Joss Whedon and JK Rowling Don’t Own My Queer Narratives

This essay contains mentions of abuse and sexual assault. 

As an abuse survivor and a general lover of shitty cis white men having their reputations rightfully torn to shreds around them in public forums, watching Joss Whedon’s demise unfold in real time on Twitter has been a delightful popcorn gif experience. But oddly, as a queer millennial who came of age watching Whedon’s characters and shaping my baby queer identity around them, I find myself struggling with the idea of ripping the Whedonverse out of my spiritual DVD shelf. (Emotional Netflix queue? Whatever metaphor we’re using these days.) Of course, Buffy fans aren’t the only one struggling with the crash-and-burn of its creator-to-fandom relationship. J.K. Rowling has revealed herself as an unrepentant transmisogynist in recent years, and continues to double down on her bigotry. Their awfulness has left countless queers wondering what to do with the characters who have helped us through some of the hardest, darkest, most painful days of our lives.

It seems like every few years, Joss Whedon comes under fire for something gross. Once branded a feminist icon — granted, the bar for male feminists used to be very, very low — almost every piece of press he’s received over the past ten years has been shaded with commentary calling out his treatment of women. Not just the storylines he gives his “strong” female characters, but the women he works with on his sets.

This February, actress Charisma Carpenter, who played the iconic Cordelia Chase in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, stood in solidarity with fellow actor Ray Fisher when he accused Whedon of “gross, abusive, unprofessional, and completely unacceptable” behavior on the set of Justice League in a tweet that went viral in July. Carpenter’s statement went beyond a lack of professionalism: “Charisma Carpenter alleges Joss Whedon ‘abused his power on numerous occasions” while she performed on Whedon’s series ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and ‘Angel.’ In a lengthy statement the actor posted to Twitter on Wednesday, Carpenter alleges that Whedon’s “casually cruel” behavior included threatening to fire her, calling her ‘fat’ when she was four months pregnant, asking her if she was going to ‘keep’ her baby, and firing her after she gave birth.”

Whedon’s treatment of Carpenter during and after her pregnancy on Angel has been an open secret in the Buffy and Angel fandom for years. I remember hearing about it in fandom spaces as early as 2006 (back in the old LiveJournal days of Oh No They Didn’t), where Whedon’s name would be dragged through the mud in comment threads with a rapid gif eloquence that Twitter can only aspire to emulate. Even outside of fan spaces, though, Whedon has been receiving mainstream critique for almost as long as he’s been garnering praise. The blog Joss Whedon is Not a Feminist has been pulling receipts on sexist tropes in Whedon’s writing and misogynist behavior going back to the early seasons of Buffy, and his original script for Wonder Woman, written in 2006 and accidentally leaked before the release of the 2017 movie, is… a lot of yikes rolled up in one document. Whedon’s personal life wasn’t any better. His ex-wife, Kai Cole, wrote an essay for The Wrap in 2017 addressing their divorce after sixteen years of marriage, detailing over a decade of infidelities, dishonesty, and emotional abuse. Such feminism!

What made the round of allegations that Carpenter began in February different, though, was the response of other Whedonverse actors, writers, and staff. Buffy actor Amber Benson voiced her support on Twitter: “Buffy was a toxic environment and it starts from the top…There was a lot of damage done during that time and many of us are still processing it twenty plus years later.” Sarah Michelle Geller made a statement on Instagram that she does “not want to be forever associated with the name Joss Whedon.” Perhaps most alarmingly, Michelle Trachenberg, who was a teenager when she played Dawn on Buffy, shared Geller’s post on her on Instagram and included the caption, “The last. Comment I will make on this. Was. There was a rule. Saying. He’s not allowed in a room alone with Michelle again.”

Most damning in cases like this, however, was that several of the men involved in Whedon’s work voiced their support of Carpenter (is the bar low? Yes! Are we shocked that they cleared it? Also yes!). David Boreanaz, J. August Richards, and James Marsters all expressed their solidarity and condemned — to varying degrees of directness — Whedon’s behavior. Jose Molina, a writer on Firefly, was the most explicit: “‘Casually cruel’ is a perfect way of describing Joss,” he tweeted. “He thought being mean was funny. Making female writers cry during a notes session was especially hysterical. He actually liked to boast about the time he made one writer cry twice in one meeting.”

