Why is Joss Whedon still treated like an authority on women in film and television?

Joss Whedon temporarily set the internet aflutter yet again this year with commentary on sexism in Hollywood, as though he’s the ultimate authority on such subjects. First he called the industry “intractibly sexist” and then he took back his words in another interview, claiming that the industry had improved since the original commentary. Fair enough — one had been performed before the explosion of female-anchored blockbusters that performed incredibly well, and the other was performed after. Context matters.

I write about Joss Whedon a great deal on this website — a few years ago, I had a bit of a running series on him. Many of my opinions on him (as a creator, not a person — I don’t know Mr. Whedon personally and have no grounds for commentary on what he’s like) haven’t changed; if anything, they’ve been cemented by his public behaviour and the projects he’s worked on. But he’s not entirely to blame, because while he’s made some life and career choices, he can’t dictate the way people respond to him, and the Joss hero-worship that continues unabated is something he can’t really control.

Whedon is, of course, famous for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and to a lesser degree Angel, while Firefly/Serenity have a small but extremely dedicated following of fans who are still bitter about the show’s brief time on air. He went on to Dollhouse and a variety of film projects, including Much Ado About Nothing, but what people really care about, the film that catapulted him into the mainstream, was The Avengers. Whedon is also a self-appointed feminist, which is relevant to critiques of his work and how he engages with the industry — if you label yourself a feminist, prepare for people to engage with you on that level.

His early work definitely has a strong feminist bent — Buffy in particular has entered into the feminist canon with a vengeance, but woe betide the person who breathes even a whiff of commentary about the imperfections of the show. Whedon’s fans tend to be extremely ardent and determined to enforce the idea that the creator can do no wrong; something that frustrates me, as a fan of works like Buffy who still wants to be able to critically engage with them. Angel took off on slightly different themes and got decidedly unfeminist at times, while Firefly had an assortment of problems.

It was really Dollhouse where I started to part ways with Whedon, as the show and discussions about it made me deeply uncomfortable, and that breach has been widened as his career has progressed. Whedon is still treated as some sort of feminist archetype in Hollywood, the leader of gender freedom, the creator who will change everything and build a better world where women are treated fairly, gender is handled responsibly, and…oh, wait, discussions of Whedon’s fantasticness come primarily from proponents of mainstream feminism, so these are the things that matter, not his treatment of race, disability, or other issues. Intersectionality isn’t an issue for Whedon or many of his fans.

Creatively speaking, Whedon appears to be going backwards, while still surfing on his reputation as a feminist creator and positioning himself as an authority on the subject. He’s constantly deferred to in interviews and held up as a figure to admire and respect, but there’s no careful interrogation of what Whedon’s really about, and how his work is shifting. All creators need to make their own decisions, but Whedon’s turn towards more commercial, less balanced work doesn’t speak well of a creator who claims a feminist identity and wants to get credit for changing the scene for women in Hollywood.

Why is Whedon still treated as an authority on women in Hollywood, feminism, and representation when he’s a man who’s sliding backwards, careerwise, into work that’s less empowering, less about complex and interesting female characters, and more about bang for your buck? Is it really just because he’s better than most male producer/director/creators? He could be using those big budgets and creative freedoms to force the issue, pushing more women on set or even, gasp, improving the diversity of representation and putting women of color front and centre, featuring disabled characters, or hiring trans actresses for female roles. Instead, things proceed much the same as they always did, and there’s always an excuse — the studio or the producers interfered with creative control, say, or casting needs were complicated.

That’s not enough. If you want to call yourself an authority on these subjects, you need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. And people who are hailing Whedon as the second coming need to be reconsidering why they think of him as some sort of saviour of representation in Hollywood, given the immense privilege of his position and how he doesn’t use that privilege to make substantial social and political change in his work or the industry.

Meanwhile, female creators, commentators, and producers are left behind. Their work isn’t celebrated, they don’t get opportunities for big budget projects, they don’t get nearly the same accolades as their male counterparts. Even those who have spent decades painstakingly building up careers aren’t treated as authorities on their experiences in Hollywood and those of the women they’ve worked with — and as long as people like Joss Whedon appoint themselves the spokespeople of the entire industry, that’s not going to change. While people kneel at Whedon’s feet and act as though he’s the only one talking about gender politics in Hollywood (as though that’s the only thing that matters), they’re missing out on huge opportunities to talk with amazing women in film and television.

Image: Joss Whedon, Shane Lin, Flickr