This week’s revelations of Joss Whedon’s on-set behavior, in a post from former Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel star Charisma Carpenter, further tarnish the reputation of one of the most acclaimed and beloved creators of the 1990s and 2000s. Carpenter posted that Whedon had “abused his power” during the years that she worked on shows he created, playing favorites, pitting actors against one another, and treating her terribly in a specifically gendered way during her pregnancy. Her message was supported by former co-stars including Amber Benson, Michelle Trachtenberg, and Sarah Michelle Gellar, some of whom testified to their own memories of a toxic environment on set.
For me, a longtime Buffy fan, these allegations feel different from other abuses of power by creators and producers revealed over the past few years, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. I think it’s because at the height of my love for this show, I prized it not only for its wit and excitement but for its progressivism—for the way it shone like a beacon in the doldrums of turn-of-the-millennium TV, the kind of feminist story that no other series was even trying to tell. In a time when a woman writer could have never gotten this kind of show greenlit, we fans said to ourselves, at least there was Joss—an ally. He empowered his actresses and the women who wrote and produced on his show to tell a thrilling story of a strong, complex young woman who subverted the expectations of a sexist culture. (Whedon has not responded to requests for comment on the allegations.)
It wasn’t just that we loved Buffy. We believed that, despite its flaws, the show, like its heroine, was a force for good. So it sucks extra hard to learn, from multiple women who were there, that the set wasn’t a particularly nurturing environment, and that actresses on the show felt cruelly treated by the very visionary whom we fans so thoroughly believed in.
I recently rewatched all of Buffy and Angel, fulfilling a dream my wife and I have had for years: sharing this formative series with our now-teenage daughters. Like us, they loved it: loved Buffy and her struggles, loved sweet Willow and stupid Xander and glamorous Faith. And of course they loved Giles, Buffy’s Watcher, the mentor and father figure who guides and nurtures her through those difficult years—one of my models, I’m not ashamed to say, for engaged and caring parenting, even if like all good television characters, he can’t always live up to his own ideals. (In an interview Thursday, Anthony Stewart Head, who played Giles, sounded as bewildered as I am. “I am really sad that people went through these experiences,” he said. “How on earth did I not know this was going on?”)
Rewatching the show, far away from its original context, was eye-opening. Lots of it really holds up well, and some episodes even improve on later viewing: Gloomy, stormy Season 6, much maligned by fans online at the time, works much better as a binged experience than it ever did as a slow-moving, week-by-week story. It’s my older daughter’s favorite season for its gritty look at depression, and she can’t understand why we ever thought it was a drag.
The special effects look even worse now than they did then, of course. The gay panic jokes have aged as badly as the gay panic jokes in every TV show from that era. But what’s also striking is how run-of-the-mill the show’s feminism feels now, a time when it’s much easier to find women’s stories in all styles and genres, when a female superhero is not a unicorn but verging on a commonplace—and when many of those female superheroes get their stories told, well or badly, by women.
When I asked my older daughter, the Season 6 fan, what she thought about the allegations against Joss Whedon, she shrugged. To her, Buffy was never about Joss. “Lots of people made Buffy, and it’s still a really good show,” she said. “And honestly, a lot of the feminism feels really dated.” She laughed about Season 7 villain Caleb: “The way Buffy kills him? That’s a little on the nose!” I guess, with the benefit of perspective, it is a little obvious that the villain was a cruel, misogynistic priest, and that Buffy axed him in the balls. Boy, did it feel great in 2003, though.
To come to terms with Buffy, I think, it’s important for me to be more clear with myself about the circumstances and context of its creation. That it can no longer feel so revolutionary as it once did does not mean that it cannot be meaningful to those who discover it now; it’s just meaningful in different ways. And that its founder was not all that we once thought he was does not take away from the small miracle that is this moving, funny, and stirring show; it’s a testament to the many others who made their way through a difficult environment to ensure that the results would be moving, funny, and stirring.
These days I’m trying to think, as my daughter does, less about Joss Whedon and more about the people I didn’t give enough consideration to 20 years ago. The female producers and writers who did remarkable work at an even more challenging time for women in creative fields. The actresses helping one another through difficult days and sticking together long afterward. And even poor Tony Head, who hoped to be a father figure on that set but learned, as many fathers do, that things he thought were simple were actually terribly complicated all along.