Not great.

Despite my delight in watching Whedon finally face comeuppance, I have struggled with the idea of letting the characters of the Whedonverse go.

Just like Xena was a queer awakening for millions of queer women in the mid-nineties, the characters in Buffy and Firefly were part of my queer “oh, shit” moments in the early and mid-2000s. I have vivid memories of watching reruns of both shows in middle and high school and being stunned at the existence of Willow — not just a queer character, but a Jewish queer character, which was, to me, a baffling and unheard-of level of representation. Watching Firefly gave me a different kind of insight — I saw myself not just in River, in her trauma and fury and tenderness and fear; but also, in what would later smack me in the face with a gender awakening, in Simon, whose fierce protectiveness of his sister and his choice of caregiving over violence, masculinity and femininity intertwined in his hands and his heart.

I should back up. Neither Buffy nor Firefly were inherent in my understanding of my queer identity. I came out as bisexual at thirteen, casually announcing my attraction to girls with the wild kind of confidence that only comes with being absolutely high off the sugar and caffeine in a large Dunkin Donuts coffee coolata and the relative surety that my dad was more interested in the recap of the Red Sox game on the radio than my announcement. I don’t know exactly where my click moment came from — I often joke that it came from watching Return of the Jedi at a very small and impressionable age, seeing Princess Leia in the horrible but very sexy metal bikini, and embodying the Jane Lynch “as a feminist, I am outraged; as a lesbian, I am delighted” meme (which wouldn’t exist for years and as a six-year-old just wanting more princesses in space I wouldn’t have had the words for it anyway), but also kind of wanting to kiss Han Solo, too. My tiny bisexual heart approached most pieces of media like that — if there was an iconic couple at the center of it, I wanted both halves of it. Quest for Camelot? Absolutely. Mulan? One hundred percent. The Mummy? Be still my beating heart.

(Is my type hyper-competent women and the himbos who love them? Sure is!)

When I started watching Buffy, and later Firefly, I was past the first cute bloom of early queer identity, when coming out as a baby bisexual was a sweet little phase, and into the mid-puberty, old-enough-to-be-sexualized-but-probably-way-too-young-to-be-sexual years of gross comments about the bi pride stickers on my water bottle. I had gotten used to the finding strong female characters — some queer-coded, some explicitly queer — in the books I devoured by Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley and Jacqueline Carey — but it wasn’t until Buffy — and the titular Buffy, and Willow, and Faith — and, later, River Tam in Firefly that I had strong female characters who weren’t but strong but angry. Who, whether the narrative intended them to or not (and honestly, the more I look back at Whedon’s filmography, the more I think he tripped and fell into good writing more than he actually planned out good storylines and then achieved them), took all the fury at the sexualization and trauma and pain they’d endured, almost all of it at the hands of men, and flung it right back at men.

At fourteen, I was already used to taking the violence men threw at me and turning it inward, drowning myself in self-neglect and self-harm with a dissociated casualness that I look back on now with a sense of mild horror. The concept of refusing to let myself be poisoned by it, to instead turn myself into something made of violence and fury and black magic was heady and addictive and enticing.

But it wasn’t just my attraction to the characters, for both their looks and their ability to smash a misogynist into pieces. It was also about their relationships with each other. With the exception of Willow, none of them were explicitly queer, but there was an undertone of queerness there all the same. I remember literally sitting on the edge of my seat while watching the sexually charged energy between Buffy and Faith, chewing straight through my bottom lip. I remember crying at the playfulness that showed up between River and Kaylee on Firefly, those rare moments when that traumatized, weaponized psychic got to be soft and sweet and childish. I remember watching Buffy and Willow, a queer girl and her straight-written best friend, who always came back to each other with an impossible sort of tenderness (and none for Xander, the Joss Whedon insert that fooled no one), and crying, and not really understanding why.

As an adult, I look back at all of this and know what I was desperately looking for: an intersection of strength and sexuality, of tenderness and refusal to break. It was a specifically queer part of me that was looking for that representation because it was the specifically queer part of me that needed — because being out and queer added another layer to the target on my back: the boys at school who commented on my mouth would comment on my rainbow bracelets at the same time; I had my bra straps snapped as often as I was asked which girls I was looking at in the locker room. The boy who raped me in the back of his car told me afterwards, mocking, that I could still tell girls that I was a virgin, since he was only the first boy I’d been with.

