As Tor is one of my favorite punching bags, I considered bouncing up and down on them like a trampoline.
When Marina said "I'm so tempted to fisk this article," I said "Want me to host it on my blog?"
And so, a guest post, fisking yet another stupid Tor Article.
First, a word from the dark side...
Avengers: Age of Ultron is about a lot of things. The film is a conversation about monsters, gods, what is right, what is wrong. Ultron is a monster, by our standards, but he thinks of himself as a god. Is Tony a monster for creating him? Will Steve ever be able to leave the war behind? Will Hawkeye ever finish the dining room?
So far so good. We want our stories, especially those told in the form of blockbuster movies, to be about a lot of things. We want big ideas, something to think over and discuss long after the end credits roll and the bucket of popcorn is emptied. And if some of those big ideas are intercut with personal quirks of the characters, so much the better. Best characters, those that stay with us, are portrayed as complete human beings, whether or not they happen to have specialized skills or super powers.
The biggest question that my friends and I have been discussing, however, is what we’ve all already started calling “The Black Widow Monster Scene.” There are several ways to interpret the exchange between Natasha and Bruce, all of which seem valid, in my opinion. But I specifically want to examine how this scene functions in the context of Joss Whedon’s overall work, and the popular perception of Whedon as a feminist writer. Simply put: let’s look at how often Whedon has relied on this trope of a woman’s power or uniqueness or, yes, monstrosity, being inseparable from her gender and sexuality—why, in Whedon’s stories of women’s power, does their strength and talent always need to be bound to their bodies and biology?
Well, now. Thank you ever so much for allowing us to interpret a scene in several ways, but you in your infinite wisdom will now tell us what we SHOULD think anyway. Personally, I think anyone claiming to divine an artist’s intent, especially in context of work from decades ago, is stretching literary analysis well beyond its limits, but hey, it’s a free country (for now). Examine away.
To begin at the beginning, in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, Buffy’s role as the Slayer is immediately sexualized, as Merrick explains that her terrible menstrual cramps are an early warning system that vampires are nearby. (And this is why Slayers have to be female.) Whedon’s film script was heavily rewritten, so it’s entirely possible that this was not one of his original plans for the character, but since it flows so well with the rest of the Buffyverse wrestling with sex and death, I’ve always felt it was probably one of his ideas. This concept was mostly dropped in the show, but the connection was reflected and echoed in other moments: it’s Buffy’s loss of virginity that triggers the return of Angelus; Willow explicitly compares her PMS to Oz’s monthly lycanthropy in “Phases”; and Faith tends to celebrate a successful slaying session with random, somewhat violent hookups—which later causes some emotional fallout with Xander.
I have to admit that the original Buffy movie is not fresh in my mind. Menstrual cramps reference never made it into the show, and one would think that if Whedon really loved the idea, he would have worked it in somehow. After all, he had seven seasons to play with ideas, new and old. Be that as it may, my first reaction as a fantasy fan is, “Hey, this is pretty clever. Take something that is biologically already there and is normally somewhat of a handicap and use it as an additional power to give the Slayer.” Also, I don’t know about you, but when I think about menstrual cramps, sexualization is pretty much the last thing on my mind. But, whatever floats your boat.
Moving on to the other points, and now I will get a little nit-picky, which I think is fair, considering the source.
The return of Angelus is triggered by the fact that Angel has sex with Buffy and achieves total bliss. Said bliss is not caused by Buffy losing her virginity, but by Angel engaging in passionate, satisfying sex with the woman he loves. Later on, Faith tries to seduce the good-again Angel to bring back Angelus. (On the spinoff Angel show, he is eventually able to have sex that is less passionate and not quite as satisfying with a woman he just kind of likes, with no adverse effects.) Personally, I think Whedon is simply using a tried and true horror trope of “sex=trouble” rather than anything much deeper. But in any case the big payoff involves Angel losing his soul, and if one wanted to make social commentary there, it might as easily have been “for men, bliss equals sex; how very primitive of them.” If anyone is defined and controlled by sex or lack thereof, it’s Angel, not Buffy.
Willow’s comment to Oz is part an awkward joke and part her trying to show empathy (hey, I know how you feel!). Willow is still in her suppressed, shy stage at that point, and this is the best she can do. In other words, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Faith, at least the version of Faith we first meet, is a gloriously amoral creature, and of course it shows in her sexual conduct. She takes anything she likes, be it shiny things or sexual pleasure, with no inhibitions, proudly and gleefully. It’s mostly a shorthand indication that we’re dealing with someone lacking inhibitions, with sex being only a consistent part of the overall character. We are back to my “complete” characters comment at the beginning. Whedon does that. It’s a good thing.
