So, Joss Whedon is in the news.
In a piece for The Wrap, Whedon’s ex-wife Kai Cole, detailed his long history of affairs throughout their 16 years of marriage, affairs he confessed in a series of cringingly earnest and theatrical letters citing Greek mythology and the cultural norm of the male need to “conquer” women sexually. Cool.
Everyone has had a Take on this in the 24 hours or so since the piece was released. All bases have been covered—this is a Problem; this is not a Problem; how dare he; how dare we.
As the take machine that is the internet rolls forth, there are a couple important things we should keep in mind.
1. Male feminism is not always performative.
2. It can be. Like, very often.
This is a concept we need to discuss because of how terribly common it is for purported male feminists to be exactly as problematic as your average MRA troll. There is a kind of performative male allyship specifically designed to lull women into a false sense of security and then prey upon that trust. And it’s not rare. Not in the slightest.
Almost every woman has had the experience of a supposed “good guy” taking a hard turn into graphically sexualizing her. When this happens, the gut drop is immeasurable. It’s bad enough when it’s a friend, but imagine it’s someone you admire. A hero even. In that moment, you become not human but hole. And depending on various factors—age, position, level of admiration—the ability to say no might not exist anymore.
3. There are responsibilities in power.
When someone develops a following and becomes a public figure, they have with that fame obtained a power not shared with their fans. For a certain type of person, with this new power comes the possibility for something that perhaps eluded them in their pre-fame life: the ability to get people to want to have sex with you. And quite honestly, I don’t know how to specifically determine the rules and regs for this. But I know that with that power diminishes the ability to obtain consent from those in positions below you, be they young actors, fans or anyone else who looks to you for approval, validation and a form of hero worship. And for some people with this power, the issue goes from mistake to problem to predator the more conquests they collect.
4. You are still allowed to enjoy his work. Your mileage may vary on how you continue to support that work.
I’m not going to stop loving Buffy and Firefly. Roman Polanski is a monster, but Chinatown is still one of my favorite movies. Shit, I named my dog Annie Hall. If you are able to separate creator from the work, and if that work means something to you and brings you joy, do it. You can determine for yourself how supportive you intend to be in future endeavors or with your money. It’s that simple.
What isn’t simple is the systemic issue of men in power weaponizing that power through sex while also pushing an agenda of female empowerment and agency. Because I don’t know if one invalidates the other. I don’t know at what point a person loses their public goodwill. Our society’s at-best blurry understanding of consent makes these conversations difficult and confusing. This is something hugely challenging in a world so devoted to Whose Take Is Hottest. Because sometimes it’s OK to say “I know this is wrong but I don’t exactly know why.”
I don’t know the answers here. There is only one real thing I can be sure of: this isn’t surprising. Not because of whispers and rumors about Whedon over the years, not because of that problematic Wonder Woman script or any other misogynistic tendencies. It’s because we’ve now been conditioned through experience that this is the norm.
There is a handful of men—a very, very small handful—that an expose like this would actually leave me shocked. And I won’t even put their names into the universe like that because as soon as I do, they will disappoint me. Everyone on earth is disappointing in one way or another. No one is perfect nor should we expect them to be. But there are levels. And for fans, this level just kind of aches. It’s a bummer. But a bummer we could have expected. A man in power used that power to have sex with young women behind his wife’s back. Yep. That tracks. Of course he did. That’s what they do. Fuck us for having heroes, I guess.