Known for his work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Marvel’s The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, Joss Whedon was once celebrated for creating the feminist, Sarah Michelle Gellar–led hit series as well as his refreshing approach to male-dominated action and sci-fi entertainment. However, over the years, this mass appreciation has imploded with an increasing number of claims from actors and former co-workers detailing Whedon’s alleged on-set abuse dating back over 20 years, most recently with Buffy’s Charisma Carpenter speaking about the alleged bullying she endured on set while pregnant. Though new allegations have surfaced in the past few months (largely in the wake of coverage of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the director’s definitive take on 2017’s Justice League, which Whedon took over late into filming), this is not the first time Whedon has been under scrutiny for his behavior on set, or for some less-than-feminist writing for women in film and television. Vulture has compiled a complete rundown of all the controversies and allegations that have involved Whedon throughout his career.
2002: Season six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a doozy, often cited as fans’ least favorite. While showrunner Marti Noxon took on a lot of the blame for the season’s harrowing subject matter, Whedon’s influence is still present. Willow Rosenberg, played by Alyson Hannigan, becomes the big bad of the season after falling into the deep end of magic following the tragic death of her girlfriend, Tara (something Noxon later said she regretted). Not only does this play right into the “bury your gays” trope, but it also closely ties Willow’s interest in women and magic with her evil “Dark Willow” transformation.
The season really hinges on women gaining powers through trauma, and viewers see Buffy’s female characters continually suffer as they grow or regain said abilities. Former vengeance demon Anya returns to her ways after being left at the altar by one of Buffy’s best friends, Xander Harris. After Buffy is brought back to life (and back to the brutality of her slayer duties), we see her put through the wringer in new and increasingly uncomfortable ways. Her nihilism and trauma, rooted in being ripped from a heavenly dimension by her well-meaning friends, lead to a lot of emotional destruction and hate-sex with vampire Spike, all of which culminates in a chilling rape scene. Here, the woman who has conquered all and saved the world many times over becomes the victim of sexual assault. From Spike to Xander to the Trio, the women of Buffy are yanked around and consistently deemed out of control emotionally by their male counterparts. Noxon has since admitted, “There were parts of season six where I feel we went too far. We pushed into some categories that almost felt sadistic and that Buffy was volunteering for things that were beyond just ‘bad choices’ and were almost irresponsible for the character.”
While Whedon received credit for the more lighthearted adventures in the season, such as the musical episode “Once More, With Feeling,” Noxon received most of the blame for the dramatic unfoldings in the season. In a 2018 interview with Vulture, she said, “With season six, there was this announcement that I was running the show and Joss was going to take a back seat, but in reality, anybody who knows Joss knows that his idea of taking a back seat is not every single thing, you know?” Even though Whedon was busy working on Angel and Firefly when filming season six, he stressed his continued control over the show, writing to fans on the now-defunct the Bronze discussion board in 2002, “Say not that I’m not into it, Marti’s not getting it done, anything of that sort … Fact is, I’m in this show up to my neck always. Same With Angel and yup, Firefly too … Marti (She of the great brain and great beauty) and I shaped this year very carefully, and while we made mistakes (as we do every year), we made our show. We explored what we wanted to, said what we meant. You don’t have to like it, but don’t think it comes from neglect.”
September 2002: Firefly has remained a beloved favorite of Whedon’s television writing over the years; to this day, many viewers hold the single-season sci-fi Western near and dear to their hearts. However, as short as it was, Whedon managed to squeeze in the same sexist tropes that got him into hot water with Buffy, primarily: giving women their power through trauma. River Tam, played by Summer Glau, was a young runaway born with genius intellect who throughout the season is treated like a pseudo-child after brutal government experiments leave her traumatized and with erratic psychic powers. While she’s a beloved character, it’s hard to ignore how much she is infantilized and still placed under men’s control despite her abilities.
2003: Around the same time that season six of Buffy aired, the exit of high-school mean girl turned heroine Cordelia Chase, played by Charisma Carpenter, from Angel drew widespread dismay from fans. After falling in love with Angel over the course of the show, Cordelia then chooses to pursue Angel’s son, Connor, who, through different dimensions, went from a newborn to an adult over the course of a single season. It was … confusing, to say the least.
