Joss Whedon: Female Friend or Feminist Fodder?

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Creative Commons Image from WikiImages

May has been a busy month for Joss Whedon, and it’s far from over. Avengers: Age of Ultron was the highest grossing film in the two weeks it has been in theaters, and it’s projected to still be in the top three grossing movies of this week. Whedon saw great praise for the film on one side, and great despair on another, receiving criticism for the relationships created in the film between two main characters, and even death threats from some. He very famously chose to withdraw from Twitter on May 4, citing not the threats and the “feminist backlash” that came about after the film’s release as many assumed, but his work; saying that keeping up with Twitter had become like another type of writing job, and he needed to focus more on writing things that didn’t have a 140 character limit. The deletion of the Twitter account coupled with some of the events in the film itself have left many to question Whedon’s status as a feminist – some claiming he never was one to begin with. We have to remember the crime doesn’t necessarily ensure motive or intent, and I was more than eager to digest as much of Whedon’s work as possible to give myself a definitive answer: Is Joss Whedon a Feminist, or does he just like to call himself one when it suits him?

If I’m being perfectly honest, I found myself much more offended by a Target commercial capitalizing on then upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron premiere than the film itself (even just the bits that everyone took their pitchforks to Twitter for). If you look closely, you’ll notice that the action figure for the only female Avenger featured in the film -the Black Widow- is missing. It wasn’t until my boyfriend interjected and made the point that Hawkeye (an archer) was also missing. “Captain America, Iron Man, The Hulk, and Thor lifted a shopping cart. What use are Hawkeye and the Black Widow’s specific skill sets?” I relented.

Most of the feminist criticism surrounding the film is all about the Black Widow (portrayed by Scarlett Johansson since her introduction in the Iron Man movies) and her treatment in the film. The Black Widow is a trained spy -she has no real superpowers compared to the rest of the Avengers. Her talents are taught, her instincts are trained to an absolute fault. She’s a machine not unlike the super-suit constructed by Tony Stark to complete his Iron Man persona, but this is when she’s “working.” Natasha Romanoff as a person is a separate entity, but she can’t wholly separate herself from the Black Widow. There are things that happened to her during her training (even post-training, if you’ve read all of her comics) that have shaped the tragic character she is that she cannot be without -or that she is without as a result of her past. Whedon saw all of this in the character’s background and capitalized on it.

“She’s defined by [pain] in a way that she generally doesn’t show, and when she gets to, it’s very affecting,” Whedon said. “I think we went deeper with her than with anybody else.” …And I’m always looking for pain, because pain usually contains truth and humor.  A lot of it comes from the comics, because there’s something I read that’s stayed with me like a lodestar, and I feel bad because I don’t remember who wrote it, but it was a newer comic about Black Widow, and it made the distinction, “You’re not a superhero, you’re a spy.”Hero Complex

Duplicity and moral ambiguity and all of the things that a spy needs to excel at are not heroic traits, and that she has been trained to be something that is considered less than a person, whereas a hero is generally considered more…. And the word “monsters” is thrown about a great deal, and that’s not for nothin’. –Hero Complex

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Photo from Screen Rant

This is something that Whedon and Johansson worked on throughout filming, and it’s something Johansson struggled with. She had to understand that the idea of “family” had to be different for Romanoff -she couldn’t have one of her own. The Avengers became her “family.” The more she saw families happening (like Clint’s thriving family in the farmhouse), the more it must have hurt for her to realize that she couldn’t have one.  As director, Whedon’s own perception on Black Widow’s story and concept of family sheds light on Johansson’s portrayal of her.

You know, the thing that really touches me about the character is that she’s kind of like an orphan. Not only does she have no family, like she was taken away from her family, but her family — or whatever potential of that — was taken away from her at such a young age that she’s just been sort of floating through…I think I could never have tapped into the character if I didn’t sympathize with her in some way, in just imagining, if I didn’t feel for her as well and just kind of see this lost soul that she is.If your life feels full, and then you take  the elements away that make it feel full, you know, you’re stuck with that kind of emptiness that she must feel. –Hero Complex

It was the entire idea that Romanoff called herself a monster because of her sterilization that many took to Twitter with exception over -the sheer idea that any barren woman (no matter the reason for her barrenness) was being called a monster was horrific, sick, and needed to be recognized as such. The entire thing needs to be taken in context, however. Look at when Romanoff calls herself “monster,” look at why she says it, who she says it to, how she says it. She believes she is a monster because she is a killing machine that cannot bring life into the world. She is remorseful for this fact. Ask yourself this: How many barren women do you know that struggle with the knowledge that they cannot bear children every day? How many of them wear the term like a scarlet letter and are proud of their inability to bring life into the world? How many do you know that are ashamed of the fact that they can’t become pregnant? Romanoff’s statement doesn’t call all barren women monsters -she calls herself one because of something that happened to her that was out of her control. One more thing to think about: Is a woman without reproductive organs less of a woman? Hero Complex asked Whedon the same question with direct regard to Romanoff:

“No, I never thought about that, because I don’t think it makes her a man.”

