While I will always love the show for redefining the parameters of TV writing, I can no longer see it as I once did — partly because I no longer see Whedon as I did when I was a teenager. Earlier this week, former “Buffy” and “Angel” co-star Charisma Carpenter released a statement claiming that Whedon had mistreated and eventually fired her from “Angel” after she gave birth in the early 2000s. She writes that Whedon “has created hostile and toxic work environments since his early career. I know because I experienced it firsthand. Repeatedly.” She says that Whedon called her “fat” in the early months of her pregnancy, despite her relatively low body weight, and that he scorned the importance of this major life event, even going as far to ask her if she was “going to keep it.” Carpenter reports now living with a chronic physical condition that she says was initially brought on by working with Whedon.
The irony is nearly too much to bear. In my young mind, Whedon was the alpha and omega of self-reflexive serialized storytelling, offering a knowing critique of the way women had been presented on screen for too long, even as he seemed to propose something new. I wasn’t alone in thinking so: More than 20 years after it debuted, “Buffy” is still revered for its groundbreaking girl-power legacy, considered something of a pop-feminist urtext by academics, critics and ordinary fans alike. Yet despite developing some of the most complex female characters that ever aired on the small screen — existential-chosen-one Buffy, introspective-queer-witch Willow, cupidinous-former-demon Anya — it’s impossible not to now recognize Whedon’s troubling career-long penchant for telling stories about slight young women whose primary strength happens to be their prodigious physical prowess.
Whedon’s public reputation had already dimmed in recent years, thanks to accusations about his on-set behavior, allegations of philandering and critiques of casually misogynistic storytelling. Carpenter’s candid summary of her professional relationship with Whedon echoes much of this. Tellingly, former “Buffy” castmates Sarah Michelle Gellar, Michelle Trachtenberg, Amber Benson and Emma Caulfield have all affirmed their support for Carpenter.
Grasping the sheer authority Whedon has wielded over vulnerable young women throughout his decades in Hollywood, I cringe thinking about the creepy words on a fan T-shirt I once prized. Over the past decade, as more female, nonbinary and trans auteurs have produced personalized television series that confront how gender has impacted their lives, I’ve slowly realized that Whedon’s visions of on-screen feminism often amounted to a reductive, masculinized conception of what it means to be a forceful woman. In other words, as I wrote in my review of Netflix’s “Buffy”-lite occult drama “Warrior Nun”: It was a hetero “male fantasy of muscular, hot-girl matriarchy,” in which female “empowerment” is really a convenient supplement to male desire. Even today, the image of a slender and alluring young woman kicking butt is seen as the apotheosis of the archetypical strong female character, from the scantily clad warriors of the Zack Snyder flick “Sucker Punch” to Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games series to the superheroic women of the Marvel and DC film franchises. It’s a paradigm wherein women’s strength is apparently defined by our willingness to commit violence, and Whedon played a central role in cementing its place in our culture.
Whedon has long been fascinated with the purported contradiction of watching a small, cute and magical teenage girl beating up hulking bad guys. The quintessential visual tableau of “Buffy” involves 5-foot-4-inch tall Gellar engaging in full combat with a snarling vampire or two in the middle of a graveyard, pummeling them into submission and taking plenty of thrashings herself before finally stabbing them into dust with her trusted wooden stake, Mr. Pointy. But he’s also repeated this motif time and time again in “Firefly,” “Dollhouse,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and, by all appearances, his forthcoming series “The Nevers.” He hinged the political potency of “Buffy” on his protagonist’s extraordinary physicality — all the while presenting her and practically every other teen girl on the show as a sexy, slender, midriff-bearing pixie. As such, it turns my stomach to read Carpenter’s allegations. Was the show ever really invested in revolutionizing the narratives of victimhood? Or was it primarily about putting desirable young women on display?
For many young viewers — and I was one of them — watching an unapologetically femme former cheerleader knock around Big Bads every week rewrote every damsel in distress stereotype we’d been conditioned to believe. After all, horror traditionally kills the sexy girls first and lets the virgins save the day. As Whedon has claimed, “The idea of Buffy was to subvert that idea, that image, and create someone who was a hero where she had always been a victim.” But even as he did, he was playing into other, potentially more disconcerting ideas about normative femininity. Buffy was roughly age 15-17 during the most beloved seasons of the series, while Gellar was firmly in her 20s, a casting decision that further reinforced the cultural fiction of teen girls’ sexual maturity and availability. Say what you will about controversial action star Gina Carano, but at least her solid frame exhibits a body type beyond a ′90s jailbait illusion.
Perhaps more importantly, in undercutting the damsel in distress trope, Whedon and his writing team created a flawed new one: the girl who can deal out punishment partly because she takes so much abuse, one who can absorb everything you throw at her, only to spout a retort while spitting blood and kicking you in the crotch. Come on, she seems to say, I can take it. In the later seasons of “Buffy,” Whedon literally kills and resurrects his heroine, ripping her out of heaven so she can return to Earth and reluctantly avert the apocalypse once again. Buffy’s revivification traumatizes her, leading to self-harm, depression and emotional calluses that play out until the series finale. It’s a narrative ethos that suggests that maturing into womanhood means growing emotionally numb. You can see the remnants of Buffy’s detachment in the blonde teen sleuth who leads “Veronica Mars” and the blonde teen witch who leads “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” and the blonde teen assassin who leads “Hanna.” Not all of them fight, but they each weaponize their chilly resolve.
It’s a vision of empowerment riven with loss, an argument that women’s psychological stamina should cost us our ability to feel fully and deeply. While I am increasingly skeptical about the way this trope underwrites our stories of feminine power, I cannot help but feel an inkling of it in myself when I contemplate the man I once called “master.” Through his work on “Buffy,” Whedon asked me to question who I’m willing to accept as my heroes. His lessons have never been more resonant.