Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Guest post: Joss Whedon, Sex, and Monsters: A Fan's response.

Marina Fontaine is a friend of mine. We ran into each other on Facebook, and I think she might be one of my bigger fans.  When the stupid hit the fan with Joss Whedon last week, Tor joined in on the stupid, because, well, Tor. 

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.

Given that Buffy was more about high school, college, growing up, and coming of age, the sexual nature of this stuff was often necessary and very metaphorical. As Whedon moved to the more adult, male-centered Angel, we also got a severe downshift in sexuality: there is a constant undercurrent that Angel has to be a vampiric monk, because he believes that any form of physical intimacy would take his soul. The tone of the show matched with the main character’s struggle, showcasing the entire team without overtly sexualizing any of their jobs, and as I watched my way through most of the Whedon oeuvre, I assumed that he’d left the conflation of power with sexuality back in high school with Buffy.

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.)

Once again, have we watched the same show? Kaylee “jokes about vibrators” are complaints that she has NOT been sexually active in pretty much forever. But aside from that, she rocks it out as a mechanic while otherwise being sweet, shy and somewhat lacking in self-esteem. She has a crush on Simon but will not approach him. She gets utterly devastated by a put down from a socialite regarding her frilly dress. Later at the same party, she recovers her balance by chatting up a group of men on the subject of engines. I see her skill as a source of pride and something that gives her both comfort and self-confidence. The author looks at all of that and sees a sexual fetish. Ooookay. I don’t think Whedon is the problem 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.

Over-think much? Rape is used in literature over and over again because it is a) a shorthand for cruelty and violence that has almost no equivalent and b) a primal fear of every woman, no matter how safe and sheltered. Yes, it is biologically determined, and even though men can and do get raped, this particular fear is unique to females. (Men have a primal fear of their own. I don’t know if the joke about a groin cup being invented way before a sports helmet is true, but it sounds right. However, double standard being what it is, that particular turn of events mostly appears only for cheap giggles in comedies, and Whedon has not used it in his work.)

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?

Let me begin by saying that there is a difference between objectification and sexualization. Yes, the Chrises are all objectified in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—this time out, they even find an excuse to throw Hemsworth in a pool so he can whip his hair around like he’s in a shampoo ad. However, none of the guys are sexualized. None of them are defined by their sexual relationships.

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.

And Widow, contrary to the actors’ jokes about sluttiness, is not actually sexualized in the films until we get to Age of Ultron. (Actually, if you want to talk about the biggest slut in the Marvelverse? It’s Matt Murdock, by a hurt/comfort landslide.) Playboy’s article about this is completely on-point. She works in espionage, she is ridiculously good-looking, and, presumably, she’s used her looks to infiltrate certain areas. She has probably used her body in slightly more direct sexual ways to get people to give up secrets. She’s also used her body to beat the truth out of enemies.

Since at this point the author cannot find any problems, she falls back on reminding everyone how two of the male actors were jerks towards the character. Never mind that the Black Widow character would have probably beat the snot out of anyone, super-powered or not, who dared to call her a whore. Black Widow is now officially a victim. Somehow.

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.

Where Widow uses her body and sexuality as a tool, Tony thinks that she can be defined by her sexuality, presumably in the same way he’s defined other young women during his pre-Pepper philandering. This causes him to completely overlook her actual skills and job qualifications until he learns that she’s working with Fury, and to be continually amazed at how she works directly with Pepper to keep Stark Industries afloat after he goes rogue. Later, Widow works alongside the other Avengers to fight the Chitauri invasion; some time after that, she goes on the lam with Cap in The Winter Soldier and spends most of the time either fighting or hacking. She does kiss Steve once to hide their faces, but it’s a pretty platonic kiss, and she’s only doing it to protect them. In fact, the running gag of the film is her badgering him about his love life, because they’re buddies, and that’s the kind of stuff buddies talk about together.

This section is all decent analysis, although I take issue with the author’s insistence that a female character might somehow become less worthy if she got romantically involved with a partner. While I’m not a fan of action movie conventions demanding that a male lead and a female lead must pair up whether of not the story can support it, neither do I give movies bonus points when it does not happen. Story must come first and characters must stay consistent (or we should get an explanation as to when they are not). For Black Widow, a Soviet-trained spy, staying away from personal involvement is a consistent trait, so, good.

So after several films of watching Natasha do her job without any attachments of any kind, we get the Banner/Romanoff romance. And it’s exactly that: romance. Furtive glances with occasional gazing, flirtation over cocktails, banter that makes me want the two of them in their own ’40s throwback spinoff movie RIGHT NOW. (Scarlett Johansson wasn’t as into it, but I think it’s sweet and awesome.)

