I abandoned working on the piece in 2018 because it did not fit in Organizational Communication Approaches to the Works of Joss Whedon, the book I was writing which was about narratives inside Whedon's 'verses.
I wrote this before the revelations by Ray Fisher and the DCEU, Charisma Carpenter, and Michelle Trachtenberg.
I put this here now because I know many people are trying to make sense of Whedon, and how they should feel about the Universes he helped to create. It is part autoethnography and part Weickian sensemaking.
After all, the things we care about are the things we want to make sense of.
An Autoethnography of Sensemaking about Joss Whedon
Joss Whedon's works are popular. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the most studied television program in history. Scholars recognized Buffy was a new type of television series, and Buffy Summers was a new type character. She's been called third wave feminism's final girl, the ultimate girl-ultimate hero, the transgressive woman warrior, a feminist role model, and more. However, how are we to feel about Whedon and his works after the revelation of his affairs while he was married? Using the concepts of organizing and sensemaking, I examine the various ways by which people are making sense of these revelations. I follow my own path of sensemaking within the discourses of the #metoo movement. As such, this is partly autoethnographic and personal in tone and ponders Whedon's future as a new Buffy is being conceived, and his show The Nevers is set to premiere on HBO.
Can Fandom Survive?: An Autoethnography of Sensemaking about Joss Whedon
Joss Whedon’s works are popular. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the most studied television program in history (Lametti, Harris, Geiling, & Matthews-Ramo, 2012). Scholars recognized Buffy was a new type of television series, and Buffy Summers was a new type character. She’s been called third wave feminism’s final girl, the ultimate girl-ultimate hero, the transgressive woman warrior, a feminist role model, and more (Buttsworth, 2002; Early, 2001; Karras, 2002; Symonds, 2004). Scholars examining the series have looked at gender, power, identity, music, post-colonialism, and a multitude of other topics (Alessio, 2001; Herrmann, 2013; Herrmann & Herbig, 2015; Wilcox, Cochran, Masson, & Lavery, 2014).
However, how are we to feel about Whedon himself and his works after the revelation of his affairs while he was married (Cole, 2017)? Using the concepts of organizing and sensemaking as outlined by Weick and others, I examine the various ways by which people made sense (and are still making sense) of these revelations. By looking at reactions from articles from various media outlets, I follow my own path of sensemaking within the discourses of the #metoo movement. As such, this is partly autoethnographic and personal in tone and ponders Whedon’s future as a new Buffy is being conceived, and his show The Nevers is set to premiere on HBO.
* * *
Confession: I don’t want to write this. I don’t want to believe the accusations by Kai Cole (2017) that Whedon had numerous affairs while they were married. As someone who considers myself a progressive and as a fan of Whedon and his work, I’m struggling to parse out the person from his products, his statements from his actions, and his rhetoric from his deeds. Emotionally therefore, I am in a liminal space, a space of ambiguity and equivocality. However, as much as I do not want to write this chapter, I cannot not write it either, because this book is about Whedon, communication, and organizing. As such, the following uses Weick’s (1995, 2001) concept of sensemaking to examine how individuals are attempting to make sense of these revelations. One of those individuals is me, so this chapter will also be autoethnographic in nature written as a layered account (Ronai, 1995). Before turning to the narrative proper, however, a quick review of what an autoethnographic approach entails follows.
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Essentially, an autoethnographic approach to research begins with an individual researcher, who interrogates larger social contexts, their positionality within those contexts, while also scrutinizing their ‘self’ (Ellis, Adams & Bochner, 2011; Herrmann, 2017b; Holman Jones, Adams & Ellis, 2013). According to Ellis, Adams, and Bochner (2011), “Autoethnography is an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno)” (para. 1). Autoethnography and narrative inquiry allow us to examine, as Krizek (2003) notes, “the most compelling and meaningful experiences of our lives” (p. 148). The positionality of this first-person perspective establishes autoethnography as emotion laden, evocative, intensely personal and just as existential than academic (Bochner, 2014).
