Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron, Joss Whedon, Black Widow and Death Threats

Apparently the most offensive, sexist, racist, homophobic movie ever made by man.
As long as you don't count Birth of a Nation
  What is it about me that I like to see break downs in communication?  I like to examine them and see if I can understand them.  Sometimes they make me mad, sometimes they make me confused.  Sometimes I need to yell about it, sometimes I like to just talk about it.  Ultimately though I like talking about stuff like this because I think talking about it is key to understanding it and understanding it is very, very important.

  So let us start here:

People are Mad at Joss Whedon (Apparently)

 That's a link to Storify which aggregates the Twitter hate against Joss Whedon.  It's pretty non-partial, it just gives an archive of the things people are saying.  Most of it, I think, points to why we desperately need reading comprehension classes honestly.

  This provides a much better, level headed discussion about the whole situation.  I don't agree with the ultimate message but I think it's important to read because I am writing with these two pieces acting as my primary sources:

io9 - Black Widow: This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

  It makes a lot of sense, a lot of a lot of sense and it attempts to discuss things in a rational way which is something I can appreciate.  What it doesn't stop and talk about, which I will add, is the Jeremy Renner comments and the 'rape joke'.

  Black Widow as Marketing

  Much has been said about a lack of Black Widow merchandise.  Mostly by me, in my parents basement, as I try to complete my Avengers action figure line up.  I'm only kind of kidding by the way.  I eventually had to make my Black Widow out of a GI Joe and a Scarlett Widow head.  Repainted it and I'm pretty happy.  Sadly Hasbro didn't have the same thought.  There IS a two pack featuring Widow with Cap but it's just a repaint of the original Avengers line figure.

  That being said Disney claims it has the female demographic 'on lockdown' and therefore doesn't feel the need to make more money appealing to other demographics.  On that note if they made Disney Princess action figures that were more like a Marvel Universe figure I'd buy the shit out of that.  The Disney Princess' are like an all woman Avengers.

  It must also be said that she IS more present than Gamora was so... baby steps.  However she is conspicuous in her absence and I think the reason behind that absence is bullshit.  We've created this terrible infinite loop where we tell male children that they don't want 'girl toys' and they take that into heart and then they tell their kids and so on and so on.  At no point does anyone stop to ask where this idea has come from, they just accept it as fact and nothing advances as a result.

  In my case that was never true.  I played with Barbies and the girls that owned them when I was young.  When I got older I didn't want 'girl' toys like Barbies but I did want female action figures.  I wanted Catwoman and Wonder Woman, Ms. Marvel and Rouge, Jean Grey and Jubilee, Storm and Shadowcat.  I needed them to complete my teams, I had to act out my favorite stories and those stories included casts of dozens some of which were even female!  So I think that reasoning is bullshit.  Plain and simple but we can thank institutional sexism, corporate focus groups and the vast lowest common denominator that those two things attract.  There is no immediate fix for that.  You want to fix that?  Write polite, short letters (long or rude letters get thrown out immediately, trust me, I worked with people who dealt with those letters) and stop issuing Twitter death threats long enough to teach your kids better.

Black Widow as Character

  There is a bunch of hullabaloo that reads the movie as equating sterilization with being a monster, Black Widow as damsel or as io9 suggests: Widow as Frustrated Mommy.  Lets tackle these one at a time and then the larger, overarching issue.

  I don't know how people get a read of sterilization=monster.  That seems, to me, that it is the result of a bias based breakdown.  Bias gets the best of all of us and when a subject hits very hard and very close to home that bias can flare up and we become blind to the subtleties of the message.  I think that subject is very sensitive.  Society places a lot of pressure on people to breed and if you chose not to breed or, perceptibly, even worse, CAN'T breed you would be amazed at how casually cruel people can be.  Someone who can't have a kid or has been close to someone who can't have a kid, as I have, is very aware of how affective that idea is.  My personal read was that Widow feels that the program she was in stripped her of all humanity against her will.  She has survivors guilt and probably more so because she actively worked for that same program for a large part of her life.  She maybe even indoctrinated others into that lifestyle knowing what that program does to people.  The sterilization in particular only comes up because Bruce is projecting their relationship forward and dismissing it because of his own inability to have children and Widow was commiserating with him.  She was relating to him because she too has not always had control of her life, she has done bad things because of that lack of control and also feels distanced from others due to the fact that she can't be like others or provide what a so called 'normal' partner can provide.  In this case neither could provide an offspring to a partner that may only want children so they distance themselves from any real, potential romance because of their self perceived 'abnormality'.  I use a lot of qualifiers and quotation marks because 'normal' and 'abnormal' are entirely subjective describers and I don't want things to get lost in semantics.  I however don't think the intention was to call people who can't have children 'monsters' nor was it a way to victimize either character.  They are both characters who have been through bad thing, are more active in their lives now and trying to atone for any past misdeeds.  They remain strong.

