We’re all human.
That statement is a dangerous double-edged sword.
We’re all human, and therefore make mistakes, go down the wrong path. But because we’re human we — hopefully — all strive to be better. And because we do, we set examples to ourselves; the only problem is, those examples are also human, with their own shortcomings and imperfections.
Catherine Cusick’s article on Longreads about her reaction and thoughts on Kai Cole’s post regarding Joss Whedon is a great read. Not only because it’s decidedly not trying to antagonize Joss, but also for its attempt to talk about the underlying issue. Which is that our heroes are still only human, and art is separate from the artist (especially in a collaborative environment that is a TV show’s writers’ room).
When I first read Kai’s post I was… well, shocked. Then I was devastated, because for all I my intellectual understanding I couldn’t get over my emotions. Joss Whedon has been — and still is, read further — my hero for the longest time. I have an emotional investment in him. Kai’s words tore into that emotional bond, and I had to step back and rely on intellect to sort things out.
Joss Whedon is a human. I’m not here to excuse his behavior: for one thing I have no earthly idea if he is what Kai paints him to be — I wasn’t there. And thus I have no right to judge either way or either party.
What I do have, however, is an appreciation of Joss’ work, both on-screen and off.
”I hate ‘feminist’.” (Joss Whedon)
Long before Joss’ speech at Equality Now I’ve been struggling with the concept of positive discrimination. I understand the practical need for it, and recognize that — similarly to democracy — it’s not a perfect solution but we don’t have anything better.
That doesn’t mean I have to like it.
What Joss said, however, resonated with me on a deeper level. By the time I saw it I was a writer, or at least well on the way to it — so his approach obviously meant more to me.
Now I don’t think I’d consider myself a feminist. Sure, the term itself is still flexible, and if asked I’d say — without hesitation — that I am. But am I? Not really.
I do believe in equality. Moreover, I can’t think outside of it, so technically I wouldn’t even say I “believe” in it. Regardless of race, sexual identity or orientation, heritage, social status, whatever — people are people. “It’s simple as that.”
Is Joss Whedon a self-proclaimed feminist icon?
I also don’t think men can be feminists, simply because they’re not women. This is why I never understood why people have put Joss on a “feminist pedestal” and made him a “feminist icon”.
I don’t agree with Marianne Eloise’s assesment, quoted in the Longreads article, originally published in Dazed) either:
Joss Whedon has built his empire off the back of claiming to be a feminist and a Good Man.
Did he? Maybe he did, but it certainly wasn’t communicated that way, ever. There’s no evidence of it.
Buffy was a bad movie before it turned into a cult TV show, but the concept never changed to accommodate the perception of feminism due to its reception. It became cult because women everywhere were able to internalize Buffy. Firefly was praised for its strong female characters, but it wasn’t marketed as a feminist show — in fact, it wasn’t marketed almost at all, and not well when it was. Dollhouse wasn’t praised too often, even though it had one of the strongest female characters.
Marianne goes on:
His work is good in its own right, but his glowing public profile is based on pretending to be a feminist…
Again, do we have any evidence of that? As far as I know his accolades were given and never sought. The perception of fans is not something he could control — which is especially evident from a lot of engagements with fans that show how he didn’t want to be a “feminist icon”.
There are a number of occasions where Joss could be accused of capitalizing on his public image as a “feminist”. I personally think those allegations would be shaky at best, though; but do let me know if you think otherwise.
All of that amounts to the base question: are these revelations about Joss, whether they are proven true, false, or remain undetermined, affect his work?
Separating art from the artist
Now that’s a question I’d really like if I could ask everyone on Twitter axing Joss: if this speech was given by any other person, would you agree with it? Going further: if Buffy or Firefly were written by someone else (and it often was, as TV isn’t a solitary undertaking) would you still attack?
That’s the point I think Catherine was trying to make, and what so many people miss.
I’m not qualified to judge how people feel, and frankly nobody is. I’m especially not qualified to talk about feminism or a woman’s perspective on the world — I’m not a woman. That said, I am qualified to talk about separating art from artist. Which should be the default practice, and not just in art.
The allegations against Joss shouldn’t belittle his (and his group of writers’) contributions. Maybe he falsely preached, but even so: is the message any less true if the messenger is false? Is this new perspective, be it however true or false, take away from the memories, insights, and power people took away from Buffy, Firefly, or any other Joss Whedon creation?
Artists die as soon as their art first comes in contact with their audience. They became utterly and completely irrelevant in the context of interpreting — that’s between text and reader, painting and observer, movie/TV show and those who watch it.
Arguments that start with “what the author meant here…” automatically disqualify them from any sort of intelligent exchange of opinions. Even if the author her/himself talks about their art, it’s past the phase of creation — they’re just interpreting it the same way their audience does. Their opinion doesn’t matter any more — or less — than anyone else’s.
Lesson learned (and likely will be repeated)
What this whole thing did is remind me how important it is to detach art from artist, message from messenger. Of course, because we’re human — and that includes me — we’ll recognize this and move on eventually. Some won’t, but there’s little we can do about that.
But as we move forward, we’ll make this mistake again and again. Because we’re human, we’re flawed, and we need heroes to aspire toward — and those heroes, being human, will let us down in one way or another from time to time.
Joss Whedon was my hero for the past 15+ years. Now I find refuge in his work, detached from him, because what I took from Buffy, Firefly, X-Men, and Dollhouse (to name just a few) isn’t affected by his personal shortcomings or mistakes (or even crimes) any more. It stung for a while, and then I remembered that I am better than being petty and vengeful because I made the mistake of creating a perception that didn’t match reality.
Cover image credit: Tech Times/Caroline@Flickr