This movie was fine. There were a bunch of robots, and people shot beams at them. Thor hit some robots with his hammer, Hulk smashed some robots, Captain American kicked his shield around a bunch of times. The best part was James Spader’s exasperated Ultron, who just couldn’t believe how people didn’t get how great his plan is. Actually, I think as far as villains go, Ultron was probably the second best we’ve seen in a J. Whedon Joint – Holland pointed out to me that making the villain an insane robot actually makes a lot of things make a lot more sense. We’d have a hard time buying this kind of “I dunno, what about a meteor?” plan from a crazy human being, but a crazy robot, sure. Who knows WHAT those fucking things are up to.
(Who’s the first best villain? Loki? No, it’s the Mayor of Sunnydale from season 3 of Buffy. I contend that the best parts of Loki are actually Hiddleston’s nuanced, three-dimensional performance in Thor; in the Avengers, he’s interchangeable with any other dumb old megalomaniac.)
Obviously, though, I am here to talk about politics.
Recently, Joss Whedon said that he didn’t get harassed off of Twitter by militant feminists, and I think that’s great. I don’t think anyone should get harassed, by anyone, on Twitter or anywhere else. Don’t send death threats to Joss Whedon, guys. (The fact that many media outlets jumped at the idea that the People’s Army of Feminism had run him out of town on a rail – and the fact that this was completely wrong…well, there’s something interesting there about the media’s eagerness to assuage its anxiety about having morals by leaping at a Both-Sides-Do-It narrative, but I’ll leave that for later.)
He also said “When you declare yourself politically, you destroy yourself artistically,” and to me this is a pretty baffling statement, because I just genuinely cannot imagine what kind of art a person could make that WASN’T political. How do you even have a worldview that isn’t implicitly political? What should we be judging art on, if not its politics? Is the idea that we should take Avengers: Age of Ultron simply as an exercise in special-effects-punching and quip-delivery, and suspend all discussion of its meaning in the broader cultural context? Well, look, that’s pretty bold talk from a guy that people have only ever heard of BECAUSE of his political stance, so I feel like it’s probably bullshit.
Anyway, a lot of people were really angry with Joss Whedon over this movie, and I’m interested in why, so I would like to explore it. It’s real easy to say, “Stop getting so worked up over a guy’s portrayal of a fake character, you dummies”, but putting yourself in someone else’s immediate circumstances and imagining what you would do is a really bad way to understand other people. A better way to understand people is to imagine yourself doing what they did, and then figuring out what the circumstances would need to be to lead you to it.
Hey let’s go.
The Problem with Black Widow
There’s a part in this movie where Bruce Banner (aka the Hulk) is complaining about his proclivity for turning into a deadly gigantic radioactive rage monster who is a danger to all of humanity; he’s upset because he doesn’t know where to go where he won’t be a danger to other people, and that is because there’s nowhere he can go where he won’t be dangerous. He is literally a living bomb, a natural disaster waiting to happen.
Banner tells this to the Black Widow, because she wants to date him and he’s trying to dissuade her; he tells her that he physically can’t have children (here I’m not sure what he means by this, exactly; did the Hulk process make him sterile? Is he worried about hulking out during the boning proceedings? Is he concerned that his babies will be Hulks themselves?), and Black Widow responds by telling him that she was sterilized as part of her deadly Black Widow training. So:
“I guess we’re BOTH monsters,” she says, a tear in her eye.
That is what happens in the scene:
“I am a monster because I turn into an actual literal monster that destroys everything in its path and threatens the lives of everyone around me, and there’s nowhere I can go to be safe.”
“Well, I am a monster because I can’t have babies.”
I mean, okay. Let’s talk about the art / politics of this idea for a second.
So, first of all. Okay, first of all. (I wrote this five times and I still am not sure where or how to start with this.) All right. Let’s take a second and talk about sexism. Sexism is built on top of two essential pillars, two basic premises that inform it in all of its manifestations. These premises are reciprocal and self-reinforcing, and if you only kick out one, the other will take up the slack – that’s what makes sexism so pernicious, it can defend itself on any one front by retreating to the other.
The first of these pillars is “gender essentialism”, which is the idea that some things are specific to the male gender and other things are specific to the female gender, and I would go so far as to say this is an idea that all of human experience can be divided up into Male things and Female things.
I think that there is a huge problem when you say, “A woman can be a superhero and good at dropkicking guys but in order to do that she has to give up her basic femininity.” I don’t think there’s any question that this is the implication, and I think that the rest of the movie pretty thoroughly supports it. They are staying at the house of Hawkeye’s pregnant wife when this happens. So, we’ve got two women in our immediate vicinity: one who stays at home, pregnant and with the children, and one who goes out to kick ass and cannot have children.
