I’ve been following the works of Joss Whedon — and writing about them — for over a decade. An avid Buffy, Angel, and Firefly fan, I’ve watched his creations multiple times, picked them apart, put them back together, and tried to digest complex thoughts about him. I’ll be among the first to note that he’s had a profound impact on pop culture, whether working on projects like Much Ado About Nothing or The Avengers. He’s a high profile male creator in Hollywood, and he’s also identified at various points as a feminist (he’s also said he doesn’t like the term), which makes him of particular interest to people like me who follow social justice in pop culture.
As I and others have noted, there’s a deeply misogynistic streak in Whedon’s work. Racism, transphobia, and various -isms have been on wide display not just in the works he’s created or participated in, but also in public speeches, comments, and appearances. In other words, Joss Whedon isn’t perfect: no surprises there, as none of us are. But he’s claiming to be doing something important for minority representation and social justice in pop culture, when he isn’t.
I started to feel a strong conflict with his work during Dollhouse, when I felt that my growth as a person and a critic was making it effectively impossible to enjoy his work as a creator, because I couldn’t get over the numerous problems involved. Yet, I kept following him. Why? Why did I keep giving Whedon so many passes? Why, after repeated evidence, did I come back for more? Why do I do the same for other male creators, arguing to myself that while they might have slipped up on something or said something inappropriate, their work is still good?
Why do I, at the same time, sometimes hold women in Hollywood to a much higher standard? I’m much harder on Shonda Rhimes than I am on Joss Whedon, for example, despite the fact that she’s facing dual oppressions as a Black woman working in a white male dominated industry. I should be giving her more credit for her accomplishments, rather than coming down harder on her for her mistakes, yet, if I look over my commentary on both creators, I’m less likely to forgive Shonda for things that Joss has done and I’ve glossed over.
Why do I, and other critics, give male creators passes time and time again? Especially among those of us with an alleged awareness of social issues and the way in which culture and gender interact with creators, it’s really egregious to be slamming female creators for doing the same things we let male creators get away with. Every time we do, people like Whedon, like Abrams, learn that they have much more leniency and patience from their audiences, that they can do more without being called to account for it, because apparently we’re going to be that complacent.
This takes place within, of course, a much larger landscape where male creators like Woody Allen and other rapists, sexual assailants, abusive partners, and more are not only tolerated but actively celebrated with awards and fetes on an international scale. Instead of turning their backs on such people, Hollywood loves them, and we love them in turn, even when faced with reality. Yet, rape allegations would likely kill a female creator’s career, with no one rising eagerly to her defense, ready to uphold rape culture and all that comes with it.
Male creators are effectively allowed to do as they please in the pop culture landscape, and we seem content to let them do it. It’s a larger reflection of the fact that we don’t seem to have a problem with letting men do whatever they want, too — for every time we refuse to hold a creator accountable for oppressive actions, work, or commentary, we are reinforcing the culture we live in, one where men are always considered right and their misdeeds are to be tolerated. Much like smiling indulgently at a puppy chewing on a slipper, we nod at people like Joss Whedon and talk about how ’empowering’ Buffy is while ignoring the things they’ve done.
The free pass for male creators is something that must be put to an end. For one thing, it makes for bad criticism. Whether you’re a critic focusing on social justice issues or one who cares about art and tries to ignore politics (I feel this isn’t possible, but I know others disagree), if you give creators a pass, you’re not being fair to their work, that of others, and the larger media as a whole. You must be ready to be harsh on creators regardless of gender or origins, and you must be ready to hold them accountable in the long as well as short term, because otherwise, you’re a bad critic.
It also makes for bad social justice, as allowing male creators to get away with oppressive deeds sends a clear signal to others like them that they can get away with it too. It’s time to suspend the passes, collect the ‘good man’ cards, and force creators to take responsibility for their work and its impact on society. When we don’t hold them to a high standard and demand good work from them, we’re doing a disservice to everyone — because the representation of oppressed groups in pop culture matters, and it’s especially important when it comes from a well-regarded or famous creator, particularly one who claims to be working on behalf of minorities.