It seemed like Joss Whedon was going to have a pretty good opening weekend. Avengers: Age of Ultron was crushing it at the box office, people were pleased, and reviews were upbeat.
And then, controversy came down like the hammer of Thor.
Only a few days after the film’s blockbuster opening, Whedon deactivated his Twitter account, saying goodbye to over a million followers with a fairly cryptic sign-off.
“Thank you to all the people who’ve been so kind and funny and inspiring up in here.”
The pop culture corners of the web went wild with speculation. Why would the director commit social media suicide? Something must have pushed him. The search for answers began. Ultimately, a narrative emerged that happened to nicely latch onto other loose threads: Whedon was chased from the social network by “radical feminists” who took issue with his direction of female characters, specifically Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, in Ultron. Whedon, like so many others, had casually thrown the franchise’s strongest female protagonist under the bus, reducing the hero to a mere plot device. This is why we can’t have nice things, the story seemed to go.
The notion that a group of uncompromising critics had turned on Whedon, widely considered to be a staunch defender of feminism and the portrayal of women in media, seemed odd, however. And when the frenzy had been whipped to a fever pitch, with news outlets beyond pop culture blogs beginning to look into the story, Whedon himself felt the need to clairfy why he left the Twitterverse. Was he really run out of town by a bunch of rabid social justice warriors calling for his head?
Though the director himself debunked that argument, that hasn’t quelled the conversation around the studio’s treatment of the women in its films. The flames of the controversy have shed light on the problematic foundation that seems to ground the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
By now, our collective addiction, adulation, even love for superhero stories is well established. The mountains of box office receipts piled miles high prove that. Unfortunately, these films, while willing to broach complex issues at their core like the War on Terror, mass government surveillance, the destruction of Home and artificial intelligence run amok, still hold disappointingly regressive views toward women. Not necessarily openly, and not all at once. But there is a soft sexism that lingers, with brief glimmers of gendered tropes and stereotypes pushing through their otherwise polished façade.
When they do push through, these occurences ring out like a sour note. Black Widow’s odd and awkward, though brief detour into “damsel in distress” territory in Ultron, Gamora being called a whore in Guardians Of The Galaxy, and Tony Stark’s call for a return to Prima Nocta should he be able to wield Mjölnir are just a few examples that stretch back all the way to the universe’s creation in 2008 with Iron Man. These are cheap, crass sprinklings of sexism deliberately though perplexingly added into otherwise enjoyable stories. They land with a thud, and seem to exist only to undercut any women nearby.
Over at Vox, Todd VanDerWerff takes note of this escalating issue within Marvel’s sprawling and successful franchise, writing that even if Joss Whedon’s handling of Black Widow in that one scene could be forgiven as clusmy writing in need of another pass with a red pen, the issue extends into the real world, where the few strong female characters are ostracized and erased. Not content with denying them equality within a fictionalized universe, we often extend this treatment to our own as well.
Marvel’s treatment of Black Widow is frequently outright lousy. In the buildup to the release of Ultron, the lack of Black Widow merchandise prompted an outcry that grew to eventually include Ruffalo himself, and the reasoning behind the company’s lack of said products was depressingly cynical. (Disney corporate, it turns out, assumes it has the young girl market locked down with its princess franchise.)
When defending this unfair representation, whether it be excising their presence from product merchandise, casually hurling insults, or applying double-standards about sex, arguments typically fall into one of two categories: the economic or the fantastic. That is to say, female characters are incapable to earning as much revenue as their male counterparts and therefore must be treated differently, and in any case, that imbalance in representation is irrelevant since we are not talking about real people in the first place. Neither of these, however, are a legitimate defence. Rather, they demonstrate exactly how strong instutional biases remain in the entertainment industry, and why audiences are absolutely correct to criticize the images they see and fight against the inertia that plagues modern day filmmaking.
Women Just Don’t Sell, Man
To be fair, Marvel does have a female-led superhero film in the works, Captain Marvel, which is due out in 2018. The choice seems to have been a slow, meandering one though. Leaked emails from Marvel CEO Issac Perlmutter dated last year seem to show the chief executive balking at the idea of giving a woman a starring role, using a cherrypicked list of box office bombs to imply women simply don’t put up the same draw as men. Those films not withstanding, this is demonstrably false. Not only have mega-franchises that star women like The Hunger Games easily drawn massive crowds with ease, but detailed analyses of the Hollywood landscape, like this one by Walk Hickey at FiveThirtyEight, show that women often provide a better return on a studio’s investment, drawing big money in markets both domestically and abroad.
“In Hollywood, there are still a lot of dinosaurs behind the desks.”
These preconceived notions on the gulf that separates men and women when it comes to returns, despite not standing up to the data, remain so deeply entrenched that they bleed over into other aspects of a film’s lifecycle. Once again, Marvel provides a recent case study with its decision to remove Black Widow from the toy incarnation of one of the hero’s most iconic scenes in Ultron, where she drops from a Quinjet on a speeding motorcycle. Buy the new toy, and get a Captain America figurine in her place.
Lifting the character from her own scene took effort. The decision to remove and replace her had to be raised, considered, and approved.
The reasoning, one might argue, again may come down to simple economics: Captain America sells more than Black Widow, so he gets top spot. If so, why bother making merchandise for any but the most popular character of any franchise? To market anything less would be bad strategy. Surely, Steve Rogers is more popular than many of his fellow Avengers. Why include anyone else when they bring down the bottom line?
If this argument were true, it would affirm not that women are worth less than men but that the economic incentives under capitalism are fundamentally repressive and deserve to be torn down rather than adhered to. But even according to the market’s own logic, this is not sound strategy. Girls are clearly able to feel connections to these characters as strong as boys. The fact that female superheroes are so scarce would indicate that their representations— in all forms —would be highly sought after, a highly differentiated rarity in an oversaturated market of indistinguishable costume-clad men. It would be wise to cater to this underserved population, not ignore it. And yet, Marvel and its parent, The Walt Disney Corporation, push its line of princess merchandise instead.
They Aren’t Real, Anyway ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
When Jeremy Renner, who plays Clint Barton/Hawkeye in Ultron doubled-down on his labelling Black Widow a “slut” after falsely claiming she has been romantically involved with nearly all of her teammates, he was surprised at the strong backlash that followed. After all, his remarks were geared toward a fictious character in a film, and fake people don’t feel.
The idea that only real people can be the targets of slurs is a classic deflection, and fundamentally misinterprets the issue. What Renner and those who agree with him ignore is that it is not the target of the insult, but the justification that leads to it that many find so offensive. The blatant application of a sexist double standard is what makes the actor’s comments appalling, because women in the real world must confront these issues daily. To so callously toss such a label into the ether for the sake of a cheap punchline shows just how engrained this issue remains.
Tony Stark never gets pejoratively called a slut. His playboy attitude is just a part of his disarming charm.
With the ability to move billions of dollars, Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is a cultural juggernaut that wields influence over everything it touches, including the audiences of its films. While Whedon surely did not intend to ignite the resentment he did, it is not even the most recent in a long line of gendered transgressions in the ongoing saga for the Avengers. It’s important to note that these issues do not mean the films in their totality should be written off. Rather, it serves to underscore the importance of vigilance on the part of the viewer. When casual sexism is tossed into the mix for the sake of a cheap laugh, or conscious decisions are made to remove women from scenes were they once dominated, we should protest. It can only result it more care being taken and better movies being made. The Avengers spend their days fighting to make the world a safer place for everyone. Their films should be just as inclusive.