“…seems to be some kind of large crowd forming on the horizon.”
I swing pretty far to the left, politically speaking.
Not all the way to the left, it must be said. There are a few areas where I’m more toward the centre, but when it comes to social justice issues I’m a leftie. I’m for gay marriage, against capital punishment, pro-environment, feminist, all that jazz. On the net I’ve been called a Social Justice Warrior as a pejorative more times than I can count, and I always took it as a badge of honour – after all, social justice is a good thing and worth fighting for, so if some idiot I’m trading barbs with thinks that’s an insult, I’m ahead on points, yeah?
Well, now I’ve seen the frothing warband that quite literally chased Joss Whedon off Twitter and I’m wondering if I’ve been laboring under some misapprehension here, because if the people on the opposite end of the political spectrum mean that kind of behaviour when they bandy around the term SJW then no, that isn’t something I want to be associated with. But we’ll swing back around to that in a bit.
If you’re new to Earth you might not know who Joss Whedon is, or The Avengers, so let me be the first to welcome you and give you some cliff notes. Joss Whedon is a successful and critically lauded writer, producer and director with a distinctive authorial voice and some pretty solid leftie bona fides. A self-described feminist, Whedon cut his teeth in the writers room of the groundbreaking sitcom Roseanne before going on to create Buffy The Vampire Slayer, a property widely regarded as one of the best and most important genre series in the history of television. It’s also a strongly feminist text, and if some of its assumptions seem a little off or awkward now, in the ‘90s it was pretty heady stuff for a mainstream, teen-oriented horror/fantasy series.
Whedon’s subsequent television work has been less successful on the whole, both commercially and critically (see Firefly/Serenityand Dollhouse) but he has maintained a loyal – ferociously loyal in the case of the Browncoats – fan base and a reputation for creating strong female characters and tackling social issues in his work. Which is not to say his stuff is beyond criticism: there are serious race issues in Firefly, for example, and Whedon’s fetish for emotionally damaged combat waifs (Buffy, River, even Scarlet Witch) is getting a bit tired, but the problematic elements in his work always seemed to me to be the result of carelessness rather than intent. Whedon is, surely, one of the good guys; he may not always be 100% on point, but he is most certainly pushing in the right direction, yeah?
Well, no, apparently not. According to a very vocal subsection of Twitter users, certain plot and character elements of Avengers: Age Of Ultron mean Joss Whedon is actually the devil.
Spoilers for Age Of Ultron follow. 
Whedon has been accused of misogyny because of two key points in AoU: an off-colour remark that Tony Stark makes about reinstating prima noctis (“right of the first night” – go watch Braveheart again) if he can lift Thor’s hammer and become ruler of Asgard, and some Black Widow back-story where it is revealed that she was sterilised when she graduated from the school where she was trained as an assassin. People have also taken issue with the Widow’s romance with Bruce Banner/The Hulk and the fact that, in the third act climax,she gets rescued from Ultron by Banner. There’s more to it, and indeed the whole way in which Marvel handled and continues to handle their premier female character – Meredith Woerner and Katharine Trendacosta have a fantastic piece up on io9 that covers a lot of ground – but these two points seem to be the crux of the matter, so let’s take a look at them.
Stark’s rape joke – and it totally is a rape joke, albeit a very oblique one – is offensive and funny if you find that sort of thing funny and – and this is key – in character. Tony Stark is an arrogant, sexist jerk. They’ve cranked those elements of his character up to 11 in the MCU, and this is an example of those elements being in full play. It’s still a rape joke but the joke is part of a larger, scene-contextual joke that Stark is the butt of, the joke being that he is not worthy of wielding Mjolnir precisely because he is the kind of asshole who makes a flippant rape joke when essentially trying to pull the sword out of the stone. He demonstrates his character flaw and is immediately and demonstrably punished for it. 
And let’s not forget the venerable but important axiom that depiction is not endorsement. That’s a really important rule of thumb to keep in mind: not just what a work is showing but what it is saying about what it is showing. To my mind, Stark’s joke is not being endorsed by the text, unless it’s by dint of the fact that effortlessly charming bastard Robert Downey, Jr. is saying it.
Then there’s the Natasha/Bruce relationship,which I found to be one of the most interesting and surprising parts of the film. I imagine this pairing sprung from the writing exercise of putting two characters with nothing in common together in a room and seeing where it takes you. In this case it went somewhere interesting; I don’t recall any storylines that paired Hulk and Widow in any meaningful way (but I could be wrong), but putting them in dramatic proximity lets us (and the writer – Whedon) draw out parallels and binary oppositions and what have you, and basically see if it’ll take us and the story anywhere dramatically interesting. In this case we get a nascent romantic relationship that Natasha wants and Bruce doesn’t. Bruce, every wary of his Hulk persona, doesn’t want to be close to anyone in case he accidentally hurts them. Natasha knows very well she’s capable of hurting people – she was a professional assassin, after all – and sees nobility in Bruce’s struggle to control his inner monster – after all, she sees herself as a monster as well. In a moment of shared vulnerability, when Bruce confesses he can’t have a family, presumably out of fear of passing on his condition – Natasha reveals that she cannot have children either. It’s a thoughtful, touching, quiet moment in a film largely filled with bombast, and I never for a second thought that Natasha’s self-perceived monstrosity was because of her infertility – it seems obvious to me that it’s because she’s killed a lot of people and feels guilty about it. It never occurred to me to view it the other way until the current storm hit.
Now, the thing about the preceding three paragraphs is this: they’re my opinions, based on my reading of the film.They’re not absolutes and should never be read as such – nor should any critic’s or commentator’s. At its best, criticism is discourse, and it requires multiple viewpoints to compete for consideration and, hopefully, synthesis,  And one of the things I hate about this:

This was made by a guy on Twitter who calls himself John Galt – I guarantee we’re ideological opposites.

