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Opinion Joss Whedon shows what happens when a fandom attaches to an artist over art

Joss Whedon attends the premiere of "Ant-Man and the Wasp" on June 25, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Christopher Polk/Getty Images)

“The Tragedy of Joss Whedon” could well have been written by one of his favorite authors, William Shakespeare. It’s a timely reminder, though, that the artist behind the artistry matters only as much as you want it to.

In Whedon’s journey we see a minor noble raise a great kingdom, conquering first television and then the larger realm of film. Filled with hubris from the fandom that amasses in his name, he is felled by the very qualities that made him so popular (his cutting humor, his playful cruelty and his attempt to co-opt feminist ideology to cover his sins). By story’s end, the mad king has been exiled to the coast, futilely plotting ways to recapture his crown.

That rise and fall couldn’t have happened without those loyal serfs. As reporter Lila Shapiro hints at in her recent New York magazine profile of the showrunner, what’s interesting about Whedon isn’t that he created “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly,” or directed the first two Avengers films; rather, it’s the cultlike following that sprung up around him. He interacted with viewers on message boards dedicated to “Buffy” in the 1990s; he held court at Comic-Con’s famed Hall H; he showed up at parties and hobnobbed with the rabble.

In the midst of all this, “Buffy” loyalists erected an ideological and intellectual scaffolding to justify their fandom as something profound. Shapiro highlights a gathering of 160 scholars in 2002 at a university in Britain celebrating the worthiness of “Buffy” for study by university English departments.

But the attraction to Whedon transcended the themes or structure of his work; his true importance, at least to a certain segment of his fandom, was his commitment to social change, specifically his work to undercut the “forces of gender stereotyping.” The ideological underpinnings of “Buffy” lined up neatly with the ideological underpinnings of many scholars, as well as, seemingly, Whedon himself.

But a following based on ideological kinship makes for a finicky fandom, as Whedon was to discover. First, rumors circulated that he carried on affairs with attractive young women cast in the shows he ran; this cost him some of his feminist street cred.

He was then hit with several blows in quick succession: Charisma Carpenter, who had worked for Whedon on “Buffy” and its spinoff, “Angel,” accused him of creating “hostile and toxic work environments” and being “casually cruel” after learning she was pregnant. Gal Gadot confirmed rumors that Whedon had threatened to destroy her career during reshoots on “Justice League.” And finally, “Justice League” actor Ray Fisher leveled accusations of racism against the showrunner. Eventually, the allegations swirling around Whedon got so toxic that he was forced out of “The Nevers,” the HBO series he created, and has remained more or less quiet until this week’s profile.

Learning that a beloved creator has a troubling history of abusing his position and those working under him is, sadly, too common to be particularly interesting in the age of #MeToo. Again, what’s interesting about Whedon (unlike, say, Harvey Weinstein) is the response of the fandom that grew up specifically around him: What happens to a kingdom when its leader is defenestrated?

As Shapiro notes, some of Whedon’s backers responded by lashing out at original “Justice League” director Zack Snyder and his acolytes. Other elements of the fandom were thrown “into a crisis,” and “fan organizations debated changing their names.”

But if a work only mattered to you because the author of that work hung out on message boards and shared some of your precepts, the work is worthless anyway. And if your response to the work changes because you discover something untoward about the person who created it, you were never a true fan of the creation. You were searching for community, not artistry.

A work of art exists separately from the artist who created it. Sometimes that simply means interpretations of the work can differ from what the author intended. But it means more than that: An author’s personal life or political convictions really shouldn’t have an impact on your ability to admire, or detest, their work. Harry Potter is good or bad regardless of your feelings on J.K. Rowling. The twist ending of “The Usual Suspects” works or doesn’t no matter what Kevin Spacey has done.

And “Buffy” inspires or it doesn’t despite, not because of, Joss Whedon’s actions, fair or foul. Fandoms that exist only to reinforce the dogma of the fans are destined for disappointment; artists are messy people. Lining up your aesthetic preferences within an ideological framework is a sad enough way to go through life, but lining up those preferences in a framework that demands consistency from everyone involved in making it?

That way lies madness — and an impoverished library.