The Undoing of Joss Whedon
New York magazine|January 17 - 30, 2022
The Buffy creator, once an icon of Hollywood feminism, is now an outcast accused of misogyny. How did he get here?
By Lila Shapiro. Photographs by Ryan Pfluger, Alamy, Robert Gauthier, Jason Kirk, Justin Lubin, Shutterstock, Theo Wargo, Wireimage, Picturelux, The Hollywood Archive, AF Archive, DC Entertainment, Warner Bross

IN THE FALL OF 2002, 160 scholars convened at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. They were an eclectic group—theologians, philosophers, linguists, film professors—and they had descended on the medieval city for a conference dedicated to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a cult television show about a teenage girl who fights monsters while attending high school in Southern California. It was not a typical academic gathering. There were life-size cutouts of the eponymous heroine as well as Buffy-themed chocolates, action figures, and, in the welcome bags, exfoliating moisturizers (“Buffy the Backside Slayer”). Professors stalked around in long black leather coats like the vampire Spike, Buffy’s enemy and, later, her lover.

If the line between scholarship and fandom was vanishingly thin, so was the line between fandom and worship. On the first morning of the conference, David Lavery, a professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University, stood at the podium and declared the show’s creator, Joss Whedon, the “avatar” of a new religion, the “founder of a new faith.” Lavery and two other professors would go on to establish the Whedon Studies Association, an organization devoted to expanding the field of Buffy scholarship. As Lavery would write in the introduction to a book he co-authored on the series, Whedon had not simply composed a narrative about a struggle against the “forces of darkness—vampires, demons, monsters of all varieties”; he had taken a stand against a panoply of oppressive “social forces,” most obviously the “forces of gender stereotyping.” According to the prevailing rules of Hollywood horror at the time, Whedon’s protagonist, a hot blonde with a dumb name, should have died within the opening scenes, but Whedon had flipped the genre on its head, endowing her with superhuman powers and a hero’s journey.

It wasn’t just scholars who worshipped him in those days. He was a celebrity showrunner before anyone cared who ran shows. In 2005, the comic-book artist Scott R. Kurtz designed a T-shirt that gestured at Whedon’s stature in popular culture at the time: Joss Whedon is my master now. Marvel later put him in charge of its biggest franchise, hiring him to write and direct 2012’s The Avengers and its sequel Age of Ultron, two of the highest-grossing films of all time. His fans thought of him as a feminist ally, an impression bolstered by his fund-raising efforts for progressive causes. But in recent years, the good-guy image has been tarnished by a series of accusations, each more damaging than the last. In 2017, his ex-wife, Kai Cole, published a sensational open letter about him on the movie blog The Wrap. She condemned him as a “hypocrite preaching feminist ideals” and accused him of cheating on her throughout their marriage, including with actresses on the set of Buffy. Then, beginning in the summer of 2020, the actors Ray Fisher and Gal Gadot, who had starred in a superhero film directed by Whedon, claimed he’d mistreated them, with Fisher describing his behavior as “gross, abusive, unprofessional, and completely unacceptable.”

They were soon joined by Charisma Carpenter, who played Cordelia on Buffy and its spinoff series, Angel. In a long Twitter post, she wrote that Whedon had a “history of being casually cruel.” After she became pregnant, heading into Angel’s fourth season, he called her “fat” to colleagues and summoned her into his office to ask, as she recalled, if she was “going to keep it.” She claimed he had mocked her religious beliefs, accused her of sabotaging the show, and fired her a season later, once she had given birth. All the joy of new motherhood had been “sucked right out,” she wrote. “And Joss was the vampire.”

Carpenter’s comments threw the fandom into a crisis. Fan organizations debated changing their names; people on discussion sites wrote anguished posts as Sarah Michelle Gellar, who played the titular Slayer, and other Buffy stars offered words of support for Carpenter online. The community’s sense of shock and betrayal could be seen in part as an indictment of the culture of fandom itself. “As fans, we have a bad habit of deifying those whose work we respect,” Kurtz, the comic-book artist, told me. “When you build these people up so big they have nowhere to go but down, I don’t know why we’re surprised when they turn out to be fallible humans who fall.”

