By Kaci Yoder
I don’t feel sorry for Joss Whedon.
Before you get mad at me, know that I say this as a devotee of Buffy since childhood (yes, I’ve read the graphic novels too), a passionate fan of Firefly, a person who begrudgingly watched Dollhouse even though it wasn’t my thing, an owner of the soundtrack for Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and a foaming-at-the-mouth fangirl of The Avengers back when it first came out in 2012. I’m not just hopping on the hate-wagon here. Like many other female and feminist fans of Whedon’s body of work, I’ve spent years trying to figure out how I feel about him as a creator and as a person.
In the wake of mixed reviews of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Joss Whedon has left Twitter—not, as many have asserted, because he was bullied by militant feminists, but to step away from the noise to start new projects. Aside from the fact that it appears Whedon decided to make his own fantasy standalone superhero movie separate from the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s continuity, what’s got most people up in arms is his treatment of Black Widow. The arc in question monopolizes almost all of Black Widow’s non-fighting screentime in the film for a rushed, poorly developed romantic subplot with Bruce Banner. In past movies, Natasha was written as sexually powerful but also sexually ambivalent; watching her pine for and come on to Bruce from the beginning to the end of the film for no apparent reason was… awkward.
It’s understandable that fans are pissed. To be honest, I’m pissed too. As I left the theatre after Age of Ultron, my first comment was, “That was super fun!” My immediate follow-up was, “I hated everything about the way he wrote Natasha with Bruce.”
It’s frustrating that after three films of setup (including Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which cemented her status as one of the most interesting and complex heroes on the team) what we get now is a character motivated entirely by her feelings for a man. It’s especially frustrating that the only moment in four movies of Natasha openly mentioning her fascinating past as a student of the Red Room is to make Bruce feel better about being unable to have kids and to imply that her own forced infertility makes her a monster. And I am still personally annoyed by Bruce faceplanting into Natasha’s cleavage during Ultron’s first attack. Like, really? You’ve got a BAFTA-winning actress with four Golden Globe nominations and “Haha, boobs!” is the best you can do?
But for some reason, thinkpiece-writers worldwide seem to think that backlash against Whedon’s work is just symptomatic of the 2010s’ “social justice warrior” culture. Guys, this isn’t new. It’s just on a larger scale than it ever has been before, so it’s the first time you’re hearing about it.
Before this, there were complaints about Buffy’s attempted rape by her love interest Spike in season six of BTVS and the planned gang-rape of sex worker Inara in order to make Mal more sympathetic toward her on Firefly. There was backlash against his choice to fire Charisma Carpenter from Angel for getting pregnant without his permission. There were people offended by his failure to cast any Asian actors in Firefly while using elements of Chinese culture and spoken Mandarin throughout the show, which he handwaved by saying that actress Summer Glau “kind of looked Asian.” There was discomfort about his well-documented glee over sneaking a line into The Avengers in which Loki calls Natasha an archaic form of “whiny c*nt.” And of course, there were always those of us who thought his habit of killing off characters for shock value was cheap, lazy, and emotionally exploitive. This is just the tip of the Joss-berg.
Because of the cult status of his body of work, Joss Whedon grew into a geek god, and his ego grew to match. For years he has seemed untouchable because every complaint against him was drowned out by religious support. Now, for the first time, criticism of Whedon has gained enough traction to be heard and potentially show him that he can do better, yet Whedon apologists want to reduce the movement to a bunch of petty cyberbullies.
It’s 2015, 18 years A.B. (After Buffy), and many of us raised in the School of Joss have outgrown the once-godlike Whedon. There are only so many times you can make narrative choices just to screw with and exploit your audience’s emotions before they get sick of it. There are only so many female characters you can kill, rape, abuse, and write poorly before feminist viewers start feeling skeptical of your supposed devotion to empowering women.
To the detractors of Joss Whedon backlash, I encourage you to listen. Don’t tune out because you find it abrasive or are afraid of hearing something that might ruin your favorite show for you. Obviously, Whedon critics all love those shows too. They wouldn’t be so passionate if they didn’t. There was a time when I didn’t want to hear these things either, when I thought people were just being oversensitive and ruining the fun. Don’t tune out valid arguments out because they annoy you, because it’s time to start having critical conversations about the media we consume, even if it’s uncomfortable.
If you want to have a conversation about the Twitter mob mentality, there are better hills we can die on. Revisit the death threats and violent misogyny of Gamergate. Learn about the vitriol constantly spewed toward famous and non-famous people of color. Where were the defenders of One Direction’s Zayn Malik when he left Twitter repeatedly over mountains of Islamophobic abuse? Why now?
And as for Whedon… like I said, I don’t feel sorry for him. He made exactly the masturbatory dream movie he wanted to make, and it’s fun, and it also happens to be the biggest movie in the world. He may have gotten fired from the franchise, but he did what he wanted to do, and he’s going to be a very, very wealthy man on the other side of this. So, no, I’m not worried about him, and I’m not concerned about whether or not he’ll return to Twitter. I’m just hoping he takes this time away from the noise to really digest the reasons why he’s facing criticism and to meditate on how he can do better in the future.