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Monday, April 19, 2021

Separating the Toxic Creator from Their Work • by Eric Dontigney

The speculative fiction community has had a rough go of it in recent years with so many beloved creators being outed as everything from jerks to outright sexual predators. I’ve steered clear of this topic because I’ve long been a champion of Joss Whedon’s short-lived, much-beloved Firefly (and the film Serenity). I’ve also been somewhat disheartened by the general approach of damning anyone who gets accused of misconduct. When revelations of misconduct first starting happening, the reactions struck me as being very much, “Guilty, no matter what comes next.”

That never sat right with me. It’s not that I doubted that abuses took place. I was pretty confident that most of the allegations held water. My problem was that the whole thing took on the character of a witch hunt. I doubt there has ever been a witch hunt in which perfectly innocent people didn’t get their lives destroyed. If the general assumption is that every accusation is true, a person with an axe to grind can level an accusation and watch a well-meaning mob rip someone apart. Hell, this is why we have due process. 

Of course, there is also this idea in the law called “preponderance of evidence.” It’s a term used in civil trials that correlates with, but isn’t identical to, “beyond a reasonable doubt” in criminal law. My understanding of preponderance of evidence is that it essentially means that one side offers better evidence on which to judge a claim. It’s not necessarily about more evidence but the more meaningful evidence. This brings us back to Whedon.

Like a lot of Whedon fans, I took a dismissive attitude toward some of the early claims. The earliest public crack in the Whedon edifice was probably when his ex-wife Kai Cole wrote an open letter about his infidelities. I won’t lie. I read it as petty character assassination with an intent to publicly damage her ex’s career by exposing private matters. At the time, Whedon still had a lot of feminist cred and the golden glow of having written/directed/produced so many works that meant so much to so many people. I was making a cardinal mistake.

There is this principle in psychology called the Halo Effect. No, sadly, it has nothing to do with Master Chief. The Halo Effect is when someone makes a positive impression on you very early on. Once you form that opinion, it tends to become your default position when evaluating anything related to that person. So, let’s say that the first time you meet someone, they help you in some meaningful way. That makes you think they’re a good person. After that, you’re WAY more likely to ascribe good intentions or look for explanations that minimize bad intent when that person does things that you’d otherwise read as unacceptable behavior.

It’s even worse when that person is someone you don’t know personally. My only interactions with Joss Whedon came through his work, which I and so many others held very dear, and public accounts that tended to treat him as a nerd god and good guy. Of course, I was a hell of lot younger and knew a hell of a lot less about how things like press tours, interviews, and career preservation worked when I was watching/reading those things. I formed my perception of Whedon based on unreliable sources and narrative content that don’t really tell you anything about a person’s character. Once I formed that opinion, though, it stuck.

So, instead of giving Kai Cole’s open letter a fair read, I read it with a jaundiced eye. I just knew Whedon was a good guy. Okay, maybe he had some fidelity problems, but he wasn’t airing his dirty laundry in public. He wasn’t talking about all the bad stuff that his ex-wife surely did over the course of their relationship. Without even realizing it, I was trying to mentally minimize the bad intent of Whedon’s unacceptable behavior. No matter what, I rationalized, these were private failures that had nothing to do with his work. If that open letter had been the last of it, I probably would have cheerfully continued on in my little bubble of denial and never given it another thought. Except, as we all know now, that wasn’t the end of it.

Account after account of Whedon’s crappy on-set behavior have come out over the last couple of years. I might have discounted even these, except there was a sick consistency to the accounts. When you boil them all down, they basically tell the same story. Whedon acts like a capricious, if not malicious, and abusive petty tyrant toward the people who work on his shows and movies with women as frequent targets for his behavior. If the accounts were scattershot, detailing wildly random stories of different kinds of off-putting behavior, you could chalk it up to Whedon having the occasional bad day. It’s the rare person who has never taken out their bad mood on a co-worker or subordinate. They exist, but they’re rare.

