Why we should be thanking Joss Whedon and Jeff Garlin for their candor about workplace misconduct

For everyone who quit jobs that propped up abusive bosses, reading these men's self-deluding views is validating

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published January 22, 2022 3:30PM (EST)

Joss Whedon and Jeff Garlin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joss Whedon and Jeff Garlin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The year is barely three weeks old and already we've been gifted with what may be the alpha and omega of 2022's self-owns in Vulture's interview with Joss Whedon. Doubling as a deep dive into the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" creator's career and legacy and an opportunity for him to spin his side of the story vis-à-vis multiple public allegations of abusive behavior, the one-time Equality Now award winner could not help himself.

There were confessions about his serial philandering and mistreatment of women.

There were his own rah-rah-feminism quotes coming back to haunt him, and his refusal to take any responsibility for the ill will he's accused of generating during his reshoots of 2017's "Justice League."

There was his imputation that Gal Gadot's claims that he threatened her career was a misunderstanding due to English being her second language, which she refutes. And there was his assertion that Ray Fisher's allegations of abuse amount to sour grapes from a "bad actor," which Fisher's critically acclaimed performance in "Women of the Movement" repudiates.

Despite corroborated accounts of abuse from "Angel" star Charisma Carpenter and a hair-raising story from her "Buffy" co-star Michelle Trachtenberg of an unspoken rule forbidding Whedon from being alone in a room with her on set, he sums up his lot by mourning that people have been making him out to be a monster when in his view, "I think I'm one of the nicer showrunners that's ever been."

All told, Whedon transformed a chance to salvage his image into a kill shot to his career prospects for the immediate future.

And on behalf of every person made to suffer at their workplace under a boss or at the hands of a co-worker like that, I thank him for his candor.

RELATED: An abusive reckoning for "Buffy," a badass, occasionally feminist show created by a monstrous man

Similarly, may I offer my gratitude to "Curb Your Enthusiasm" actor Jeff Garlin for his recent public attack of acute TMI, a symptom of foot-in-mouth disease? In case you missed that December kamikaze dive, Garlin took it upon himself to call Vanity Fair's Maureen Ryan to answer a simple question ABC refused to comment on: Had he been fired from its sitcom "The Goldbergs" in response to multiple allegations of misconduct on the set?

As Ryan points out, it's a simple yes or no question. Garlin drew out his response to an hour-plus exchange in which he tried to reframe offenses that sent people running to human resources. In one case he downplayed an incident as " a joke that was completely missed." He referred to other examples as "just me being, in my eyes, silly." But the real gold is in quotes like the following:

"To me, if you're a stand-in on a show and you don't like the content or the behavior . . . If someone's going after you, that's different. But in terms of in general — well, then by God, quit, go someplace else."

Soon after this story ran, and after three years' worth of HR investigations into his behavior on the set, ABC and Garlin quit each other. As for the reasons for those complaints, Garlin explained, "It's about me and my silliness on set. They [ABC] don't think it's appropriate. I do."

Please understand, I am not offering my cheers in sarcastic celebration of Whedon's and Garlin's separate and unrelated authoring of their ironic reversals. I really do mean to express gratitude for their unfiltered perspective on how they abused their power in the workplace. In both cases, the veracity of what they claim isn't as crucial to the larger societal discourse about worker mistreatment, ineffectual human resource departments and terrible bosses.

The treasure is in what their words reveal about how such people think.

As we reexamine the many reasons behind the so-called Great Resignation, that culture-wide trend of workers voluntarily leaving their jobs, one that bobs to the surface again and again is the end of our ability to abide thoughtless peers and terrible bosses.

In November 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs, setting a new record high according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Polling suggests many left those old jobs for situations offering higher pay and better overall working conditions. Alongside that, more of us are assessing how our day jobs impact our quality of life, which translates to our willingness to put up with bosses like Whedon and colleagues like Garlin.