Years later, Carpenter expressed her confusion at the “weird” love interest with Connor at Dragon Con in 2009. “I think Joss was really, honestly mad,” she said of her character’s end. “He was really mad at me.” Omitting any further details at the time, she discussed their dynamic and the conflict that arose when she became pregnant in real life and how impending motherhood did not align with the director’s vision for her or her character. She went on to say that she was not aware that she wouldn’t be invited back for the fifth season of Angel and “found out in a really horrible way” — not through anyone in production but through the press. When asked to return for the 100th episode, Carpenter requested that Cordelia not die, something she says everyone agreed to, only to have production later backpedal and kill off Cordelia anyway.
While Noxon held a stronger writing hand as producer in season six of Buffy, Whedon was at the helm of Angel throughout the entire series with his co-creator, David Greenwalt. Many fans were disappointed and outraged with Cordelia’s final arc, which made her a manipulative pseudo-villain, undoing the character development she achieved over the course of Buffy and Angel. Then, in one of the show’s most heinous twists, she is impregnated by the dark entity Jasmine, enters a coma while giving birth, and later dies offscreen in the hospital. Cordelia was actually only one of three women on Angel to die during childbirth, joining Julie Benz’s Darla and Amy Acker’s Fred, who also became involuntarily impregnated by a mystical villain. It became a theme throughout the series that while male characters grow through each birth, women lose their agency and their lives, paying the final price for their birth. While myriad writers and directors have their own influence on the series, Whedon’s production company, Mutant Enemy, wrote all of the scripts for Angel as well as Buffy, with Whedon credited as a writer on every single episode.
February 2009: Whedon’s next television creation, Dollhouse (which starred Buffy’s Eliza Dushku), stirred up controversy from the get-go. The premise centers on a group of young, attractive people called “dolls” who sell themselves to a secret agency that wipes their memories and lends them to the rich for a variety of reasons, including assassination and sex. If this makes your stomach churn at the thought of women losing agency and being sent off to have sex with unknown people, you’re not alone. Whedon even admitted in a Q&A at the show’s end that it was not his intention to tell a story that brushed up against trafficking, but he conceded that he could see how people made that connection. Fox pulled back from the series and called it quits after two seasons, unwilling to continue supporting the central idea that Dollhouse’s characters were programmed to love and have sex with strangers for money; no amount of complex writing could reframe that core problem.
2015: Whedon took another hit to his reputation with his misogynistic take on Black Widow’s story line in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Throughout the film, Black Widow is flattened to being a sexy caretaker for Bruce Banner, and in a pivotal scene with him, she equates her inability to have children with being a monster. Shortly after, Whedon left Twitter, which many thought was because of the criticism he was receiving from feminists. However, he told BuzzFeed that this was “horseshit” and that “militant feminists” have always been after him. He went on to say, “Every breed of feminism is attacking every other breed … because god forbid they should all band together and actually fight for the cause.”
June 2017: Whedon received lots of backlash after his scrapped 2006 Wonder Woman script was leaked in 2017 for all of the internet to see. In it, sexism reigns as Diana is reduced to a hollowed-out version of herself who mostly uses her “curvaceous” and oversexualized body to save the world. Over and over again, he wanted you to know that Wonder Woman was strong but also extremely sexy. Whedon stood by the script, later telling Variety, “I don’t know which parts people didn’t like, but I went and reread the script after I heard there was a backlash. I think it’s great.”
November 2017: Whedon’s ex-wife, Kai Cole, wrote a guest blog for the Wrap titled “Joss Whedon Is a ‘Hypocrite Preaching Feminist Ideals.’” In it, she detailed the “secret affairs” her then-husband had on the set of Buffy. Fifteen years later, Cole says her ex-husband wrote to her, saying, “When I was running Buffy, I was surrounded by beautiful, needy, aggressive young women. 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.” She also claimed that he confessed to hiding numerous affairs, both physical and emotional, with some of his actresses, co-workers, fans, and friends after the initial affairs he’d had on Buffy. Whedon’s representative responded to his ex-wife’s piece, pointing out that it “includes inaccuracies and misrepresentations,” but Whedon would not speak out against it directly, “out of concern for his children and out of respect for his ex-wife.”
