Joss Whedon’s ex-wife, Kai Cole, wrote a gut-wrenching personal essay for the Wrap today, detailing the conflict between her former husband’s vocal support of feminism and what Cole sees as his contradictory personal choices—namely, the several affairs that he carried out in secret over the course of their 16-year marriage.
Whedon has been widely praised for his propensity for writing “strong women characters,” a particular plaudit that he’s enthusiastically embraced. But Cole sees the real Whedon somewhat differently, having not only been cheated on by him for years, but also serving as an unwitting tool to exculpate him from criticism that he was anything less than a model feminist ally.
Cole met Whedon in 1991, and the two fell in love and married four years later. Cole was a constant source of stability and advice over the course of Whedon’s career, beginning with convincing him to turn Buffy the Vampire Slayer into a TV show. Cole writes that,
There were times in our relationship that I was uncomfortable with the attention Joss paid other women. He always had a lot of female friends, but he told me it was because his mother raised him as a feminist, so he just liked women better. He said he admired and respected females, he didn’t lust after them. I believed him and trusted him. On the set of “Buffy,” Joss decided to have his first secret affair.
In the course of justifying his actions, Whedon told Cole that being surrounded by all those “beautiful, needy, aggressive young women” made him feel almost perversely powerful, “like something from a Greek myth.” The temptation was obviously too much for him, because he carried out several affairs over the coming years, apparently with little internal conflict. “I let myself love you. I stopped worrying about the contradiction,” he wrote to her as their marriage crumbled. “As a guilty man I knew the only way to hide was to act as though I were righteous. And as a husband, I wanted to be with you like we had been. I lived two lives.”
Cole goes on:
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.
Everyone knows monogamy is hard, especially in the strange, celluloid universe of filmmaking, where everyone is almost supernaturally attractive and, as Whedon put it, “needy and aggressive”—a characterization that neatly displaces blame to the women he worked with. Here’s the thing about monogamy, though: If you can’t do it, don’t fuckin’ sign up for it. Whedon may get lots of kudos for his portrayal of women in some of his films, but by lying to Cole, he trammeled directly on the rights of the first woman he should be concerned about: His wife.
Until recently, Joss was still letting the illusion of our marriage stay intact. Now that it is finally public, I want to let women know that he is not who he pretends to be. I want the people who worship him to know he is human, and the organizations giving him awards for his feminist work, to think twice in the future about honoring a man who does not practice what he preaches. But no matter what happens, or how people interpret this statement, I no longer have to carry the burden of Joss’ long-term deceit and confessions. I am free.
The post concludes with a tartly-worded riposte from Whedon’s camp, with a spokesperson writing: “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.” How very feminist of him.