However, although autoethnographies are personal, they are also social and political (Boylorn & Orbe, 2014). Autoethnography involves pursuing justice – gender justice, economic justice, social justice, etc. – by reexamining hegemonic discourses, taken-for-granted cultural interpretations, and grand narratives. As Holman Jones, Adams, and Ellis (2013) noted, “autoethnographers intentionally highlight the relationship of their experiences and stories to culture and cultural practices...” (p. 22). Moreover, a layered account approach to writing autoethnography separates the academic voice from the personal voice, making them distinct (Ronai, 1995). As Allen-Collinson (2013) wrote, “At the heart of autoethnography, for me, is that ever shifting focus between levels: from the macro, wide sociological angle on socio-cultural frame-work, to the micro, zoom focus on the embedded self” (p. 296). Using the personal to interrogate the cultural and vice versa distinguishes autoethnography and other forms of self-writing.
* * *
To use current vernacular – because the terms we use matter greatly – “I am a cisgendered heterosexual male who uses the pronouns he/him/his.” I haven’t always been a feminist. I grew up in a religiously conservative evangelical church, with its weird eschatology, gender trappings, its concepts of purity and virginity, and the strict gender roles those religious discourses reinforce (Moslener, 2012). Eventually, I grew up and dropped the conservative religious beliefs, and started making retrospective sense of my childhood. Most of that sensemaking had to do with my parent’s divorce and watching my mother work, go to school, while raising three sons on her own. Cultural, political, and religious narratives in the United States say single mothers are irresponsible, uncaring, pathetic, and on welfare (Ladd-Taylor & Umansky, 1998). Mom, like so many other mothers without partners, was in many ways the anti-thesis of this. She was, and still, is my hero. So yes, now I am a feminist and an LGBTQ ally, although like with many ExVangelicals, for a long time I found that the struggle was real (Posner, 2017). However, since some of my family is religiously conservative, and the fact that I live in the South, these positions on occasion put me in the position of being called a gender traitor (Baglia, 2005).
* * *
Hashtag feminism has a long history, when one thinks in terms of the short history of Web 2.0. Historically speaking, Web 2.0. started around the turn of the millenium. One of the original hashtags now considered hashtag feminism was #Fem2, used in 2008 to start a discussion about the future of feminism (Conley, 2013). Two years later #MooreAndMe was used to confront the sexism of progressive filmmaker Micheal Moore (Adams, 2010). Then presidential candidate Mitt Romney told the world that he had “binders full of women” and #bindersfullofwomen began a conversation about the sexism in the workplace (Petrecca, 2012). In 2012, Janet Mock created #GirlsLikeUs to raise awareness specifically related to issues that trans women face (Jackson, Bailey & Foucault Welles, 2018).
In 2013, intersectionality and feminism came to the forefront with #BlackGirlMagic, #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, and #NotYourAsianSideKick. From #YesAllWomen, to #EverydaySexism, to #AllMenCan and #NotBuyingIt, hashtag feminism became a lively place of important conversations, social activism, and online organizing (Stern & Catalfamo, 2016; Stern & Henderson, 2015). With that, of course, came the usual vitriol, mysogyny, and trolling (Stern & Catalfamo, 2016). Hashtag feminism was engaged on the battlefield, and prepared for what was to come. That “what” was #MeToo.
Tarana Burke, the women’s rights activists, began using the phrase “Me Too” in 2006 to help women, particularly minority women, who were sexually assaulted (Ohlheiser, 2017). Unfortunately, as often happens in our country with its systemic racism and sexism, the movement was ignored by the mainstram until white people got involved and made it popular. In October 2017, the #MeToo hashtag began trending. It drew widespread attention, when actress and activist Alyssa Milano used it to bring attention to the sexual assault allegations against media mogul Harvey Weinstein (D’Zurilla, 2017). #MeToo ignited public opinion and media attention.
* * *
I’m following #MeToo with abandon. One reason for my passion for this hashtag and similar ones is because of what happened to my mom. She was not sexually assaulted, but she was assaulted and battered. In 1980, my brothers and I were in Florida visiting my father for the summer, when the phone call came. It was my mother’s boyfriend.
“Andy. Um, something happened to your mom.”
“Oh God. What?”
“Well, we got into a fight and she got hurt.”
