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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Amanda Marcotte, Black Widow, and Avengers: Age of Ultron

While I'm giving credit to Amanda Marcotte - a cultural commentator with whom I've sometimes disagreed in the past, and one with whom I'll doubtless have disagreements in the future - she also offered some charity and clarity in recently discussing Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Here, the issue was an allegedly sexist representation of the Black Widow, when it's revealed in her dialogue with Bruce Banner that she was forcibly sterilized at the command of her political masters. I share some of Marcotte's annoyance at the frequent valorization of motherhood in our culture, but I also share her understanding that forced sterilization is a terrible event for any woman to have to endure. Moreover, as Marcotte points out, we are given plenty of other information about what else the character was put through in her back story and the deeds she's carried out that make her (in her own eyes) a kind of monster. The attempts to find sexism in the relevant movie scene show an overly hostile or suspicious approach to the movie mixed with (as Marcotte makes clear) a degree of cinematic illiteracy.

Age of Ultron came in for a lot of flak on grounds relating to its supposed sexual and racial politics, but none of the flak really seems to have much merit. In an email exchange with Jerry Coyne, I tried to get clear what the issues seemed to be, and (with my permission) Jerry published my comments in a post a few weeks ago, where he discussed the whole kerfuffle. With one spelling correction, I'll repeat what I said in order to get it all in one place:

I do have some insight into the background, having seen the movie and knowing a bit about the Marvel Comics stories that it draws on. There seem to be four things that have led to the attacks:

1. The movie is as violent (in a stylised way, etc.) as you’d expect of a superhero movie. There’s a scene, as I mention in my review, where it makes some fun of male competitiveness, etc., but as you’d expect a lot of it consists of battle scenes. [Jonathan] McIntosh has been banging on about this on Twitter: “toxic masculinity” and so on.

2. The main female superheroine is the Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson. In her backstory, she was a Russian spy, trained to be a perfect/near-superhuman assassin before she turned good, etc., etc. Some people seem to object to the revelation that she was trained and brainwashed from childhood, which I suppose might arguably deny her agency and responsibility or something. Second, she is captured at one stage by the villain – the malevolent artificial intelligence, Ultron – creating a “damsel in distress” situation. Third, it’s revealed that she was forcibly sterilised as part of the process of brainwashing/training her. In a scene with Bruce Banner (the Hulk), with whom there’s a romantic sub-plot, she reveals this, and she comments that both of them are monsters. This has been taken to indicate that Whedon thinks that women who can’t bear children are monsters. In context, that’s not what she’s saying at all. She’s reassuring him, in response to his fear that any children he had would be freaks, that she can’t have children anyway. She also tells him that both of them are, in their ways, monstrous.

3. At one stage Tony Stark/Iron Man – who is always a bit of an ass – apparently jokes (I missed this entirely) that if he were in charge he’d institute the right of primae noctis. This is apparently viewed as a rape joke.

4. Whedon is supposed to be a racist for presenting two characters – Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch – as Eastern European but not of any other particular ethnicity beyond the fictional Balkan country they are from. In the comics, they were long supposed to be the children of Magneto (who is Jewish) and his Roma wife, and they were brought up as Roma. Eliding this supposedly makes Whedon/Marvel Studios racist. I liked the connection with Magneto myself, and I regret that Marvel has now altered it in the comics as well, but much of what is going on here relates to intellectual property rights. The movie rights to Magneto are held by FOX, not by Marvel Studios. The IP thing with these companies/properties is a mess.

Some of these points about the movie could be worth civil, subtle discussion by aficionados, but nothing in them could possibly excuse the way Whedon has been abused.

I don't propose to go more deeply into these points. Some might be arguable, or at least worth discussion, but they are all dubious, and, once again, at a minimum none merit the abuse that was handed out to Whedon on Twitter.

For the sake of completeness and fairness, I should note that Whedon subsequently played down the abuse as a factor in his decision to leave Twitter. I gather that many people think this was disingenuous, but I'm inclined to take it more or less at face value. It seems that it was not just the abuse on this particular occasion that got Whedon to leave so much as Twitter's ongoing effect in distracting him - not only the abusive comments, but even comments expressing praise. As he says (see below), he is used to being "attacked by militant feminists" so that in itself would not have run him off Twitter.

That makes sense to me. Twitter can, indeed, be irritating and distracting. To be honest, I sometimes feel that it's bad for me, helping make me a more anxious, exhausted, distracted, bad-tempered person than I want to be ... and I'm sometimes tempted to leave it, even though I find it useful.

Still, none of that excuses the abuse Whedon received, even if that particular wave of inexcusable abuse was not, in some simple, direct cause-and-effect way, the cause of his departure.

I don't necessarily agree with every point Whedon makes about the internet, Twitter, and the current culture wars, but I must also note (and I share) his exasperation with feminists and liberals who waste time and resources by attacking their allies rather than showing solidarity:
"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."
Yes, quite. Later in the same interview, he expresses frustration at the endless, politicized hyper-analysis that he receives:
"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." 
That noted, these issues do need to be discussed. But they can be discussed carefully and charitably, with some media literacy (such as I've praised Marcotte for) and without the layers of hostile parsing and decrying, and the "hate and then hate and then hate".

Finally, Marcotte's piece makes a fair point - which I've also made in the past - that it would help if there were more women in leading roles in, for example, movies based on Marvel's Avengers. I'm pleased that there will be a movie based on Captain Marvel, a character I've wanted to see in the Marvel/Disney movies for a long time.

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