by Chris Tobias
For eight years, we here at Take Back the Sky lobbied SpaceX to name their first Crew Dragon spacecraft after Serenity. While our campaign ultimately wasn’t successful, the process was a labor of love for all involved, not only because we believed in private spaceflight and the exploration of space by the people, for the people, but also because we are all fans of Firefly and Serenity, the space-western TV series and motion picture that are the creations of Hollywood writer, director and producer Joss Whedon.
As a movement that derives its very identity from one of Joss Whedon’s creations, it would be remiss of us not to acknowledge the recent controversy that has surrounded him in the wake of allegations by actors with whom he has worked that he created a toxic and abusive work environment on set. As a co-founder of Take Back the Sky and someone who has been very involved in the Browncoat community on many levels, I felt it would be appropriate if I were the one to do so.
I am not interested in rehashing in fine detail all of the statements and subsequent speculation that have been ever-present on the internet– especially on social media– since Charisma Carpenter (the actress who played Cordelia Chase on both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel) first issued a statement on February 10 via Twitter that “Joss Whedon abused his power on numerous occasions… on the sets of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.” Anyone who is not already aware of them who has a laptop or smartphone can easily use his or her search engine of choice to find all the details. What I do think is worth addressing is what the proper response might be to what we now know.
The way I see it, there are two questions that should be asked in the wake of the recent allegations against Joss Whedon: 1) “Is it appropriate for the fans to hold him accountable?” and 2) “Should this affect how we view his work?”
Is It Appropriate for Fans to Hold Joss Whedon Accountable?
While this is a question that each individual fan will have to answer for him- or herself, I personally believe that it is completely appropriate for Joss Whedon to be held accountable for his behavior by fans who feel betrayed by someone whom they had looked up to for so long as a champion of equality in general and of women in particular. I also believe, however, that it is important that fans not fall victim to clickbait journalism that wants to make the issue into something that it is not.
Carpenter’s tweets were intended as an expression of support for Ray Fisher, the Justice League actor who for some time now has accused Whedon of unprofessional and abusive behavior on the set of that film. Although Carpenter’s most recent statement went into more detail than ever before, especially with regards to new allegations that Whedon (who is a self-professed atheist) disparaged her faith, most of what was said in her statement was not any new revelation to long-time fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. It was, in fact, no secret that Carpenter and her character were not treated well by Whedon on Angel after he learned of her pregnancy, which disrupted his long-term plans for how he wanted that season’s story arc to develop. It was also common knowledge that Carpenter, who was more or less written out of the show after her pregnancy and had agreed to come back for the show’s 100th episode only if Cordelia wouldn’t be killed off, only to learn her character would die at the end of the episode anyway, had gotten a very raw deal from Whedon while working on that show. Carpenter herself had spoken about it at conventions in the past, and Amy Pascale also wrote about it in detail in her book Joss Whedon the Biography. I think I speak for most fans when I say that while I was aware of this, I also believed that Carpenter and Whedon had long since worked out their professional differences and buried the hatchet.
What makes this situation different is that this is the first time that many of Carpenter’s colleagues from Buffy and Angel spoke out in support of her allegations. In separate tweets, Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy Summers), Emma Caulfield (Anya Jenkins), Amber Benson (Tara Maclay), Michelle Trachtenberg (Dawn Summers) and Clare Kramer (Glory), as well as writer/producer Marti Noxon and writer Jose Molina, all seemed to corroborate Carpenter’s accounts in one form or another. David Boreanaz (Angel), Anthony Head (Rupert Giles) and James Marsters (Spike) also expressed concern for their former castmates and disappointment that they had had such a negative experience on set, though they each stated that they themselves were unaware that anything of that nature had gone on at the time. (Boreanaz and Marsters issued their statements via Twitter, whereas Head addressed the issue in an interview with iTV’s This Morning.)
My paraphrasing of these actors’ and show runners’ statements is not meant to downplay or diminish them in any way, and I recommend you search out their individual statements and read them if you have not done so already. When you do, I think you may find that with the exception of Benson, who said via Twitter, “Buffy was a toxic environment and it starts at the top,” and Trachtenberg, who made vague references on Twitter to some incident that apparently resulted in Whedon not being allowed to be alone with her on set (something that is actually supposed to be standard policy when minors work with adults on Hollywood productions– Trachtenberg was underage when she began working on the show), the vast majority of the statements that have been made in support of Carpenter could be summarized as, “Yeah… what she said.” Molina, however, described Whedon as “casually cruel” in a tweet, adding that he bragged about making female writers cry, and Marsters added via Twitter that, “… the Buffy set was not without challenges.” Whedon has not responded to any of these statements.
So, what does this tell us? The way I see it, regardless of the degree of truth or accuracy of these allegations, what we can safely take away from this is that Joss Whedon is not the person we thought he was, and the reality of the Buffy/Angel era was very different than what fans had been led to believe for almost 25 years. To deny that fact at this point would be to show little to no respect or compassion for the casts and crews of these shows, many of whom have gone out of their way to cultivate their own relationships with fans, both while the shows were on the air and in the years since.
