So there was some Whedon news last Monday, and no, it wasn’t great. I usually avoid Whedon news of any flavor because the shouting gets so loud so fast, but this one blindsided me, can’t be unseen, and well, let’s talk about it.
I’m tired. It’s the sort of tired that comes from decades of being female in male-dominated spaces, from a news cycle that lately seems to churn up nothing but horror and hatred, and from my safe/happy spaces being increasingly hard to access without some of the miserable ooze following me right in.
Obviously, this was not a great week for Joss Whedon fans. (I’m not linking to anything here because bluntly, I couldn’t stomach reading past one news story about the open letter and Whedonesque shutting down, but if you want to pick at the scab, your pal google’s always up for that game.) I have no way of assessing the veracity of her (Cole’s) claims, because I don’t know her, nor do I know him, but the allegations sure are out there now, and everything feels icky and sad in light of them.
Did I mention I’m really tired?
For a week now, I’ve been trying to decide if/how I was going to talk about this. Since I was avoiding reading about it online myself, why add to the pile of words accumulating there? Eventually though, I’ve come around to the idea that it’s worth saying something in service of discussing larger issues in capital-F-Fandom and capital-D-Discourse that I’ve had a front-row seat to as a scholar for over a decade, and with this, the context of a topic with which I’ve had a close and complicated relationship for even longer. Lest it get lost in what follows, I’ll cut to one chase now:
Bleh, Joss. I will be unable to escape thinking about this in connection with your work, and if this stuff is true, then yep, you really failed pretty hardcore at being a good person. I cannot overstate how much I don’t want to watch old favorite stuff with new thoughts intruding re: if you slept with anybody onscreen, this bleh smearing onto them too.But the truth is, ironically, I never wanted to see you at all, in what was onscreen.
Semantics and Secrets:
As a media scholar, with the theoretical base I subscribe to, I cannot declare myself now, or ever to have been, a “Whedon fan,” because I never viewed the object of my excitement and affection to be the textual creator himself. While it may seem didactic and longwinded to make the distinction that I am “a fan of many projects written and/or produced by Joss Whedon,” this is a crucial distinction in my eyes, signaling both that I belong to a different school of theory than those academics who call themselves “Aca/Fans,”* and my increasing determination to reframe the lay discussion around creators and texts into one far less ideological and far more practicum-based.
More than any other contemporary genre creator, Whedon’s name seems to excite hyperbole and strong emotions, not only in fandom circles but in academic ones as well. There is an entire sub-genre of my approximate** field calling itself “Whedon Studies,” complete with a dedicated journal and annual conferences. While the last thing I want to do is kick anyone who’s feeling down this week, I want to talk about why, despite writing–confession–a Whedon-heavy dissertation myself, I never considered myself to have compatible aims with this subfield’s collective work, and in fact deliberately omitted “Whedon” as a keyword when I submitted my dissertation.***
In academic terms, I am a “Whedon expert.” I have watched all the significant primary texts (film/televison) with close attention, read reams of interviews, and can rival IMDb for reeling off production dates and and details. I’ve presented (internationally, even) on my theory of “The Whedon Surrogate” (a character archetype that stands in for the creator in nearly all of his texts), its defining catalogue of traits, and the narratological and structural games it allows the stories to play. I can bore you (and myself) to tears dissecting Whedon as an auteur thematically and technically.
Intellectually and emotionally, I love challenging narratives with engaging characters, and he’s certainly created a few of those. I engaged with three of his texts in great depth in my dissertation: I am still proud of that work, and I still love those stories, both as a scholar and as a fan. However, during the final years of my graduate studies, I lost all interest in discussing or presenting my work on Whedon to academic audiences, which was a very bad sign indeed, since academic engagement thrives on interaction. By the time I completed my dissertation, despite my pride in my work and sense of accomplishment, I’d hit the point where I’d say “uh, genre stuff, narrative” when people asked what I worked on, anything but mentioning Whedon, and my stomach lurched with anxiety every time I saw his name in my academic publishing or news feeds.
Because it was the stories and their workings that had always mattered to me, personally and professionally, not the man. But people’s feelings about the man–and the values, positive or negative, that they were affixing to his public figure–were making for a lot of conflict.
I hate conflict.
I don’t mean I hate or resent waging the struggles necessary to make the world a better place. I mean I hate shouting with intent to preen, and oh, but there’s a lot of that in fandom. The internet has brought so many fans together who would never have connected otherwise (hello dear readers!) but it’s also developed some weird tics on the way, like dividing our public figures into “flawless human beings” and irredeemable monsters. Those exalted to “flawless” always fall eventually, for no real person is actually flawless, it’s not literally possible, and then they are immediately ripped to shreds for failing to meet the absurd expectations heaped upon them before.
We forget media is a business. We forget people are human and fallible. We forget that no one person makes every decision about any screen or other collaborative text. We let praise become idolization, criticism become contempt. If Joss Whedon says he’s a feminist, then he becomes a feminist role model we watch like a hawk. If Joss Whedon displays anti-capitalist leanings, we issue ritual critiques when he makes money from his art. If fans just want to get lost in a fictional world without taking a loud stand on its creator one way or another, well, good luck with that out there.
Whedon scholarship lost me around the time it started sounding exactly like a lot of Whedon fandom to me, with all statements prefaced ritually by “I love Joss, but–“****
I was always here to talk about stories and imaginary worlds. My approach to critical analysis leans heavily on production history at times, but it has never required me to heap praise or lay blame on creative parties–not only doesn’t it help, it actually distracts from the matter at hand.
Which is the text itself.
It’s of course okay to be squicked by these allegations. I am. But nothing can take our love for these fictional worlds, the inherent value of these worlds, away from us, unless we let that happen. Maybe the creator let us down. Maybe we collectively allowed ourselves to invest too much in him, needed him to be better than he was.
Stories are forever and there’s no backsies on them. Once released, they live lives of their own.
I’ve made no secret here, that I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression nearly my entire life. In my darkest hours, it was stories that saved me, not any creator. I heard Echo insist she wasn’t broken, I found joy and hope in the humanity of Marty and Dana’s final scene, I let myself filter the nuclear wreckage of a first romance betrayed through rewatching Buffy S1-S2 a million times on DVD one cold New England winter. I lost myself in stories, and they found me.
Not Joss. Just the stories.
*For anyone familiar with this scene: not throwing down any gloves here. Just saying where I place myself.
**For those unfamiliar, welcome to the squishy and confusing boundaries of interdisciplinary academia!
***We’re almost done with the academia-explainer footnotes. I promise. Probably. For those unfamiliar with the process, when you submit your dissertation to the central authority collecting them, you include a list of keywords aiding other scholars in finding it. This raises the likelihood of other other academics engaging you on your work. I was not…entirely helpful on this one point.
****All generalizations have the flaw of being overly general, this one included, and this meta-generalization. HA!