Putting aside the snide tone of the last comment, the paragraph above seems to have been written by someone who has either never seen Angel or stopped early on as that show has given us some of the strangest hookups, some with potentially world-ending consequences. It has been a while, but let me see if I can sum it up: Two vampires have sex, producing a human child. The child grows up quickly (long side story there) to adulthood and has sex with a somewhat super-powered human who used to change his diapers. Said human then gives birth to a goddess.
Nope, no strange sexual overtones in there at all. Why? Because it does not fit the narrative of the article, that’s why.
But then I watched Firefly. While Inara’s status as a Companion becomes increasingly complicated over the course of the series, her job doesn’t have much to do with her own personal sexuality; meanwhile, Zoe seems to be a happily married woman who’s attracted to her husband, and River seems to be too young and loopy to think about that sort of stuff yet. But what the hell is the deal with Kaylee? She’s a supercompetent mechanic in a future society that seems way less sexually uptight than our current Earth-based one. She’s good at her job, loves it, seems a bit naive at first. She jokes about vibrators, which, good. Sexually active girl. But then—we learn that she’s turned on by engines. In the (amazing) episode “Out of Gas,” we learn that she only got the job on Serenity because Mal caught her fucking his old mechanic in the engine room. Her skill with engines is inextricably tied to the fact that she’s sexually aroused by them, and specifically requested that Bester take her to the engine room. (She’s actually referred to as an “engineering groupie” on the Firefly wiki…).Wash isn’t turned on by flying, Zoe isn’t turned on by fighting, Simon isn’t turned on by practicing medicine, Jayne isn’t turned on by… whatever his particular skill is. (Actually, he and Simon both seemed to mostly be turned on by Kaylee?) Hell, Inara isn’t turned on by being a Companion. It’s her job, she sees it as a service, that’s really it, and we never get the sense that she’s particularly attracted to the people who visit her. Mal talks about loving Serenity… but that seems to be more of a spiritual thing than a sexual one. (If anything, he resembles the monkish Angel here.)
But then, because no sexual relationship can remain happy and healthy in the Whedonverse, Kaylee’s engine room is taken away from her. During the episode “Objects in Space,” bounty hunter Jubal Early shows up, looking for River. He finds Kaylee in the engine room, working, and threatens her, asking if she’s ever been raped, and making it clear that he’s prepared to hurt her to learn what he needs to know.
She’s terrified. She thought she was alone with her engine, working in silence after the rest of the crew went to bed. This is her safe space, the part of the ship that she understands even better than Mal does, the part of the ship that is most hers. So even though he doesn’t actually go through with his threat, her space has been violated. It’s safe to assume that she won’t be able to be in that room again without thinking about this incident….was this why she took Simon to the engine room, specifically, at the end of Serenity? To reclaim it for herself? Again, as storytelling, this is incredibly compelling, but as this particularly sexualized violence is only directed at one, young, female, incredibly vulnerable crew member, it overshadows everything else in the episode. Once again, a woman’s particular talent and career has been tied to her biology in a way that was wholly unnecessary to the plot, and which makes her own competency stand apart from the rest of her team.
If I wanted to find a problem with this plot point, it would be the fact that Kaylee, having been established as someone both smart and capable, is caught unarmed and helpless in the engine room. Considering she is part of a renegade crew, I would have expected her to be armed at all times. Before the “victim blaming” lynch mob gathers on my house lawn, I would like to point out that Kaylee is a fictional character and Whedon put her in that position. It’s not impossible that his own dislike of guns might have contributed to this slip-up in an otherwise exceptionally compelling story. This is a very long way for me to repeat the point I above: rape is violence, and needs to be treated as such in storytelling and in real life.
Why does Kaylee take Simon to the engine room? Because it is hers, more so than her room in the crew quarters, and because she wants to share it with the man she loves. Certainly, there is an added element of her getting over the trauma of near-rape and reclaiming her mental balance, but again, not everything is sexual.
In Dollhouse, some of the Dolls’ assignments include a fair amount of sex work, and we see Echo imprinted with the personalities of everything from a dearly departed housewife to a dominatrix. However, Dolls can be any gender, and their functions in the field are not inherently sexual. And considering that their minds are “wiped” in-between each engagement, it’s clear that they don’t get off on what they do, and while the clients might, this is not central to the Dolls’ view of themselves. The point is that the Dolls have no view of themselves until Echo begins to break down. Dollhouse explores the extremes of identity—the dolls form perspectives on themselves without tying those core identities explicitly to their sexual being—while their clients actively pay for the privilege of seeing their sexual and personal preferences embodied in someone else. Dollhouse’s focus on identity includes, among other things, exploration of the notion of biological destiny. From there, Whedon leaves his own creations and begins working in the Marvel Universe.
