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Saturday, August 26, 2017

Joss Whedon and the Art-Artist Divide

Image description: Joss Whedon
This shall be my introduction to this article. It's not much to look at and it probably needs a much better hook to get the reader's attention, but it's all there's going to be. You see, when I tried to write a real introduction, I just couldn't. I kept getting hung up on the language. "Too soft?" "Too rough?" "Too apologetic?" "Too dismissive?" I ended up just writing and erasing for literally hours. So this is all there is. 

The reason why is that it turns out an introduction to a topic like this is probably as messy and complicated and nuanced, and most people have to find their own personal path, but many do so while passionately decrying anyone else whose personal path is different. (And what'll really bake your noodle is that sometimes they're right to do so.) Mainstream art and entertainment tends and mainstream artists and entertainers tend to be a microcosm of the world they reflect, amplify, distort, and portray in their work. They are troubled. Deeply, deeply flawed. And they often perpetuate the power differentials of the society even while saying that such things are anathema to them. And sadly, even when they do something significant and topical and relevant to one type of societal power imbalance, they are often oblivious, or even dismissive, of other ways in which oppression manifests. 

But the introduction is also supposed to tell the reader what a piece is about. So I guess I'll just come right out and do that: It's okay if we react differently to finding out our faves are problematic, but it can be a really dillhole move to defend indefensible behavior because we liked the media our faves have created.

About a week ago, Joss Whedon's ex-wife accused him of serially cheating for 16 years and calling him a “hypocrite preaching feminist ideals.” She based this on a confession letter he sent her which she quotes extensively in her article. In it, she quoted things he said about his infidelities with coworkers and fans that revealed a definite atonal note with his public facing persona as a "male feminist."

Nothing like a little Schoenberg joke to liven things up.
Image description: Music--example of "atonal"

It can be difficult to discover that people who create beautiful things are themselves not always so beautiful–that their own lives are fraught with poor decisions and shitty moments where they failed to live up to their own ideals or maybe had none to begin with. That someone who themselves picks at the snag on the sweater of the idea that we are all capable of becoming the thing we hate the most or who deftly explores the nuance in the space between beauty and its opposite isn't alway a living paragon of their work. It can be similarly troubling to find their work reflects their own problematic perceptions of the world. And some artists are wonderful in some areas and terrible in others. (Jerry Lewis springs to mind as his recent passing reminds me of both his misogyny and homophobic slurs as well as the countless troubled hearts he may have eased with a laugh through his slapstick and the billions [that's with a B] that he raised for muscular dystrophy. Also Stephen Colbert who is scathingly critical of racism, sexism, and the laws that perpetuate it, buys entire towns textbooks, speaks eloquently about gender equality, and took forever to stop making jokes about trans folks.) Life is messy and complicated and humans have labyrinthine paths that weave at once through their boundless good and their raging tire fires. 

"Oh well yes, the tire fire.
On the other hand he is really outspoken about racism, and
he makes this Bearnaise sauce every Christmas for anyone who stops by the house,
no questions asked, that I swear literally tastes like love. You'll get used to the smell."
Image description: Tire fire gif

But, then again, sometimes an issue isn't about nuance. Sometimes it's not about refusing to see the world as angels and demons (as important as that perspective can be). Sometimes the art/artist divide isn't something we use to acknowledge that, yes indeed, we've engaged media by problematic faves, but as a way to deflect any criticism from ever reaching them at all. ("Sorry brah. Art artist divide. Check into it, and when you're done leave a message with the hand.") Sometimes looking at naked truth without flinching is as important an aspect of our response to art as being willing to be ushered into an entertaining dialogue with our culture. 

Image description: Long line to the "Comforting lies booth"
While the "unpleasant truths" booth is empty.
And in that, our knee-jerk response to defend anyone who has done work we like can work against us. It's fine to be fans, but not realizing that the fandom entrée comes with a heaping side dish of cognitive dissonance can be hurtful when it causes us to silence, ignore, or even attack those who have salient analysis.

Responses to Cole's letter have run the gamut from outright refusal to believe her (mostly from men–and despite how unlikely it would be that a year after the financials are settled Cole would find any benefit in taking on someone with the social capital and platform of Whedon) to a defense of him as merely a philandering jerkwad but totes still a rocking good feminist, all the way to being unwilling to watch his body of works ever again and side-eyeing anyone who does. But it is those folks whose hearts race to Whedon's defense that end up doing the most damage–struggling not only to deny that opprobrium is warranted but even that Whedon did anything worse than just being a crappy husband who was castigated publicly for what should be a private matter, and that there's no reason to besmirch his reputation as a fine upstanding feminist.

