What's the worst that could happen if I speak up about it?
Joss Whedon and Faux Feminist Sexual Harassment in the Comics Industry
September 7, 2017 at 12:56 pm
A lot of folks seem to genuinely believe that Joss Whedon’s cheating doesn’t undermine his feminism, or that it doesn’t indicate that geek media has an undercurrent of faux-feminist allyship. A lot of folks say that their opinion of him hasn’t changed.
Fifteen years later, when he was done with our marriage and finally ready to tell the truth, he wrote me, “When I was running ‘Buffy,’ I was surrounded by beautiful, needy, aggressive young women. It felt like I had a disease, like something from a Greek myth. Suddenly I am a powerful producer and the world is laid out at my feet and I can’t touch it.”
-Via Joss Whedon’s letter to ex-wife Kai Cole explaining the breadth of his cheating.
But stop me if this starts to sound familiar:
You’re a young creator in a geek media space. You write or make art and dream of telling stories that will resonate with people. You work hard. You stay up all night dreaming up the things you want to create.
Maybe you put your work online, or showcase it at shows and markets. Maybe you even go to Q&As with your favorite creators. You wait in long lines, hoping to catch a glimpse of them over the vast sea of cosplayers between the two of you.
And you meet one of your heroes — one of your biggest heroes. You’ve been following his career since middle school. You own a copy of everything he’s ever made. He seems like such a good guy. He advocates for women. He speaks on panels about widening the playing field for female creators. He works with women you really admire. He’s married and talks about how much he loves his wife all the time. He says she’s smarter than him. He says she’s his rock.
He says you have potential. He slips you his email address and tells you to keep in touch. You think, wow, this is it! If somebody this talented thinks I have potential, maybe I really do! Because like many creators, you spend a lot of time desperately searching for some scrap of proof that you were meant to make things — that you’re not just wasting yours and everyone else’s time. So this Good Dude’s word counts for a lot.
Maybe the two of you strike up an ongoing conversation — or even a collaboration. And his willingness to give you a chance will surely signal that you’re ready for the big leagues. Right?
Plus, he loves his wife. She’s way smarter than him. She’s his rock.
He’s looking out for you. Right?
Eventually, he asks if you have a boyfriend. He makes subtle, disparaging comments about your relationship. He’s just looking out for you. He compliments your maturity all the time. You’re so mature. It’s like you’re not even half his age. But then again, he doesn’t really feel 47 most days.
You start getting paid to make art. You talk to Good Dude all the time as the two of you plan a cool project you wouldn’t have imagined working on a few months ago.
So when you get a text from him at 2AM on a Wednesday — when he tells you he can’t imagine what it would feel like to be inside of you — you never see it coming.
He apologizes profusely. He was just so wasted. He never would have said something so gross had he been sober. Tentatively, you let it go. He loves his wife. She’s his rock. It was an accident. He’s looking out for you. He just wants the best for you.
A few weeks later, he “jokingly” speculates about what you look like naked. But it was a joke — he didn’t mean anything by it. He’s looking out for you. He loves his wife. Etcetera.
He tries to hug you sometimes. He gets too close. You keep your hands at your side.
Eventually, he tells you that his marriage is falling apart. He just needs someone to talk to. But you’re at a breaking point and try to pull back from him. Even your career isn’t worth putting up with whatever the hell this is.
Good Dude becomes persistent. He reminds you of all the things he’s done for you. Maybe he even acknowledges that no one would believe you if you told anyone about his behavior towards you. But more likely than not, he’d tell you he was disappointed in you — he thought you were better at navigating adult relationships. He thought you of all people wouldn’t misinterpret his intentions. He loved his wife. She was his rock. All he’s ever done was look out for you.
Why’d you have to go and ruin everything?
…On the other hand, maybe things went entirely differently. Maybe right after he gave you his email address for the first time, he responded to your message with a grainy, low-res dick pic.
Regardless, every time you see this guy on a panel about fostering female creative talent, you remember. But who gives a shit about you and your career? You’re just some wannabe. You’re not even that good. Everyone knows how easy it is to discredit a male feminist creator by crying sexual harassment. And everyone knows that ruining a man’s life is the best way for a talentless try-hard to build a brand.
So you avoid the panel and the show and maybe you stop making things and maybe you recede from the limelight. Maybe every time you pick up a pencil or sit down to write something, your stomach churns and you’re afraid to make anything he’ll notice again.