Interestingly enough, the author does not find fault with Dollhouse, a show that, at least in my opinion, is Whedon’s weakest work. There are certainly questions of what constitutes an identity and how much of it is genetically pre-programmed, but in all honesty the rushed plotlines did not allow for enough exploration.
So far, the author has waded unsteadily through the archives of Whedon’s work, cherry-picking and misinterpreting a elements along the way, and is now ready to regale us with her views of The Avengers. Being a naturally patient person, I am willing to allow that maybe her memory of Whedon’s older stuff is selective, faulty, or gotten from Wiki, but The Avengers is recent, so it has to get better from now on, right? Right?
Wait, Buffy is sexualized by menstrual cramps, and Willow by PMS, but a guy purposefully depicted in such a way as to turn on every straight woman and gay man in the theater is not? Whatever you say, but you may want to keep some ice ready. That kind of mental gymnastics can hurt you.
Oh, and objectification is suddenly OK. I’ll remember that when your ilk start screaming bloody murder when a pair of larger-than-usual breasts appears on a screen, or—horrors!—in a comic book.
Black Widow has used her brain, her wit, her charm, her sense of humor, her apparently horrifying Soviet spy training, and her hopefully less-horrifying S.H.I.E.L.D. training, all to do a very specific job. However, at least in the context of the MCU, she’s never played the femme fatale. She’s never used sex to manipulate any of the men or women on screen with her. She gets a job as Pepper’s assistant in Iron Man 2 because she’s qualified for the gig. Tony’s the one who makes lewd jokes, and looks at her modeling shots, and doesn’t see the super-assassin standing right next to him.
Unless, of course, knowing Tony’s rep, she made sure those enticing photos popped up first thing in the search. Surely, as a spy, if she wanted to make them disappear off the search engine and ONLY get hired based on her skills, she could have done that easily. But that would be stupid, which she is not.
Me too, but probably for a different reason. As someone not familiar with the comics, I was taken by surprise with the romance, but in retrospect, it was inevitable. These are two exceptionally damaged people. (Banner has “the other guy,” and the self-loathing that comes with it. And Natasha very clearly has demons of her own even before she opens up in “The Scene.” She looks distraught and shaken during her conversation with Loki in the first Avengers. Yes, she was acting to get information—all in a day’s work for a super-spy. But the facts recounted by Loki were genuine, and so was her pain from bringing up the details of her past.) So it is good and right and satisfying to see Bruce and Natasha connect and share something special together, however temporarily.
Earlier, we see flashes of Widow’s time in her Russian spy school. She returns to the school during a Scarlet Witch-induced vision because it’s her worst memory, the trauma that she can’t let go of even after all that’s happened to her and all she’s done. The Red Room is where and when young Natalia was “unmade” and then reconstructed as a Black Widow. Her stern headmistress has a disjointed voiceover about her graduation ceremony, and we see a man in a chair with a bag over his head—is her graduation ceremony killing him? Interrogating him? Torturing him for secrets he doesn’t even have?
Her graduation ceremony comes after all of the training, when she’s wheeled into a makeshift hospital room and sterilized.
This makes sense. It’s part of Widow’s backstory in the comics, and it seems like a very practical decision for a spy to make. But it becomes clear in the flashbacks that Natasha had changed her mind, and the headmistress even claims that she’s sabotaging her own graduation to try to get out of it. More than learning how to lie and kill, this is the part of the experience she regrets the most.
“Still think you’re the only monster on the team?” she asks Banner.
Oh, the wonderful ability of feminist and academic writers to ignore the context right when it’s smacking them in the face with a giant green fist. Banner just finished telling Natasha how he can’t stay with her and have a normal relationship, because, for one, “the other guy” comes out during sex.
(D*mn. Don’t tell men about this one. A guy just MIGHT scroll up to the whole Angel/Angelus/sex part and write a long boring article about Banner in context of THAT. On second though, never mind. Men don’t think that way. You know why? Because they JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN AT THE MOVIES. I know. Unenlightened creatures, men.)
Alright, crisis averted. Where was I? Right. Banner. No sex. No family. That has to suck duck eggs, but he’s accepted it, or at least filed it away to feed his ever present anger. Insert a snide remark about men and emotional repression. YAY stereotypes.
