I’m Not Your Dummy — And Neither Is Joss Whedon (Part 2 of 2)

Art by Cliff Chiang

[Read Part 1, “I’m Not Your Dummy — Why No One Should Have To Be “The Right Kind of Ally,” here.]

Joss Whedon is a feminist.

He claims the term as a central pillar of his identity. He exerts a great deal of his creative energy on crafting narratives which focus on complex, strong female characters, and behind the scenes he goes out of his way to create opportunities for female creatives. He is a persistent activist in feminist causes like Equality Now, and has been an outspoken supporter of feminist targets of misogynistic harassment like (the awesome) Anita Sarkeesian.

But Joss is not the “right kind of ally.”

Last week, after Avengers: Age of Ultron opened (the film from my dream in part 1), there was a vicious shitstorm of online invective against him because of his treatment of the Black Widow in the film. He also left Twitter, without saying why, and many assumed it was because of the abuse. Or, as one blogger derisively put it, “Feminist and female writers take issue with black widow depiction. A lot of them do. Joss gets saddy pants and leaves Twitter.”

That same blogger was full of scorn for Joss and admiration for “what these intelligent and brilliant women wrote about their concerns with avengers 2…” And what sort of intelligent, brilliant commentary did we see?

(Click to see full sized)

Feces Hurled

Ah.

For many critics, the assault hinged on two things from the movie. The first was what many of them call a “rape joke,” Tony Stark’s line about reinstituting Prima Nocta during the scene when the male Avengers all try to out-macho each other by trying to lift Thor’s hammer. I saw a male writer in my Facebook feed proclaim that he wasn’t going to see the movie entirely because of that joke. But the joke is made not only in a scene which plays off of (and undermines) masculine power, but it’s made by Tony Stark, and Tony Stark is an asshole. He’s a charming asshole, he’s a dashing asshole, he’s an asshole who is trying very hard to be a better man. But he’s an asshole. And the joke is very much in character for him. More, the joke itself arguably provides evidence of why Stark is unworthy and cannot lift the hammer.

Was the joke “necessary?” No. And its appropriateness is as debatable as any somewhat adult content in these films. But Joss, and Marvel filmmakers in general, clearly approach these characters and stories from a grownup viewpoint. They don’t think “comic book” equals “kiddy book.” And the films are richer because of that, while still largely fine for young viewers.

Joss’s bigger sin was the revelation that Black Widow was sterilized by her makers in Soviet Russia in order to eliminate the danger that she might become pregnant and value something over her mission as an assassin. She reveals this in a scene with Bruce Banner, who is as romantically drawn to her as she is to him. But Banner is afraid of the rage monster inside him, and despondent over his own lack of ability to have children (in The Incredible Hulk, we saw that he couldn’t even safely make love, though hopefully he has gained more self control by now). This concern was actually telegraphed when they met in the first Avengers film, when Bruce gazed sadly at a crib while delivering the line “Well, I don’t always get what I want.” The scene in Age of Ultron hinges on the male character’s paternal yearnings, and his fear of what he cannot offer…and the female character opening up to him and reassuring him that she’s not going to lose what he can’t give her because it was already stolen from her.

Then Natasha calls herself a monster, and many critics reflexively took that to mean that she was saying she was a monster because she couldn’t have kids, when she is actually speaking of the fact that she was made a cold-blooded killer. Her personal myth is that she had the ability to create life taken from her, and all she had left was the ability to create death. But it’s the creation of death which makes her a monster.

Unfortunately, the dialogue is a bit clumsy (likely because the scene was radically edited for time, the full scene to hopefully appear in the director’s cut on Blu-Ray) and a slight reworking might have prevented the misunderstanding. As I watched, I saw the tripwire as soon as Joss hit it and thought “Uh-oh.” But I had no idea what a storm of crazy stupid would result.