AoU makes a sort of half-assed attempt at including other women – Colby Smulders is there, I know at Whedon’s insistence, but mostly her job is to receive or deliver expository information and occasionally futilely shoot something with her Glock (this was her job in Avengers, also, I think). There are support staff on the Avengers team, and man does THAT look weird, when all the burly dude Avengers come back from their battle to be treated by a hospital staff that looks almost completely female. (Almost? I couldn’t tell for sure, but it was enough women that I noticed it, anyway.)
The Scarlet Witch is there, of course, and she does some fighting after, like Black Widow, being taken in by one of these Whedonesque secret organizations that serve as cyphers for The Patriarchy and turned into a murder machine. We don’t find out a lot about who she is, but we do find out her backstory, about how her parents were killed by a Stark Industries…bomb, or something, and that is why she is a villain and later she isn’t a villain.
I think this is pretty interesting, too, because this basic problem – that fighting is a male sphere, and that in order to enter into it, women have to give up some essential part of themselves — implicitly underpins a lot of Whedon’s work. Women who have been violated, physically or metaphysically or metaphorically, and then become hyper-competent murder-machines is basically the J. Whedon brand. It’s how the First Slayer got her start, it’s what turned Willow from a nice but largely ineffectual witch into deadly force of nature, it’s what everyone loves about River Tam for some reason, it’s basically the deal with Dollhouse (I think; look, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to Dollhouse).
It’s actually even the point of Cabin in the Woods, isn’t it? What’s-her-name, the strong female lead, goes through an unjust, agonizing violation, and it’s this pain that gives her the will that she needs to do what needs to be done (i.e., destroy a corrupt and unjust society by summoning a giant monster god).
Now, look, I’m not saying that this I Spit on Your Grave trope of the female revenger isn’t a good one, like it’s not dramatic or exciting or compelling. What I am saying is that, despite the fact that it Subverts a Trope (namely, the “Woman-as-Victim” archetype”), it does it in a way that doesn’t actually attack gender essentialism. It’s all well and good to say “women can be superheroes too,” but you undermine that idea if they have to be monsters in order to do it. It doesn’t count if what you’re saying is “EXCEPTIONAL women can be superheroes”, because then you’re positing them as…you know…exceptions. In this case, fighting absolutely IS a man’s world, and the women that are able to survive in it are coded specifically as freaks and monsters.
Misogyny is the other pillar of sexism, and here “misogyny” doesn’t mean “hatred of women” LIKE: “all misogynists want to destroy every woman individually and go live on the Planet Athos where they can devote themselves to vaguely homoerotic philosophical pursuits.” Here misogyny means “hatred of women” like “contempt for things that are historically female.” And so, I mean, there’s a lot here that I won’t go into, but you can see how this subtly changes our understanding of the idea: having contempt for something doesn’t necessarily mean you want to destroy it; it could mean that, but it could also mean that you want to dominate it, or control it, or dismiss it, or humiliate it. And hating things that are historically female doesn’t necessarily mean that you hate women per se (though obviously it could mean that); it could mean that you hate clothes and makeup (something that women like) or feelings (something that women have) or relationships (something that women care about).
Anyway, we are all grownups on this bus, so I think we know the reason that Black Widow was sterilized by the Red Room: it’s so that she can fuck a lot of guys without getting pregnant. She says, “It’s one less thing to worry about”, and implies that the Power of Motherhood might exceed her devotion to…I guess Communism, or something, but let’s be real. She is the Black Widow. That means her job is to fuck guys and then kill them. Communism turned her into a monster, and that monster is “a woman who can have sex without consequences.”
I am 100% not buying this idea that weaponizing sexuality, or weaponizing vulnerability is some kind of empowerment narrative, either. To begin with, it’s not even real vulnerability (remember in Avengers, where Black Widow’s power is to pretend to be a helpless female so that Loki will foolishly reveal some thing he has in mind for the Hulk?), so if you’re going to argue, “look, the things that women have are also good for fighting evil”, that’s crazy, because Black Widow isn’t actually vulnerable, she’s just a liar.
But to go on with it, Joss Whedon did not invent the “Black Widow” archetype, feminists didn’t invent this archetype. The Femme Fatale is part of this same sexist construction, it’s built on a paranoia of the female things – sure, we (as men) know that women are weaker than us, but what if they had the power to use sex and feelings to manipulate men into doing what they want? What if they took something contemptible, and made it dangerous to us?
We’re not exploring some new, empowering, liberating territory by taking the things that the patriarchy is afraid of and then just saying, “yeah! That IS a thing!” All we’re doing is reinscribing that idea more thoroughly: in a world in which problems are rightly, heroically solved by punching them or shooting them with lasers, the fact that Black Widow can use her sexuality or her vulnerability to defeat enemies only highlights how contemptible that vulnerability is – it’s dishonorable; it’s a kind of cheating. It reinforces the contemptibility of female sexuality when it works, it reinforces it when it doesn’t, it reinforces it just by coming up.
