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Joss Whedon was once hailed as a feminist. Then came the stories about his behavior

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Writer-director Joss Whedon was once hailed as a feminist for his creation of strong female characters. He's probably best known for creating hit series like "Buffy The Vampire Slayer"...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER")

SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR: (As Buffy Summers) First of all, I'm a vampire slayer. And secondly, I'm retired.

CHANG: ...And the short-lived space Western, "Firefly"...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FIREFLY")

NATHAN FILLION: (As Captain Malcolm Reynolds) What does that make us?

GINA TORRES: (As Zoe Washburne) Big damn heroes, sir.

FILLION: (As Captain Malcolm Reynolds) Ain't we just?

CHANG: ...As well as his work on Marvel's "The Avengers."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE AVENGERS")

ROBERT DOWNEY JR: (As Tony Stark) That's what we call ourselves. Sort of like a team. Earth's mightiest heroes type thing.

CHANG: But in recent years, allegations have surfaced that range from inappropriate behavior around young actresses to bullying on set. And they span Whedon's career from "Buffy" to, most recently, his work on 2017's "Justice League."

Leyla Shapiro is a senior reporter for New York Magazine, and she spoke to Joss Whedon himself, as well as to his former colleagues for a piece in Vulture. It's called "The Undoing of Joss Whedon." And she joins us now to break down all of her reporting. Welcome.

LILA SHAPIRO: Thank you so much for having me.

CHANG: OK. So I just want to start with some of the more recent allegations that surfaced against Whedon. Actors Ray Fisher and Gal Gadot spoke about their experiences with him on the set of "Justice League." Can you just tell us what they had to say about him?

SHAPIRO: Sure. Ray Fisher, who's a young Black actor, had been cast as Cyborg. And essentially, when Joss Whedon came in to reshoot "Justice League," he cut back Ray's role. And there was tension on the set. This came to the surface in the summer of 2020. And Ray said on Twitter that he, you know, he described his on-set behavior as gross, abusive, unprofessional and completely unacceptable.

Later on that year, Gal gave an interview in which she said that she'd had some kind of altercation with Whedon and that he had threatened her. She didn't go into specifics about what had happened, but sort of reports came out that they had had a disagreement about a scene. So that's, you know, that's kind of the beginning of actors sharing stories about his behavior.

CHANG: Well, these were just some of the more recent allegations against Whedon. We can step back into the past a little more. Actor Charisma Carpenter, who played Cordelia on "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," spoke up in support of Ray Fisher. She said that in her time working with Whedon, he had, quote, "a history of being casually cruel." What examples did Carpenter give for that?

SHAPIRO: She described, you know, primarily what happened to her after she became pregnant heading into the fourth season on "Angel."

CHANG: Yeah. "Angel," that's a spinoff from "Buffy The Vampire Slayer."

SHAPIRO: Yes, that's right. She said, you know, that he called her fat to colleagues, that he summoned her into his office and asked her if she was going to keep it - and felt that there was a pattern of retaliatory behavior against her afterwards, you know, that she was asked to go to shoots in the middle of the night and eventually led to her being written off the show.

CHANG: How does Whedon respond to all of this? Like, when you spoke to him at length, how did he defend himself?

SHAPIRO: You know, I mean, he told me that he'd never called her fat. He said he never threatened Gal. He acknowledged that he, you know, cut back Ray's storyline, but he said that he felt he'd been respectful. And I think that one thing he kind of - you know, he would say that he wasn't perfect on set. He felt that he'd done the best he could and felt that he was being now unfairly painted as this sort of monster when it was more complicated than that.

CHANG: Well, I mean, a lot of Joss Whedon's work has these deeply devoted fandoms, right? Like, whole fan communities have sprung up around "Buffy" and "Firefly." How have his fans reacted to all these allegations?

SHAPIRO: I think that there's a real urge to try to write him out of the narrative specifically. Like, looking at "Buffy," you know, and I'm a fan of "Buffy," I mean, that - it was a very important show to me, and that's why I was interested in writing this piece to begin with. When he was sort of cast by us as this feminist hero, we were thinking that like, oh, he brought Buffy to life. He gave us Buffy, you know. And not necessarily thinking, well, he also showed us that the world is full of monsters. And most of those monsters are men. And most of those monsters want to destroy Buffy, kill her, try to rape her, endlessly brutalize her. I mean, that's in his brain, too, you know.

So to me, this show is really a reflection of him. And it's just a fantasy to think any other way, like, to think, oh, it could have been made without him or it was made in spite of him, you know. That's his psyche that we were all watching projected on the screen.

CHANG: Yeah. Lila Shapiro is a senior reporter for New York Magazine. Thank you very much for joining us today.

SHAPIRO: Thank you so much for having me. This was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.