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As Joss Whedon and Others Are Confronted By Their Treatment Of Women, Fandom Is Evolving to Listen

Whedonesque goes dark, Tig Notaro takes on Louis C.K., and the beloved Cinefamily is under fire. How fan culture feeds bad behavior — and has the power to starve it.

Joss Whedon, Louis C.K. and Hadrian Belove

Joss Whedon, Louis C.K. and Hadrian Belove

Shutterstock/Shutterstock/Daniel Bergeron

As stories of sexual abuse and assault by well-known men grow more commonplace, a refrain has emerged, one that might sound like a plea: Listen to women. Believe women. Even when they speak out against someone that might be considered a genius or hero, don’t ignore their stories.

This week, “listen to women” became a roar. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon’s ex-wife Kai Cole wrote frankly from her perspective about Whedon being a “fake feminist” and the years he allegedly spent cheating on her. Tig Notaro, in promoting the new season of her Amazon series “One Mississippi,” spoke out regarding sexual harrassment allegations made against Louis C.K.,who also serves as the show’s executive producer.

And after an anonymous letter went to hundreds of people in the indie film industry, accusing those who run Los Angeles-based nonprofit film society Cinefamily of enabling an atmosphere of abuse and suppressing reports of assault, executive director Hadrian Belove and board vice president Shadie Elnashai resigned.

Like so many of these sorts of stories, even when there are specific details there’s a lack of hard truths. This isn’t a matter of he said/she said; the words have been spoken, and there’s no taking them back. But then comes the question of why things went so long, why so often it takes years for the truth of a situation to become known.

Since the glory days of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Joss Whedon was never “just” a showrunner. He infused his work with a personal flair that made fans feel like they knew him, creating a literal cult of personality that kept audiences following him from project to project. To enjoy Joss Whedon’s work wasn’t a matter of liking one of his TV shows; it meant engaging with a whole ethos, drifting into a world of great dialogue, quirky characters, and great storytelling that invoked metaphor.

As sins go, cheating on your wife is reprehensible but it’s not the more serious allegation. Cole quotes her ex-husband as saying that his affairs were with “‘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.’ But he did touch it…”

That’s a direct contradiction to the Whedon mystique. Even when he directed billion-dollar blockbusters, he was known as a fellow nerd, a status that conferred the respect of the underdog. (There’s a memorable line in the Season 7 premiere of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” as Buffy trains her little sister to fight the forces of darkness: “It’s about power – who’s got it, who knows how to use it.”)

After the publication of Cole’s post, there was an immediate effect upon the Whedon fandom. As of this week, the 15-year-old fan site Whedonesque is shutting down — not specifically as a response to Cole’s post. Site founder Caroline, in comments posted on the site’s final post, mentioned a number of reasons for cutting bait. She also suggested that fans wishing to remember the site donate to organizations which treat complex post-traumatic stress disorder. (In Cole’s post, she said she suffers from that condition.)

While Whedonesque had no official connection to Whedon’s shows, it also covered programs created by those who worked in Whedon’s orbit like producer Marti Noxon (“UnREAL,” “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce”) and David Fury (“The Tick”).

Louis C.K. also has a comedy auteur’s reputation, one he’s used to support other comedians — including Notaro, whose legendary 2012 stand-up show at the Largo, “Live,” was first released through his independent label. For years, C.K. has also been at the center of rumors regarding “sexual misconduct,” which Notaro told the Daily Beast he needed to handle. “I think it’s important to take care of that, to handle that, because it’s serious to be assaulted,” Notaro says. “It’s serious to be harassed. It’s serious, it’s serious, it’s serious.”

Season 2 of “One Mississippi,” which premieres on Amazon this September, reportedly includes a scene that echoes past allegations made against C.K. — though it more generally seems to represent a pattern of sexual harassment that women far too often explain away.

“And that’s what we want to do with this show,” Notaro said to the Daily Beast. “We of course want to create comedy, but we also really, really feel like we have the opportunity to do something with ‘One Mississippi,’ because it does not stop. I walk around doing shows at comedy clubs and you just hear from people left and right of what some big-shot comedian or person has done. People just excuse it.”

It’s a story that echoes Bill Cosby’s; the first substantial reports of his now well-documented history of drugging and assaulting women stretches back more than a decade. “Dr. Huxtable & Mr. Hyde,” a substantial Philadelphia magazine profile by Robert Huber on the subject, was published in 2006. No one wanted to believe a beloved comedy figure like Cosby could be capable of those actions, and the truth was eventually revealed to be far beyond what we understood.

Meanwhile, the fans who loved attending Cinefamily screenings at the Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles have to contend with the fact that an institution built around a love of film had some dark shadows behind the scenes. On August 22, the Cinefamily board asked for, and accepted, the resignations of executive director Hadrian Belove and board vice president Shadie Elnashai after an anonymous email accused Belove of sexual harassment, and Elnashai of rape. As one former Cinefamily employee told IndieWire August 23, “I never let myself be alone in a room with Shadie or Hadrian. They were those kind of people at Cinefamily.”

No matter the source, fandom is a cultural experience built on love. It represents people coming together to create a community around common interests; it can create something truly special and powerful.

However, the cultural experience can also take on more cult-like aspects — and the resulting power imbalances can enable the worst behavior. But with each unpleasant story, a new fandom is emerging: That of women no longer being willing to be silent about the way they’ve been treated, who love themselves and each other enough to stand up and say so.

Dana Harris contributed to this report.

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