I May Never Be Able To Watch Buffy Again
The Fall of Joss Whedon Was Obvious If You Knew Where to Look
The first series that launched me into the love of great TV was Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Nearly a quarter of a century after its premiere, there’s never been a series quite like it. The incredible performances, the style and wit, and the dialogue and stories that may never be seen anywhere again. Buffy routine made the list of greatest shows of all time, it completely transformed the WB, and was one of the most beloved series of all time among its fans, which twenty years later are still legion.
I loved the show not so much because of its feminism, but because of what it stood for. There has never been a character like Buffy Summers, or Willow Rosenberg or Faith. Back then, a show would often have token female characters who were inevitably there just to end up as love interests to the lead. The idea of a show with a character like Buffy was so strong that when Twilight became a theme of pop culture, I criticized by saying: “Tara could kick Bella’s ass.”
And now, that all seems to be in doubt for me. Joss Whedon, the creative force behind Buffy, wasn’t just a brilliant writer, he also great talent and in an era where most showrunners ignored the Internet and its fan, he was willing to engage them. He seemed to one of the great forces in TV, and over the past decade, made a bold crossover into box office with The Avengers. Now, it seems clear that rather than being an outlier in the era of powerful sexual predators among the entertainment world, he was just as bad as any of them. And in some way, I think he may be worse.
I was aware of the sexual scandal when his ex-wife published an article lambasting him for having affairs with his many female co-stars. I may have dismissed it as sour grapes or try to ignore. I similarly avoided the scandal over his handling Justice League because, well, I didn’t care.
But it’s impossible for me to ignore Charisma Carpenter’s allegation of how Whedon treated her after her pregnancy during Season 4 of Angel. It isn’t just what Carpenter says, or how character was written out of the show, that convinces me, it’s how she was written.
When I saw the fourth season of Angel, I was just beginning my career as a TV critic and I remember being utterly blown away by it. It was one of the first totally serialized stories I had ever seen on any television series and I was sucked in week after week. But even then, there was a problem with it that, despite my best efforts I couldn’t ignore.
As the crisis begins to unfold in LA, Cordelia (Carpenter) approaches Angel’s son Connor and as a method of ‘comfort’, they have sex. This was particularly icky because via the bible of the show, Connor had been just a baby the previous season (he’d grown up in an alternate dimension where time flowed differently then this one) and she had been the surrogate mother. The fan world was appalled when it happened and it only got worse.
Cordelia was later revealed to be the evil mastermind behind the plot that was unfolding. She slept with Connor to be impregnated with his child, lured Connor into protecting her (including forcing him to kill an innocent) and eventually giving birth to a demon. After this, Cordelia went into a coma, and Carpenter didn’t say a line for the rest of the season.
At the time, I was willing to let all this slide. What I could accept was when Cordelia returned the following season seemingly alright to help Angel and then disappeared. Angel then got a phone call that she had died offscreen. I never truly forgave the series for doing this, and was actually glad when the show was canceled that season.
For a long time this really hurt my ability to watch reruns of Buffy. It was really hard to watch Cordelia strut the halls of Sunnydale High knowing that she would dead around the time most women her age graduate college. To learn that Whedon essentially did all this because he was essentially punishing her for being pregnant makes a twisted sort of sense and makes it something that I find impossible to ever forgive.
Looking back on the Buffy/Angel world as a whole, I’m beginning to think the viewers may have completely misjudged Whedon as ever being a supporter of women in the first place. There’s a recurring joke by fans of the series that any time any of the characters would be in a happy romantic relationship Whedon decided to crush it. In retrospect, I often wonder if that was his own way of sniping at the warrior women he created — they couldn’t be both fierce fighters and happy romantically.
Leaving aside Buffy’s relationships, which were always going to be problematic there have been the issues with Willow. When Willow and her fellow witch Tara became girlfriends in Season 4, it was a landmark moment for gay teens everywhere. But in Season 6, Willow used her magic to overpower Tara, causing the two of them to break up. Just as they got back together, Tara was killed by a stray bullet from one of the villains of the season, which lead Willow to become a monster bent on revenge. This storyline was, next to Cordelia’s in Season 4, considered the nadir of both series.
Xander was the everyman of the show, and while it became a joke to have him considered a ‘demon magnet’, was there a larger statement there? Xander was in love with Anya a vengeance demon turned human. He left her at the altar in another flimsy Season 6 storyline — a visitor from the future told him he would become like his father, a drunk abuser.
But the storyline I found absolutely unforgivable involved Fred Burkle, one of the most engaging characters on Angel. After two years of flirtation, she finally seemed to find happiness with Wesley, who’d gone through his own demons, metaphorical or otherwise. The very next episode she ended up inhaling magic dust and dying, with her body being taken over by an ancient hell god.
Capped with what we know about Whedon now, was this some kind of statement that these powerful, brilliant woman could not be happy as long as they tried to be heroes? No matter how hard you try, love kills you. Which is as strong an anti-woman message as any misogynist could send.
How can we watch Buffy and Angel now, knowing this about its showrunner really seemed to view the women of his series? Can you admire the art and hate the artist? This is a conflict I haven’t really had to face before, but it does hurt. Maybe the answer lies in the fanfiction that has inspired over 50,000 stories at fanfiction.net alone. Buffy was not created by Whedon alone; there were dozens of writers (many of them female) and inspiring actresses at the time. Perhaps the fans can reclaim Buffy. The verdict of any TV show is how the fans react. We’ve been rewriting storylines we hated for decades. Maybe we can write around this, too.
As for the series, the show was always epitomized by the talents such as Sarah Michelle Gellar. Perhaps we should let her remain of this series, not the deeply flawed creator.