(Faith spent quite a bit of time as my favorite character, after that.)

Joss Whedon’s characters gave me a sense of strength. They taught me to channel my rage into a mix of tenderness and justice work that’s since turned into a career that I’m honored to have. As a queer teenager, and later as a queer young adult, his characters — not just the explicitly queer ones, but also the straight ones that I flung constant queer head canons at (you can pry trans Simon Tam out of my dead cold hands) — played a crucial role in shaping the way I related to myself as a queer person in the world. But as a survivor of abuse — and not just abuse, but specifically sexist and heterosexist abuse — I don’t know how to justify continuing to love the characters Joss Whedon created while reviling Joss Whedon himself.

In some ways, I’m taking my cues from the Harry Potter fandom. I grew up with Harry Potter as much as I grew up with Buffy, and as a queer nonbinary person, got to be as miserably disappointed with J.K. Rowling as I ever was with Joss Whedon — more so, actually, because Rowling has been digging her heels in and insisting she and her TERF-y views are a-okay, rather than fucking off into the abyss like Whedon did after fans cheerfully and justly bullied him off Twitter (bye!). But like Whedon, whose works can be examined for the numerous ways that his misogynist views slipped into even his most “girl power” pieces of media, Rowling’s cissexism found its way into Harry Potter as well: “We love the stories, but we, as adults and critical thinkers, have been able to see these things in the books that were clearly [Rowling’s] worldview coming forward,” Delia Gallegos of Black Girls Create told IGN. “There is good in the books, but when you read them critically, you see that none of this is new for her.”

But the most important takeaway from the Harry Potter and Rowling fallout, for me at least, was a comment from Renae McBrian, a YA author who volunteers for MuggleNet: “J.K. Rowling gave us Harry Potter; she gave us this world…but we created the fandom, and we created the magic and community in that fandom. That is ours to keep.”

Whedon may have created some of the most iconic characters — queer, queer-coded, and queer-codable — of my adolescent. He might own the copyright to their names, their plot lines, their titles. But just like J.K. Rowling doesn’t own the experiences of the thousands of nonbinary kids who identified with Nymphadora Tonks or Teddy Lupin, or the queer kids who saw their stories in Remus Lupin and Sirius Black or Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy or Millicent Bulstrode and Hannah Abbott (tiny fandom, I see you, and I love you), Joss Whedon doesn’t own the narratives of those of us who found ourselves in his characters, either. He doesn’t get to lay claim to the stories we wrote, whether they were in fan fiction, on forums, or even just in our own, quiet thoughts — about Willow’s fierce tenderness, Faith’s justified fury and irreverent humor, River’s pain and unspeakable softness, Kaylee’s impossible capacity for joy in the face of horrific violence. Just as we own our bodies and our minds and our spirits; and just as characters like Charisma Carpenter’s Cordelia would gently, sweetly, viciously remind us to crush the windpipes of anyone who told us otherwise; we own our stories. We own our histories.

We own the narratives that give us meaning.

Shelly Jay Shore (she/they) is a writer and nonprofit fundraiser in New York/Colonized Lenapehoking. Her creative fiction and nonfiction celebrates diverse characters and perspectives, and her activism centers on expanding civic engagement and social justice. In her limited free time, Shelly reads a truly alarming number of books, experiments with home bartending, wrestles with her dogs, and attempts to raise a functioning human being who will only need the normal amount of therapy. Find her on twitter and instagram.

Shelly has written 3 articles for us.

19 Comments

  1. I just watched the first episode of The Nevers on the day it came out (Sunday). I wanted to watch a period piece and my wife wanted more of a sci fi. It seemed like the perfect compromise and we loved it. And then at the end of the episode Joss Whedon’s name flashed on the screen (we hadn’t known!). I simultaneously thought “who gave this guy a show?” and “I don’t want to miss out on this.” This might be the first time I’ve found myself in a dilemma like this. I’ll probably still watch it but with a critical eye… it won’t be the same as watching something where I don’t know what a bad person the head of the show is.

