‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ PR: Now with Slut-Shaming and Rape Jokes!
By now, it's the "slut" heard 'round the geek world: during their press tour for Avengers: Age of Ultron, actors Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans referred to Black Widow respectively as a "slut" and a "whore." They've since apologized --- well, Evans apologized, Renner offered something else. Plus, a new clip from the movie reveals a rape joke --- something proud feminist Joss Whedon should know better than doing. But is the fuss about these things worthwhile?
Well, yes. Words have meaning. And the words chosen by Renner, Evans, and Whedon in these situations happen to be words that demean women. When Black Widow is routinely left out of Age of Ultron merchandise, the fact that major players in the movie chose these words is extra uncomfortable.
Renner and Evans' statements came during their press junket, in response to an interviewer asking them about fans "shipping" Black Widow with their characters while it seems she is involved with Bruce in this film. Renner immediately said, "she's a slut" while Evans laughed and admitted he was going to say something similar, and then said, "whore." Renner went on to make derogatory comments about the character having a prosthetic leg. You can see the exchange at the beginning of this video:
In response to the furor, Evans released this statement:
Yesterday we were asked about the rumors that Black Widow wanted to be in a relationship with both Hawkeye and Captain America. We answered in a very juvenile and offensive way that rightfully angered some fans. I regret it and sincerely apologize.
While Renner said:
I am sorry that this tasteless joke about a fictional character offended anyone. It was not meant to be serious in any way. Just poking fun during an exhausting and tedious press tour.
Evans' apology seems more heartfelt, while Renner's is one of those lovely, "I'm sorry you're offended" apologies. It's hard to say if either one of them learned about why people were upset.
Meanwhile, in the new clip, Iron Man makes a joke about reinstating Prima Nocta, which was a custom (best known to many from Braveheart) where a nobleman had the right to take the virginity of a peasant woman on her wedding night in place of her husband.
So, all of these statements are distasteful, certainly, but they're also all said in the context of a joke. I like jokes. I watch a lot of comedy. In case Whedon needs some help for future rape jokes, might I point him to Amy Schumer's recent sketch about football players and rape? Hilarious.
The biggest problem with all of these things is that while, yes, they're statements about fictional characters in a fictional world, they're also reflections of the things that people think are okay to say about women in real life.
Think about the world where Prima Nocta was a real thing, and how it would've been seen as a noble's due to rape any woman he wanted on her wedding night. And then think about the fact that there are a lot of men who don't think rape is rape or think that everyone else is a rapist too. That's in the real world. So it might be a throwaway joke to Whedon, but isn't he supposed to be this great feminist voice of our time? He's outspoken about any number of issues relating to women, so it seems very odd that he wouldn't know why this is tasteless --- and unnecessary. It's not like the Prima Nocta thing was a really important part of the plot or necessary for some sort of character establishment.
And in regards to the "slut" and "whore" comments, Renner and Evans are real people who spoke off the cuff, and while that has less weight than a comment in a film that's been reviewed probably how many thousands of times between writing and release, those comments still have negative implications. Let's imagine a world where someone asked Scarlett Johansson about the Prima Nocta joke, and she laughingly referred to Tony Stark as a "rapist." People would probably be mad, right? Regardless of if it's a fictional character or not, people have feelings about how he's portrayed and what his character is. And commentary like that has real-world implications, as it portrays someone who makes a joke about rape as being equivalent to a rapist.
Well, it's the same for female characters, weirdly enough. People have feelings about how they are portrayed and what their characters are. Black Widow isn't on a lot of merchandise and is already treated like a second-tier character in the movie universe. An offhand comment that a character like Black Widow is a "slut" or "whore" because fans have shipped her with multiple characters has implications beyond just commentary on that character. It says that any woman, including real women, who dare to have multiple partners are "sluts" or "whores." And I think we all know by now that guys who dare to have multiple partners are "studs," or at worst, "players."
Even in 2015, women cannot enjoy the same freedoms as men when it comes to dating or sex. This is true everywhere and that includes the comics industry. I've listened to dozens of conversations among women comics professionals about how they navigate dating in our industry and how even a close friendship with a man, or leaving a bar at the wrong time, can lead to rumors and a negative reputation. This is a real concern that real women have in comics. Heck, I, a married, monogamous woman, was called a slut on social media when I was pleased about the Affordable Care Act covering birth control. When that's the world we live in, the use of derogatory terms like slut and whore aren't just simple jokes. They reinforce the way people --- the way men --- view and treat women.
It's great that Evans and Renner apologized. I hope Evans really is genuinely apologetic, and I hope that someone explains to Renner how his apology is lacking. Plus, Renner owes an additional apology for his ableist comments, which were also offensive. Hopefully they will learn not just, "oh, I can't say the things I want to say on press tours," but, "oh, words I use casually can still hurt people." That's true for everyone.
As for Whedon and the Prima Nocta joke, well. Just because someone fights on the right team doesn't mean they're not capable of a major screw-up. Over the years, Whedon has had his share of missteps as a feminist ally and supporter of women, so he should already know better. Words have meaning, and when women are still struggling for a lot of things, including acceptance in the comics community, it's salt in the wound to see language like this used so casually.