I say nothing.
“I have one question. Were you drinking?”
“That’s all I need to know.” Cold as steel. “You’re lucky I’m 13 and a thousand miles away. But you better watch your back you rat fuck.”
I hang up. I call home. I get the disconnected message. Thinking I misdialed, I call again. Disconnected. I call Nanny. No answer. The following day, still nothing. On the fourth day, I finally get through. Asshole knocked out one of Mom’s teeth and bloodied her up badly. Over the previous three days, Mom was in the hospital, with the police, and in court getting a restraining order. A few years later, while I was still a minor, asshole paid for what he did. And although the statute of limitations is certainly up, I’m keeping those details to myself.
* * *
The list of women accusing Weinstein of everything from sexual harassment to rape continued to grow, including Ashely Judd, Rose McGowan, Salma Hayek, Annabella Sciorra, Mira Sorvino, Paz de la Huerta, Uma Thurman, Heather Graham, Rosanna Arquette and Gwyneth Paltrow. In sum almost 90 women come forward (Moniuszko & Kelly, 2017). The stories are all similar. To me there are simply too many commonalities for these to be random fictionalized stories.
* * *
I’m furious reading Asia Argento’s 2017 interview with Farrow (2017) detailing what happened to her when she was a young actress and how the assault by Weinstien still affects her. She’s been one of my favorite actresses since I first saw her in her father’s classic giallo horror movie Trauma (1993), at a midnight showing when I was living in New York. This was long before the popular XXX (2002). As I read her account, I have an epiphany. Argento put her attack on film in Scarlet Diva (2000). This changes the movie for me. I continue to read, and sure enough, she confirms it. With Argento’s help, #NoShameFist publishes an online document that lists Weinstein accusations going back to the 1970s (Levin, 2017). I’m all in. I get online and buy a #NoShameFist tee-shirt. “Give ‘em hell Asia.” If Weinstein were here right now...
* * *
However, #MeToo was never only about these women and this one powerful producer. The overdue reckoning had begun. As Farrow (2017) wrote, “The women and men who have broken their silence span all races, all income classes, all occupations and virtually all corners of the globe” (para 12). The unsubstantiated idea that this was a witch hunt against conservatives, turned out to be untrue. By the end of 2017 numerous actors, politicians, media personalities, and business persons of all political stripes stood accused, including: Aziz Ansari, Louis C.K., Al Franken, Matt Lauer, Roy Moore, Larry Nasser, Bill O’Reilly, Charlie Rose, Bryan Singer, Kevin Spacey, James Toback, and President Donald Trump. As of this writing, 263 powerful people have been accused (North, Grady, McGann, Romano, 2019).
* * *
I’m watching all of this. I’ve liked a number of these people and their work. Al Franken? FFS! Kevin Spacey? Well, shit. Charlie Rose? Really? Dammit! Mom and I started watching his PBS series on the reg when I was in high school. All this misogyny. All this structural sexism that has kept all these men in power for so many years. It’s depressing, but justice needs to be served. I believe the stories these women and men are telling. Then it happens. On August 20th, 2017, I read Kai Cole’s blog on The Wrap, accusing Joss of having multiple affairs.
* * *
Despite understanding, on some level, that what he was doing was wrong, he never conceded the hypocrisy of being out in the world preaching feminist ideals, while at the same time, taking away my right to make choices for my life and my body based on the truth. He deceived me for 15 years, so he could have everything he wanted. I believed, everyone believed, that he was one of the good guys, committed to fighting for women’s rights, committed to our marriage, and to the women he worked with. But I now see how he used his relationship with me as a shield, both during and after our marriage, so no one would question his relationships with other women or scrutinize his writing as anything other than feminist. (para. 8)
* * *
My mind screams. No. No! No, no, no, no, nooooooo!
* * *
I keep reading. At the bottom of the article it states, “A spokesperson for Joss Whedon provided the following response. ‘While this account includes inaccuracies and misrepresentations which can be harmful to their family, Joss is not commenting, out of concern for his children and out of respect for his ex-wife.’”
