If you felt a disturbance in the Nerd Internet Force (yes, that’s a thing, shut up) a couple of days ago, it’s because one of the titans of geekdom bowed out of a popular social media platform, involuntarily causing a bit of a storm. On Monday, Joss Whedon — writer and director of current number one movie in the world Avengers: Age of Ultron — deleted his Twitter account without explanation.
Whedon’s departure from the Kingdom of Hashtags ignited an immediate wave of theorizing over exactly why he quit, and more than a few people, including fellow nerd celebrities Patton Oswalt and James Gunn, concluded that it might have been due to the many fans who used Twitter to shout at Whedon over his work, particularly his recent depiction of characters like Black Widow in Age of Ultron. Screencaps like this one, featuring Whedon’s final tweet surrounded by a cloud of hateful messages, started making the rounds…
I imagine several major talents go through this. pic.twitter.com/iMLJMVLeRX— rockie juarez (@RockieWarAntz) May 4, 2015
…and as a result the “Whedon Was Scared Off By Trolls” theory took on more weight, and an added dimension: What if he was scared off by angry feminists who thought Age of Ultron and its depiction of Black Widow (for a good summation of that, read this piece at io9) just weren’t progressive enough? What if it was the ugly spectre of “liberal outrage culture” that drove the outspokenly progressive Whedon from public life? What if we (I say “we” because I am indeed a feminist, as well as a Joss Whedon fan) ate our own?
Well, before we go any further, here’s Whedon himself telling BuzzFeed that it definitely wasn’t that:
“That is horseshit,” Whedon said. “Believe me, I have been attacked by militant feminists since I got on Twitter. That’s something I’m used to. Every breed of feminism is attacking every other breed, and every subsection of liberalism is always busy attacking another subsection of liberalism, because god forbid they should all band together and actually fight for the cause. “I saw a lot of people say, ‘Well, the social justice warriors destroyed one of their own!’ It’s like, Nope. That didn’t happen.”
So, while Whedon definitely agrees that progressives on Twitter can be quick to get into an echo-ey shouting match over their ideals, the flack he took for Black Widow and whatever else someone on the internet’s been mad about lately isn’t to blame for his Twitter departure. Now, we’ll talk about the real reason Whedon left in a moment, but before we do, I can sense some of you thinking “Why is this such a big deal? A famous dude quit Twitter. So what?!” These are reasonable questions, so here’s your answer.
In 1997, Whedon created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a WB series that was as much about fighting literal monsters as it was about fighting figurative, internal ones. It was unapologetic fantasy and horror storytelling, but for many fans of a certain age it was also their first exposure to honest portrayals of things like teen sex, healthy homosexual relationships, rape, and feminism. Whether he wanted it or not, this and future successes — like the short-lived but much-loved Firefly — put Whedon in a strange state of nerd canonization. He was one of us, but he was the one telling the stories we couldn’t. He had the power to change things in pop culture, and when he landed the Avengers gig way back when, plenty of fans were hoping he’d affect huge change there too.
In many ways, he has, but in other ways fans have been disappointed with the way Whedon’s handled things in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that kind of reached a fever pitch over the weekend when everyone saw Age of Ultron and its portrayal of Black Widow (among other things). Some fans were disappointed, and said so in a rather intelligent way. Some fans weren’t, and said so in an equally intelligent way. Some fans were disappointed and – because this is the internet, where there is no such thing as an overreaction – chose to go straight-up nuclear on Whedon for sins past and present (including, for instance, calling a Jurassic World clip sexist, then including a “Prima Nocte” joke in his own film). Hence, all the theorizing about how he was driven off Twitter.
But of course, Whedon’s already denied that’s the reason, so why did he really leave? Apparently, he just needed to get some work done, and Twitter isn’t exactly conducive to that.
“I just thought, ‘Wait a minute, if I’m going to start writing again, I have to go to the quiet place’,” he said. “And [Twitter] is the least quiet place I’ve ever been in my life. … It’s like taking the bar exam at Coachella. It’s like, 'Um, I really need to concentrate on this! Guys! Can you all just… I have to… It’s super important for my law!'”
So, Whedon’s leaving tweets behind for things like screenplays and teleplays and who knows what else, but he didn’t just leave the discussion of Twitter at that. He also noted that, while he gets his share of venom on Twitter (like most celebrities), there are other people who get much more, like feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency, who receives not just daily hatespeech, but often credible rape and death threats, on Twitter. This is a woman who gets an obscene amount of horror spewed at her every single day just for opening her mouth, and I want to highlight that just as much as Whedon, so I’ll let it be the last word.
“For someone like Anita Sarkeesian to stay on Twitter and fight back the trolls is a huge statement,” Whedon said. “It’s a statement of strength and empowerment and perseverance, and it’s to be lauded. For somebody like me to argue with a bunch of people who wanted Clint and Natasha to get together [in the second Avengers film], not so much. For someone like me even to argue about feminism — it’s not a huge win. Because ultimately I’m just a rich, straight, white guy. You don’t really change people’s minds through a tweet. You change it through your actions. The action of Anita being there and going through that and getting through that and women like her — that says a lot.”