Don’t Believe the Hype: Joss Whedon and the Danger of Deifying Your Heroes
I can’t pretend to be intimately familiar with Joss Whedon or his oeuvre; when Buffy the Vampire Slayer came out, I was already in my upper thirties. The twenty years of Whedonmania largely passed me by; Firefly didn’t light my fire, I didn’t make a point of catching the Marvel movies, and I wasn’t aware Dollhouse existed at all until earlier this past week, when Lila Shapiro’s interview dropped. You should click that link if you haven’t read it. It’s a doozy.
The broad outlines, for those who (like me) are too old or too uncool to know this sad, sorry tale, are simple. Whedon, twenty some-odd years ago, started making media full of prototypical “strong female characters,” an overtly and deliberately feminist project Whedon always said was inspired by his feminist mother, and promptly became the hero of a generation of young women and young men who were hungry for that. Whedon could do no wrong; he was even the guy WB turned to when Zack Snyder had to bow out of Justice League mid-production and was an auteur showrunner before auteur showrunners were a thing. And now? Now he’s an outcast, accused of misogynistic, abusive, and coercive on-set behavior by a wide range of actresses who worked with Whedon over the whole course of his career (many of whom had initially kept silent for fear of not being believed, getting blacklisted, or both).
Now, I’m not here to litigate these claims, or even to opine on their truthfulness. No, my biggest question here is why this fall from grace happened the way it did, because it’s not just about Whedon’s failings. It’s about Whedon’s image just as much.
There is a natural tendency in fandoms to revere those who created the object of devotion. We want our heroes to be good people; and since they created something we draw a great deal of inspiration from, something we’re emotionally invested in, we need them to be good people, too, because if they aren’t, their work is tainted. Dave Chappelle and Louis CK especially come to mind when thinking about Whedon, two people who also built images as progressive, compassionate, clear-headed creators who we supposed were honest about themselves. Chappelle built his reputation with biting racial satire, and then walked away from millions of dollars because he realized his audience wasn’t getting the message. Louis CK, the comedian’s comedian, rose to fame on crass, confessional standup and then built a critical darling out of his own shlubby, doing-his-best, self-effacing, and at times feminist sitcom Louie.
Both, in recent years, have come crashing down to Earth for violating their own stated principles. Chappelle was once a key voice in the dialogue of marginalization; now, his standup is mostly transphobic whining. The self-critical feminism of Louis CK’s comedy stands exposed, pun intended, as the product of a man who liked masturbating in front of women without their consent. Both were once numbered among the saints; both now lie fallen by force of their own gravity.
The thing about Whedon, Chappelle, CK, and their fellow smashed idols isn’t just that they failed to live up to our expectations; it’s that our good faith helped create the monster we now revile. These men made their goodness the centerpiece of their entire public image, only for that goodness to be revealed as a facade. But that never would have worked if fans hadn’t been primed for reverence.
This isn’t to excuse their behavior in any way; quite the opposite, without the shield of “goodness,” they would have faced deserved consequences far earlier. But the thing about celebrity is that it creates itself by collaboration between star and audience. Whedon, yes, did create stories with self-consciously strong female leads; but it was the audience who decided to imbue that with hypercharged significance supposedly emanating from Whedon himself. Chappelle’s acerbic takes on marginalization, racism, and privilege in the United States was the fodder that enabled his rise to a sort of embodiment of racial conscience, and audiences ate it up gleefully. CK’s earnestness would have amounted to nothing without the fawning press. In all three cases, it’s understandable that so many fell for PR that told them what they already wanted to believe, and that’s the problem.
That PR, the hero worship that both enabled and was enabled by it, prevented audiences and the media alike from not only looking critically at Whedon and his forebears but even from listening as voices of concern started to grow. Whedon avoided this reckoning for decades precisely because a vocal fandom would hear no evil; CK’s popularity made him invincible; it took multiple transphobic routines from Chappelle before the conversation around him changed. It’s simple human nature. We hear what we want to hear and refuse to let in anything that contradicts our faith in those we place on a pedestal (at least until there is no way to avoid it). This is precisely what happened in all three of these cases due to social forces much larger than any of their respective fanbases.
My message is the same as that of Public Enemy before me: don’t believe the hype. Your heroes are complicated and compromised. All have faltered. All have failed to live up to their standards. Some of them are conmen. Some of them are genuinely struggling and coping with their own long-standing psychic wounds. Every single one is, as all people are, messy, flawed, imperfect. None of those are excuses. But all of it is true.
We must learn to be critical, and more importantly, to invest our emotions far less in the public values of someone we do not really know. We can’t let blatant PR cloud our vision. Allowing criticism, allowing honesty, will help us hold folks accountable, can prevent offenders from perpetuating harm, and will give us the tools to better manage how we view celebrities and the appreciation we have for their work. There are no feet but feet of clay, and eventually, the clay always shatters.