Charisma Carpenter is a great name.
In the late 1990s, in what was then called stuff akin to ‘the teen TV boom’, there were many sudden household names, generally the stars of the show or movie (with a subset of three named stars like Chad Michael Murray, Rachael Leigh Cook, and of course, Sarah Michelle Gellar).
But, despite her fantastic (and accurate, IMO) name, Charisma Carpenter didn’t ascend to a level of fame or recognition larger than the Buffy-verse, and the more I read and processed her statement yesterday about Joss Whedon’s abusive actions on the set, (primarily on Angel, but I’m sure there were copious moments on BtVS as well), the more I thought that was a glaring part of the problem.
At this point, most people who care know that Joss Whedon has had many vocal detractors, if you knew where to look. Most publicly and damningly, when he ‘stepped down’ from the HBO series The Nevers in November, citing, among other things, the ‘physical challenges’ he was facing, HBO’s statement pointedly did not include boilerplate language like “we wish him well”. Obviously this summer Ray Fisher called him out about his behaviour on Justice League; the stunt doubles on Buffy, Jeff Pruitt and Sophia Crawford, had damning allegations; and of course, his ex-wife, Kai Cole, famously called him out in a post on The Wrap in 2017. Each of these allegations, for those who had followed his work, led to a disappointed sigh, sagging shoulders, and acknowledgement that, yeah, we’d probably all been duped by the guy who set so many of our imaginations alight.
But there I go again. Talking about him. I never met Joss Whedon, though for years as an aspiring young writer I would dearly have loved to, but I have a feeling he would love all of us talking about him this much, if not with the current focus. It’s not accidental that he was the first showrunner whose name many of us knew – I think he wanted it that way.
But Charisma Carpenter never had that kind of name recognition. Which is part of the problem here.
I tweeted yesterday that I was most heartbroken by what seemed to me to be feelings of guilt coming through in Carpenter’s statement. That she felt a sense of shame, if not for what had happened to her, then for not speaking up sooner about it, to support Ray Fisher or others. That’s when I became overwhelmingly upset. Because these allegations are not grey – they are black and white, they are concrete, and they are, it’s pretty clear, able to be backed up by Carpenter’s reps and likely other producers, cast members, or etc. And still I know there’s absolutely no way she would have been heard, let alone believed, before now.
Partly that’s because Charisma Carpenter never became a household name. Why not? After all, she had talent and charm and a lot of exposure. But after being broken down, possibly for years, by someone everyone else called a genius - after being bodyshamed and criticized and threatened by the person who created her workplaces and was the sole arbiter of whether she got to remain there – after working with this person day in and day out for seven years before, who among us would try over and over again, the way actors have to, to get another job that might be as bad, or worse?
And we know, from the millions of women who have called out their abusers in public, that it doesn’t matter how famous you are, or who you’re associated with – there will still be people who want to shout you down and deny your experiences. Ask Evan Rachel Wood whether she felt any more secure talking about her abuse at the hands of Brian Warner because she now collects a tidy paycheck. More pointedly, ask Aurora Perrineau, an emerging young woman of colour, how it felt to finally come forward, only to be publicly ridiculed and called a liar by a woman who is much more famous and powerful than she is (not to mention someone who purported to be a feminist).
The rules are clear. They have always been clear. The more powerful person will always win – until the small, powerless voices are so numerous they finally tip the scales. Charisma Carpenter knew this, and that – not any level of personal culpability or recalcitrance – is why she didn’t come forward sooner.
After her bombshell statement yesterday, there were reactions from Sarah Michelle Gellar, whose statement is supportive, if oddly phrased – I chose to read it in the same way that the stars of Harry Potter have condemned JK Rowling’s transphobic statements while still acknowledging the legacy of the project. Then, more damningly and terrifyingly, Michelle Trachtenberg chimed in damningly because she doesn’t just support ‘survivors of abuse’ but co-signs in her stories with “We know what he did”; terrifyingly because she points out that she was just 15 when he was “Very. Not. Appropriate.” Amber Benson also corroborated, calling the set “toxic”, which I believe she’s done before, but again, people only pay attention to names at a certain level, right?
So it goes. Carpenter’s statement was going to make waves no matter what, but the headlines today are about the more famous, and thus more powerful, people who are co-signing and therefore giving it legitimacy.
But you know who’s incredibly powerful, and yet incredibly silent?
Every famous man on those shows.
Where’s David Boreanaz? Where’s James Marsters? For that matter, where’s Danny Strong, an incredibly successful and influential screenwriter who was an actor on Buffy for years? Believe me, I hate that I’m calling for white men to be the verifying factor here, but there is absolutely no way that none of them saw anything to do with any of this, and yet virtually every actress on the show is like “these are absolute facts.” Anthony Stewart Head apparently told a UK morning show today that he was up all night, wondering “what did I miss?” and while I have no doubt that Joss Whedon, like many, many abusers before him, was able to hide his cruelty and manipulation to keep up his beloved-genius image, this is hardly the first accusation! The most generous interpretation here is that, like so many men before them, these men saw something, said ‘eh, not my business’ and now get to hang their mouths open in shock all ‘I had no idea!’
This one will hit a lot of people who shrugged at many other allegations. Because, like Harry Potter, Buffy, Angel, and the rest of the so-called ‘Whedon-verse’ have devoted fans who felt seen for the first time by the worlds of the shows and the sensitive character portrayals therein. Like Potter fans, there will be a lot of people who now have complicated feelings about shows they used to love, given that they were all very publicly born from the brain of a man who, it’s pretty clear, is exactly the opposite of the image he crafted for himself.
All I can say is this – if you felt ‘found’ by this or any other fandom or community, then you know what it is to feel community. You understand what it is to be understood and upheld and supported.
That? That feeling? That’s what we need to be doing for people all of the time. We don’t all love each other, we don’t all understand each other. But if we’re in any community with people we see on an ongoing basis – work, church, school, whatever – we have a human responsibility to notice the people around us and what they’re going through. The power imbalances. The inequalities. We don’t have to be a hero and shout people down in the moment, but I’m going to go ahead and say you DO have a responsibility to take that person aside and say, “I saw that. I saw what happened and I’ll tell anybody you need me to.”
That’s what Charisma Carpenter did for Ray Fisher. I only wish someone had been brave enough to do that for her.