  The idea of Black Widow as damsel is just stupid.  Yes she confronts Ultron for the greater good, without fear and she loses and she becomes a captive as a result but that doesn't make her a damsel.  Who draws the Avengers when they couldn't find Ultron?  She does.  At no point does she panic, breakdown or become a victim.  The whole time she remains strong and eventually rescues herself even at the risk of eliminating her relationship with Bruce Banner.  Which, I argue, is why Hulk doesn't go back to Widow at the end.  He knows that if he stays with her it's only a matter of time before she chooses others over Bruce and forces him to become the Hulk (something he has a complicated relationship with as well).  If anything she victimizes Bruce Banner by forcing him to turn into the Hulk against his will.  But nobody is mentioning that.  They also aren't mentioning why the Avengers didn't just revisit Ultron's house as the first place they would look.  That's just stupid.

  Black Widow as Mommy also doesn't make sense.  She infantalizes her 'super' male counterparts by saying that she's always picking up after them.  She chides them like they chide each other.  She's equal in her banter with them.  I could see how she might be attracted to Bruce because he is someone who NEEDS a caretaker.  He is someone who is very vulnerable, even as The Hulk.  He is someone who is crippled by fear and guilt and carries this massive weight at all times.  Something she can relate to.  He is someone who she can relate to, someone she can take care of and someone who can take care of her.  They are both broken in similar ways.  Ultimately she sacrifices that in her mission to redeem the 'red in her ledger'.  She is very sympathetic and tragic in Age of Ultron.

  Much like the merchandise the situation of the Marvel Cinematic Women is the result of systemic sexism, corporate focus groups and the lowest common denominator.  Also like the merchandise the way to fix that is let the old, unmovable assholes die off, write short, polite letters to create awareness and raise your kids to be better than that.

Jeremy Renner's Comments

  Hawkeye called Black Widow a 'slut'.  I don't know if Scarlett Johanson  has beef with Renner because of it.  As far as I can tell she hasn't reacted.  I'm going to be honest, I like Renner.  I think he's a funny guy and in interviews he always comes off as charming.  Sometimes antagonistically so but I like the guy.  I get saying something outrageous because you're unbelievable bored in a conversation and you are looking to either spice up or derail that interaction.  I do it all the time but I'm rarely ever recorded and I can safely say that nobody looks up to me.  His attitude that the whole thing is ridiculous because she's a fictional character and it's 'just comics' is understandable.  Joel Schumacher had that attitude towards Batman and it's understandable and common.  It's fine.  I personally believe that society takes its social cues from the media it consumes and therefore mass media has a responsibility to be socially conscious.  That's my personal belief though and perhaps contrary to that personal belief I also somewhat admire Renner for saying something and not backing down but pointing to the potential ridiculousness of the situation.  Chris Evans immediately apologized and I think, judging by his reaction in the interview and since, he rolled with the situation rather than be confrontational and he was uncomfortable but tried to do his job.

  Should Renner have been more socially conscious?  Probably.  Does he need to apologize?  I don't know.  Will him apologizing fix all sexism?  No.  I think him talking like that should provide a talking point rather than a point of contention.  We should use that as a reason to discuss the situation and figure out what to do about it rather than just shame him into (another) half hearted, useless apology.  I think there are too many apologies and not enough action.  I think people now use an apology as a 'Get out of Jail' card and nobody follows up that apology with action that supports it.  Renner giving an apology is useless, it doesn't solve anything.  Lets actually do something about what he said.  The other side of that is a lot of people take that apology and say "Welp, problem fixed.  Nobody will call another person a 'slut' again and once more gender equality has been restored." Gender equality is a serious issue and it will take more than whitewashing and fake apologies to fix that.  Let's actually talk about it and work on it!  Let's talk about the actual issue and work to fix it rather than just police thoughts and use fear and intimidation to drive people back into the shadows.  Bring it out to the light and address it, figure it out, talk about it, discuss it, come to terms with it.  You can't fight ignorance by ignoring it.  Ignoring it just feeds it and eventually it will become bigger than all of us and consume everyone.