…is that it makes discourse impossible. This is not a conversation; this is incoherent, senseless rage, and it’s drowning out actual, thoughtful criticism of the problematic elements of Whedon’s work. Just because Whedon has declared himself a feminist and a male ally doesn’t mean his work is above reproach, but it also doesn’t mean there are extra points to be scored in revealing him to be some kind of arch-misogynist in sheep’s clothing (which, to be clear, he is not). He is – and I’m speaking of someone I’ve never personally met, but I feel these are safe assumptions – an artist trying to tell stories that reflect his worldview, and the work he produces is, by and large, progressive. And sometimes it’s not. And the cool thing is we get to talk about what works and what doesn’t and learn things.

I’m acutely worried that I’m coming across as both mansplaining and tone policing here and I want to do neither, but also I don’t think saying “don’t send a director death threats” is tone policing – it’s just courtesy. I’m also very aware that no great social change was ever brought about by asking nicely, but I don’t think threatening to curbstomp the creator of Doctor Horrible’s Singalong Blog equates to a great leap forward, no matter how many voices are joined in the chorus.

And I get it. I have been the ugly angry voice on the internet, oiling up the guillotine blades for whoever has offended me ideologically – largely political conservatives in my case. It feels good to have an identifiable enemy to get your two minute hate on at, and there’s a heady thrill in the combination of anonymity, access and numbers- especially in the service of a perceived right – that can make anything you say seem acceptable. It’s very easy to forget that there’s a human being on the receiving end of your vitriol, even if he is a rich, white, straight guy (and believe me, I know of the horrors rich, white, straight guys have wrought on the world). It’s also easy to forget that, shorn of context, your idle threats have impact. If you’re a 15 year old girl or a 40 year old guy or whatever your deal is and you jokingly tell your buddy to go shove a burning stick up his ass over a disagreement regarding pop culture, you perhaps are justified in assuming it’ll be taken in the (hopefully) joking manner in which it was intended. If you’re tweeting that at some guy you’ve never met and you’re contributing one of a huge barrage of similar invective, it’s not the same thing. It’s actually really horrible.

And it’s a kind of horrible we’ve seen before.

Over the past year we’ve seen the skirmish lines form up over a number of issues. Gamergate comes immediately to mind, and so does the Reclaim Australia movement. I’m squarely against both those movements and I’ve had (comparative) moderates from across the no man’s land of political and social argument try to explain to me that the rabid misogynists attracted to the former and the frothing racists and actual neo-Nazis drawn to the latter are not representative of the core rank and file, that they were extremists, vocal minorities, fanatics whose antics muddied the water and made the actual concerns of those movements’ constituents difficult to discern. I laughed, of course, and said that if people like that flocked to their banner, then perhaps their banner was a pretty terrible one.

I still believe that, but now find myself in the excruciating position of being open to having the same rhetoric quite fairly leveled at me. If the umbrella term of Social Justice Warrior covers these people as well, then is it a term worth embracing? What good is a poisoned brand?

This essay has really been a way for me to process some fairly complex reactions to these events and, indeed,while I’ve been writing Joss Whedon has come forward and said that he left Twitter to try and get his own personal and creative life back on an even keel, which if nothing else is a timely lesson on how quickly news moves these days. He also says some very interesting and astute things about feminism and his relationship to it, and the progressive left’s tendency towards infighting, so be sure to hit that link. In the meantime, if there’s a thesis here, it largely jibes with Guardians Of The Galaxy director James Gunn’s response to the matter:

“My plea to all of you – and this is nothing new – is that we all try to be a little kinder, on the Internet and elsewhere.”

It doesn’t matter why you’re doing what you’re doing. Action is character, behaviour is truth. So please, try not to be horrible people because somebody put something you don’t like in a movie about a robot that sounds like the snotty rich kid in Pretty In Pink


3 Responses

  1. Unknown

    [Spoilers for Age of Ultron]

    Stark's rape joke isn't any more controversial than Loki calling Black Widow a "mewling quim" in the first one.

    And the fact that Black Widow can't have kids because of something that she went through when she was younger, and subsequentially thinks of herself as a "monster" ties in thematically with the whole movie, which is literally about parenthood.
    (Also, having her say she FEELS like a monster isn't the SAME as saying all barren women are monsters. That's not how words work.)

    Her relationship with Banner makes total sense, given that the movie is about legacy and parenthood. They're both basically sterile. No wonder they've bonded so well.

    She doesn't NEED anyone to rescue her and she's hardly in distress by the end. If anything, she's just told all the Avengers where his secret base is and is just waiting for them to get there so she can continue kicking ass.

    And come to think of it, nobody seems to be drawing attention to the fact that the movie EXPLICITY tells us that the women in the the Avenger's lives are kicking goals. Like how Pepper is CEO of the biggest business on Earth and Jane is getting a Nobel prize. Joss is telling us that its these women who are advancing the world, whereas the big beefy blokes keep knocking buildings down.
    Not a feminist? Pig's arse.

    Please learn how to watch movies.

  2. Unknown

    Interesting read. As an aside, in my ignorance I'd always assumed Summer Glau was of Asian descent as she has a "Eurasian" look about her (people have made the same mistake about me) – and with the family name of Tam the implication is that her and her brother's characters are at the very least part Chinese. I just did some Googling to confirm my assumptions were mistaken. My wife who lived more than half her life in Singapore made the same assumptions. I think the greater question is not around whether the show included Asian characters (the suggestion is clear to me that the Tams are supposed to be of Asian descent) but the validity of characters with Asian ancestry being played by non-Asians.


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