Feminism’s Age of Ultron

Feminism’s Age of Ultron

Apparently feminists aren’t satisfied with female characters in movies like ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ unless they act like men and otherwise fit the feminist script.
Collin Garbarino

Last weekend, thousands of mindless drones appeared out of nowhere, bringing destruction upon the unsuspecting. In their vicious attack, they spoke with one voice, claiming that the violence they wrought was necessary for peace in the world.

Oh. Did you think I was referring to the plot of “Avengers: Age of Ultron”? I was actually referring to the feminist backlash on Twitter against the movie’s director, Joss Whedon. Supposed fans directed thousands of profanity-laced tweets at Whedon, many of which promised him bodily harm. What sparked the outrage? What was his sin against feminism? He ruined their “strong female character,” Natasha Romanoff, also known as Black Widow.

The backlash seems to have caught Whedon by surprise, and after it started he deleted his Twitter account. These hateful tweets must have been especially painful for Whedon, since he calls himself a feminist and has been one of the feminist movement’s darlings in the past because he’s created some notable “strong female characters.” He took a wrong turn this go round, however.

Feminists Perpetuate the Themes They Claim to Hate

The self-proclaimed feminists of Twitter (to borrow NPR’s phraseology) were on the defensive before the movie even opened because two of the movie’s stars, Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans, joked in an interview that Black Widow was a slut. The Internet feminists demanded an apology, and the chastised stars expressed sorrow for calling into question the morals of a fictional character. Feminists of the Twittersphere, however, maintain constant vigilance, and they watched “Age of Ultron” closely to make sure that their favorite “strong female character” received the treatment she deserved.

They were disappointed.

Should Whedon have given the Black Widow character a get-out-of-jail-free card just because she’s a woman?

Complaints against how Whedon, who both wrote and directed the movie, portrayed Romanoff fall into two categories. First, feminists took offense at Romanoff’s capture by Ultron, which turned her into a “damsel in distress.” Second, Romanoff calls herself a “monster” in one scene, in which she admits that she allowed herself to be sterilized to become a more effective assassin.

Regarding Romanoff’s capture, she doesn’t seem to be in too much distress, and she doesn’t act like much of a damsel. The feminists are the ones reinforcing the damsel-in-distress motif, not Whedon. Whedon has Romanoff kick butt before her capture, act inventively during it, and kick butt after her release. Her release isn’t even the main point of the mission. Sure, the team wants her back, but this isn’t a rescue-the-princess moment.

In fact, it seems that every other Avenger has been captured or in grave peril at some point in the course of these movies, and needed the help of someone else to get free. Should Whedon have given the Black Widow character a get-out-of-jail-free card just because she’s a woman? The feminists of Twitter impute evil motives to Whedon. The rest of us, on the other hand, saw an Avenger get into trouble, which is a pretty typical situation for an Avenger. It’s the feminist trolls who don’t believe in equality between the sexes, because there’s some things you can’t do to a “strong female character” in your movie.

Be a Man or You’re Not a Woman

Part of the problem is that some feminists have an incredibly narrow definition of “strong female character.” These feminists demand that their “strong female character” be a remorseless killer who has sex with people. They essentially want James Bond with breasts. This strikes me as a sort of trans-patriarchy. Women must take the traits of men that they hate in order to be strong. Making women act like men in order to succeed doesn’t sound like feminism to me. It sounds like an adolescent male’s fantasy, but that’s how less-than-thoughtful feminists define “strong female character.”

Maybe she can’t break people’s necks with her legs, and maybe she didn’t save the world from aliens, but she did manage to save Tony Stark’s soul.

Many tweets complained that Black Widow was the only “strong female character” in Marvel’s movies. Whedon’s TV series, “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” however, has three female characters who show strength in very different ways, yet each is flawed in different ways. It’s true that no female character has gotten her own movie yet, but Pepper Potts is a better strong character than Black Widow. Pepper is smart, hardworking, and brave. Maybe she can’t break people’s necks with her legs, and maybe she didn’t save the world from aliens, but she did manage to save Tony Stark’s soul. Being strong doesn’t always mean making other people suffer. Sometimes it means suffering in order to help other people.

It seems, however, that as far as the Internet’s feminists are concerned, one of the things that you can’t do is give a “strong female character” a tragic backstory. In “Age of Ultron,” Romanoff regrets her sterilization, and refers to herself as a “monster.” Whedon should have known that he, as a man, is not allowed to write about “reproductive health” even in fiction. The tweets flew fast and furious, denouncing Whedon for calling women monsters who cannot or choose not to have children.

Black Widow traded the ability to create life for the ability to snuff it out more effectively.

We learned in middle school that fictional characters don’t necessarily speak for the author. Did all these feminists miss that lesson? It’s more likely that these people are merely reacting because “triggers” allow people to act and say things without thought.

But back to Romanoff’s monstrous sterility. She explains that the reason for the sterilization was to ensure that a family wouldn’t distract her from killing people. Yeah, that is monstrous. She traded the ability to create life for the ability to snuff it out more effectively. The Russian government coerced her into making a really bad choice, and she has dealt with the emotional baggage ever since.

Of Monsters and Redemption

Of course, Whedon could have invented a different backstory for Black Widow, but one of the themes of the movie is brokenness, and sterilizing a young girl to turn her into a better assassin is fairly heartbreaking. In “Age of Ultron,” each of the Avengers experiences pain, regret, and fear. At some point in the movie, each Avenger is called a monster. Sometimes they call themselves that, as in the case of Black Widow, but sometimes they call each other that. Twitter’s feminists must not have noticed how often the word came up.

Whedon, however, offers a ray of hope. Just because you’re a monster doesn’t mean you have to stay that way. Hawkeye is the heart and soul of this movie, and at one point he gives a pep talk, in which he says it doesn’t matter what you’ve done, if you get out there and fight, you’re an Avenger. Even though the Avengers sometimes have to kill, they stand on the side of life. At the end of the movie, one of the new Avengers says of humanity, “There’s grace in their failings.” Whedon tries to send a message of encouragement in “Age of Ultron”: even though we’re a broken mess, we can transcend that brokenness if we stick together.

I’m not saying I thought the movie was excellent. I didn’t care for a few of Whedon’s choices in the movie—too many cheap jokes and whatnot. My biggest complaint about the movie, however, was that Whedon was a little too heavy-handed with his theme of transcending brokenness. But maybe he should have been even more obvious, because it seems that social media’s feminists just didn’t get it.

Collin Garbarino is an assistant professor of history at Houston Baptist University.

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