The Rape Joke

  When Tony Stark goes to lift Thor's hammer he promises to bring back the right of 'Prima Nocta".  If you don't know that is something that was brought to the worlds attention via a famous anti-Semites best movie: 'Braveheart'.  The idea, if it existed at all, was that a nobleman got to have mandatory sex with the bride of any common man.  Essentially institutional rape.  I'm going to give Tony the credit that he knows that it's something that probably didn't actually exist and is saying something glib and stupid.  I also think that Tony knows he won't be able to lift the hammer so whatever he says is meaningless and he's just being Tony.  We all know people like that.  I saw it as a non-entity and I think the furor behind it is kind of foolish.  But for those that haven't seen the movie, or won't see the movie but sees that Avengers has a 'rape joke' that's the 'rape joke' feel free to draw your own conclusions.

Final Thoughts

  Should media be more socially conscious?  Probably.  Mainstream media moreso than any another.  Even when they fail to be socially conscious it at least accomplishes a conversation about social responsibility.  Is Joss Whedon a racist, sexist homophobe or whatever?  I don't know the man personally and most likely neither do you.  He certainly tries to do a lot for strong female characters but ultimately he's working within that whole systemic racist/sexist/focus grouped corporate nonsense.  He answers to the people who write his check and they answer to the group of people with the most money.  Don't like the group of people with the most money?  Create replacements that will step up when the old guard dies off.  I don't really see how he's racist, he included Falcon, War Machine and Hiemdall when he probably didn't have to.  Not only that he gave War Machine some really great character moments in an already full movie.  Same with Dr. Cho.  If you're pissed that they weren't the stars of the movie then I'd talk to Marvel or Disney who probably want to keep them as sidekicks for now.

  The Marvel movies have evolved over time.  Just watch that first Iron Man again.  That was a lily white love letter to the power of men of industry.  God bless Jon Favereau for making the best out of a bad situation but everyone with power is a rich white male.  Not even poor Terrence Howard gets a moment of empowerment.  At least Don Cheadle got to wear a suit and kick ass.  Terrence Howard got to be the butt of all the jokes and steal a car.  Yeah... think about that.  While you're there think about the old rich white guy slaughtering a bunch of brown people using his superior smarts and technology.  The Marvel movies are evolving with society, not in advance of it so if you think the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn't moving fast enough that's probably because society isn't moving fast enough.  It's not there to represent the ideal and smokescreen reality.  I think we smokescreen reality enough as it is because it's easier to say we live in a 'post racial society' rather than address all those needlessly killed 'minorities'.  We like to say one thing and then do, or allow, another and that's kind of fucked up.

  I didn't see anything offensive in Ultron.  I had a hell of a time, I saw it in 3D last Friday, I plan on seeing it this Friday and I'm trying to make plans to see it a 3rd time and possibly even a 4th when it winds down and becomes cheap.  It's my number one Marvel movie now.  I think people just want to backlash against this stuff because it's become so prolific.  Now it's the 'in thing' and when something or someone one is 'in' then it becomes the 'in thing' to bash it.  By bashing it you can loudly proclaim "I am not a sheep!  I rebel against sheep!  I am unique!  I stand with this heard of non-sheep and we proudly bleet our unified opinion!"  You have successfully separated yourself from sheep and become a goat.  Huzzah!

  Ultimately, if nothing else, it raises questions worth answering and provides conversation worth having.  I, personally thought, that a conversation worth having that was raised by this movie is what defines sentience and are hatred, anger, hope and love inherent in sentience.  Using Ultron and Vision as examples you could have a great conversation about sentience, religion, thought, personhood, etc.  But nope, people want to swear at each other on Twitter and make empty, pathetic, death threats.  As always any counter-point is welcome as long as you are willing to have a conversation about it.

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