At the beginning of Buffy the Vampire Slayer we are told the following: “In every generation there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.” It is the prophecy of Buffy Summers; the buck-kicking and stake-wielding protagonist who was portrayed by Sarah Michelle Gellar from 1997 to 2003. Bestowed with mystical powers, Buffy is one in a long line of women chosen by fate to become a slayer. Throughout the series Buffy’s destiny is clear. She must embrace her role as defender against supernatural evil and save the world from the mouth of hell.
The hit television show ran for seven seasons and fast created a cult following based upon its message of female empowerment. So when stars stepped forward last month to accuse its creator Joss Whedon of having “abused his power” on the set of both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff show Angel (1999-2004), the Buffy-verse was left feeling shocked. In an open letter shared on social media, Charisma Carpenter who portrayed Cordelia Chase on the first three seasons of Buffy before moving across to Angel, accused Whedon of professional misconduct and creating a cruel work environment. The 56-year-old director and writer is also known for creating tv series including Firefly (2002), Dollhouse (2009), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (2013), and the films Toy Story (1995), Cabin in the Woods (2012), and The Avengers (2012).
On February 10th, Carpenter tweeted; “For nearly two decades, I have held my tongue and even made excuses for certain events that traumatize me to this day”. Continuing, “Joss Whedon abused his power on numerous occasions while working together on the sets of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel”. Carpenter even stated that whilst Whedon “found his misconduct amusing, it only served to intensify my performance anxiety, disempower me, and alienate me from my peers”. The allegations of the 50-year-old actress came to light just seven months after Ray Fisher accused Whedon of gross misconduct on the 2017 set of the Justice League.
Adding the hashtag ‘#IStandwithRayFisher’, Carpenter described her own experience with Whedon’s toxic treatment. Deeming him “the real vampire”, Whedon was reportedly “mean and biting, disparaging about others openly, and often played favorites, pitting people against one another to compete and vie for his attention and approval”. For Carpenter, the disturbing dynamic “triggered a chronic physical condition from which I still suffer”.
The most shocking allegation made by Carpenter included Whedon’s ridicule of her pregnancy, which she argues ultimately resulted in her character being killed off. “[H]e asked me if I was ‘going to keep it,’ and manipulatively weaponized my womanhood and faith against me…accuse[d] me of sabotaging the show, and then unceremoniously fired me following the season once I gave birth,” the actress wrote. Whedon also called her “fat” in front of other crew members when she was just four months pregnant.
Following Carpenter’s lengthy post, fellow Buffy stars responded via social media to show their support and share their own experiences of mistreatment. Sarah Michelle Gellar said that while she is “proud to have [her] name associated with Buffy Summers” she does not “want to be forever associated with Joss Whedon”. Michelle Trachtenberg who portrayed Buffy’s younger sister Dawn, and was just 14 years old when she joined the show, claimed that Joss Whedon was not allowed to be left in a room alone with her. She added “I am brave enough now as a 35-year-old woman…. To repost this. Because. This must. Be known. As a teenager. With his not appropriate behaviour….very. Not. Appropriate.” Amber Benson, who played Tara on Buffy, replied to Carpenter’s tweet, saying “@AllCharisma is speaking truth and I support her 100%. There was a lot of damage done during that time and many of us are still processing it twenty plus years later.”
So how did one of tv’s most forward-thinking feminist writers go from defender of gender equality and girl power, to darn right misogynistic? And how did we miss it? Well, there is no denying that Buffy did a lot to redefine female stereotypes. Previously Joss Whedon spoke of wishing to subvert, through the titular character, the Hollywood cliché of “the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie”. He claimed, “The very first mission statement of the show was the joy of female power: having it, using it, sharing it.”
But upon closer analysis, both series feature problematic depictions of women. In particular, Buffy and Angel portray female sexuality as punishable. Both pregnancies in Angel end in maternal death. And when Buffy loses her virginity to her vampire- boyfriend, Angel, he turns evil and tries to kill her. Once Buffy moves on to Spike in season five, who is arguably her true love interest, the initially comical love-hate dynamic soon turns masochistic, with Buffy describing the first time they sleep together as “the single most degrading moment” of her life. And let’s not even get started on the scene where Spike attempts to rape Buffy to prove his love.
In light of allegations against Joss Whedon’s real-life vampirism and misogyny, could it be time to reconsider the true message behind Buffy?