There are a lot of ways these interactions can go, and a lot of ways people deal with them, but in the comics industry, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a dude who got caught abusing a systemic power dynamic with his female mentees and staff. In the past two years, I can think of a handful of men in this industry I respected and admired, who turned out to be “alleged” creeps. Men who respected women. Men who made self-deprecating jokes about how smart their wives are. Men who publicly championed their female collaborators’ work. Men who even treated a nobody like me with kindness and respect.
So Joss Whedon’s sad-sack non-apology to Kai Cole about how he couldn’t help but make a move on the “beautiful, needy, aggressive” young woman he worked with is absolutely nothing new. Of course he blames the women for their aggressive need.
Any young woman who gets sexually harassed by an older man should know this old song and dance. How do you respond when you know that any complaint would bring the brunt of this dude’s fandom down on your head? What do you say when you know that most people won’t believe you? Maybe you don’t think it’ll be worth the effort — so you bitterly complain about him with friends after a few drinks and avoid him like the plague when he rolls through your town for the next big show or convention.
And look: sometimes the interest is reciprocated. But don’t tell me that most 20 year old young women — especially not introverted nerds with limited romantic experience — are ready to navigate the murky depths of dating a man twice her age (who also signs her paychecks).
Whedon was quick to blame the women he cheated on his wife with. They were aggressive, not him. He was a lonely god who could only look and never touch. Woe is he. How could he help but make advances on gorgeous, “needy” women — these subhuman sex piranhas just waiting for a chance to catch Whedon’s boner?
And that’s where Whedon’s whole image falls apart. How can you champion for women’s advancement in the world when at the end of the day, you are just as guilty of treating them like exploitable opportunities as any other douchebag? What kind of reasonable adult looks at someone they have authority over, someone who might be “needy” or having a hard time, and thinks “yeah, I could hit that”?
Because even if every woman Whedon cheated on his wife with (eroding her ability to make healthy choices for her body, btw) was completely onboard with his overtures — even if they were all gorgeous goddesses desperate for that nerd peen — Whedon leveraged his persona as a married man and a feminist to appear trustworthy. He seemed like a safe person to confide in, until he wasn’t.
In the days since Cole’s letter broke, I’ve seen lots of comics guys trying to explain why Whedon’s behavior wasn’t a big deal — how cheating doesn’t make someone “less feminist,” or how it doesn’t change their perspective on his work, or how unimportant Whedon’s infidelity is in the face of our daily calamities in 2017. And that’s precisely why the comics industry is full of sexual harassment: because even in the pre-Donald Trump world, women’s concerns were consistently devalued and ignored.
Joss Whedon’s actions have a direct impact on our medium. His Astonishing X-Men is arguably one of the most well-known X-Men arcs of all time [don’t @ me]. Some consider that run, along with the 2002 Spider-Man movie, one of the crucial elements for Marvel’s recovery from its late 90s bankruptcy. Buffy was a smash-hit TV show and (for a time) a phenomenally popular comics series. And Whedon’s status as a geek media icon means that he’s a regular staple at events like SDCC. In a shouting void of misogyny, to many, he seemed like the lone Normal Ass Straight Guy who was willing to fight for women and their right to exist unencumbered in these spaces. He talked about feminism as if it came as naturally to him as breathing. And that whole time he was talking about feminism and equality, he was secretly justifying the ways he was exploiting a power dynamic to have sex with “needy” young women.
And when so many male comics creators and fans defend or minimize Whedon’s actions, is it any wonder that the comics industry is such a safe haven for sexual harassment?
Comics dudes: think about your reaction to this Joss Whedon debacle. Where are y’all gonna be the next time we learn that a faux feminist comics industry professional was groping his interns? Are you going to believe the friend who tells you that a comics writer made graphic jokes about her cleavage at a book signing? Or are you going to tell her that she probably just “took it the wrong way”?
By failing to hold Whedon and men like him accountable — by “focusing on the work” and eschewing the dreaded “creator cult of personality” — these men, our colleagues, collaborators, and friends, are saying that we don’t matter. That our bodies don’t matter. That our careers don’t matter.
And I don’t have time for friends who don’t care about me — no matter how many times they retweet Gail Simone. And I’m sure she doesn’t have time for their bullshit either. I don’t have time for friends who will only care if someone hurts me after I’ve made enough good art to matter.
Cole deserved better. The women who worked under Whedon deserved better. And women in nerd media as a whole deserve better allies than most of the ones we have right now.
© 2014 - 2017 Carolynn Calabrese and POMEgranate Magazine