The Problem With Joss Whedon’s Feminism

Joss Whedon Elizabeth Olsen

by Rebecca Cope |
Published on

As the creator of one of the most right-on, girl power TV shows of the 1990s, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon is often held up as a feminist champion in Hollywood. Flipping the horror movie stereotype on its head, he cast a petite, blonde Valley girl in the role of a vampire-killing badass - instead of walking down an alleyway and knowing she was going to be the first victim of slasher gore, she was the one defeating it. (Of course, there are definitely naysayers who would point to characters like Cordelia and Faith for examples of when Whedon's not feeling so feminist...)

Indeed, he's been vocal about his feminist ideals himself, reportedly saying that he'd only consider returning to helm a Marvel superhero film if it were female-led. There are some people who want him to direct the long-awaited Black Widow standalone film, while he was one of the first people asked to make the solo Wonder Woman film way back in 2005. In 2016, he was an honorary host at the 'Make Equality Reality' Gala, which celebrates activism for women's rights. So far, he's got some pretty impressive credentials.

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But now doubts are being cast on Whedon's gender equality-promoting street cred, after an essay by his ex-wife Kai Cole was published on The Wrap. The couple, who were married for 20 years, finalised their divorce this month after the director reportedly admitted to cheating on his wife multiple times. Since, Cole has come forward to say that her former partner used his public persona as a feminist as a diversion for what was really going on behind closed doors.

'There were times in our relationship that I was uncomfortable with the attention Joss paid other women,' Cole writes. 'He always had a lot of female friends, but he told me it was because his mother raised him as a feminist, so he just liked women better. He said he admired and respected females, he didn’t lust after them. I believed him and trusted him.

'But I now see how he used his relationship with me as a shield, both during and after our marriage, so no one would question his relationships with other women or scrutinize his writing as anything other than feminist. Now that it is finally public, I want to let women know that he is not who he pretends to be.'

While Cole's accusations of Whedon's philandering are shocking - and sure, upsetting - it is actually the language that she claims he himself used to justify his affairs with his co-workers that is most disturbing, telling how he was suddenly 'surrounded by beautiful, needy, aggressive young women' and that as a 'powerful producer' he felt like he 'had a disease, like something from a Greek myth, [with] the world laid out at [his] feet [but he] can't touch it.'

Whedon, for his part, has refused to address the accusations, simply saying via spokesperson: 'While this account includes inaccuracies and misrepresentations which can be harmful to their family, Joss is not commenting, out of concern for his children and out of respect for his ex-wife.'

So, do Whedon's relationship sins affect whether or not he can call himself a feminist? This is a tricky one. On the one hand, the lack of respect with which he has treated his former partner, plus the insinuation that he abused his position of power to hook up with impressionable colleagues 'throwing themselves' at him, definitely have some misogynistic undertones. But is it as simple as that? Does cheating on your wife make you not a feminist? (For similar, but opposite, lines of argument see: 'I'm not racist because I have friends of different races'). Or has the work that Whedon has done to try to redress the gender balance on screen - and in Hollywood - cancelled out his shitty treatment of his wife behind closed doors? Perhaps it would be different if the feminism label had just be pegged to him because of his film work - but he's gone out of his way to be an activist in the area too.

Of course, if this all turns out to be true, and Whedon has been pretending to be a feminist to get away with cheating on his wife, this isn't the first example of when someone has 'hidden in plain sight' in the public eye. Many men who have projected 'nice guy' images - Bill Cosby, Jimmy Savile and Woody Allen, spring to mind - have used these personas to conceal darker truths about their behaviour to varying degrees. Is Whedon one of them? The jury's still out. At the end of the day, it might be his own self-professed posturing as a champion of womens-rights that is his undoing - rather than his sketchy take on monogamy.

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