Joss Whedon once commanded immense respect across the media industry. The man behind television megaliths such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly — not to mention the director of the first two Avengers movies — could do no wrong, and his strong and identifiable female characters such as Buffy Summers won plaudits far and wide.
And yet, there were rumors. Talk of Whedon’s on-set behavior has been an open secret in fan circles for some time, and new revelations from the Buffy and Angel cast and crew have now further exposed the toxicity behind the genius.
An investigation by Variety has revealed the extent of the bullying and cliquey high-school atmosphere on the set of Buffy and Angel, with the magazine interviewing 11 individuals who worked on these shows. While none disputed Whedon’s talent, they accused him of creating a “cult of personality” around himself and favoring those who offered him praise and attention. Conversely, those who were out of favor would be faced with “scorn, derision, and callousness.”
Interviewees revealed the young Whedon was unprepared for the leadership role he was put into, with the popularity of Buffy ensuring that oversight was kept to a minimum. With Buffy filmed at remote sound stages in Santa Monica, few studio executives were likely to have the time or inclination to travel to observe filming.
Ray Fisher’s allegations against Joss Whedon emboldened others to come forward
The article highlights how Whedon’s multiple affairs with co-workers during his time on Buffy caused consternation on set, blurring the distinction between the cast and crew’s personal and professional lives. In 2017, Whedon’s ex-wife, Kai Cole, wrote that Whedon had admitted to the affairs and indicated he could not control himself, telling her that, “It felt like I had a disease, like something from a Greek myth. Suddenly I am a powerful producer, and the world is laid out at my feet, and I can’t touch it.”
In July of last year, actor Ray Fisher publicly accused Whedon of “gross, abusive, unprofessional, and completely unacceptable” conduct during his time working on Justice League. Warner Bros. opened an investigation the following month. The statement would break the dam, with Fisher backed by other Justice League cast members like Game of Thrones veteran Jason Momoa.
Soon enough, claims about Whedon’s behavior on the set of Buffy began to surface.
Jeff Pruitt and Sophia Crawford worked together as part of the Buffy stunt team. Speaking to Metro, the pair alleged that Whedon demanded they end their budding relationship if they wished to keep working on the show. When they decided to leave, a threatening Whedon told the couple that “no one will ever hire you again,” with Pruitt describing him as an “egomaniac.”
Two days later, James Marsters — who played punk rock vampire Spike, a very popular character — shared his Whedon horror story while speaking on the Inside of You with Michael Rosenbaum podcast. “I remember he backed me up against a wall one day, and he was just like, ‘I don’t care how popular you are, kid, you’re dead. You hear me? Dead. Dead!’ And I was just like, ‘Uh, you know, it’s your football, man. OK.'”
However, the most damaging allegations undoubtedly came from Charisma Carpenter, who played Cordelia Chase in both Buffy and Angel. Carpenter originally auditioned for the role of Buffy. That part went to Sarah Michelle Gellar, but the studio liked Carpenter and offered her the role of Cordelia, which reportedly infuriated Whedon, who had a vendetta against her since day one.
In February, the actress discussed Whedon’s abusive behavior on the sets of both shows, which she says resulted in mental and physical issues that she continued to suffer from long after her involvement with Whedon was over. Whedon would constantly threaten to fire Carpenter and would make “mean,” “biting,” and “disparaging,” remarks, including calling her “fat” to colleagues during her pregnancy. Indeed, the showrunner seemed to have a real problem with Carpenter’s pregnancy, and the actress said she believed that Cordelia was written out of the show because of it. She recalled a closed-door meeting where Whedon asked “if [she] was going to keep it.” In her words, Whedon “manipulatively weaponized my womanhood and faith against me.”
Apparently Whedon has a history of disparaging pregnant women, with Sabrina the Teenage Witch creator Nell Scovell saying that he called her “fat” in a passage from her autobiography. While Scovell says she took the comment in good humor, in context, it seems to be part of a pattern.
Following the allegations by Carpenter, Buffy herself, Sarah Michelle Geller, lent her support to her former costar, saying she didn’t want “to be forever associated with the name Joss Whedon,” and adding that she “stand[s] with all survivors of abuse and [is] proud of them for speaking out.”
Whedon has made no comment during this, but if he was hoping the allegations would go away, he was mistaken. Firefly writer Jose Molina, for example, described his former boss as “casually cruel” on Twitter, saying that, “He thought being mean was funny. Making female writers cry during a notes session was especially hysterical. He actually liked to boast about the time he made one writer cry twice in one meeting.”
Tara Maclay actress Amber Benson called Buffy “a toxic environment” as she offered her support to Carpenter. Michelle Trachtenberg, who played Buffy’s sister Dawn Summers, accused Whedon of “not appropriate behavior” during her own time on the show, which she joined when she was 15 years old. She revealed that Whedon wasn’t allowed to be alone in a room with her while she was working on the series.
Further support would come from Emma Caulfield, Eliza Dushku, David Boreanaz, Amy Acker, and Anthony Stewart-Head, who played Buffy’s mentor Giles. Speaking with the UK’s daytime chat-show This Morning, Head was distraught that he hadn’t been able to take action while the abuse was going on, saying he had “been up most of the night just running through my memories, thinking, ‘What did I miss?'”
The solidarity of the main cast would be near complete when Nicholas Brendon, who played Buffy’s best friend Xander Harris, added his voice. In a Facebook Live video, the actor said that he, too, had been on the receiving end of “transgressions” from the showrunner. Brendon acknowledged that he had enjoyed a positive relationship with Whedon while noting “that’s not everybody” and hoping that “growth comes, and healing, and him being a better person.”
Given the widespread nature of the allegations against Whedon, it seems incredible that he was allowed to get away with his toxic behavior for so long. However, the recent Variety investigation revealed that nothing was ever reported to 20th Century Fox or The WB despite displeasure on-set. With the cast of the show being mostly young actors in their first major jobs, most would undoubtedly have been frightened for their future in the industry, with Whedon noted to have threatened Jeff Pruitt and Sophia Crawford with blacklisting, as previously mentioned. It also seems no coincidence that Whedon seemingly didn’t dare carry out his behavior around more experienced actors such as Anthony Stewart-Head.
The cascade of accusations against Joss Whedon leaves very little room for him to maneuver. He was once heralded as a shining example of progressive attitudes in television, but that now seems more like a cover for him to engage in some of abusive practices he derided. It seems doubtful he’ll work in the industry again.