A few weeks ago, Lila Shapiro published an article in Vanity called “The Undoing Of Joss Whedon”, in which she alternated between an interview with Whedon and details of his life. He comes off as a monstrous narcissist incapable of admitting to fault even in the most minor of cases, let alone when it comes to outsized moments of abuse – the article doesn’t even contain what I found the most bizarre of his behaviour to be revealed recently, where he seems to be unable to tell the difference between his actors and the characters he had written for them (something which implies not just a refusal to face reality but a complete disconnect from it). It was a long time coming; ever since his actions with Charisma Carpenter on the set of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel, rumours of Whedon’s malevolence have been bubbling under his reputation as a geek’s geek, and people have been noticing patterns in his work about his treatment of women (and occasionally race) that run counter to his professed feminist ideals for a long time now.
One way of looking at it is that Whedon’s fans were gradually and collectively choosing to stop ignoring the signs. Many of his fans – including me – were children when first exposed to his work, and found it so mindblowingly cool that they, as children are wont to do, deified the man responsible for it. When the rumours started spreading they then, as all people are wont to do, tried to downplay the bad so as to not ruin the good for themselves. Now that the world has become a more comfortable space to attack men with tremendous social power and to openly interrogate one’s relationship with them, his reputation is almost completely destroyed – although I strongly suspect the only reason his career has completely gone down the toilet is because he’s just as awful an employee as he is an employer. His relationship with executives has always been notoriously rocky, and I figure that they must have recognised his unprofessional behaviour from the start and simply tolerated it as long as he was making them money. Now that he can be directly blamed for the financial failure of Justice League, they’ve pushed him right out the door. Funny to think that the suits had a better grasp of him than the rest of us.
This means we’ve now got one of the most extreme case studies in the question of how to be an ethical fan of pop culture. It’s a question I take both more and less seriously than other people; on the one hand, I don’t think it’s the most overwhelmingly pressing issue upon which I would stake my entire identity, and on the other, I don’t dismiss the question out of hand entirely either. I realise what I mean here by the way I’m forced to word it in order to make sense to myself – it’s not that there’s a way you can consume pop culture in a way that makes you a good person, it’s that there are ways to engage with media that have consequences you can live with and other ways that have consequences you don’t want to live with. A pattern I notice with social-justice-minded fans is how the unspoken question seems to be less “am I having a good effect on the world?” or even “am I doing what a good person would do?” and more “how can I make sure that I am interpreted as a good person?”.
One of the most influential texts of the 10’s – something with a direct and indirect line to all those “That Thing You Like Is Bad Actually” articles – is the essay “How To Be A Fan Of Problematic Things”, published in 2011. Like many deeply influential works, it didn’t invent anything it shows us; rather, it codifies what had previously been suggested and theorised, and its punchy terseness and strong emotional undertones ensured it spread far and wide very quickly. Its principles and emotions drive leftist pop culture interpretation to this day; I’m particularly struck by how it says that, if you disagree with one of its tenets, you are a scary person, something that I’ve found is worthless when trying to be persuasive but incredibly effective at galvanising people who already agree with you. The main point of criticism, according to this, is to draw out all the examples of bigotry so that they can be properly Acknowledged.
This often leads to an arms race of who can find the most bigotry in something; this is a side effect of its principle of acknowledging less-than-favourable interpretations of a work, even if you don’t personally see any textual basis for that – and especially if you’re privileged in a way that the critic isn’t, something intended to prevent white voices flattening out POC voices, straight voices flattening out queer, or male flattening out female. Flattening out female voices, after all, is partly how Whedon got away with his actions for so long. The essay ends advising the reader that we shouldn’t let the things we like define our worth as people; this is the least influential part of it. I notice that most Whedon fans now, faced with evidence that their pleasure in his work might be interpreted in a less-than-heroic light, have taken to a redemptive story in which they now know what they didn’t know before and they’re expressing penance through changing their relationship with his work.
I say this without irony or contempt: whatever helps you sleep at night. But my take is a little different – I have decreasing interest in symbolic action, especially symbolic action that doesn’t even have the effect of so-called virtue-signaling. The only moral argument I’ve been given about Not Watching Problematic Media that’s rooted in something practical is that you’re giving money to bad people, which is compelling even if it does set up the obvious response “So there is ethical consumption under capitalism?”. I know of people who, when they do engage with problematic media or media from problematic people, choose to do so through second-hand sources so that their money never goes to said problem.
This makes the most sense when it comes to businesses based on shady practices (like wanting to know more about Scientology without actually giving the organisation money) and, again, whatever helps you sleep at night. But I think of, like, Whedon getting a fraction of a cent from me streaming Buffy The Vampire Slayer and I… sleep like a child-free woman in her late twenties. I live on an island that’s almost literally built on the genocide of an entire people, and there’s an impossibly large system of war and cruelty and abuse that profits from my mere existence, let alone the things I’ve purchased; all things considered, even personally driving up to Whedon’s house and chucking a dollar on his lawn wouldn’t be the worst thing I’ve ever done.