(You can see the problem, though, right? If you DON’T bring up the idea of women in the roles of heroes as being vulnerable, then you’re falling into the first trap of gender essentialism. It’s EITHER that women use female things to succeed in a Man’s World, and so it comes off like they’re cheating, OR women never use female things in a Man’s World, and we just reinforce the idea that to be in a Man’s World you’ve got to only do Man Things. Yes. Sexism is complicated. Sorry. I don’t know how to solve it, but also no one trusted me with a billion-dollar enterprise and a female superhero who represented the hopes and dreams of millions of women worldwide, so I’m not sure I’ve got the same level of responsibility.)
IN FACT, though, none of this matters to me. I mean, I think it’s true, and I think it’s important, but I wouldn’t say that any of the aforementioned reasons are why I’m going to devote three thousand words to one line of dialogue in the season’s first Robot-Punching Blockbuster.
I am going to talk about something that is pretty personal, so I hope you’ll indulge me. My wife is pregnant now. We have a baby due in August. But it took us a while to get pregnant; we went through numerous tribulations, including a miscarriage. This was a very difficult time for her. Sometimes I’d come home from work and she’d be at the dining room table crying. “I was just thinking about the baby,” she’d say, for a year afterwards at least.
This was rough on me, too, of course. Of course it was. When you find out that your wife is pregnant, you immediately start to think about baby names and schools and what life is going to be like. Jeanine had made a Pinterest board that we were keeping secret from our friends, that had ideas for how to decorate the nursery. After the miscarriage, we didn’t delete the board, so it was always there when I signed in. There were only four pictures, I think, a basinet, some curtains, a car seat, a playpen.
But worse than the feeling of loss that I experienced was seeing Jeanine, and knowing how badly she was punishing herself. She thought that she had done something wrong – that she’d eaten the wrong food or drank out of the wrong cup or exercised too much or hadn’t exercised enough. She thought there was something wrong with her. She thought that she’d never be able to have children.
It was agonizing for her, and the thing is, thirty-odd years of living in this world had built a bulwark against any comfort I had to offer. Sure, I could say:
“It’s not your fault.”
And I could say:
“You didn’t do anything wrong.”
And I could say:
“There’s nothing wrong with you.”
And I could say:
“It’s okay if we can’t have children.”
I could say all of these things, and I did say all of these things, but just because you’ve heard it doesn’t mean you’ll believe it. We believe what we hear the most, and what she’s heard every day for her entire life is that the essential characteristic of being a woman is being a mother. The idea that she wouldn’t be able to have children was like having her heart ripped out. And the idea that there was nothing I could do to help was like having my heart ripped out.
She’s pregnant now, like I said, but I’ve got a lot of friends who are still trying, and who may never have children.
So, here’s the thing: yeah, Joss Whedon, you definitely found an emotional truth, congratulations. We live in a society that tells women they’re monsters if they can’t get pregnant, and that’s fucking agony for a lot of people, thank you for noticing that. But when you put that emotional truth in your movie, you didn’t do anything with it. You didn’t explore it, or examine it, or explode it. You didn’t expose it as being a lie – and it IS a lie, a lie that we force-feed to generation after generation, a painful, cruel, corrosive lie. You didn’t do any fucking thing at all with it, you just dredged it up and tossed it into your fucking robot-punching movie like it was seasoning.
“Oh, I’m not sure the stakes of this robot-fight are high enough. Hey, here’s a little pathos I can inject in there.”
When the Black Widow says “I guess we’re both monsters”, Bruce Banner does not say:
“It’s not your fault.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“There’s nothing wrong with you.”
“It’s okay if you can’t have children.”
He just fucking nods, like an idiot. Like he just heard someone say that she was a fucking monster because she can’t have kids and thought to himself, “Yeah, you know, I guess you kind of are.”
There are probably some assholes who would walk away from this and think, “Yeah, that’s it, I did my job, the purpose of art is to PROVOKE.” They’d think, maybe, that you need to give the audience what they need, not what they want.
They might take the fact that I could see a scene like this and be filled with a kind of a fury at you, at your irresponsibility and your callousness, as a sign that you’d done something right. You’d stirred up something real inside me. If Jeanine had been at the movie with me, you’d have probably stirred up something real inside of her, too.
But this is bullshit. It is not enough to find something real and bring it up, not if you don’t know what to do with it. Not if you aren’t going to tell everyone who’ll listen that this idea is a fucking lie. You must do that, you have a responsibility to do that. Because when you DON’T, you’re just a part of those thirty years, a part of that bulwark, that means when this very real and very painful experience happens to someone, no comfort will reach them. That is what you are doing – you are adding, brick by brick, to a wall that keeps people trapped alone with their pain.
This wasn’t provocative or cathartic or necessary or vital. It wasn’t a political statement. It wasn’t an ethical statement. It was mean. It was a mean, thoughtless thing to do.
I don’t want to, and will not, hear any nonsense that the proof of art is found only in the feelings that it evokes. Art has a responsibility to provide comfort to the afflicted, to undo the damage that life in a thoughtless world inflicts on us.
Art is more than finding a wound and sticking your finger in it.