Joss Whedon, “Strong Female Characters” and the Hopeful End of the Jerk Director Trope

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Honestly, most of us have known for a while that Joss Whedon is a jerk. I’m a Buffy fan, I adore Buffy and it partially inspires my own work.

But Whedon is a jerk.

I even liked Dollhouse despite it’s problematic nature. (It was clearly meant to deal with cyberpunk themes of identity, agency, and control, but did have a tendency to wallow in it).

But Whedon is a jerk.

And recent allegations indicate that it may go beyond that.

Directors Being Jerks

Look, I’ll say it. There’s a trope that directors are jerks. Joss Whedon is far from the only director to have been accused of abusing actors, especially women.

A 2014 article from IndieWire features four directors who, in their opinion, went too far. These include Lars von Trier cutting an actresses hair, Darren Aronofsky using explosives rather too close to his cast, Stanley Kubrick screaming at actors and the famous Alfred Hitchcock throwing live birds at Tippi Hedren. But this article also sums up the problem. The last line of it is “when in the end the actress gives the greatest performance of her life — as many of these actors have admitted after the fact — maybe torture has its purpose.”

Wow.

Because that’s been the justification for decades. It makes for better art. It teases great performances out of actresses. And as a side note, they praise von Trier for creating female characters with agency.

In 2017, BuzzFeed contributor Imran Siddiquee published this article. In it, Von Trier denies allegations of sexual harassment made by the singer, Björk.

Another example from that article, Bernardo Bertolucci, when directing Last Tango In Paris, decided to, no kidding, improvise a scene in which a male character rapes a female one with a stick of butter.

And didn’t tell the actress.

In his words. “I didn’t want Maria to act her humiliation, her rage, I wanted her to feel…the rage and humiliation.” She never shot another nude scene and had a mental health crisis afterwards.

But it’s for the art.

The ends justify the means and, in any case, they choose to be actors.

Enter Joss Whedon.

Photo by Skycraft Studios on Unsplash

Joss Whedon and the Myth of the Strong Female Character

Again, I loved Buffy. I loved the acting, the storylines. Not so keen on Angel (the character), because I have always found vampire romance creepy. It’s one of the reasons I don’t read a lot of modern vampire fiction and don’t play Vampire: the Masquerade. (It’s also why there are no on camera vampires in Lost Guardians).

But.

Buffy created a monster. Buffy, the character, is the archetype and original of the “strong female character.”

And that has become a problem. One way in which this was illustrated was the fan treatment of Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones. The show was immensely popular (until that ending), but many, many fans saw Sansa Stark as weak, pathetic, and lacking agency.

Because she wasn’t a “strong female character.”

The same criticisms were aimed at Jupiter in Jupiter Ascending. (Confession: I am, yes, one of the people who liked that movie. I should write an article about it).

Fact is that Sansa Stark is one of the strongest female characters in the series, especially if you read the books. Her determination to keep onto her values at all costs is degraded by fans and critics because her values are traditional femininity. Sansa is a character designed to show that there is nothing wrong with traditional femininity when it is chosen. When it is chosen over again despite pressure to be different. I’m not a traditionally feminine woman, but I respect women like Sansa Stark…until, of course, they try to force everyone else into their mold.

But Buffy is considered something to aspire to and look…she’s a good character, she’s a fun character, but she’s “not like other girls.” And that has become a trope.

Not like other girls implies that there is something wrong with other girls. Whedon tried his best to fix that with the ending, but the damage was already done.

And then there were the rumors about his on set behavior.

Joss Whedon, the rumor went, is a jerk.

But Is He an Abuser?

So, the next question is…is Whedon one of those directors?

And a couple of weeks ago the floodgates opened.

Charisma Carpenter, who played Cordelia Chase in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and in Angel made allegations against Joss Whedon that echoed a few things that had been said before.

In the past, Carpenter said they had a falling out due to creative differences. Whedon was also displeased about having to write around the actor’s pregnancy.