I also simply tell myself a different story. I’m not looking for good and evil at the core of a dorky kid’s genre show – I’m looking for fundamental truth. I’m trying to find this mystical, hard-to-define sense of another universe hiding underneath things. Good people have gotten me there and evil people have gotten me there and smart people have gotten me there and dumb people have gotten me there (“Never anyone as fat as you, though.”). Apparently, even a delusional liar like Whedon can get me there. I still love Firefly, even through Whedon (and Adam Baldwin) committing evil and even through fair assessments of its handling of gender and race and even through critiques of simple things like its half-assed worldbuilding or preachy aspects*. I believe that there is a mystical chemistry to it, lodged between and underneath the beats of the story – something soulful and beautiful. I think of the horror of Simon learning the extent of what the Alliance did to River, and I think of Jayne’s curt speech after tearing down a statue of himself, and I think of Wash realising what the bond between Mal and Zoe is, and I think of the look on Jayne’s face when he tells Mal to make something up, and most of all I think of Mal’s absolutely furious attempts to believe in things in the face of a universe completely dedicated to disillusioning him.
(*I will not, however, entertain any notion that the dialogue is anything less than sublime. “My days of not taking you seriously are certainly comin’ to a middle.”)
I think of my idealised self-image, and I realise it looks remarkably like Mal Reynolds. The more I try and define him, the more contradictions keep popping up; he fully believes that the universe is a place that will punish any sentiment, and it only made him grip his sentimentality tighter. He’s an aggressive cynic who will take the most practical and ruthless path, except when the chance to do something good (or hilariously bad) pops up. I think a big thing that draws me to him is that he’s completely at ease being both a bad person and a good one. The fact that he’s done bad things are never justification for not doing something good now; the good things he does will never make up for wrongs he commits. For a lot of fans, what I’ve described is enough; nobody, not even Whedon, will be able to take Firefly away from them (this is admirably Mal-like in its obstinacy). Some have gone so far as to downplay what Whedon contributed to the series and what they like about it. I can’t follow them that far, because he is clearly responsible for a big idea that drives Mal and Firefly, one that synthesises and then extrapolates from his various influences, one that certainly isn’t original to him but can be considered an idea he came to entirely independently, and most importantly an idea that he has banged on about at length as his specific intention with the series as a whole: the notion that trying to ‘fix’ people to be Good is a fool’s errand.
This is fundamentally incompatible with the “How To Be A Fan…” outlook; the original essay expresses contempt for the very idea that bigotry is an inherent part of human nature, and the assumption that evil can be cured – not just punished or corrected, but cured – and You are the one to do is all over the culture that follows it. It’s an outlook that values Growth and Evolution; that there is an ideal version of ourselves and our world that we’re moving towards. Whedon asks the same question I do: who decides what that ideal version is? One of his central ideas going in was nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things; Firefly is these people finding inelegant compromise. I don’t believe you can be a good person, and I wouldn’t want to be one if you could, and I’m reflexively repulsed by the idea of shaping myself to fit even an individual’s idea of a good person, let alone that of a society. I would extrapolate from that in a way I don’t think Whedon did, and in fact in a way I suspect he’d find repulsive – it’s not about talking people into changing their minds, it’s about creating systems of power that make the things you want easier and the things you don’t want more difficult. This is, ironically, against the left-libertarian pleasures of the series, but, you know, whatever.
When I think of being an ethical fan, I think of the things I do that actually affect others. I have nothing but contempt for the MCU, but the thought of going into an MCU fan’s space and lecturing them on the revolting aspects of the franchise feels unnecessarily cruel. Going on and on and on about the nuances of an abuser’s creative genius (even embedded within acknowledgement of evil he’s done) and being yet another voice out there loudly reminding victims that abusers are out there and people find them interesting and got good things out of them seems even worse than that, especially when it’s mainly to serve my own intellectual and philosophical curiosity. The reason I’m comfortable writing it here is that, as far as I’m concerned, the space between my byline and Related Posts is mine and if you don’t like what you see in it, that’s on you for coming into my space (an MCU fan coming to me and asking my opinion is fair game). Even then, I’ve been wavering over this essay for over a year now; I kept trying to find a tasteful time to discuss my thoughts on the Whedon situation, but it’s a continually tasteless situation.
(This extends to my feeling of responsibility as an artist taking influence as well. I am compelled by the thought that the Harry Potter series requires only a few tweaks to transform it into an episodic procedural with the intensity of Law & Order but a vastly different mood and aesthetic, and I feel like the creative potential in its concepts could be plumbed to even greater depths, but the thought of adding to the thorough exhaustion trans people as a collective are feeling at seeing Rowling’s name in the public sphere, even esoterically, does not strike me as a morally positive act in this environment. With Whedon, this extends even beyond politics and outright into aesthetics – space adventure stories for the past two decades have mined the original parts of Firefly until there’s nothing left, and part of the reason his reputation has fallen is because Whedonesque has shifted from a compliment to an insult, particularly when it comes to dialogue.)
I look over this essay and it comes off as incredibly messy. I suppose this whole thing is messy; I still don’t know how I feel about it, and this is less a definitive statement on what we should take from this whole situation and more of another exegesis. I don’t usually like writing about topical situations because I’m always dissatisfied with my thoughts – it’s hard to consider all the angles and full truth of something when you’re still pretty much in the middle of it and you have to muddle along as best you can, and I know for certain what feels morally right to me in this moment without knowing the full impact of it all, and I certainly don’t know what will work for other people. It feels like this essay veers into heady self-reflection at a time and in a situation where people are more concerned with the welfare of Whedon’s victims, particularly in this final paragraph; I couldn’t think of a better way to end it. My hope is that there’s something in this that helps, even if it’s not apparent how and especially if it turns out to be useful for something totally unexpected.