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.

But then… Banner thinks that he’s a monster because the Other Guy occasionally gets out and literally kills people and destroys buildings. The film leaves us no doubt that he’s incredibly dangerous and nearly unstoppable. So when he opens up to Natasha about leaving the team, hiding out where he can’t hurt anyone, she reciprocates by telling him how she, too, is a monster. And this is where the film veers straight into a wall.

Ha. Strange that would be the choice of words because as far as I’m concerned, it’s this article that just ran into the wall, then proceeded to climb it, jump off head-first and leave an article-shaped hole in the ground, a la Sunday morning cartoons. Here we go…

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?


That was wonderfully clever, if disturbing, piece of misdirection. We are led to assume that the graduation ceremony involves some kind of ritual torture and/or killing, but the flashback moves on, presumably to something worse. What can possibly be worse, we wonder? That’s a VERY powerful scene.

Her graduation ceremony comes after all of the training, when she’s wheeled into a makeshift hospital room and sterilized.

Yep, OK, that’s worse. Great payoff there. She’s no longer a budding assassin, “made of marble,” but a woman about to be permanently changed in a fundamental, biological way and hesitant about taking the step. Again, a complete character. Flesh and blood and doubt; not marble after all.

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.


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…

I think Whedon was trying to say that it was her choice to become a killer that is the monstrosity here, and that she’s trying to empathize with Banner on that point, but the beats of his script work so that the conversation ends on the regret that she’ll never be a (biological) mother.

“Choice” is an iffy word here, likely used because of the knee-jerk reaction of feminists to claim the concept at all times when discussing what is loosely known as “women’s issues.” Does anyone seriously think that, had Natasha refused the procedure, the Soviet schoolmarm would have just let her go in peace? They were able to convince her not to resist, but there was no choice involved in normal sense of the world. Regretting and acknowledging the loss is not the same as guilt.

(And in the interest of full disclosure: I don’t intend to have children, and this line felt like a gutpunch to me. I can only imagine that it was worse for people who do want kids, but can’t have them...)

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.

Already covered. Natasha opens up as an act of love. And possibly because, having just seen a happy family in action, she NEEDS to give words to her pain, and Bruce happens to be there. Either explanation works, and both are likely true. Whedon’s characters have layers.

Obviously, this scene is off-putting enough, but when you compare it with the other female characters in the film, it becomes even more glaring.

You say off-putting, I say brilliant. Repeating your points doesn’t make them true. But by all means, keep digging that hole.

At this point Widow is the only female Avenger, and her power, her espionage skills and all that training, have now been defined in sexual terms. Actually, not even just sexual terms—her skills are a repudiation of fertility itself. She is the negative to Clint’s secret pregnant wife Laura, who stays at home taking care of the kids, managing a bucolic farm house, able to make a giant dinner for a completely unexpected team of superheroes on very short notice, discreetly not mentioning that Nick Fury’s already out in the barn so that he can get his surprise entrance when Tony most needs a pep talk… basically, she’s a caretaker for a bunch of people she doesn’t even know.

Yeah, I know. THE NERVE! How dare Whedon portray an ordinary homemaker woman as supremely competent at her particular choice of lifestyle? Doesn’t he know it’s not an acceptable option for a modern woman? Take away his feminism-supporting card RIGHT NOW!

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.

Her very existence tells us something else about this universe: Clint Barton is able to be a full-time Avenger, with much of the same training as Natasha, just as much red in his ledger, and at the end of the mission he gets to go back to a loving home and family. Natasha doesn’t get to have any of that. There is no “end of the mission” for her. What there might be is literally running away with the Hulk, which would come at the sacrifice of her entire life and her work with the Avengers. (Apparently female superheroes still can’t have it all?)

Well, you know what? Them’s the breaks. Clint Barton is in love with a regular woman, so when he’s not being a super-assassin, he gets a few moments of regular life. Natasha fell for the guy who breaks buildings and catches missiles with his teeth when he gets agitated. Again, no way to know if she could have paired up with a farmer or a computer geek who would spend his days waiting for her by the window, but for right now, Banner is her man, with everything that it implies.

With Laura a homemaker who is defined by her role as Clint’s wife, Scarlet Witch a young girl who is effectively infantilized by Clint during the pep talk on the floating island, and Friday, Dr. Cho, and Maria Hill each having very small roles, Natasha is the only woman who seem to be on an equal level with the guys. The film makes this explicit when she steps up to train the Avengers 2.0 with Steve—they’re both career soldiers who have no life off the battlefield. But unlike Steve, and unlike all of the other Avengers, the capabilities that elevate her over normal people have now been identified as a side effect of her sexual choices.