It is. He did. There is. 

And the problem isn't that folks still want to be able to watch Buffy or that "everyone is an imperfect feminist." (Of course they are.) The problem is the people silenced and the conversation crushed in the rush to defend Whedon. People who aren't willing to give up on the idea of Joss Whedon aren't merely saying they still like Firefly despite its conflicted relationship with sex work or that the premise of Dollhouse didn't put them off from giving it a try. Often what they are saying is: "This isn't actually a problem so shut up."

It is important to note that not everyone felt this came out of left field. While criticisms of Whedon's "strong female characters" certainly suffered from the phenomenon that the more visible something is in popular culture, the greater the chance it will be held up as an example (because why use obscure examples no one has heard of to make your points?), and while he certainly always had a fanbase that wouldn't hear of it when it came to criticism, this was far from the first time that Whedon's feminism, personally or artistically, had been questioned. 

His body of works drew fire on the regular as patterns began to emerge of women's sexuality being dangerous, fridging women, "nice guy" characters who aren't actually that nice, nonconsensual pregnancies, sex positive characters portrayed as fundamentally broken in some way, and quite a lot of rape, rape jokes, and rape plots (often framed as "bad" or with supernatural consent issues, but still a well he draws from often). His speech at Make Equality Reality about feminism claimed that the worst thing about feminism wasn't that its mainstream movement is often transphobic, racist, or homophobic. Rather it was the word feminism that he as a cis het white guy didn't really like and (like every "equalist," and "egalitarian" on a thread about feminism) he would then rebrand in a move that ignored the entire history of the movement. Or that time he fired Charisma Carpenter after she got pregnant. Or that time he bragged about slipping a gendered slur so bad it should have earned Avengers an R rating past the MPAA rating board. Or that Wonder Woman draft.  Or..... And all of this is to say nothing of transphobic jokes, whitewashed representation, the bi erasure of having Willow become "gay" or other failures of his feminism to be intersectional.



(On a personal note, I'm not really an interesting person myself, but I know a few folks who are, and several of them have met Whedon at various functions during the last decade or so. And it seems every SINGLE one of them who looks cute in a dress reported some sort of story of being hit on, flirted with heavily, or even discretely propositioned. It's anecdotal, of course, and all my friends were a little flattered to have received such attention, but it always struck me as a data point that sounded a bit like an out of tune woodwind in the final chord of a symphony given the outspoken feminism. I've been non-monogamous for 20 years, and it's certainly not a prerequisite for any of the fierce feminists I know, and I didn't know what agreements he and his wife had, but when you hit aggressively on everything that moves, and claim to be überfeminist that's sort of.....hmmmm.)

Through it all though, folks have stuck with him. Not in a "Yeah, but I still kind of love the musical episode," way, but actually defending him as kind of perfect. To them, his missteps were tiny if even perceptible, easily forgivable, and never part of a troubling pattern that should be talked about; his portrayals–even over multiple shows, characters, and arcs–never intended to be didactic; and his feminism brilliant. His shows were awesome ergo he was great. He was great ergo his shows were awesome. This is the opposite of the art/artist divide. It is more like the art/artist fusionification. Each side being used as validation that any criticisms of the other side couldn't possibly be true.

You want proof he's a good feminist? HERE!
Wait....what?
Image description: They got the mustard out GIF.

And this is important. Because when we talk about the art/artist divide sometimes these criticisms are salient. Didactic art went out with morality plays and portrayals of characters often include their worst flaws bubbling to the surface. Some of the most culturally relevant art has been created by some brand of bigot, to say nothing of that well worn phrase: "a product of their time." When today's hot take and elevated blood have cooled and descended, our ability to see art (and the world as well) as more complex than merely peopled with "garbage humans" and "the world doesn't deserve them" becomes much more sophisticated.  And we take this art and entertainment and deconstruct it and contextualize it and talk about its creator in just the way we might a loving parent who keeps using ableist slurs to describe politicians or a friend who would stand with us at the gates of hell but who we really hope will come around on that "the poor are just lazy" crap......or possibly we engage them like we might that uncle who molested his drunk niece.

And if we don't engage art and artists as flawed, that's where the problem happens.

It is precisely because of this unwillingness to discuss–to even consider that Whedon's feminism might be imperfect or to discuss it for so long–that has led the most recent story to hit so poignantly. It is exactly because so many people have held up Whedon as "the feminist we deserve" and because he enjoys enormous social capital (and monetary gain) from that label that this isn't just an art/artist divide moment. Because we turned away from the many sources that said "Um....guys?" as simply looking for something to complain about. Now that the criticism can't be ignored, it hits twice as hard. Picasso was a philanderer too, and treated women like doormats, but he didn't run around quoting fake interviews about how kick ass of a "genderist" he was by answering an imaginary reporter's questions about his strong female characters.

