media in the United States. American Ethnologist 00(0): 4-16. https://www.academia.edu/10280357/_Ferguson_Digital_Protest_Hashtag_Ethnography_and_the_Racial_Politics_of_Social_Media_in_the_United_States

Fall, Wendy. 2018. Spike Is Forgiven: The Sympathetic Vampire’s Resonance with Rape Culture. Slayage: The Journal of Whedon Studies, 16.2 [48], Summer/Fall 2018. https://www.whedonstudies.tv/uploads/2/6/2/8/26288593/5._fall_-_slayage_16.2.pdf 

Ferguson, Max. 2018. Miranda: Conflicting Anxieties, Albeism, and Population Health. In Joss Whedon’s Big Damn Movie: Essays on Serenity, ed. Frederick Blichert, p. 132-142. McFarland. 

Furmage, Sean, and Jonah S. Rubin. 2015. “#BlackLivesMatter: Anthropologists on Protest, Policing and Race-Based Violence.” AnthroPod, Fieldsights, November 18. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/blacklivesmatter-anthropologists-on-protest-policing-and-race-based-violence 

Gross, Edward and Mark A. Altman. 2017. Slayers and Vampires: The Complete Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Buffy and Angel. Tor.

Iatropoulos, Mary Ellen and Lowery A. Woodall III. 2017. Preface & Introduction: The Individual, the Institutional and the Unintentional: Exploring the Whedonverses through Critical Race Theory. In Joss Whedon and Race: Critical Essays, ed. Iatropoulos & Woodall, p. 1-36. McFarland. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Joss_Whedon_and_Race/O7N5DQAAQBAJ?gbpv=1 

Liddell, Alex. 2017. Problematic Tropes of Bi Women in the Whedonverses. Slayage: The Journal of Whedon Studies, 15.2 [46], Summer/Fall 2017. https://www.whedonstudies.tv/uploads/2/6/2/8/26288593/5.liddell_-_slayage_15.2.pdf 

Scott, James C. 1985. Weapons of the Weak Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Sue, Derald,  Christina Capodilupo, Gina Torino, Jennifer Bucceri, Aisha Holder, Kevin Nadal, Marta Esquilin. 2007. Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. The American psychologist 62: 271-86. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/6315413_Racial_microaggressions_in_everyday_life_Implications_for_clinical_practice 

Wright, Leigh Adams. 2005. Asian Objects in Space. In Finding Serenity: Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon’s Firefly, ed. Jane Espenson with Glenn Yeffeth, p. 29-35. Dallas: BenBella.

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