* * *
I do NOT want to believe this! In Buffy Summers, Whedon created one of the greatest television heroes of all time. This does not make any sense! Without Buffy, would there have been a Sookie, a Katniss, a Veronica, a Jessica, a Clarke, or yes, even a Bella (as anti-thesis)? And just a few months ago weren’t all were celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Buffy’s premiere and influence? As Bastien (2017) noted, “There have been many well-crafted lead female characters in genre fiction to debut in the 20 years since the show’s premiere, but none as expertly acted, beautifully layered, and memorable as Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (para, 16). Even during the cast reunion, Whedon was talking up his feminist bona fidas. “The most important thing to me is that I have had people come up to me and say the show made me feel different about what they could be, about what they could do, about how they respond to problems, about being a female leader” (as quoted in Stack, 2017, para, 8). He “endorsed” Mitt Romney for the zombie apocalypse, and recently directed a short in support of Planned Parenthood (Romano, 2017; Watercutter, 2012). Friends start texting me and putting links to Cole’s letter on my Facebook page. Oh hell. I can’t be the only one who needs to make sense of this, to organize this information.
* * *
Karl Weick (1979) introduced organizing and sensemaking as a system of both individual and organizational behaviors. Sensemaking is accomplished through the reduction of message equivocality, that is, messages with too many possible meanings via communicative action. “Sensemaking is about the enlargement of small cues. It is a search for contexts within which small details fit together and make sense” (Weick, 1995, p. 133). Organizing is the sensemaking (making sense) of equivocal messages in the information environment. Weick’s model consists of three distinctive actions: enactment, selection, and retention.
Enactment begins with the bracketing of a message through which an individual assigns importance to the message. Accordingly, Weick (1979) wrote that enactment is a way to socially construct reality, stressing “reality is selectively perceived, rearranged cognitively, and negotiated interpersonally” (p. 164). Moreover, he noted “Enacted environments contain real objects such as reactors, pipes, and valves. The existence of these objects is not questioned, but their significance, meaning, and content is” (1998, p. 307). As Eisenberg (2006) succinctly put it, “Struggles over meaning invariably have implications for identity…It is no accident that Weick lists identity as the first property of sensemaking” (p. 1699, emphasis in the original). In other words, we enact information that matters to us, that has meaning to us, something that we care about personally.
* * *
As a fan and an academic who enjoys and studies the work of Whedon, I enact a lot of data from the information environment about him and his collaborators: interviews, news, where and when various actors might be attending fan conventions, Nicky Brandon’s “Kicking Depression in the Gutterballs” tour, upcoming movies and television shows written and directed by people who worked with Whedon, etc. So, when I come across Coles’ blog, I enacted it. It is in the realm of things I care about. And while I have enacted this equivocal information, it does fit with what I know, or at least what I think I know.
Don’t get me wrong. I completely understand the information contained within Cole’s blog. She is accusing her former husband of having multiple affairs while they were married. Moreover, he had these affairs despite the fact he was championing himself as a feminist. This makes him a hypocrite. That’s the information. However, given the way that Whedon portrays himself, has been portrayed in the media, and the way his works can be considered feminist, and how I feel about him and his work, this does not make sense to me.
* * *
Often sensemaking starts by communicating and ruminating with one’s self, as well as conversations with one’s self and self-talk (Brommel, 2017). As Weick (1995) pointed out, “there are too many meanings, not too few. The problem faced by the sensemaker is one of equivocality, not one of uncertainty. The problem is confusion, not ignorance” (p. 27). This sensemaking self-talk process begins almost immediately. I’m confused. I start running ideas through my mind.
* * *
“Sour grapes because she’s hurt? Is she angry that their marriage didn’t work out? If this is true, why didn’t she leave him after the first affair? I call bullshit.”
“Wait a damned minute Herrmann! Each of those reactions is sexist and misogynist. Each one goes against the #MeToo, #NoShameFist, #AllMenCan values you espouse. Moreover, you are victim-blaming too! The only difference here is this: you want to believe the accusations about Weinstien BUT you want to disbelieve the accusation about Whedon. That’s really effed up. Are you going to be for equality, for fairness, or are you going to be a hypocrite?”