This past spring, Whedon invited me to spend a couple of afternoons with him at his home in Los Angeles. By then, I had spoken with dozens of people who knew him; after months of agonizing over whether to grant my request for an interview, he had decided to talk, too. Whedon lives in Santa Monica, 13 blocks from the ocean, on a street lined with magnolia trees and $5 million homes. His house is open, airy, modern. He sat hunched over on a black leather couch, his fingers clicking together, the thumbs tapping each of the other digits in quick succession whenever the conversation shifted toward his recent troubles. Pale and angular with bags under his eyes, he no longer much resembled the plump-cheeked Puck who once impishly urged a profile writer to describe him as “doughy” and “jowly.” It was a perfect day in Santa Monica, as almost every day in Santa Monica is. But Whedon wanted to stay inside. Gazing through a wall of glass at his lush backyard, he announced in his quiet rumble of a voice that he was thinking of getting curtains. “The sun is my enemy,” he said.

Scattered around the room were paintings by his wife, the artist Heather Horton. They got married in February 2021, just after the wave of allegations had crested. At the sound of the garage door opening, his shoulders relaxed. “Heather’s coming back,” he said. She breezed through the room in a sundress and complimented me on my glasses. Then she was gone. Picking up a cup of tea, Whedon said he could no longer remain silent as people tried to pry his legacy from his hands. But there was a problem. Those people had set out to destroy him and would surely seize on his every utterance in an attempt to finish the job. “I’m terrified,” he said, “of every word that comes out of my mouth.”

BACK WHEN HE WAS still a god, the kind that is contractually obligated to promote network-television shows at press junkets, Whedon was asked over and over to explain why he wrote stories about strong women. For years, he would answer by talking about his mother. Lee Stearns, who died in 1991, was an activist and unpublished novelist who taught history at an elite private school in the Bronx. One of her students, Jessica Neuwirth, went on to become a co-founder of Equality Now, an organization that promotes women’s rights. Neuwirth, who has cited Stearns as an inspiration, described her to me as “a visionary feminist.” In 2006, Equality Now presented Whedon with an award at an evening dedicated to honoring “men on the front lines” of feminism. In his speech, Whedon referred to his mother as “extraordinary, inspirational, tough, cool,” and “sexy.”

Sitting in his living room, he told me he sees a different side of her now. “She was a remarkable woman and an inspiring person,” he said, “but sometimes those are hard people to be raised by.”

Whedon had been thinking a lot about his childhood. He had been in therapy for the past few years, ever since he checked himself into an addiction-treatment center in Florida for a month-long stay. As a younger man, he had channeled his pain into his work, but he was never particularly interested in picking apart the stories he always told himself about his past. Now, he didn’t have much else to do. The allegations against him had led friends to stop calling. He was out of work and wasn’t writing. What story could he even tell? There were things about his life he was only beginning to understand. “Not the things being said in the press, necessarily, but things I’m not comfortable with,” he told me. “I’m like, I have nothing going on. I can do some work on me.

Born Joseph, Whedon grew up in a palazzo-style apartment building on the Upper West Side. The family spent holidays reading Shakespeare out loud and evenings listening to Sondheim with friends. “There wasn’t a grown-up who didn’t have a drink in their hand by midafternoon,” he said. His father, Tom, was a second-generation television writer whose credits included The Golden Girls and The Dick Cavett Show. He had lived through many writers’-room battles, and he and Lee ran the home as though they were in the thick of one. “If you weren’t funny or entertaining or agreeing with them, they would cut you down or turn to stone,” he recalled.

Whedon was the youngest of three boys. Soft and slight and anxious, he had long red hair that caused people to mistake him for a girl, which he says he didn’t mind. He identified with “the feminine”—a testament, maybe, to his connection with his mother. She was “capricious and withholding,” but she frightened him less than his father and, especially, his brothers—“admirable monsters” who “bullied the shit” out of him. On weekends and in summers, he would pass his mornings pacing the long driveway of the family’s second home, a farmhouse near Schenectady, “making up science fiction universes or plotting elaborate revenges on my brothers.”

Whedon now has a term for the damage his childhood caused. He says he suffers from complex post-traumatic-stress disorder, a condition that can lead to relationship problems, self-destructive behavior, and addictions of various kinds. I asked if he would be willing to share his most traumatic memory with me. “I’m going to run to the loo,” he said. Later, he would let slip that someone had advised him to pretend he needed to pee if he felt uncomfortable with a question.