Of course Whedon's work is flawed and he is human because all work is and all artists are. But when an artist is deified and their work considered sacrosanct they must first fall to Earth to be discussed as human.

And for some, that is a very long fall.

Watch that first step off the Hero Worship rock.
It's a doozy.
Image description: fallen angel in a crater.
Source: https://bpsola.deviantart.com/art/The-Fallen-Angel-351473548

Whedon didn't just act like a random asshole in a random way that has "nothing to do with feminism." He didn't knock a coffee cup out of the hand of a grip and then tell them, as soon as they cleaned it up, that they were fired for not getting out of the way fast enough. He didn't just commit infidelity in a randomly jerkwad way, falling for someone in a whirlwind of emotions that brings his ethics, but not his attitudes towards women, into question. What he did was not just to sleep with sex positive women who were empowered about their own sexuality. What he did was not just a failure to be open and honest within an agreement of non monogamy or even to simply disregard commitments and agreements to be monogamous* in a lecherous but random way.

*And believe me, you're talking to someone who dislikes him some heteropatriarcical monogamous assumptions.


What Whedon did, by his own words, was to exploit his substantial power dynamic as writer, creator, executive producer, and often director of these shows over women he described as the "beautiful, needy, aggressive young women" he was surrounded by and felt like he had a curse not to be able to take advantage of.

And then he did.

Not ethical non monogamy with open honesty. Not a random series of autonomous women in control of their own sexuality who chose him, but those over whom he had power.

Not once in a moment of indiscretion and weakness. But over and over again. For fifteen years.

Look at his use of language in that letter, how it shifts the culpability for fifteen years of cheating to the neediness and aggressiveness of women around him and how unfair it was that he was not able to partake of them once he had that power....like they are some kind of "buffet" and not people. He talks in another part of his letter about "conquering and acquiring" which literally frames women as conquests and possessions. Further, he bought into a ubiquitous gender-based double standard: that men's serial adultery is basically okay so long as it is their wives who they truly love. 

And he lied to his wife. Not just lied but told her that her suspicions about his relationships with women were completely off base. In his own words: "As a guilty man I knew the only way to hide was to act as though I were righteous." And so he would tell her she was completely off base to have these suspicions because he was such a kick ass feminist and he just preferred women's company. Feminism was his alibi in gaslighting his wife.

Let me say that again: FEMINISM WAS HIS ALIBI IN GASLIGHTING HIS WIFE.

For fifteen years.

"So remember all those times I told you that you were crazy for
thinking that I might actually be sleeping with all those women?
About that....."
Image description "These Hysterical Women" old time picture.
These are not random actions, random lies, random immoral behaviors, random Hollywood gossip, or random moments of human weakness in a vacuum that have absolutely nothing to do with how men treat women in our society. These are at the very heart of patriarchy and and how men view and treat women as disposable, as objects, as back up support, emotional labor, and child care "home bases" while they fuck around, and as conquests. This is just the Hollywood version of the guy sleeping with his secretary who calls his wife who is at home with the kids to say he'll be late and tells her to stop being "hysterical" about with her ghastly suspicions–he just has some extra work to do.

Is Joss Whedon "not really a feminist"?  It probably depends on what folks mean by that word. Some try to stretch over anyone who thinks "men and women should be equal" (whether they like the term applied to them or not) and do so regardless of any problematic beliefs or behaviors. Others gate keep the term to exclude any who disagree with them about certain founding principles–in some cases these principles are progressive (like body autonomy) and in some cases they are cissexist and transantagonistic (like requiring a vagina). "Male feminist" is an impossibility to some and highly suspect to many, especially when it is mentioned early and often like Harriet Jones from Doctor Who introducing herself. ("Joss Whedon....male feminist." *holds up male feminist card*) In many ways, our arguing over whether Joss still has his feminist street cred is nothing more than an extrapolation of our argument over the word itself. What does that even mean?

