When a creator whose work you love gets cancelled

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 25: Joss Whedon attends the premiere of Disney And Marvel's "Ant-Man And The Wasp" on June 25, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 25: Joss Whedon attends the premiere of Disney And Marvel's "Ant-Man And The Wasp" on June 25, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images) /

We’ve had a banner bunch of months for cancellation, haven’t we? The cancellation of J.K. Rowling was huge back in July, when the author was called out for transphobic tweets (and eventually, a transphobic manifesto). Just the other week, Disney fired The Mandalorian star Gina Carano after her own string of offensive tweets, and various cast members of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel — most prominently Charisma Carpenter (Cordelia) — came out and accused creator Joss Whedon of abusive behavior on set, not long after he quietly exited his HBO show The Nevers in what in hindsight seems like a preemptive move to avoid the embarrassment of resigning in disgrace.

I’ll admit that I’m fascinated by the duel-edged nature of cancel culture. At it’s best, it’s a way for ordinary people to exercise power over venerable institutions and hold corrupt actors to account, paving the way for a more equitable future — the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are essentially examples of cancel culture, and they did a lot to uproot predators in the film and TV industries. At its worst, it’s a mob of people caught up in self-righteous fury brandishing pitchforks at someone who made some insignificant mistakes (*cough* Game of Thrones showrunners *cough*). Too often, I see people reduce the phenomenon down to a simplistic binary: “Cancel culture doesn’t exist” vs “Cancel culture is stifling free speech and ruining society.” I don’t think either of those are true. Whether cancelling is good or bad depends on the cancellation.

We could spend weeks talking through the particulars of those questions, and I’ve written about them before, but I wanted to return to the topic because Whedon’s cancellation hit me hard. I liked Harry Potter but never had loyalty to J.K. Rowling specifically, so I could look at that one fairly objectively. Gina Carano didn’t make much of an impression on me in The Mandalorian. But I loved the work of Joss Whedon growing up, particularly Buffy, which had a big impact on how I thought about TV. It was the first show I really fell in love with, so to hear that the man who created what many consider a feminist masterpiece was this cruel towards one of his actresses — mocking her after she got pregnant, giving her an early call time in retaliation even if it went against medial advice, and firing her after she had done her job — hurts.

So what does this mean for my relationship with Joss Whedon and his work? Can I still enjoy it? Well, based on this highlight reel of iconic Buffy Summers moments, the answer is “absolutely.”

I still find them funny, I still find them endearing, and I associate them more closely with how I first experienced them than I do with Joss Whedon. I’m not even close to the first person to suggest that after someone makes a piece of art and puts it out into the world, it doesn’t really belong to them anymore; it belongs to everyone who enjoys it, and they can enjoy it in a multitude of different ways. When thinking of creators, I always held Joss Whedon in particularly high regard –in addition to Buffy and Angel, he also created Firefly and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and directed the first two Avengers movies — but in the end he’s just a person no different than anyone else, and even though he put himself into his work, it stands apart from him.

But there are other questions. It feels like Joss Whedon has been properly excommunicated from Hollywood, and I don’t see him coming back. His work is still available for everyone to enjoy, but what about the work he would have produced had he not been cancelled? Is that a loss for Hollywood and the public?

Obviously we can’t know for sure, and The Nevers does look pretty good (HBO will be continuing it, FYI, with screenwriter Philippa Goslett taking over for Whedon as showrunner). I still enjoy Whedon’s work and am curious to see what he did with this show, and it’s very possible I’ll watch it and want more.

That said, even if The Nevers is an artistic triumph thanks wholly to Whedon’s genius, it’s still worth it to have cancelled Joss Whedon. If what Carpenter is saying is accurate, and keep in mind that she has the support of many of her cast-mates, Whedon is someone you don’t want on a film set because he’s making the lives of the people who work for him miserable, and in Carpenter’s case traumatizing her in ways that still linger nearly two decades later. As much as I might love the man’s work, and as important as TV is to me, I begrudgingly admit that real life is more important. At the end of the day, we have to prize the welfare of actual human beings over fake ones.

It also matters that someone like Whedon can absorb this and move on with his life, or at least that he has the means to try. This goes back to what I said up top about the value of cancellation depending on the cancellation. Joss Whedon is a very rich, successful man with the means to support himself and his family for the rest of his life. He can afford to never produce a glossy HBO show. Having money and power doesn’t automatically make you happy, of course, but at least he has options. The calculus might be different if the person being cancelled had no means or institutional power. It’s one factor of many; like I said, it always depends.

So Joss Whedon (can be) fine. The people who enjoyed his work will be fine. Some of them will take his ideas, shed the parts that are outmoded, and build upon them to make a new generation of great art. And who knows? Maybe some of them will be cancelled in turn, and the cycle will continue until we get it right…enough.