This isn’t the first time anyone has called Joss out on his feminism, of course. Lots of people have lots of very strong opinions about such things, and lots of those are the kind of folks who demand precise submission to their dogma.

“I’ve said before, when you declare yourself politically, you destroy yourself artistically,” Joss said recently. “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…There was a point [in a recent kerfuffle] where someone wrote the phrase ‘championing women marginalizes them,’ and I was like, OK! We’re done! The snake hath et its tail. There’s no way to find any coherence when everything has to be parsed and decried.”

In other words, Joss Whedon isn’t someone’s ventriloquist’s dummy, or, maybe, marionette; to use his theme from Age of Ultron, there are no strings on him. He is a man of principle, and he realizes that he’ll never make everyone happy, so that’s not his goal. His goal is to do the right thing as he sees it. His goal is to be a man who busts his ass to help women and to advance society, not to shut up and be the sort of ally who just does what he’s told. His feminism isn’t academic, it’s practical and personal.

How perfect a feminist Whedon is will always depend on who’s talking. The thing is, this is a man who calls himself a feminist, who wants to be a feminist, who values women and equality and espouses such values in his life and in his work. If he has innate limitations that prevent him from being a perfect feminist, he is trying to rise above them. Trying hard.

If he makes mistakes, there’s nothing wrong with pointing them out. But mistakes don’t make him a misogynist. They don’t earn him hatred from those he’s busting his ass to serve. They don’t justify comments threatening to curb stomp him, calling him a piece of shit, or telling him you want him to die.

This is what happens when people insist on others being “the right kind of ally.” They become vicious and dogmatic and cruel, and they dehumanize the fuck out of the very people trying to help them. Joss Whedon is one of the most outspoken supporters of feminist causes in Hollywood, and one of the most prominent male feminists in the world. Even if he’s an imperfect icon, as all human beings ultimately are, he is exactly the sort of ally feminists should embrace, accepting his sincere attempts to help rather than demonizing him for nitpicky perceived infractions against doctrine.

As for him getting “saddy pants” and leaving Twitter? “That is horseshit,” he said Tuesday. “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.”

Whedon's Women

[Read Part 1, “I’m Not Your Dummy — Why No One Should Have To Be “The Right Kind of Ally,” here.]

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5 comments on “I’m Not Your Dummy — And Neither Is Joss Whedon (Part 2 of 2)

  1. swanpride says:

    I think that Whedon knows social media well enough to be aware that those people are actually a pretty small minority. And I also think that he is able to look at those who actually did write thoughtful articles about why the scene didn’t work (personally I think the main problem was the whole romance and putting it in this context instead of discussing what was done to Natasha in a setting which doesn’t have the underlying implication of her being somehow damaged goods because of it).

    I think it is important to discuss where Age of Ultron went wrong…and it did, multiple times. But saying a work is flawed is one thing. Attacking the person behind it on a personal level is way over the line, no matter what the issue is.

  2. nydiacarioca says:

    You know my opinion on this subject, so it’s not a surprise, I second every word you wrote here. Great post, love.

  3. Deadendra says:

    The downside of open social media like Twitter is that the loudest voice is the one that uses the strongest words. So in order to be heard over others, the minority opinion has to be constantly on the attack.

    I don’t really understand the POV that sees any realistic portrayal of women as products of society as misogynistic. Real women have to battle their programming just like men do.

  4. Citizen Alan says:

    At this point, I am nearly convinced that some of those idiotic tweets are actually from GamerGate supporters who are posting under female names to undermine real feminism by acting like the absolute worst caricature of a castrating shrewish SJW (a term that I thought was ridiculous and nonsensical before this nontroversy erupted).

    • Tim Byrd says:

      Possibly. But that’s an easy deflection to throw out there, and it’s not hard to find verifiable cases of militant feminists acting this way. This is hardly an unusual behavioral pattern among dogmatic folks. If they’re being Poe-ed, it’s because they’re very Poe-able.

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