I come to a few immediate conclusions. First, I am not going to shrug this off. Cole’s blog resonates with me. Cheating on a partner is a shitty move. Having been cheated on, I know that’s one of the worst situations one can be placed in, and comes with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness and self-blame. I believe her.
Secondly, cheating is not a crime. Cheating is not rape. Whedon is no Bill Cosby, who drugged women and raped them. Cheating is not child molestation, so Whedon is not in the same category as Larry Nasser, the scumbag who sexually assaulted underage gymnasts. Cheating is not sexual assault. Whedon certainly is not Weintein. Although infidelity is horrible for the cheated-on partner, it is not rare in our society, nor is it a crime. Of course, that doesn’t justify cheating either.
Third, scholars and acafans have pointed out many sketchy gender issues in Whedon’s work. Women in Whedon’s work are often punished through pregnancy, such as Cordelia (twice) and Darla (Calvert, 2014). (And I’ll add the pregnant-adjacent-with-Illyria Fred to this list.) Men who are gender coded as feminine – like Wash – are more likely to be “Jossed” (killed) or otherwise punished (Hahn, 2013). There is the Dollhouse as bordello dilemma. There is the Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanov scene in Ultron that received a lot of attention (Salter & Blodgett, 2017). “Nice guy” Xander is problematic in relationships with women (Hermann & Herbig, 2015; Simkin, 2004). There is Spike’s attempt to rape Buffy, a scene James Marsters called, “the hardest day of work in my life” (as quoted in Hinman, 2002, para 3). And finally, there’s the concept that if a woman (Buffy) gives a man (Angel) one moment of happiness, she gets punished. (As if an orgasm equates to happiness. That sounds something an immature 16-year-old boy might say.) There’s more, but this isn’t necessarily about scholarship. This is a bigger than our little academic world.
What’s the last thing I know? Joss Whedon did not deny he cheated.
* * *
According to Weick (1979), when an enacted message is equivocal individuals select communication cycles, which consist of act-response-adjustment communicative interactions. As he explained, “The unit of analysis in organizing is contingent response patterns, patterns in which an action by actor A evokes a specific response in actor B (so far this is an interact), which is then responded to by actor A (this complete sequence is a double interact)” (p. 89). The more equivocal the existing information is, the more people have to communicate to reduce that equivocality. In utilizing communication cycles, “It is people interacting to flesh out hunches. It is a continuous alteration between particulars and explanations, with each cycle giving added form and substance to the other” (Weick, 1995, p. 133).
* * *
As I’ve done before, I get online to assist with my sensemaking (Herrmann, 2007). Authors online are talking about Whedon’s three intertwined and inseparable betrayals: betrayal of his fans, his betrayal of his wife, and his betrayal of feminism. I wonder if Whedon has been gaslighting us about his feminism for twenty years. As Lancer (2018) noted, “Gaslighting can be very insidious the longer it occurs. Initially, you may not realize you’re being affected by it, but gradually you lose trust in your own instincts and perceptions.” Twitter is in full force. Female and male fans are pissed. As Morris (2017) rages, “Damn you for writing powerful fictional women while you treated actual women like crap. Damn you for betraying your wife while teaching us about courage and loyalty” (para, 2). There’s a lot of vitriol. “Did Joss Whedon genuinely want to tell stories about strong women, or did he just happen upon a gold mine that’ll also get him laid?” (Janke, 2017, para 3).
There’s also a lot of information and rumor out there. Even though it was planned ahead of time, the press connects the closing of the Whedonesque website with Cole’s revelations. People are digging up the deeply flawed draft of his Wonder Woman script. People are re-sharing that Charisma Carpenter thinks she was fired from Angel for getting pregnant. Laura Browning (2017) wrote, “Like many women I’ve spoken to, I was sad, but not shocked—maybe a little embarrassed I hadn’t looked more closely at some very clear problems in his work” (para, 1). There’s a lot of that. “What should happen to him socially and professionally is abandonment by fans who supported him for supporting women. What should happen is withdrawal of journalists’ coverage and activists’ approval that hinged on Whedon exemplifying feminist ideals” (Kane, 2017, para 12). People are disappointed. Hell, I’m disappointed.