But after investigations of how Whedon treated Justice League actor Ray Fisher, Warner Brothers talked to actors who had worked with Whedon in the past. I can’t find details about his “unprofessional behavior,” but just saying, I doubt very much that it’s a coincidence that Fisher is Black.

And Carpenter came forward. Whedon hinted that Carpenter should get an abortion after finding out she was pregnant. Because it would get in the way. Process that for a moment, from a man who claims to be a feminist. When she refused, he wrote her out of the show. He called her fat when she was pregnant, and attacked her religious beliefs. So, this feminist man was trying to coerce a Catholic woman into an abortion. I bet he calls himself pro choice, too. He also intentionally scheduled her for longer days against her doctor’s orders. Was he trying to get her to lose her baby. Oh, and she found out she was off the show through the media.

Others have come forward too. Whedon’s ex wife, Kai Cole, says he was cheating on her both physically and emotionally.

He told Buffy’s stunt double to stop dating the stunt coordinator and threatened to get both of them blacklisted.

He made literal, actual death threats against James Marsters after the network convinced him to keep on the character of Spike (who was meant to be kind of a throwaway) because Marsters was so good. Death. Threats.

Whedon was also banned from being in a room alone with Michelle Trachtenberg, who played Dawn. She was 14. There’s no detail on what happened, but eww.

Put it this way, it’s going to be very hard to enjoy Whedon’s work after this. I suspect there may have been stuff going on during Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but many of those actors are still under contracts and NDAs that may prevent them from coming forward.

And put together with some of the stuff in Dollhouse and Whedon’s masculinized “strong female characters” and…yeah. He’s hidden under a mask of feminism, but now it’s been torn away.

Photo by Gordon Cowie on Unsplash

But Will This Help?

Here’s the thing, though. Will the fall of Joss Whedon help other actors?

Or will we keep saying that the art we love justifies the treatment of those creating it.

Look, actors work hard and sometimes their work is dangerous. Both Peter Capaldi and Matt Smith blew out knees while filming Doctor Who (It’s all that running). Viggo Mortensen broke two toes kicking a prop during The Lord of the Rings. Linda Hamilton has permanent hearing damage because she forgot her hearing protection during a scene in the second Terminator movie. (When I met Dirk Benedict, whom I hope never to see again, he was deaf as a post and I suspect it’s from all the explosions on the A-Team). These are accidents. They happen.

Actors also do things to get ready for a role. They hit the gym, they go on diets. Many actresses actually have very short hair, if any at all, and every time you see them? That’s a wig. (I shocked somebody by saying that any time they saw Tatiana Maslany while she was filming Orphan Black she was wearing a wig. I have long hair. It takes a while to get it under a wig. If you wear wigs a lot, you cut your hair or even shave your head). Some work needs to be done in that area, particularly when men are expected to lose ridiculous amounts of fat.

They might also have to do a lot of research. There’s a joke circulating that Keanu Reeves was tortured for the Matrix…the Wachowskis made him read psychology textbooks!

And directors need to be in control. Sometimes you really do have to do one more take when everyone’s tired. Sometimes a scene has to be filmed in the middle of the night. Sometimes a director may need to raise their voice.

Heck, sometimes an actor needs to trust a director absolutely. The amazing scene in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe where Lucy first sees Narnia…the absolute wonder in her eyes was real. They locked her out of the set, then carried her in blindfolded, put her down, took off the blindfold and started filming. Georgie Henley didn’t mind, and has said that being Lucy was an amazing privilege. The actors in Blair Witch Project improvised most of the film and had extras trying to scare them like in a haunted house, but none of them felt abused. Surprising one’s actors, when done right, can make for amazing performances.

But we need to stop considering abuse to be normal.

Directors should not be screaming at their actors, inflicting real injuries (which happened in Texas Chainsaw Massacre), getting actors to perform simulated rape on their unsuspecting co stars…and they certainly shouldn’t be trying to coerce a woman into an abortion.

The best thing which could come from the Whedon revelations is that the wider audience becomes more aware of these abuses and starts to demand change.

Let’s hope so.

Freelance writer, freelance editor, novelist and short story writer. Jack of many trades. https://www.jenniferrpovey.com/

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