    • If it makes you feel any better, he stepped down as the showrunner, and Philippa Goslett took over in January. I think he did the first six episodes and Goslett took over for the last four. He’s still the creator and I think an executive producer, so still making money off it, but at least no one is subject to his toxic behavior anymore.

  2. God, this was a cathartic read. I’ve been going through something very similar with angsting over whether I should be trying to cleave the Whedonverse from my queer identity, and it’s been breaking my heart a bit. Gotta remember, it’s not just his. From the fic authors who wrote the fanfic I read at thirteen, to the friends I made talking about fuffy, to the other writers on the show, to the actresses who put life and spark and love into the characters I clung to, it is not. just. his.

  3. Yes to all of this. Everything Buffy was and still is to me (the overpriced DVDs I bought in the early aughts in a Virgin‘s at Picadilly Circus, bands I discovered because they played at the Bronze, marathoning through the seasons with my university friends, …) feels quite separated from Joss Whedon. Same with Harry Potter. And yet, they still break my heart, especially JK Rowling whom I admired quite a bit. I can intellectually and even emotionally separate the author from their work, but still.

  4. Truthfully, I wasn’t aware of the Whedon critiques until Charisma Carpenter spilled the tea [Actually, that’s not true. I’ve been aware of—been a part of—incendiary criticism of Whedon since his “casually cruel” murder of Tara, and all that came after that]

    Sometime in the past year or so—oh, I know! It was when SyFy decided to re-run Xena (a quarantine treat)—I remember thinking (after I checked to be sure) “I can’t believe no one’s re-running Buffy now.”

    And then more recently, I had to come to terms w/ the fact that no one will likely re-run Buffy ever again.

    This piece hit me right in my ageing fanwank feels: how do I square the characters/narratives I love, w/ the hideousness of their creators? I can’t. It’s another “Both of These Things Are True” paradox.

  5. Yes!!!! Thank you for this. Buffy Summers and her complicated relationship to responsibility and power is one of the most relatable and heartfelt narratives to me… ever. And I truly do think that Willow made me feel normal in a way that I badly needed as a teen.

  6. These books and movies are based on fantasy, so people basing their lifestyle choices on wizards, aliens and vampires seem to be the problem, not the storytellers, or their ‘real world’ views.

  7. With Buffy, I think it is also important to remember that Whedon did not create his work alone. Part of the frustration is that he has been able to take sole credit for what was actually a collaborative creation over many years with writers like Marti Noxon and Jane Espenson, who have gone onto create incredibly complex, angry female television characters in their own right. Let’s also uplift their contributions and seek out their work, for instance on Once Upon a Time, Dietland, and UnREAL.

    In addition to queer Harry Potter, I think we can also take inspiration from the Jewish tradition of Midrash, which is essentially ancient fan-fiction where Rabbis wrote their own stories to fill in the gaps in the Bible and wrestle with what they found problematic.

  8. It’s remarkably offensive and dismissive of the issue to refer to Joss Whedon’s fall in terms of “popcorn gifs”. People were hurt by him so you could be amused by his fall. Naw, don’t think so.

    To treat all of this like it’s entertainment is grossly callous to the people who suffered because of him. Let’s call a spade a spade, what you’re happy about is *revenge*, plain and simple. Not justice, revenge.

    Justice is done because it must done, not because we like it, not because we want revenge. Joss Whedon deserves what’s happened to him, without a doubt. He brought it on himself. And I’m glad that the entertainment world may finally do something about him. But I’m not HAPPY it’s happening, and you should not be either.

    To be happy to see this, to be entertained by it, means you’re piggybacking delight and amusement on the backs of the people he hurt and made suffer. It’s sad, and that’s all it is, sad. Sad another former luminary has to fall. It’s sad people got hurt. It’s sad he never learned from past mistakes. It’s sad his legacy is ruined. It’s sad we all have to try and reconcile what he made with who he is. Seeing him getting fired, losing his status and his place…. this doesn’t make me happy. It’s what should happen, but it’s not happening to entertain or amuse us.

    I’m not sure I 100% know what “social justice” is anymore, but I know for sure it shouldn’t be about revenge, or taking pleasure in someone else’s punishment.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!