Joss Whedon: Advocate for Equality

The following was written for an undergraduate course at the University of Kansas called “LGBT Perspectives.”

“Always be yourself, unless you suck.”

This quote illustrates the brash and empowering spirit of Joss Whedon. From the 1990s to today, Whedon has written, produced and directed multiple movies and television shows that include LGBTQ persons. The most notable examples are Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Dollhouse. Fans also know him for his creation of Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, which features an openly gay actor and encapsulates the LGBT themes of isolation and non-validity. Most recently, Whedon directed both The Avengers and Much Ado About Nothing. Suffice to say, he’s an awesomely varied man. His characters have been applauded for their complexity, his storylines noted for their poignant accessibility. In his life and work, Whedon promotes positive views of LGBTQ individuals by creating engaging characters and advocating for progressive change.

Whedon, born in the early 1960s, said that his gender studies education began at a young age under the influence of his mother, Lee Stearns (Whedonverse). Stearns raised him to be a radical feminist, which clearly shaped the portrayals of female and LGBTQ characters in his later work. Whedon has used both major and minor LGBTQ characters throughout his works to affirm the idea that – to put it plainly – people are not defined by their sexuality; worth is defined by humanity. For example, Inara Serra in his TV series Firefly is portrayed as bisexual. Because she is a companion – a kind of space-escort – her sexuality is identified, but she is not defined by it. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow Rosenberg begins as a lovable nerd and ends as a power-hungry super witch. She is in relationships with men when she is in high school and then with women in college. Whedon, however, does not associate her sexual orientation with her evil power. It is correlated, but not caused by her changing sexuality. Smaller characters in Buffy, like Jonathan in the seventh and final season, is suggested to be gay, but his behavior is not tied to how he identifies. Whedon also uses themes of isolation and loneliness throughout The Avengers, Buffy and Toy Story, for which he also wrote the screenplay.

Whedon’s own experiences amalgamated to his use of these accessible themes. “I’ve lived my life feeling alone. That’s just the way of it. I always did,” Whedon said in a 2003 interview. “I always felt different from the people around me. I’ve always felt that I was the outsider in every group I’ve ever been in” (Buttell).

From Malcolm Reynolds, the non-conformist space cowboy in Firefly, to Dollhouse’s Echo, a woman who is programmed with a temporary personality and skills, Whedon has also explored issues of validation in a society that does not recognize an individual or group’s value. Recently, Whedon directed a modernized version of Much Ado About Nothing. He is noted to have said that there are a number of homosexual themes throughout the play as well as in other Shakespearean works. “[P]art of why Shakespeare works now is that he’s so open to interpretation. It all comes from a time when men could talk about their feelings and love each other, which has sort of fallen out of the vernacular,” Whedon said in an interview with The Advocate’s Tom Lenk, another of Whedon’s favorite actors (Lenk). His commitment to showcasing positive images of LGBTQ people is clear in his work, and is further cemented through advocacy in his personal life.

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Whedon consistently chooses to work with many of the same actors, writers and crew – all people who have demonstrated support for progressive politics. In fact, the entire writer’s room of Buffy was recently highlighted in the NoH8 campaign, a non-profit “whose mission is to promote marriage, gender and human equality through education, advocacy, social media, and visual protest” (NoH8 Campaign). Whedon has always been clear that he is interested in writing an “out-and-proud” male character, and though he doesn’t always create shows with the intention of raising awareness, he is thankful that the LGBTQ community supports his work (On Top Magazine).

In addition, Whedon has used his celebrity influence in advocacy-related media as an actor. He appeared in a satirical advertisement mocking 2012-presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a proponent of anti-marriage equality legislation (Rosen). He has appeared in Buffy writer Jane Espenson’s web show Husbands, which features Brady, the first openly gay professional baseball player, who finds himself married to another man after a drunken night in Vegas (Zakarin). Whedon has continuously defended his friends and actors, Sean Maher and Neil Patrick Harris, who have “challenged the stereotypes about whether good actors can sell good characters no matter who they are in real life” (Rosenberg) (Nussbaum).

Joss Whedon’s commitment to uphold positive images of LGBTQ individuals, in his career and personal life, have profoundly affected this community. By providing complex characters and sustaining themes of isolation and loneliness, Whedon has crafted a world that helps people who identify in a variety of ways. He has created a place to find validity.

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