Celebrity Culture, Brand Whedon and the post-Romantic fallacy

Over the last couple of weeks there have been a number of responses to the allegations made by Kai Cole against her former husband, television producer and self-declared feminist Joss Whedon. The accusations of serial infidelity against her with numerous female co-workers have produced, on the one hand, maliciously joyful expressions of schadenfreude (‘see, I always knew he was no feminist’ / ‘ha – all icons get what’s coming in the end’); and on the other such out-pourings of grief and anger one might think he had murdered all newborns. Whatever the truth of the claims, and whatever the justification of the responses (some of which have been eye-wateringly splenetic), what is clear is that Brand Whedon has taken a hit.

I do not know, and do not care about Joss Whedon as a person (I don’t mean I wish him harm; simply that I am not interested in him). I am however interested in Brand Whedon. I have spent nearly 20 years writing about it, so it makes sense that I have a view. Brand Whedon grows out of two related things, and I will discuss both briefly in order to orient the rest of my discussion.

Brand Whedon 1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered in 1997 (see an upcoming blog about TV since 1997 soon). It was advertised as a show starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, and no mention of Whedon was made. His involvement was of no interest to the WB (the network that broadcast it) in terms of it being a draw for viewers.

 By the time of Firefly, however, it is the producer, not the actor, who is centre stage. 

The amazing success of the art work (Buffy) alongside Whedon’s involvement with early social media via the discussion board, The Bronze, as well as attendance at conventions and his seeming endless enthusiasm for interaction with fans, alongside (more generally) the advent of DVDs that allowed overviews, commentaries, parts of scripts to be seen and studied – all of this helped to create a new figure: the celebrity producer and Whedon was among the first.

Brand Whedon 2. Since the Romantic period, and Lord Byron’s legendary antics, artists have been courted as much for their lives as for their works. This is part of the broader celebrity culture which has found extreme capacity in the media-saturated 21st century. The rise of the producer as celebrity has meant that Whedon has been celebrated, idolised even, with a damaging conflation of the artwork with the man; a na├»ve and counter-productive acceptance that utterances made as Whedon:

 were the same as artworks made by him. 

I’ll discuss this more presently, but the semi-sainted Whedon of Equality Now and Planned Parenthood has been assumed to be identical with the legally named owner of rights to television shows. 

There are clearly important cross-overs between the two instances of Joss Whedon and ‘Joss Whedon’ and it is these that produce Brand Whedon, but it is essential as critics that we remember that our job is to assess the work within the Brand, not to conflate all aspects of the brand.

The collapsing of all aspects of Brand Whedon into the alleged singularity of a person named Joss Whedon is in part responsible for the extraordinary attacks, defences, ripostes, denunciations and defences of the last few days. But even within this unhelpful collapsing of different aspects of Brand Whedon into each other, and the further complications of celebrity / cult adulation it is not obvious that 1) Whedon is a feminist 2) if he is what that means, exactly, and 3) even if we can answer (2), what does that have to do with his art?

When I was at University, a friend asked me to co-direct Churchill’s Top Girls with her for a self-styled feminist theatre group. I’d directed a couple of things for other student theatre groups and was delighted at the chance (I love Churchill’s work).

 Although there was no constitution as such, the invitation caused a stir as the group was women-only at the time and allowing a man in, not just to act but co-direct was a real issue. Many arguments were presented on different sides and I was allowed in. The group was remarkably diverse and today would probably call itself an LGBTQ theatre group, but the different shades of feminism were clear – a couple of radical feminists left because of the issue; a small bdsm-queer section lobbied hard for my admission. Then, as now, there was as much that divided different feminisms as unified feminists.

I write this to place what I am about to say in a personal as well as political discourse. The role and function of men within feminist discussions is awkward, especially when a man is assuming a position of public advocacy. Just because it is awkward does not make it wrong or irrelevant, but it does help to illustrate the many fault-lines that run across and between different kinds of feminist action, theory and practice. I do not subscribe to Dworkin-esque feminism nor Stolltenberg’s denunciation of ‘being a man’

 but I would find it hard to say, positively, what (if any) kind of feminist I am (as opposed to am not).

Joss Whedon has not, to my knowledge, described himself in terms of belonging to a particular kinds of feminist group. Indeed, as I briefly mention in my forthcoming book, (which was already at the publisher's before these allegations so will not feature a discussion of them) Whedon’s feminism is not a theoretically consistent one, but rather a broadly articulated challenge to the inequalities between the genders that he perceives. Strongly influenced in his political views by his mother (“a radical feminist, a history teacher and just one hell of a woman”), it was his surprise at attitudes at his private liberal arts university, Wesleyan that prompted him to use writing as a vehicle through which to address these issues in order to help “empower and protect them so they could in return empower and protect me”. The writing however needed not just to offer strong women, but also to unsparingly address places that are “dark” and have to do with passion and lust and things you don’t want to talk about” like “the murderous gaze and […] objectification”. So Whedon’s feminism, while clearly intellectually and politically understood and motivated has, in its artistic manifestations, an emotional core that is created through the mobilisation of the full array of televisual storytelling mechanisms.

And, to an extent, the recent controversy around clams made by his ex-wife about his behaviours to her and to a variety of female co-workers can be attributed to some of the confusions that his general, public pronouncements have fostered. While it is clear that Whedon has repeatedly declared himself a feminist, it is less clear what this actually means. Even less clear in my mind, is the extension from the claim about him as a person to the claims made on behalf of his work.