Natasha, for all we know of her from the movies, now that we’re clear Hawkeye was just a friend all along, has never been in love since becoming an assassin. May not be true in the comics, but stick with me. Now she feels an attraction. Even better, it’s mutual. The only problem is, the man she loves looks in the mirror every day and sees a monster.
AND SHE UNDERSTANDS.
Right or wrong, that’s how she feels about herself.
So she brings up what she thinks is her darkest secret, her one irredeemable—in her eyes—flaw in hopes of making him feel less alone. She hopes they will connect at that level and just might stay together. By calling herself a monster, she professes her love.
Sweet, romantic, powerful, tear-jerking, standout scene in a move that’s a chock-full of iconic moments. Good job, Mr. Whedon, keep ‘em coming.
Oops, I forgot to turn on my feminist brain.
OK, that hurt. Back to my regular brain now. Moving on…
Just to be clear, Ms. Artsy Analyst Blogger, YOU went there, not me. You chose to make it personal. I’ll bite. You don’t want kids. Good for you. To claim some kind of sisterly camaraderie with infertile women, however, is the ultimate in arrogance and—again, YOU started it—insensitivity. How DARE you presume what it’s like to be infertile, what does and does not feel “like a gutpunch”? You want a real example of a gutpunch? Try Hilary Clinton, no doubt one of your heroes and role models, saying in an early interview (post-election, pre-bimbo eruptions) how essential motherhood had been for her as a woman, how she never even considered giving up this “important experience.” I remember the words to this day because my own, years-long struggle with infertility had started just about then. Looking around and seeing nothing but strollers everywhere is bad enough. Hearing it from the First Lady on national TV is something else entirely. I don’t remember Republican women, fertile or not, throwing a collective fit over that one. Welcome to Double Standard Land. Oh wait, that’s where YOU live, not me.
For those curious, as proof that whoever runs the Universe has a sense of humor, I now have three children, the last of those unplanned. But I remember the pain well, and I for one APPRECIATE seeing an amazingly strong and independent woman acknowledging that the heartbreak is real, and it messes up with your sense of self in ways outsiders cannot imagine. And no, choosing not to have kids does not qualify you for full understanding. Sit down and shut up. You have nothing to say here.
While Banner’s belief in himself as a monster stems from the Hulk’s destructive powers, the movie claims that Natasha’s sense of herself as Other is seated in her decision to give up the ability to bear children… a decision that seems to have been partially forced on her anyway. And really, why did the film even need to go there? We have more than enough angst between Natasha’s status as a murderer and Banner’s status as a green rage monster for them to grapple over whether they even deserve happiness together, let alone whether it’s possible for them to pursue it... but instead Whedon had to delve into biology and sexuality in a way that completely muddled the conversation, and completely changed Natasha’s character arc.
Once again, I see beautiful storytelling. The other side of the coin, the possibilities lost (Maybe? Would a woman like Natasha be capable of enjoying this life? She’ll never know. My guess is, probably not, but she was never given a chance so that’s all it is, a guess.) But the author is so dripping with contempt at this point, SHE is the one reducing both women to their most shallow characteristics.
And one more time, S-L-O-W-L-Y: getting sterilized against your will is not a sexual choice. Even falling in love with a man who is problematic as a partner is not a sexual choice. Words have meaning. Look them up.
Now I want to re-state: I love a lot of Joss Whedon’s writing. And obviously, many humans, both real and fictional, find their lives shaped by their sexual choices. But it still seems noteworthy that so many women written by Whedon end up being completely defined by those choices (or the loss or absence of those choices, in some cases). And it’s interesting to me that the go-to feminist writer of nerd culture seems to use this trope almost as often as he kills people for dramatic effect.
Well isn’t this just precious. I think we got us the new Godwin Law, with GamerGate replacing Hitler. Listen to a feminist long enough, and sure enough, here it is. Only you know what? I’m not a guy, I’m not a gamer, and bringing up this crap in the middle of nowhere does not work to summarily shut me up.
Are you exhausted? Good. Step away from the keyboard, put away your “How to Claim Victim Status is 5 Easy Steps” handbook, pop in some Blue Ray disks and for crying out loud, re-watch those shows you so claim to love, this time with your feminist blinders off. Enjoy. Relax. You’ll thank me later.
Amen to that. I, or millions of fans, have never judged her otherwise. But then, I just want to have fun at the movies. Apparently, it’s a thing now. Maybe you should try it.