Returning to the couch, he affected a sort of Vincent Price voice. “And now,” Whedon said, “tales of horror and woe.”

When he was 5, a 4-year-old boy, the son of family friends, disappeared on his parents’ property upstate. Eventually, his body was found; he had drowned in the pond. Years later, as a teenager, Whedon remembered he had called the boy over to the pond to play with him. After getting bored, he had walked away, leaving the boy alone by the water. “I didn’t think it was my fault,” Whedon said. “I knew I was 5. But it doesn’t just disappear as a thought.” It took him another 30 years, he said, before another thought dawned on him: Even after the incident, his parents never taught him to swim. “There was no structure,” he said. “There was no safety.”

His parents split up when he was 9. At 15, he went to an all-boys boarding school in England where he read more Shakespeare, joined the fencing team, and struggled to make friends. “I was very dark and miserable, this hideous little homunculus who managed to annoy everyone,” he told the author of Joss Whedon: The Biography. Then, in 1983, his fortunes changed. He had arrived at Wesleyan University, where he discovered his artsy, angsty personality could actually be attractive to women. He got a girlfriend, traded his basic name for a more interesting one, and found a mentor, the eminent film scholar Jeanine Basinger.

Basinger, a sort of campus Svengali, surrounded herself with acolytes—Michael Bay, Mike White, D.B. Weiss. In one of her books, A Woman’s View, she espoused the artistic merits of the woman’s picture, a genre that predominated in the middle of the 20th century. The heroines of these films led fabulous lives as successful single girls in the workplace until just before the closing credits, when they gave it all up for marriage. Seen from one angle, these movies promoted sexist conventions; from another, they celebrated women’s liberation. Basinger argued they did both, and she perceived this ambiguity made them interesting because it reflected the messiness of the human mind. This insight stayed with Whedon, who had no trouble understanding how messy the mind could be. He admired strong women like his mother, yet he’d discovered he was capable of hurting them, “usually by sleeping with them and ghosting or whatever.” He would later tell his biographer this duality gave him “an advantage” over the girls in his college class on feminism when it came to discussing relations between the sexes. “I have seen the enemy,” he said, “and he’s in my brain!”

After Wesleyan, Whedon moved to L.A., where he met Cole and wrote the screenplay for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the 1992 film directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui. He wanted to tell a story about someone who turns out to be important despite the fact that no one takes that person seriously. “It took me a long time to realize I was writing about me,” he told me, “and that my feeling of powerlessness and constant anxiety was at the heart of everything.” His avatar was not a fearful young man, however, but a gorgeous girl with extraordinary courage. He wanted to be her, and he wanted to fuck her.

In 1995, executives at the fledgling WB network invited him to turn the idea into a series. Building on his original premise, he reimagined the monsters as metaphors for the horrors of adolescence. In one climactic scene, Buffy loses her virginity to a vampire who has been cursed with a soul; the next morning, his soul is gone and he’s lusting for blood. Any young woman who had gone to bed with a seemingly nice guy only to wake up with an asshole could relate.

Like those women’s pictures Basinger had written about, the show invited a multiplicity of interpretations. You could view it as a story of female empowerment or as the opposite—the titillating tale of a woman in leather pants who is brutalized by monsters. When it came out, critics mostly read it as the former. It was the late ’90s, after all. In 1998, shortly after Buffy’s second season aired, Time published an infamous cover asking, “Is Feminism Dead?” As the story’s author, Ginia Bellafante, noted, the protests of the ’60s and ’70s were long over, Gloria Steinem was defending Bill Clinton in the New York Times, and the struggles for equal pay and child care had been subsumed by the corporate pageantry of “girl power,” the glib spectacle of powerful women on TV. Buffy was actually far more complex than most of the other examples of this phenomenon. As in so much of Whedon’s work, the lines between good and evil were blurred. The good guys sometimes did monstrous things, and the monsters could occasionally do good. But the media likes a story with a clear-cut hero, and Whedon wasn’t above playing the part. “I just got tired of seeing women be the victims,” he told the L.A. Times in 2000. “I needed to see women taking control.”

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