[Content note: Gaslighting, lack of consent, infidelity.]
This weekend, architect Kai Cole penned a devastating account of the end of her marriage to Joss Whedon, the creative force behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, and the director of several recent Marvel films.
Cole revealed that for years, Whedon had affairs, both physical and emotional, with the women around him — friends, fans, actresses, and co-workers — affairs which he told her about only as he was ending their relationship. She writes:
Despite understanding, on some level, that what he was doing was wrong, he never conceded the hypocrisy of being out in the world preaching feminist ideals, while at the same time, taking away my right to make choices for my life and my body based on the truth. He deceived me for 15 years, so he could have everything he wanted. I believed, everyone believed, that he was one of the good guys, committed to fighting for women’s rights, committed to our marriage, and to the women he worked with. But I now see how he used his relationship with me as a shield, both during and after our marriage, so no one would question his relationships with other women or scrutinize his writing as anything other than feminist.
Plenty of people out there have offered their reactions to Cole's piece, from Gamer Gate types who hate Whedon for any semblance of feminism he does possess; to those who have long criticized his work’s lack of diversity and often frankly anti-feminist bent; to those who argue you can still cheat and be a feminist, so what’s this all about, really.
I’m not writing to engage those takes. I am writing simply to acknowledge that for a lot of us, this hurts. And it’s not about our opinion of Dollhouse.
It’s about yet another man abusing a position of trust.
And in this case: A man abusing his knowledge of feminism, its language and analysis, in a way deeply hurtful to his partner and their relationship, and then gaslighting her about the reality of the situation.
According to Cole, Whedon revealed the affairs in writing to her after filing for divorce. Per her account, he explained his first affair, on the set of Buffy, thusly:
“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.” But he did touch it. He said he understood, “I would have to lie — or conceal some part of the truth — for the rest of my life,” but he did it anyway, hoping that first affair, “would be ENOUGH, that THEN we could move on and outlast it.”
This is an astonishing way for a man who understands feminism to describe his history. There is blaming of the women involved — if only they had not been so beautiful, so needy, so aggressive, perhaps this would have been different.
He also objectifies them, as “the world laid at my feet,” and further self-aggrandizes his desires as “a disease, something out of Greek myth.” That doesn’t sound much like a man who’s taken full responsibility for harming his relationship. The problem isn’t a curse laid by a sorceress, but Whedon’s own refusal to be honest.
Cole says she is recovering from the relationship, after being diagnosed with complex PTSD. I wish her all the best in her journey. And I write this in support of those who find her account all too familiar. Because this is gaslighting, this is harmful, and we've lived it.
Look at it this way: If Whedon were a Christian megapastor who had hidden behind his reputation as a man of faith in order to carry on affair, who had justified his emotional affairs by claiming he was practicing his faith (“ministering” to women, for example), and/or who had hidden behind his marriage in order to keep people from questioning his involvement with other women, we would have no trouble seeing the issue. And we would understand why those who had put trust in his messages — even if it was sometimes a critical trust — would be feeling devastated.
And we would certainly understand why women who have been in a similar situation would be feeling especially devastated.
And we would instinctively recoil if he blamed Satan or in other ways dodged responsibility by spouting the lingo that had so long shielded him. Or, in this case, by blaming patriarchy for his actions:
When he walked out of our marriage, and was trying to make “things seem less bewildering” to help me understand how he could have lied to me for so long, he said, “In many ways I was the HEIGHT of normal, in this culture. We’re taught to be providers and companions and at the same time, to conquer and acquire — specifically sexually — and I was pulling off both!”
Personally, I have few words for how this makes me feel. I know I am not the only one who has been hurt by someone who has mastered the concepts of feminism well enough to understand how gender roles help abet his infidelity, but couldn’t be arsed to meaningfully engage enough with those concepts to be honest with a partner.
On some level, then, this isn’t about his work, and demanding that every discussion be about his work is not helpful. There’s certainly a time and place to discuss his works, which were already problematic, which already demand discussion. But it feels a little hollow to see this descend into another round of how fucked up his vision of Black Widow is, or how “we” already knew he was a lousy feminist because of Firefly (or whatever.) That can’t be the only conversation.
It’s also not helpful to have every conversation be about how this isn’t a surprise, or that “we” already knew he was problematic, or a jackass, or whatever. Again, that’s a fine conversation, but it doesn’t have to be every one.
Some of us need a space to acknowledge something more fundamental: We’ve been here. And it hurts like fuck to see it being played out again, on the big screen.
This betrayal of trust, trust given in the name of feminism, is a story we have seen played out with Prominent Male Feminists before. And it hurts every time.
In part, it may hurt because we have personally extended Whedon good faith in regards to his works, choosing to believe that he is sincerely interested in feminism as a good thing, even if he practices it poorly. It may hurt because, for some people, his works may have been an introduction to feminism on some level, even if it's one we have outgrown. It's jarring to think that person was using feminism so cynically.
But it may be even more personal than that.
It hurts because some of us have been gaslighted just like this. By men who are not-so-prominent, but equally manipulative. By men who disguised emotional or physical infidelity as "just relating to women better." By men who used their relationships with us as a shield. By men who learned the lingo, only in order to abuse it.
If it’s feeling all too familiar, you have my sympathy, and I take up space in solidarity with those who are having a rough time with this. If you have been looking for a space to talk about those feelings, have at it in comments.
[Note: I have deliberately avoided commenting on the dynamics involved in Whedon’s relationships with women other than Cole, because I do not know enough about the perspectives of the other parties involved. It feels important to acknowledge, however, that the categories Cole describes include people over whom Whedon potentially exercised tremendous professional power, a dynamic that can easily be abused, and where trust can also be betrayed.]