Right. Scarlet Witch has a team of superheroes reduced to quivering jelly by WAVING HER HANDS, but because she dares to grieve for her twin brother and needs a little support at the lowest moment of her life, she is suddenly just a young, infantilized girl? Dr. Cho is a super-scientist genius who also counts for nothing because she is not a warrior? Now who’s diminishing and dismissing female characters? Not Whedon, for sure.

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.

Translation: STILL NOT GOOD ENOUGH! UNACCEPTABLE! It’s not enough to create breakthrough shows featuring female empowerment that are actually entertaining enough to get the message heard and taken to heart by millions of fans. Nope. Still too much humanity and complexity to the characters and not enough pure messaging for your feminist fans (for value of “fans,” considering how much this particular author got factually wrong about Whedon’s shows.)

Why, in the midst of stories about women’s power, does he need to tie that power to uncontrollable bodily functions? Why are men like Mal and Angel able to be defined by their missions, while their female counterparts are still defined largely by their sexuality? Why is a character who is mostly non-sexual onscreen called a slut, while a certain genius billionaire playboy philanthropist enthusiastically lives up to the “playboy” part of his rep and never gets any flack for it? By the end of Ultron, Natasha seems to be compared most strongly with Steve: they made analogous decisions to sacrifice their personal lives for their countries, to undergo medical alteration to become soldiers, and I don’t think it’s an accident that Natasha holds the mighty shield almost as often as Cap does. So why is Natasha’s decision to become a killer for her country any more repulsive than Steve’s? I think Whedon was trying to examine some huge concepts in Age of Ultron, and I think many of the questions he raises are fascinating, and handled brilliantly. I just wish he’d also asked a few of these equally important questions of himself along the way.

Yep, Angel’s soul is not—literally—tied to his sexual behavior. Mal only cares about his ship and not the beautiful woman he thinks he can never have. Tony’s life is one big party and he pays no price whatsoever for his less that stellar choices. Captain America does not forever regret missing the dance with his long lost love. Nope. It’s only women who have issues in Whedonverse. My mistake.

Now, in a truly hilarious twist, Joss Whedon’s decision to leave Twitter to pursue personal time to write has become the latest part in the conversation about his feminism. Since people have been vocal about their issues with Black Widow’s arc, and since Whedon didn’t explicitly state that he was taking time off for personal reasons, his narrative was hijacked and turned into an excuse to accuse “angry feminists" of driving him off the platform. There are articles all over the internet, and the news trended on Twitter with the vast majority of tweets complaining about the women who hounded him. So then Whedon himself had to come back onto social media—you know, the place he was trying to leave—to explain that he just wanted to get away from the constant barrage of information.

Hilarious indeed. Because there is no record whatsoever of feminists hounding their opponents, or perceived opponents, or regular people who might have farted off key, into submission. Google #Shirtstorm. Then get back to me. I don’t know why Whedon went off Twitter. Obviously, he can’t say “because a bunch of angry women yelled at me.” But if THIS article is any representation, I can’t blame the man for wanting a break from the insanity.

The fact that people who purport to be Whedon fans would trumpet the idea that “radical feminists” were hurting their hero is terribly disheartening to me. The fact the last year has been filled with vitriol and threats against women who dare to critique geek culture is particularly upsetting. And most of all the fact that one of our most public male feminists can’t just give us an interesting, complicated, compelling character without having to tie both her greatest strengths and her greatest flaws to her sexuality? That’s just exhausting.

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.

I’m doing my best not to lay another narrative on top of this, but instead to look at the work itself and ask why Black Widow can’t just be an Avenger, judged on her skills and capabilities the same way Steve, Tony, and Clint are? Why does this one aspect of her life now have to define all the others?

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.

MarinaFontaine is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, a proud American and an unrepentant book addict.

Because of her background, Marina especially appreciates an opportunity to discover, share and support pro-freedom art in all its forms. She is a co-founder of Conservative-Libertarian Fiction Alliance group on Facebook, runs Small Government Book Fan Club on Goodreads and has a blog on LibertyIsland.

Marina lives in New Jersey with her very supportive husband, three children and four guinea pigs, working as an accountant by day and an aspiring writer by night.


  1. Tell it, sister. Beautiful!

  2. Spot on. When I saw this tripe article, the first thing that popped into my head was "this is begging to be fisked."

  3. Why Whedon continues to bow to these people who would cut his head off on a whim is beyond me.


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