Tempting as it is to view their stories of inappropriate behavior from the context of Hollywood messiness or betrayal, that's not the true reason these stories matter. This isn't to devalue the extent of Whedon's betrayal to feminists who once valued "Buffy" or "Firefly" as female empowerment fantasies; it is, indeed, gravely offensive to read how extensively he exploited that reputation to hurt and humiliate women, including his ex-wife.

The cold, hard truth of it is that producers and directors have been cheating on their spouses with their actors, other subordinates and fans since Hollywood opened for business.  

The greater service in these stories is that they put voices, faces and a language to abuse and misconduct. They explain how it is that human resources departments and corporate overlords can claim to disagree as to what constitutes unacceptable behavior between managers and employees, or fellow associates.

It goes back to retrograde definitions of what constitutes abuse that begin with, "Did it leave a visible bruise or mark?" "Did the accused use one or more terms on this list of unacceptable slurs?" "Was the incident consensual?"

Whedon frames his behavior in the "Buffy" and "Angel" era as "uncivilized" and, towards Carpenter specifically as "not mannerly." "I was young," he told Vulture. "I yelled, and sometimes you had to yell. This was a very young cast, and it was easy for everything to turn into a cocktail party."

Adding that he would never humiliate anyone, despite many claims to the contrary from unrelated parties, he explained, "If I am upsetting somebody, it will be a problem for me."

This doesn't excuse the inaction on the part of each man's respective studios, mind you. But it does shed light on how influential directors, showrunners and actors – like any other bosses and colleagues with seniority – can explain away harassing, ridiculing, threatening and exploiting those deemed less powerful to the people who hire and keep on hiring them.

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Spend enough time in the workforce and you'll probably encounter people like these as bosses or co-workers. They are in every industry, and they leave countless numbers of us banging our head against our desks when managers claim an inability to find fault with their behavior.

The main difference between their situations and that of the average worker who is fed up with mistreatment and quits is that the parties involved are famous enough for their words to be published in magazines and media sites.

Don't just take my word for it. "If I said something silly and offensive, and I'm working at an insurance company, I think it's a different situation," Garlin told Vanity Fair. ". . . If I threatened people, that's an unsafe work atmosphere. None of that goes on ever with me. That's not who I am."

Later he explains the kind of guy he is.  "The only word that I use, in terms of consistently, is when I stand up, I sometimes say — most of the time and I have for a hundred years, that doesn't make it OK — I would go, 'Oh, my vagina.' And that's just me being, in my eyes, silly . . . But a generalization that someone is offended at me saying, 'Oh my vagina,' when I stand up, I need more than that."

Please note that on "The Goldbergs," Garlin plays the bear-like father Murray.

There will be many people who will read this and agree with Garlin, finding nothing wrong with him allegedly proposing via text that a co-worker show up to a table read in nothing but panties. It's just silliness, right? (Garlin also denies this happened.)

That is why he'll keep getting work, including a part in Damien Chazelle's "Babylon," due to be released at the end this year. He's also an executive producer on "Curb."  

Whedon, too, is likely to be back up and running in a few years' time, too. If you doubt that, please see Mel Gibson's ever-expanding filmography. I mean, Gibson's no Scott Rudin, am I right?

At the moment, he's attached to seven films as either a star or a producer. And if he can still get work, you better believe the creator of "Dr. Horrible" will helm a film someday in the future.

But there are likely many others who will look at Garlin's breezy confession and defense, or Whedon's deluded self-portrait of an imperfect, misunderstood man, and find relief in knowing they aren't crazy.

Bosses and colleagues who maltreat subordinates with ridicule or lack of consideration are as common as the companies who protect them. If they refuse to believe they're in the wrong, that's because their sense of their own greatness somehow convinces them otherwise . . . and as long as they're getting results, HR departments and top executive agree with them.

As millions of people are proving, however, often in such situations the best and only option available is the exit. The rest of us have the luxury of changing the channel.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Commentary Great Resignation Jeff Garlin Joss Whedon Sexual Harassment Tv