* * *
Weick (1995) noted that narrative is an indispensable part of the sensemaking process, because “sensemaking is about authoring” (p. 7). Furthermore, data “are inconsequential until they are acted upon and then incorporated retrospectively into events, situations, and explanations” (Weick, 1998, p. 307). Information needs to be storied to make sense. It is during narrative sensemaking that individuals search for frameworks within which to fit diverse details together. Narratives are central to sensemaking because they increase comprehension, provide order and a timeline for experiences, help direct prospective action, and communicate shared values and meanings. Narratives depict multifaceted experiences “that combine sense, reason, emotion, and imagination. Narrative stirs all these elements together…” (Weick & Browning, 1986, p. 250).
People are trying to figure out the truth. That’s problematic, for “truth is not an appropriate criterion for evaluating life texts” (Tullis Owen, McRae, Adams & Vitale, 2009, p. 181), and Cole’s blog certainly falls under that umbrella. Truth in life texts cannot be objectively found. There is no necessary condition that one’s experience of the truth, and narrative of the truth is factually true (Bochner, 2014). Even individuals having the same experience together have different interpretations of it (Parry, 1991).
* * *
Is what someone does in their personal life anyone else’s business? Many people are saying since this is personal, it should not be in the public eye. Personal dirty laundry is simply that, personal. As I am making sense of all of this, I come across an article that reframes a lot of what I have been thinking about Cole, Whedon, and feminism. Landon (2017) stated:
Yes, cheating is a feminist issue, regardless of the gender identities of those involved. Because at its heart, it’s about consent. When someone consents to have sex, they likely set boundaries around that consent. Whether it’s condoms or birth control, these things are discussed because there are risks to having sex, whether it’s an unintended pregnancy or an STI. Consenting to sex with a condom is not the same as consenting to sex without a condom. (para, 4)
That’s what nails it for me, since I believe the personal is political. That’s one reason why I am an organizational autoethnographer. I don’t have “facts” per se. There’s been no corroborating evidence from any of the people he’s worked with. HOWEVER, as Weick, Sutcliff, and Obstfeld (2002) noted, “Sensemaking is not about truth and getting it right. Instead, it is about continued redrafting of an emerging story so that it becomes more comprehensive, incorporates more of the observed data, and is more resilient in the face of criticism” (p. 415).
So where does my sensemaking take me? Whedon broke his compact with his wife, with his fans, with his “feminism,” and with the people he worked with. He’s an ass.
Given that sensemaking has to do with my identity, how do I make sense of his works now? Some are saying they will never re-watch anything by Whedon again. I cannot say that. I love them. Moreover, this ignores and insults the other people involved. Sure, Whedon might be the “showrunner,” or the executive producer, or the writer, or the director. However, while the idea of an auteur showrunner is a great narrative, it is fallacious (Fehrman, 2013). Whedon’s ‘verses are also the creations of Gellar, Glau, Carpenter, Brendon, Dushku, Denisof, Owen, Noxon, Espensen, Jeanty, Landau, Fillion, Day, Goddard, Minear, Krantz, Johanson, Renner, Evans, and all the rest of the mass multitude of other actors, writers, producers, colorists, designers, inkers, musicians, editors, etc. involved in bringing these worlds to life. As Harrington (2017) reminded me:
To my fellow feminist geeks I say: do not regret the love you have for shows and movies that helped make you better people, even if their creator ultimately let you down. Don’t let this man’s bad behavior do even more damage by taking something you loved away from you, something that so many others helped create, and something that the fans have poured our heart and souls into for so many years. (para, 2)
Furthermore, as a scholar, never watching a Whedon production is irresponsible. Scholars are always revisiting old properties, and I am no exception. Whedon’s old series and movies remain rich and textured and problematic. There will always be more analysis to be done, and if I don’t watch, I can’t do them. This seems to be the right answer for me: to use what I know, to use my training to be more skeptical, to interrogate harder, to hold Whedon to account going forward. Maybe I’ll like the new things he and his teams create. And that’s cool. Maybe Joss will become the feminist we believed he was. That would be cooler. And finally, I hope that I can be a better ally.
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