I’m not a huge Joss Whedon fan. I’ve never seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Firefly, or Dollhouse. I just lost a lot of geek cred, didn’t I? I have seen both Avengers movies and really liked them! It’s pretty obvious to me that Whedon’s writing and directing chops were on full display in both films, so I give him credit that. As for his shows? I’ve been told forever that I would like them. I’ve never doubted that, I just haven’t sat down to invest the time. The things I have taken away from the little I know about Whedon are these: he’s a smart writer, a competent director… and he’s largely considered one of the more outwardly feminist male directors in Hollywood. I vaguely remember him taking some pot shots at Jurassic World for not being a feminist enough. I didn’t think much of it. I generally find it distasteful when director’s criticize other directors work, but whatever. Maybe he had a point. I mean, Jurassic World definitely centered the perspective of a man as opposed to The Avengers which centers the experience of four men, but whatever… Joss was our resident Hollywood, good guy feminist, and that was the end of that…
…until last week. One of my favorite podcasts read in its entirety an essay that Whedon’s now ex-wife Kai Cole wrote about Joss and their marriage. You can read it here. It’s pretty damning stuff! It outlines how, beginning in his Buffy years, Whedon had a string of affairs all while being praised for his feminist work. His ex explains how he suddenly found himself surrounded by “young, aggressive” women, as if to say it was their fault. He told her of the compartmentalizing he had to do as he received awards for the ways that he valued women all while hurting his partner and closest friend. Cole’s article speaks of Whedon’s hypocrisy. “he never conceded the hypocrisy of being out in the world preaching feminist ideals, while at the same time, taking away my right to make choices for my life and my body based on the truth,” she wrote. Damn! It was hard listening to those words being read. I could imagine my ex-wife saying similar things about me, maybe the exact same things. My heart broke for Ms. Cole and once again for my ex. Damn.
I confess that I get triggered whenever I hear stories about cheating men. It starts off a shame spiral chain reaction that I don’t particularly enjoy. I’ve gotten better about managing those spirals, but they still come pretty much without my control. This story, though hit me a little differently, maybe more profoundly. For a long time I cultivated an image as a good guy. The majority of my friends have always been female going back to high school. I prefer women’s company and conversation. I’m a good guy friend and I prided myself on that. The affair and the public nature of it put the lie to the image I had helped to create. It’s not that I was worse than other men, it’s just that I was/am no different… and generally speaking, men are trash.
There’s a lot of different ways to slice this story. We can ask if an artist’s work should be judged independently from the artist’s character. The same could be asked of theologians and pastors. We can ask if it was ever legitimate to call Whedon a feminist simply because he wrote stronger female characters than most men do. I don’t really feel qualified to answer that. We can talk about the internal contradictions that all humans come with. As none other than the Apostle Paul wrote “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15). I think breaking down the inherent contradictions of human nature is slightly above my pay grade.
I’ll simply say this: there is a caution here in the ways we do allyship. I don’t know Joss Whedon and I don’t know what was going on in his marriage. I am going to go out on a limb and say that there was and still is likely genuine concern in making his industry better for women both behind and in front of the camera. If nothing else, I believe he’s given intellectual assent to the idea. It’s likely deeper than that though. Still, the ways we live out our lives can often hamper our attempts at working for a better world. Your “black lives matter” bumper sticker doesn’t make up for tolerating your grandfather’s “casual” racism. Your pride flag doesn’t excuse the gay slur you “let slip” when you were drinking. And no, you can’t stand up for women’s rights and cheat on the woman who is supposed to mean the most to you without being seen as suspect. That goes for Mr. Whedon and me.
One of the best definitions I’ve ever heard for “integrity” is being in front of an audience who you are when no one is looking. In the last couple of years, I have been striving to shorten the gap between the face that I present to the world and the person I am in my intimate moments. Granted, some things will always be reserved to the select few and some only for the select one, yet I strive to not let my public persona, small as it is, be too distinct from what I share in my close circles. Sometimes that means being really honest in public about my rough edges. Sometimes it means being more vocal about the kind of man I want to be. Oftentimes, it means apologizing.
I think this is important because we are entering a new age of activism and it is important that our private lives and our public ideals match as much as possible. It’s hard work to be “on” all of the time and no one can sustain that energy, but it is something that we must strive towards for the sake of those whose allies we hope to be.