Joss Whedon made his name directing cult television shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and big-budget action movies, which often featured women in empowering roles. Many applauded him for being a champion of women, a feminist in an industry accused of misogyny and sexism.
That image was challenged Sunday by his ex-wife Kai Cole, who wrote an essay in a Hollywood industry blog called the Wrap accusing him of serially cheating during their 16-year marriage and calling him a "hypocrite preaching feminist ideals."
"I want to let women know that he is not who he pretends to be," Cole wrote. "I want the people who worship him to know he is human, and the organizations giving him awards for his feminist work, to think twice in the future about honoring a man who does not practice what he preaches."
Whedon and the Cole, a Los Angeles architect, finalized their divorce in 2016.
A spokesperson for Whedon offered a brief but ultimately vague statement that claimed the essay contained inaccuracies but declined to name them.
"While this account includes inaccuracies and misrepresentations which can be harmful to their family, Joss is not commenting, out of concern for his children and out of respect for his ex-wife," the spokesperson said.
Whedon first gained fame in 1996 when he created the fantasy series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which follows the adventures of the titular Buffy, a girl no one takes particularly seriously but who can essentially save the world.
The show and Whedon were lauded for the feminist messages. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer's feminism is still subversive, 20 years later," Vox recently proclaimed. "Buffy Summers: Third-Wave Feminist Icon," read a headline in the Atlantic.
He was aware of the label too, often addressing it in speeches.
Women's rights group Equality Now gave him an award "for his courageous support of women's rights" in 2006. During his speech, Whedon mentioned that reporters often ask him why he writes "strong female characters."
"Why aren't you asking a hundred other guys why they don't write strong women characters?" he said. "I believe that what I'm doing should not be remarked upon, let alone honored."
He also publicly criticized movies he felt didn't live up to feminist ideals, such as Jurassic World.
Cole had a different take on Buffy. "On the set of Buffy, Joss decided to have his first secret affair," she wrote.
She wrote that for the next 15 years, as he went on to direct major films such as The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, she claimed he continued carrying out affairs while she suffered in anguish.
"I went from being a strong, confident woman, to a confused, frightened mess," she wrote. "I was eventually diagnosed with Complex PTSD and for the last five years, I have worked hard to make sense of everything that happened and find my balance again."
"Despite understanding, on some level, that what he was doing was wrong, he never conceded the hypocrisy of being out in the world preaching feminist ideals, while at the same time, taking away my right to make choices for my life and my body based on the truth," she wrote. "He deceived me for 15 years, so he could have everything he wanted."
Whedon's reputation took an immediate hit, at least online.
His popular fan site Whedonesque announced it was closing down a day after Cole's essay published. Though the official statement didn't mention Cole's essay, it does state, "if you want to mark our passing, please find a charity or organisation that deals with the treatment of Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) and leave a donation."
The site's owner, identified only as Caroline, also tweeted a message about the separation of art and artist. Given its timing, it appeared to refer to Whedon.
Meanwhile, Whedon's status as a feminist was harshly criticized on entertainment blogs and throughout social media.
In an essay bluntly titled, "Joss Whedon was never a feminist," A.V. Club executive editor Laura M. Browning wrote, "Whedon doesn't get that feminism isn't an award you earn by writing 'strong female characters.' And he can write those characters even as he acts contrary to them — that just means that he's a good writer, not a good feminist."
Other publications, such as the Telegraph and the New Statesman, followed suit, decrying Whedon's supposed feminist ideals. Not many, meanwhile, came to the popular director's defense.