Whedon and Marvel’s treatment of the Black Widow may be awful to some, but at least her storyline got some screen time, which is more than many female comic-book superheroes can say in today’s films. We’ve seen how many Superman and Batman movies, but a Wonder Woman movie has only recently been green-lighted, and expected to hit screens about two years from now. Thanks to a new crop of WikiLeaks, we know that Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter thinks that female superheroes just aren’t profitable – and he cites three box-office flops that just so happen to contain super-heroine protagonists, neglecting to mention that all three films were released in a time before superhero movies were even popular, or the other superhero super-flops of the time with male protagonists. We have some hope. Captain Marvel is in the works with a female superhero at the helm, we have Wonder Woman, and perhaps more focus on the Black Widow in the future.

I’m hoping Joss Whedon’s involved in some of that somewhere.

Whedon’s followers took to Twitter after he left to defend him. Many cited characters that Whedon created that they related to, looked up to, fell in love with -all the way back to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When people take to their pitchforks, they seem to forget their targets successes and only focus on their perceived failures. Whedon’s the person to thank for strong female characters like Buffy and Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, River from the Firefly series (and the movie Serenity based off of it), and many more. But there was still one test Whedon had to pass, in my book… The Bechdel Test. To pass this test, a film must have two named women who talk to each other about something other than men. Believe it or not, studies have shown that films that pass the Bechdel Test do better in the box office. I took a look at all of the films Whedon has been given writing credits for, and looked them up on The Bechdel Test’s website. Here’s what I found:

Joss Whedon Writing Credits

FAILED the Bechdel Test:

  • Toy Story
  • Atlantis: The Lost Empire
  • The Avengers

PASSED the Bechdel Test:

  • Alien: Resurrection
  • Titan: A.E.
  • Serenity
  • The Cabin in the Woods
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • The Avengers: Age of Ultron

For every movie Whedon writes that doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, he writes two that do. That’s more than many members of the “straight white male” dominated filmmaking community can say. Those test results alone were enough to move me over to the “pro-Joss” side of the Twitter-sphere. After I looked deeper into the characters he creates, my position in Whedon’s defense only became stronger. Then I found Mark Ruffalo (The Hulk)’s defense of Whedon’s feminist-stance:

I think it’s sad. Because I know how Joss feels about women, and I know that he’s made it a point to create strong female characters. I think part of the problem is that people are frustrated that they want to see more women, doing more things, in superhero movies, and because we don’t have as many women as we should yet, they’re very, very sensitive to every single storyline that comes up right now. But I think what’s beautiful about what Joss did with Black Widow – I don’t think he makes her any weaker, he just brings this idea of love to a superhero, and I think that’s beautiful… I just don’t think that people should get personal with Joss, because he really is – of anyone – an advocate for women. He’s a deeply committed feminist. – Mark Ruffalo

I agree with Ruffalo. Feminist or not, everyone is sensitive to the smallest female-oriented storyline that is presented in film today. It’s unfortunate that when one is received a little less ideally than we would hope, the creator of the storyline is targeted. He does make a very good point; superheroes shouldn’t be immune to or exempt from love, and what Whedon attempted to do with the Black Widow (however ill-received it may be in some places) was indeed beautiful. Love should never make someone weaker -love is not Kryptonite.

Feminism and feminists are not Whedon’s Kryptonite. He stands among us. His journey as a writer – and as a creator – has solidified that idea in my mind. I will always call Joss Whedon a feminist. Sometimes you just have to dig a little deeper to discover someone’s true leanings, and I believe that Whedon leans, bleeds, and stands with us. His journeys are ours, his characters are ours, and we should support him.

After all, we’ve all got a little of Buffy, Willow, River, Natasha Romanoff, or another of his heroines in us somewhere.

black widow - claire's article

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