July 2020: James Marsters, who played the fan-favorite villain turned hero vampire Spike, shared that Whedon once backed him into a wall, disparaging him for his character’s unforeseen popularity in the series. Marsters appeared on the Inside of You podcast with Michael Rosenbaum and said, “I came along, and I wasn’t designed to be a romantic character, but then the audience reacted that way to it. And 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. Okay.’” Bleached-blond rebel Spike entered Buffy in season two and became a mainstay through the end of the series, with an off-and-on relationship with Buffy. Marsters elaborated that it was never Whedon’s intention for Spike to become a beloved character, wanting him to be a short-term villain, but even after embracing his character, he never apologized for the outburst.
July 1, 2020: Ray Fisher, best known for playing Cyborg in Justice League and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, shared a clip of him once calling Whedon a “great guy,” saying, “I’d like to take a moment to forcefully retract every bit of this statement.” A few days later, he followed it up with tweets alleging Whedon’s abusive behavior toward all of the cast and crew on the set of Justice League.
July 12, 2020: Whedon’s reported abuse was not limited to those onscreen but to employees behind the scenes as well. Sophia Crawford, who worked as Gellar’s stunt double for the first four seasons of Buffy, told Metro last year that she left the show after Whedon gave her the ultimatum to either end her relationship with stunt coordinator Josh Pruitt or leave the series. Pruitt called Whedon an “egomaniac,” who told the couple that “no one will ever hire you again after this.”
January 2021: Fisher announced in a lengthy Twitter post that he would not be returning as Cyborg in the upcoming The Flash film and that he would never work with DC Films president Walter Hamada, calling him “the most dangerous kind of enabler.” In his original tweet about Whedon, Fisher also called Geoff Johns and Jon Berg enablers of the director’s behavior. Whedon has not made any public statements concerning Fisher’s claims.
February 10, 2021: Earlier this year, Carpenter came forward to speak about the trauma she says she endured on the set of Buffy at the hands of Whedon. She tweeted a statement that detailed his history of being “casually cruel.” Carpenter said that Whedon made “ongoing, passive aggressive threats” to fire her and called her “fat” in front of her colleagues when she was four months pregnant. Whedon also once asked her if she was going to “keep it,” referring to her pregnancy. Carpenter played Cordelia Chase, the most popular girl at Sunnydale High who, after gaining skills to combat the underworld in Buffy, moved on to become a main character in Angel with co-star David Boreanaz.
Buffy co-stars quickly stepped up to support Carpenter, including Boreanaz, Dushku, and Gellar, who said that even though she is “proud to have her name associated with Buffy Summers, I don’t want to be forever associated with the name Joss Whedon.” Amber Benson, who played the lesbian witch who made television history, Tara Maclay, backed Carpenter’s claims, tweeting, “Buffy was a toxic environment and it starts at the top. @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.”
On the same day, Michelle Trachtenberg, who played Buffy’s little sister and magical-universe-opening key Dawn Summers, also came forward and said that Whedon was not allowed in a room with her alone while shooting the series. She reposted Gellar’s Instagram post, sharing in the caption, “Because. This must. Be known. As a teenager. With his not appropriate behavior….very. Not. Appropriate. The last. Comment I will make on this. Was. There was a rule. Saying. He’s not allowed in a room alone with Michelle again.” Trachtenberg, now 35, entered the series at 14, where she played the typical thorn-in-side sister to Buffy.
February 12, 2021: In support of Carpenter, Firefly writer Jose Molina corroborated Benson’s claims that Buffy was a “toxic environment.” He tweeted, “‘Casually cruel’ is a perfect way of describing Joss. 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.”
Whedon has not responded to any of the Buffy cast’s claims.