Even if Whedon is a feminist in terms of his public position where he speaks as Whedon; how does this translate to creative works which are not written as Whedon, but are simply by him. Even this is far too simple a question. As many in the world of TV studies have repeatedly asserted, television production is a massive undertaking that includes scores of people to get even a single episode of a show aired. While one may be able to ascribe unambiguously a novel to its named author (though the thousands of articles about the problems of literary authorship somewhat undermine that simple correlation) it is simply impossible to make a similar clam about a TV show.

To be sure, Whedon himself, and his creative partners have been very clear – especially in relation to his most famous creation Buffy the Vampire Slayer – that he was responsible for a huge amount of the creative control of the show from stories, to scripts, to costume design, dress setting and so on. And while his tears of frustration and rage at the poor direction of his scripts for the Buffy movie and Alien Resurrection indicate a need for control and influence that borders on scary, it still cannot be claimed that he is somehow the lone creative force on his television shows. To assert that he is, is to simply mistake the process of television production and / or to fall prey to a kind of post-Romantic fetishisation of the individual genius most notably and troublingly manifested in auteur theory in film. (It is for this reason that in my introduction to my book I insist that while it is called, simply, Joss Whedon, it would be better called, The television shows of Joss Whedon. He, Joss Whedon, is not the story – his works and their contexts are).

Why is this important? Well, even if we allow for a simplistic acceptance of Whedon as a feminist in his pronouncements in the field of interviews, activist video-making, lectures, tweets and so on; we cannot allow for the simple collapsing of Joss Whedon, citizen and spokesperson and ‘Joss Whedon’ – the mark of ownership attached to his creative work. This mark of ownership functions differently across different shows. In some he is Executive Producer and Creator; in others co-creator or co-executive producer. 

The ownership of Buffy, for example, meant, on the one hand, he was able to exert significant creative control on the show; it also meant that he receives royalties from the show on syndication, as well as residuals from DVD, streaming etc., as well as secondary merchandising; as well as other media forms (comics for example) in addition to the $16 million he received from FOX as part of the development deal that brought Buffy to the small screen, and the additional $1 million to develop his production company Mutant Enemy.

There is nothing that says politically driven artists cannot or should not make money but it is worth remembering that if Buffy is feminist (and I will develop that query presently) it is a feminism that champions a certain version of capitalist meritocracy. Again, this is not an attack, but a demand that we are careful and as precise as we can be when ascribing particular political value to a creative object.

And, on a more abstract level, can a television show be feminist, or Marxist, or liberal, or any other singular political thing?  I would contend that part of what makes Whedon’s shows so compelling is their multiplicity, their polyvocality. A strong female lead (and other strong female characters) might suggest we consider it feminist, but is it sufficient? How does that term account for Glory, The Mayor, the lack of people of colour, the lack of many gay male characters, the lack of any polyamorous characters and so on and so on… By demanding that the show be a certain thing, when it is not that thing (or does not seem to be living up to the falsely created expectations of that thing) then it is deemed to fail – the death of Tara and the ferocious backlash from many fans is maybe the most extreme version of this form of viewing. Of course, different feminist analyses of these questions are possible, and many have produced extraordinary work that has contributed to my enjoyment of the show and its scholarship, but different lenses from other methodologies also provide vivid and rewarding reading.

Whedon certainly called Buffy feminist and I am not saying it is not, but it is important that we define how it is and when it is (and how it isn’t and when it isn’t) in order to avoid falling into simplifications and false claims.

And that becomes all the more important when the creator, self-styled feminist advocate and feminist television maker has his credentials as a feminist so seriously challenged in the aftermath of Cole’s allegations. I am assuming noting about the truth of these accusations and I know nothing of what the private citizen Joss Whedon did or did not do and with whom he may or may not have done it. But it is clear that the part of Brand Whedon that relies on his words (and indeed actions) as Whedon has been damaged. It is much less clear to me that those aspect of Brand Whedon that are by Whedon should be similarly affected. If there are aspects of them, indeed, if they are in their entirety, feminist, then they remain that despite any subsequent or anterior Whedon words. People may choose to boycott the secondary markets, or refuse to watch existing or new work, but those seem to me to be different kinds of reaction: boycotting secondary markets affects Brand Whedon via reducing revenues; but choosing not to watch makes no difference whatsoever to the textual body.

People will respond as they see fit, but for me the most telling aspect and the area I hope to have begun addressing, is the clear error in collapsing all the component parts of Brand Whedon into each other. Insisting that the work and the man are somehow identical perpetuates the post-Romantic mis-apprehension about the relationship between artist and art and fails to account for the industrial nature of television production. Whedon may be a hypocrite, may have behaved poorly, may have espoused a politics out of expediency and a cynical attempt at Brand building (I hope not and I have an entirely prejudicial belief that the latter of those comments is not true), but none of that changes the work. It may change our view of Whedon, it may even influence our interpretive strategies – but we need to recognise that in the phenomenology of interpretation it is the interaction of our approach (mutable) and the artwork (fixed) that produces meaning. By claiming the art work is fixed I am speaking literally: it does not change; I am not claiming its meaning cannot be disputed, nor that this meaning mightn’t be contextualised by new knowledge including actions of those involved in its creation – but that does not change the art: it was always already capricious, multiple, subject to various readings, different lenses, politics and approaches. Buffy hasn’t changed and to think it has is to oddly privilege Whedon as the sole arbiter and purveyor of its meaning. Even in the days of St Joss, that was always a fallacy.


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