I personally have very mixed emotions about all this. I feel badly for the actors who felt they had to endure a toxic work environment, since I’ve admired all of them for years, and I don’t condone abusive behavior. I am, however, always very torn when allegations like this come out years after the fact. There is a fine line we walk between seeing that there is justice for victims of abuse and ruining a person’s career and/or life because of accounts of events that are being viewed through the lense of a different era based on statements about things that occurred a very long time ago and are being remembered by people who are very different now than they were when they actually experienced them. These stories and characters, and the individuals who brought them to life, have meant a great deal to me for a long time. When the news first broke, I described my reaction to it as feeling a lot like the kid who is lying in bed at night in tears, listening to his parents fight outside the closed bedroom door, and to an extent I still feel that way.
Should This Affect How We View Joss Whedon’s Work?
If we set aside Ray Fisher’s statements about Justice League for the time being, then it’s safe to say that at present, the allegations of Whedon’s on-set abuse have been mostly isolated to Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel, with the possible exception of the statement by Molina, who wrote for those shows as well as Firefly. I feel really sorry for those people who feel about the Buffy/Angel universe the way I feel about the ‘verse of Firefly and Serenity. I’ve heard some fans say they’ll never be able to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel again, and I’m sad to hear that. The weekly “Whedony” chat group I belong to on Twitter already changed its name so as to not make any direct reference to him, and the fan site Whedonesque, which has maintained a social media presence despite shutting down its website in 2017 after Whedon’s ex-wife Kai Cole wrote an essay outlining his years of infidelity and accusing him of being “a hypocrite preaching feminist ideals,” replaced the first “e” in its Twitter handle with an asterisk in the wake of this latest scandal.
This is not the first time that a Hollywood director has been accused of being abusive towards the actresses with whom he worked. Alfred Hitchcock famously mistreated actress Tippi Hedren on the set of 1963’s The Birds, and Stanley Kubrick was said to have been horrible to actress Shelley Duvall while filming 1980’s The Shining. To my knowledge, no one has suggested their names be stricken from any association with those films whenever they are mentioned. What’s even more significant is that unlike Whedon, these directors were bringing someone else’s ideas to the screen (Daphne du Maurier’s and Stephen King’s, respectively), whereas Whedon was working with properties that he himself had created.
Joss Whedon has long been known for being a demanding director. At some of the many Wizard World panels I have attended in person and virtually, I have heard Jewel Staite, who played Kaylee Frye in Firefly/Serenity, speak of how Whedon insists that actors say his lines exactly as he intended when he wrote them and has very little tolerance for ad-libbing, and Marsters once told the story of how Whedon told him during the filming of the Buffy episode “Once More, with Feeling” that his previous days work was “unwatchable.” We now know that in addition to being a demanding boss, Whedon is also not what would be considered a nice person, but he is not guilty of criminal behavior either. His case is nothing like that of award-winning fantasy author Marion Zimmer Bradley, who was not only aware of her husband’s pedophilia, but also apparently enabled it, or that of award-winning record producer Phil Spector, who was convicted of murder in 2009. To my knowledge, no one has suggested we act as if Bradley never wrote The Mists of Avalon, or remove Spector’s credit from any of the many hit records he produced, which include the Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road.”
I am not a fan of “cancel culture.” I don’t think we can live in a fantasy world where we pretend that the stories and characters of properties like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Serenity aren’t Joss Whedon’s creations just because we don’t like or approve of things that he’s done. We don’t have to celebrate him the way we used to, but I think we still have to give him credit for being the one whose ideas led to these properties that had such a tremendous impact on the pop culture of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, and have continued to affect the lives of so many people since.
So far the cast of Firefly/Serenity has stayed quiet. If one of them eventually speaks up, I still don’t think that will change the way I feel. If other people want to quit watching, that’s their choice. I can’t. These stories and characters mean too much to me, and they don’t change based on what we now know about the person who first dreamed them up. They are more than their creator. Even if Joss Whedon really is a mean person, that doesn’t make Firefly, Serenity, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and Cabin in the Woods any less brilliant. It doesn’t make Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel any less iconic or lessen their impact on pop culture and television history. It doesn’t make Dollhouse or The Avengers any less entertaining. And it certainly doesn’t lessen the impact of these stories’ themes of good vs. evil, found family and female empowerment, any more than it changes their success in the ratings, at the box office and in touching the hearts of countless fans. Nor should it.
Unfortunately, what it almost certainly will do is ensure that neither SpaceX nor NASA will choose Serenity as a name for any of its spacecraft at any time in the near future. I can’t speak for everyone at Take Back the Sky, but I have already made peace with that. Our campaign to convince SpaceX to name its Crew Dragon Serenity officially ended with the launch of Crew Dragon Endeavour last year, and the controversy of the last three weeks hasn’t made our attempt any less honorable in retrospect. We will always love Firefly and Serenity, and Browncoats know that love “keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down.” Time will tell if Joss Whedon is finished, but we’re still flying, and for this Browncoat, that’s enough.
Peace, love and rockets,