I originally wrote up the following post for the fine folks over at Home for Wayward Geeks, but the topic really got to me, so I wanted to post it here as well. Interestingly, both actors have issued two very different apologies, and simultaneously, the UK version of Cosmopolitan brilliantly asked Mark Ruffalo to ask the sort of sexist questions his costar Scarlett Johansson usually hears, and Ruffalo--who seems to be a real gentleman--went along with it brilliantly. (I'll include the video at the bottom of this post. But first:
Let's talk about words.
Let’s talk for a minute about words.
So on the eve… okay the week prior to the launch of Avengers: Age of Ultron--possibly the most anticipated movie of the year up until the Star Wars trailer hit last week--two of its stars decided to bro out a bit and refer to the only female Avenger as a “slut” and a “whore” in what they appear to think is a good-natured and joking manner during an interview.
It’s disappointing, because Marvel, on the whole, has tried (despite some rumored manipulations by parent company Disney about marketing and promotional choices) to do better by its female characters. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow has not, so far, been portrayed as the typical damsel in distress we’re used to in older iterations of superhero films. She’s badass. She can hang with the big leaguers. In a lot of ways she’s more competent, more clever, and more skilled than any of her fellow Avenger peers. (The same things can be said for her counterpart in the space Avengers-like Guardians of the Galaxy, too.)
So co-stars Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye) and Chris Evans (Captain America) calling her a slut and a whore? More than a little disappointing.
Because words. Neither of these words are laughing matters, and neither of them should be used casually, nor in jest. Not about your co-worker and colleague, not about a woman you pass on the street, not about a perfect stranger or someone you’ve known your whole life. They’re words designed to be cruel, and they have no place in casual conversation.
We’re better than that.
Or really, we’re not, because we’re still seeing misogynistic behavior happening all over the place, particularly in the “geek” community. Which is horrible, because this community took a derogatory beating for a long time and is only now nearing a stage of normalcy and acceptance, so to see the brutal infighting we’re seeing is particularly despicable (I won’t get into the specific fiascos I’m thinking of, but if you follow comics, sci-fi, and geek culture, you know all the battles being waged right now for gender equality and mutual respect).
I don’t know much about Renner’s personality, but Evans has always seemed like a genuinely good guy (see how he handled the bet with Chris Pratt during the Superbowl this year for truly classy behavior). Maybe their “joke” was a slip of the tongue. Maybe they were regressing a bit. Most guys have, at some point or another, been misogynistic, at least by accident. Even the best. Nobody’s perfect. But Renner and Evans are in a position of power, able to drive the conversation in a wonderful way, and instead they joke around that Black Widow is a slut.
They deserve a pretty good wrist-slapping for it. When you do something unconscionably rude, you should be called out for it.
From the comic book perspective, their comments is particularly problematic. Marvel is--with characters like Bobbi Morse, Agent May, and Peggy Carter rising to prominence--trying to create better, more fully developed female characters. But the company’s hands are tied a bit. If you think of the very best of Marvel’s encyclopedia of female heroes, the list is rich with mutants--Storm, Jean Grey, Emma Frost, Rogue, Kitty Pride, Dazzler. (Long-time X-Men scribe Chris Claremont is not a writer without flaws, but he was, very often, ahead of the curve with putting female characters in positions to drive the story and find parity with their male counterparts.) And mutants means Fox, not Marvel Studios. They’re all off-limits, at least for the foreseeable future, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Other popular female heroes are tied up in other deals--Spider-Woman has been extremely prominent in the comics over the past decade or more, but her film future is complicated by the Spider-deal with Sony. And others like She-Hulk, the Wasp, Monica Rambeau and to a certain extent Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel) have overly complicated backgrounds that are hard to set up in a team film. And still others are obscure enough to be a hard sell (Nico Minoru, Hellcat, Tigra).
In other words, Marvel, the comic book publisher, has a ton of great female characters, but getting them on screen is really difficult because of the company’s licensing decisions before the MCU was created.
So we have Black Widow. Marvel’s best option, a female, Russian James Bond, a superspy who could carry a film (and hasn’t) and who should be treated with the same sort of autonomy, complexity, and respect as her on-screen peers. Natasha Romanoff has, in the comics, had her share of romantic partners, but deserves the sort of treatment one might give a Bond-like character--she’s allowed to have her fun, and it really is none of your damned business if she does.
Personally, I was hoping they’d avoid giving her a romantic arc in the films. Rumor has it there’s something between her and Bruce Banner in Age of Ultron, which is kind of disappointing that the only on-screen Avenger so far has to have a romantic entanglement (her borderline bromance with Captain America in the Winter Soldier played much better--they came across like “work spouses,” having the sort of platonic affection close colleagues can develop). But Age of Ultron is a Joss Whedon movie, and Whedon has traditionally handled romantic arcs with grace, so we’ll give that a pass.
That is, until Renner and Evans are asked about whether Black Widow would have any interest in her other team colleagues.
That’s when these two knuckleheads decide to call Natasha a “slut” and a “whore.”
I’m sure there’s readers out there who think the outcry is an overreaction. Unnecessary rage about a fictional character. But you know what? This isn’t about you. This is about the casual use of unnecessarily hurtful words to make a joke about the lone woman at the table, fictional or otherwise. Because if you have those words in your vocabulary ready at a moment’s notice, you are very unlikely to only use those words to talk about fictional characters. And that’s the problem here. Good guys--be they superheroes, celebrities, or you and I--should no longer find that language acceptable, and we should stand up when someone else does find it acceptable.
Both actors have since apologized (Evans admitting the comments were juvenile and rightfully angered the fans, Renner being sure to point out the joke was made about a fictional character). They blame the long and exhausting press tour, which is, if not an excuse for having either word at the tip of your tongue, an understandable reason for saying something stupid during an interview.
Do they regret it? Most likely. Will they do it again? Probably not, if only because of the backlash. And I think we are, in fact, allowed to forgive them, because everyone makes mistakes, and all of us, regardless of our gender or orientation or anything else, will some day offend someone and not mean to. But the unfortunate thing is this hasn’t moved the conversation forward at all. It’s just set more of us against each other, fighting over the same few meters of respect, and pushing us further and further from an enlightened discussion.
But on a far finer note...
This interview DOES move the conversation forward, wonderfully, warmly, respectfully, and entertainingly. The reporter deserves a heck of a lot of credit for conducting the interview this way, and both Johansson and Ruffalo handled themselves wonderfully. Bravo to all three parties in this video for talking about sexism and unfairness without preaching, and for making it a casual and watchable and real.
Matthew Phillion is the writer of "The Indestructibles," part-time actor, occasional filmmaker. Currently on the lam in Salem with his trusty dog, Watson.