When every account reinforces the nature of the behaviors, though, both the volume of evidence and the preponderance of evidence seem to sit with the accusers. So, where does that leave fans of the work that Whedon leaves in his wake? The problem that many fans have is that Joss Whedon does make good and often complex TV shows and films. Buffy really was one of the first shows that did anything meaningful in terms of female empowerment on TV, though I have issues with the exact kind of empowerment offered on the show. Firefly and Serenity played with ideas about family, guilt, and survival that you don’t see that often in science fiction TV. The Avengers was a good, if flawed, film.

For fans of these works, the implicit message from cancel culture is that we must disown all of these shows and films because Whedon is a bad-faith actor. While I don’t have an ethical problem with Whedon suffering career damage or even career implosion at this point, disowning all his prior works seems like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. By boycotting all Whedon’s prior works, we also boycott the work of everyone else who worked on those shows and films. Did some of those people know about the problems and choose to do nothing? Yeah, probably. Are they, then, also morally responsible? Maybe so. Should we also boycott everything they ever worked on? Should I not watch Nathan Fillion’s The Rookie just because he worked with Whedon in the past? Do you see the problem?

Unlike a novel, which generally has one primary author, TV shows and films are inherently collaborative efforts. Someone like Whedon gets the lion’s share of the credit, but his creative output involved hundreds or thousands of people in the final analysis. There were writers, actors, directors, second unit directors, producers, special effects artists, camera-people, makeup artists, key grips, set builders, production assistants, editors, and countless other jobs that I can’t name off the top of my head. I’d be willing to bet that most of those people showed up to work every day with no bad intentions. In fact, most of them probably showed up and worked really hard to do a good job. Why? Because people have bills and mortgages and working in Hollywood is still a job. While all of us have worked with people who are jerks or creepy, most coworkers sit somewhere on the spectrum of basically normal with normal personality flaws. Most people show up for work and do their jobs without going out of their way to be abusive dicks. You don’t fire the entire accounting department because Jessie never learned how to play well with others. You just fire Jessie.

Boycotting Whedon’s entire body of previous work is like firing the entire accounting department. It accomplishes little to nothing useful in the long run. Maybe you deprive him of a couple of bucks if you won’t buy new copies of his old films and shows, but that’s about it. It’s a moral stand with no strength in it. He’s already made most of the money he’ll ever see off of those works. It doesn’t hurt him. It ultimately fails to make a useful separation of the toxic creator from his work. The real problem isn’t Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Angel, or Dollhouse, or Firefly, or Serenity, or The Avengers. Liking those shows and films isn’t the real problem.

Whedon himself is the problem. It’s not your relationship with his past works that’s going to change anything. It’s what you do in relation to his future works that will change things. That's where boycotting can have a real effect. Don’t tune in to his new shows. Don’t buy tickets to his new movies. Raise a stink if some studio hires him or makes him a showrunner. He does damage when he’s given authority over others. Do your best to make giving him power over others unprofitable for studios. If his works stop making money, people will stop hiring him.

Refusing to watch old projects of his because they’ve got his name on them only deprives you of something you love. It also negates all of the hard work of everyone else involved in those projects. So, I say, separate the toxic creator from the work. If you love Firefly, keep loving Firefly. Boycott Whedon’s new works instead. Make it clear to studios that you won’t support someone who behaves so badly on set. Encourage others to do the same. That is the way you can effect real change in the now.



Eric Dontigney is the author of highly regarded novel, THE MIDNIGHT GROUND, as well as the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One. Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally online at


M.H............................ said...

In one way or another, everyone is toxic. The zombie genre reflects this. Everyone carries the virus.

Pete Wood said...

Let's face it some of the best creative output comes from complete jerks-- people who would make horrible roomates, significant others, co workers, neighbors. I love Mark Twain and Ernest Hemmingway, but would hate to have either share the work cubicle next to mine. Plenty of more jerks out there in the literary, music, television, and movie world. Lucky for me, I don't have to try to get any of them to pay me back money. I just have to enjoy their work.