However, I will ask my readers to consider this: If the world had found out that a woman celebrity had been lying to her husband for fifteen years while she carried on a series of adulterous affairs with the men over whom she had power (all while lying to the guy for years while he supported her visible career), would so many be racing to her defense as still fundamentally a good person who cares deeply about men and doesn't see them as objects or even doubting that the guy was anything but scandalously taken advantage of? Maybe not....unless it's actually about ethics in game journalism. #seewhatididthere

I'm a guy, and feminism isn't my word to define, claim, or arbitrate on others, but shutting down the conversation about WHY Whedon's behavior had a particularly anti-feminist slant to it (and that is different than merely UN-feminist) contributes in a number of ways to normalizing that infidelity double standard for men, to normalizing the exploitation men in power do to women over whom they have power, and to tacitly suggesting that it's okay to behave in some pretty misogynistic ways as long as you slam your fist on the podium when you say equality is important and have created some "strong female characters."

And none of this is to say that anybody has to stop watching Buffy or Angel or Firefly or even avoid whatever Whedon does next. Perhaps now we can REALLY start to watch these shows. Because now that we can talk about Whedon as a human who has fucked up in ways that directly undermine the very feminist ideals that serve to promulgate his work, we are more free to engage that work in nuanced and intricate ways instead of feeling that the slightest disparagement is treading on hallowed ground. Now we can have these conversations without using hushed tones because otherwise someone is going to come along and shut the conversation down that dares besmirch their golden calf.

Now–perhaps ONLY now–we can begin to see his work with untrammeled perceptions.

It is possible that Whedon's art and media reflected ideals he himself was too flawed to achieve. It is possible that in his art he shaped a portrayal that he knew reflected the better angels of his nature. (There is probably a whole thesis to be written about how his aversion to casual sex outside of deep relationships in his shows may have been a self-repudiation.) It is possible that his guilt led him to be even more outspoken through his art. It's certainly possible that he brings a perspective on subverting various tropes (sexist and otherwise) that can make for delightful media. As a flawed artist myself, I am even willing (to the disgust of many of my friends I'm sure) to say that it is possible he is still a decent person who made a deplorable chain of indecent decisions. 

But what is not possible is to claim that the exploitative way a man who has a lofty reputation for being such an awesome feminist treats women is irrelevant within the context of a social movement largely about the exploitative ways that men treat women. 

Image description. Cartoon who is about to argue but thinks better of it.

For many, Whedon's works will still be important–possibly even vital–and that's okay. For many others this was the last straw in even wanting to be in a room where something he's done is playing. And that's okay too. We never quite know what's going to get us through a tough time or resonate when we need to hear its message most or what might become important before we have seen its creator critically. But it is also a tacit approval, particularly for living artists, to continue to consume their media in ways that gives them income and legitimacy. His dialogue is snappy and he is really good at subverting people's expectations. Then again, we may be directly putting him in a position to exploit more women if we let it slide. Buffy isn't suddenly, retroactively transformed into NOT fairly groundbreaking television for twenty years ago even if it's forever tainted by the idea that there may have been some "casting couch" dynamic going on. It is also worth mentioning that a lot of people worked on all of these projects who were not Whedon. It's complicated. Where we get into choppy water is by defending Whedon either as unimpeachable or as randomly unscrupulous in a way that has nothing to do with a career built on being A Good Feminist™ or simply refusing to acknowledge the slightest criticism because of the art/artist divide. .

The art/artist divide is a messy thicket and largely a personal decision for each of us to navigate. (I've still never seen Ender's Game, nor do I have any inclination to do so but I have read a LOT of homophobic authors of color because I valued their perspective on racial issues. Every couple of years I look across the room at the Marion Zimmer Bradley books I bought before I found out about her and I just.....can't. So they sit unread, even though I've already spent the money.) However as much as "the art/artist divide" gets used as a "get out of jail free" card for avoiding discussion altogether, it is actually an important part of the dialogue between art and entertainment and the culture in which it was created–not by exculpating creators from the slightest criticism, but by being able to set them aside for a moment and really examine their work with some intellectual rigor. That divide becomes a crucial barrier between an uncritical revolving door shield where a work is unimpeachable because the creator is above reproach and the creator is above reproach because the work is so beloved.

This shall be my conclusion to this article. Because I don't have a powerful didactic message or thesis. And I thought for a long time about what the take home message should be, and kept erasing it and rewriting it over and over. "Too definitive?" "Too prescriptive?" "Too ambiguous?" "Does that come across like I'm telling them how to think?" So this is all there is.

An artist who creates poignant and resonating art turns out to have a pattern of behavior antipodean to both his upstanding reputation and much of the reason his work is considered compelling. Now a gillion fans, kinda fans, and grudge watchers who thought they were screaming in a room full of folks who refused to have their chains rattled will all decide what they want to do with that information moving forward. 

Because really the only bad choice is to claim that it doesn't matter.

