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Twitter Harassment Is Not Just a Joss Whedon Problem: The Age of Ultron Director Explains Why He Deleted His Account

WhedonBlackWidowBuzzfeed has asked the Avengers: Age of Ultron director why he left Twitter, and “harassment from feminists” was not his answer.

Speaking with Joss Whedon over the phone, Buzzfeed got straight to business after over 24 hours of the Internet speculating why he left the social media site. Was it militant feminists, they asked?

“That is horseshit,” he told BuzzFeed News by phone on Tuesday. “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,” he continued. “I saw someone tweet it’s because Feminist Frequency pissed on Avengers 2, which for all I know they may have. But literally the second person to write me to ask if I was OK when I dropped out was [Feminist Frequency founder] Anita [Sarkeesian].”

When we first reported that the creator had deleted his Twitter account, there was no indication as to why. There was a joke in his feed not too long before about getting in trouble with Marvel for what he’s said online, but beyond that there was simply no direct reason given. Many, however, took the criticisms and flat-out insults and threats being thrown his way over Age of Ultron, and in particular over Black Widow’s storyline, as reason for his departure. And yeah, things went a bit wild from there.

Naturally, Gamergate and other anti-feminist malcontents ran with it and decided it was our fault. Yes, The Mary Sue specifically; because, you know, we write critically of Whedon sometimes, and that means feminists are fighting and oh ho ho we’re all going to collapse in on ourselves. One quick note: Whedon favorited our positive review of Age of Ultron before deleting his account. It’s okay to disagree with other feminists. It’s okay to critique media created by other feminists. We can all still get along and be adults about it. It’s not the end of the world.

Others kept it more general, saying that “Social Justice Warriors” were the cause, but the ensuing chain was easy to predict: they said Whedon left because he was harassed and isn’t that terrible and SJWs are all about calling out harassment so why aren’t they doing so when “the call is coming from inside the house,” as it were? The ones saying that were also the same people who continue the targeted harassment of people like Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu, Zoe Quinn, Randi Harper, and countless other less visible individuals online. The hypocrisy was palpable.

The situation was perhaps compounded when acquaintances of Whedon took to Twitter to share their thoughts, seemingly lending credence to the rumor of him being run off by harassment. Firefly actress Jewel Staite tweeted, “I love Joss’s work, his brain, his dance skills, and his friendship. He’s too classy to say this, but I’m not: All you haters can fuck off.” In a now deleted tweet, Patton Oswalt said, “Yep. There is a ‘Tea Party’ equivalent of progressivism/liberalism. And they just chased Joss Whedon off Twitter. Good job, guys. Ugh.” He later admitted he was wrong. Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn also took to Twitter, and then later in a larger Facebook post, to explain his dislike of fans who go too far.

And he’s not wrong: harassment (very different than a measured critique of someone’s work, and let’s not conflate the two) is deplorable, no matter where it’s coming from or at whom it’s directed. The internet has become a horrible environment in recent years; besides countless “non-famous” users, celebrities of all types receive harassment and threats constantly as well. After the release of the Paul Blart: Mall Cop sequel, actor Kevin James had this lovely sentiment tweeted at him: “I hope Paul Blart gets slowly tortured to death in that movie. Also, I hope you die slowly of cancer. Asshole.” Harry Potter’s Emma Watson was called “a slut a cunt and a terrible person.” The Ellen Show’s account had this thrown at it: “literally youre an ugly hag and i hate you and i want you to die im actually furious.”

This is what a large number of Twitter users are dealing with every day.

So why did Whedon leave if it wasn’t over abuse? He told Buzzfeed, “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 this is the least quiet place I’ve ever been in my life.”

He also added a reason for deletion rather than simply stepping away, saying “Twitter is an addictive little thing, and if it’s there, I gotta check it. When you keep doing something after it stops giving you pleasure, that’s kind of rock bottom for an addict. …I just had a little moment of clarity where I’m like, You know what? If I want to get stuff done, I need to not constantly hit this thing for a news item or a joke or some praise, and then be suddenly sad when there’s hate and then hate and then hate.”

But Whedon understands that you open yourself up to criticism when you give simple opinions online. Buzzfeed reports:

“I’ve said before, when you declare yourself politically, you destroy yourself artistically,” he said. “Because suddenly that’s the litmus test for everything you do — for example, in my case, feminism. If you don’t live up to the litmus test of feminism in this one instance, then you’re a misogynist. It circles directly back upon you.”

One example: Before Age of Ultron opened, Whedon tweeted that he was frustrated that a clip from the upcoming film Jurassic World was “‘70s era sexist” — something he later regretted, telling Variety it was “bad form.” At the same time, Whedon was clearly exasperated by some of the negative commentary about his tweet. “There was a point during the whole Jurassic World thing where someone wrote the phrase ‘championing women marginalizes them,’ and I was like, OK! We’re done! The snake hath et its tail,” he told BuzzFeed News. “There’s no way to find any coherence when everything has to be parsed and decried.”

Yes, it’s a strange circle we live in trying to think critically about entertainment we love. Whedon was doing some parsing and decrying of his own when he tweeted about Jurassic World and then people, ourselves included, parsed and decried what he parsed and decried. Can the round and round be detrimental at times? Sure. But my stance has always been that talking about issues is a good thing. If people stop talking, people stop learning and evolving.

But Whedon also made sure to acknowledge his privilege, and that what he experienced on Twitter was still nowhere near the kind of fear-inducing harassment Sarkeesian receives for doing her work.

“For someone like Anita Sarkeesian to stay on Twitter and fight back the trolls is a huge statement,” he 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.”

Speaking at the Women in the World Summit last month on “Internet trolls” along with Sarkeesian, Ashley Judd, and California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, New York Times Magazine writer Emily Bazelon said, “There has to be a price to these companies. They have to be worried, in some way, about their bottom line. I think what’s happening at Twitter is a sense that if Twitter deteriorates as it already has in some of its corners into a place where it’s full, it’s just a cesspit and full of misogyny, that that will turn off users. It’s not part of the brand and the image the company wants to project.”

Is losing someone as high profile as Whedon a high enough price for Twitter to crack down in a real way? They have been making progress as of late, but if this is the event that finally gets their attention, even if harassment wasn’t ultimately why Whedon left, that’s both good and bad. Good because even better policies might be made; bad because countless women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ users have suffered Twitter abuse and made noise for far too long without results.

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