While Avengers: Age of Ultron had a record setting first weekend, just $19.7 million behind the first Avengers in terms of all-time opening weekend rankings, the movie has also faced a lot of outcry, specifically about its handling of female characters.
This is nothing new, the first Avengers doesn’t even pass the Bechdel Test (it barely passed the “sexy lamp test,” to be frank), but the level of outrage, directed specifically at Joss Whedon, is definitely something (semi-)new for the creator.
The issues with Avengers: Age of Ultron all started with an interview with Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans just before the statewide release of the movie. In the interview, with Digital Spy, Renner and Evans are asked about their characters’ potential romantic connections with Black Widow. “She’s a slut,” Renner causally replied, which caused Evans to laugh uproariously and agree. The two of them continued by calling Black Widow a “trick” and a “whore,” while implying that she has slept around with all the Avengers as well.
They both retroactively apologized, although Renner’s apology came off as significantly less sincere, and more of a “sorry, not sorry” mansplanation of his very funny “joke.” Renner even went on to later talk about the outrage directed at him on the late night talk show Conan:
Mind you, we are talking about a fictional character and fictional behavior, Conan, but if you slept with four of the six Avengers, no matter how much fun you had, you’d be a slut. Just saying. I’d be a slut. Just saying.
But the problem is, the movie does the exact same kind of slut-shaming that Renner and Evans did in their interview. Black Widow’s sexuality has always been weaponized in the comics, but in Avengers: Age of Ultron her sexuality is not something that she controls or owns herself. Instead, Captain America is the one to talk about her sexuality, with the implication being that either he has seen her sleep with other people for the purpose of “the mission” (“I’ve seen her flirt”).
Beyond that, Black Widow’s role in the film is to be the Hulk’s glorified babysitter. There’s little to no chemistry between the two characters, and the moments between them feel forced, with Banner suddenly becoming a goofy schoolboy to Natasha’s bizarre southern-accented bartender roleplay–something that felt extremely out of character for her. Their romance is forced and off-note at best, and add to that Dr. Helen Cho getting mind controlled and Scarlet Witch playing the stereotypical broken Whedon waif, with a hearty dose of implied Ultimates-inspired twincest, you basically have the trifecta of poorly handled “strong female characters” (not to mention neither Widow nor Witch are seen in any merchandise for Avengers: Age of Ultron). At least it was Quicksilver who “died” to provide the female equivalent of man-pain for his sister.
— Heroic Girls (@HeroicGirls) May 5, 2015
Perhaps the most offensive decision in Avengers: Age of Ultron was the exchange between Bruce Banner and Black Widow about infertility. The hamfisted monster “subplot” of the entire movie was eyeroll-worthy in and of itself, but when it was revealed that the only reason Black Widow considered herself a “monster” was that she can’t have babies, that was truly the breaking point.
Yes, the only real progression Natasha’s character has in the second Avengers movie is that she was forced to have a female vasectomy in the Red Room in order to become a more efficient killer. This scene has so many layers of uncomfortable, poorly handled subtext: people unable to produce children are “monsters;” women can’t become strong unless they can’t give birth; women can’t be truly happy without having babies. Whedon’s shoddy writing is disappointing, but no surprise; it’s his absolute lack of awareness about how his writing can be interpreted that’s offensive.
Criticism of Joss Whedon purportedly led to the writer/director to delete his entire Twitter account (again). Many bloggers attribute Whedon’s decision to “rabid feminists” offended by “one little old-timey rape joke,” but Whedon denied this, claiming he deleted his account for work purposes, saying in a statement to Buzzfeed News:
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.
I saw a lot of people say, ‘Well, the social justice warriors destroyed one of their own!’ It’s like, Nope. That didn’t happen. I saw someone tweet it’s because Feminist Frequency pissed on Avengers 2, which for all I know they may have. But literally the second person to write me to ask if I was OK when I dropped out was [Feminist Frequency founder] Anita [Sarkeesian].
But Whedon’s statement doesn’t provide much assurance. If anything, it speaks to the likelihood that he can’t (or won’t) handle criticism of his work. Yes, many of the people, both women and men, criticized Whedon for the inclusion of a Prima Nocta (literally “first night,” referring the a warlord’s right to take the virginity of any woman who married) joke in the scene where Tony is attempting to lift Thor’s hammer (which, interestingly, replaced a completely different line that was seen in the October 2014 trailer for the film). Yes, many people criticized Whedon to the level of death threats and name calling (something, it should be noted, that creators like Kelly Thompson and Anita Sarkeesian deal with almost daily–only often with the addition of rape threats). But frankly Whedon was, and should be, criticized.
Joss Whedon frequently claims to be a feminist (although now he says he “regrets” ever calling himself a feminist because “suddenly that’s a litmus test for everything [I] do”), but his actions don’t back up his words. This is just another case of Whedon claiming to be a positive force for women in pop media, while offering up only extremely poor and unvaried representation of his female characters, and covering it up with defensive statements about “bad” feminists.