19 comments:

  1. Could you perhaps give an example of a Stephen Colbert "trans joke"? I've been watching him for a dozen years and I'm drawing a blank.

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    1. https://www.change.org/p/jon-stewart-and-stephen-colbert-reject-transphobia-and-respect-gender-identity

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    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    3. Well, OK but that petition (and the jokes that prompted it) was 4+ years ago. A better example perhaps is Chappelle, who apparently was still doing similar jokes last month.

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  2. Thank you for writing this. I'm finding it really helpful in framing my own thinking about art vs. artist and ethics.

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  3. This discussion sends me back to my consideration of the person Woody Allen is versus the art he does. The difference being that Mr. Allen does not proclaim himself as a champion of the rights of adopted children not to be 'abused'? Certainly, I think we can separate art from the artist. It might be distasteful to recognize Wagner's anti-semitic views while enjoying 'The Ring Cycle' but I think we can separate the two. It is a problem, again,if Wagner had proclaimed himself a friend of the Jews. We would have to make it clear that he was not a friend of Jews. All of which has still nothing much to do with art, it has to do with honesty, morality and humanness outside of the work. A work of art is not necessarily a reflection of the person who created it. Also, we shouldn't accept art as a roadmap for living. Art is for consideration, reflection, study but it certainly isn't the core road map. No bibles, please.

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    1. Some people can choose to separate the art and the artist, but others do not want to do so, especially in the case of living artists who profit from our patronage. There is so much great art in the world that I don't feel like I'm missing out by not listening to Wagner or seeing Woody Allen movies.

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  4. Perhaps personal failings and guilt motivate a person to put even more fairness and justice in their work. To compensate, to feel more balanced, that they are making the world a better place overall.

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  5. Interesting article... googled artists that have committed crimes and got https://www.google.com.au/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2014/feb/27/most-criminal-artists-picasso-banksy-caravaggio ... which indicates this division is not a new phenomenon... I do get your point though that knowledge can nuance the perception of art ...personally I'm not one to go looking for information about an artist... instead I'm rather like the comment 'I may not know art but I know what i like' ... so thank you for your perspective... and now I have to resist looking up what was upsetting about the artists you mentioned ... but I must say that I take your point about the misuse of power differentials... that's, well, scummy ...but as the list I found shows the memory of art is (largely) the art, not the artists life ... this doesn't make things less scummy, just complex.. and isn't that a metaphor for life?

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  6. I have read a couple of Marion Zimmer Bradley's books, a good few years ago now. They were ok.
    What issue did I miss?

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    1. She was a child molester and enabled her husband's molestation of children as well. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marion_Zimmer_Bradley

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    2. OMG~ I Missed this too...thank you for enlightening us~

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    3. It ended me going to pick up any books I had missed in the past when I found that out.

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    4. Wow. I'd forgotten that about her (them) and was wondering myself. And yes, it did make me look at her work differently at the time. I just never bought and more of it, I guess.

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  7. At times the artist might be simply serving as conduit to a muse that considers that particular individual to be technically proficient enough or influenceable enough to act as channeler to its creative release .... that might explain the large disparity we might see at between final result and the actual character of the artist... or why the artist might display radically different approaches to their creative work, sometimes within the same day..... or why some articles of work could have been created by the same artist but appear continents apart and within different time frames....

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  8. In addition to the hypocrisy of touting feminism while behaving in a deeply anti-feminist way, I'm also sad because "powerful producer cheats on his wife to sleep with bevy of aspirant actresses" is just so cliche.

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    1. You'd think a writer would be able to be an asshole in a more creative way. Maybe grow a clone of your wife and then claim it's not cheating?

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  10. It's interesting - this article was my introduction to the issue of Whedon's adultery (yeah, I don't touch social media much these days) and my first reaction was "I am Jack's complete lack of surprise". It's not that I was hip to the feminist dissections of his works... It's that I have always felt there was something off about him when I saw him in interviews, and it seemed to permeate his works like a faint odor I couldn't identify. And yet, so many of my friends thought he was great, and that his writing was great, and I'm sure that smell can't actually be that something died in the wall...

    So another aspect of being able to look at him with untrammeled perceptions is that I can stop gaslighting *myself* and take a hard and honest look at him, without feeling like I'm kidney-punching my friends' hero. I can learn more about what it looks like for a public figure to have a disconnect between his activism and his actions. And I can tell myself there's a reason I feel slimy sometimes when I watch his stuff, and that it's okay, and actually analyze the nuances I'm picking up on.

    Thank you for this article. It was hard to write, but it needed to be said, and as always you said it well.

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