|Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow in "Avengers: Age of Ultron."|
This is the Joss Whedon we're talking about — the guy who created “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the guy who is famous for writing Strong Female Characters (trademark pending). But given some of the criticism of “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” you'd think he wanted to repeal the 19th Amendment.
From The Daily Beast, filed under “Sexism,” we get the headline “ ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’s’ Black Widow Disgrace.” From io9.com there’s “Black Widow: This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” At Indiewire we find “An Open Letter to Joss Whedon from a Disappointed Feminist Fan After Watching ‘Age of Ultron.’ ”
And the source of this outrage and disappointment? Whedon committed what is, according to some but not all strains of feminism, the ultimate sin. He wrote a female character, in this case the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who wants to have children but can’t. Worse, her infertility actually upsets her, and she seeks a surrogate form of maternal fulfillment in playing aunt to Hawkeye’s kids.
Because of this, The Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern reduces Black Widow’s contribution in “Age of Ultron” to doing nothing but “flirt and whine about being barren.”
This line of criticism has two problems. The first is it overstates the importance the Black Widow places on infertility as part of her identity. When the Widow thinks of herself as a “monster,” it’s about everything she gave up by becoming a Russian spy. She sacrificed family, yes, but also part of her humanity. Whedon practically spells it out with a flashback to the Black Widow killing her first victim.
The second, more significant problem is it belittles the fact that some — indeed most — women do find quite a bit of fulfillment in having children.
This is where the war brewing within modern feminism comes into play.
There’s liberal feminism, which is about empowering women, women having the same opportunities as men, and expanding the range of choice available to women. Then there’s the feminism that leads people to send hate tweets Whedon’s way, at least until he left Twitter.
The latter is the feminism of “social justice,” summed up by video game critic Anita Sarkeesian (a friend of Whedon’s, ironically enough) when she tweeted recently, “Feminism is about the collective liberation of women as a social class. Feminism is not about personal choice.”
A feminism that isn’t about personal choice is a perverse thing indeed. It’s no surprise that it didn’t start with women. The anti-choice, social justice feminism of Whedon’s critics originated with a dead white male. And not just any dead white male, but the wrongest of dead white males, Karl Marx — as passed down by another dead white male, Marxist cultural theorist Theodor Adorno.
All social justice feminism does is replace class with gender. So, just as orthodox Marxism has its “class traitors,” anti-choice feminism has its gender traitors. All a woman need do is make the wrong choice, one that doesn’t further the cause of feminism as anti-choice feminists define it.
By liberal feminism’s standards, the Black Widow as portrayed in “Age of Ultron” is a feminist hero. She kicks butt, embraces her sexuality and can hang with some of the most powerful men (and gods) on the planet. Yet by anti-choice standards she’s a gender traitor, and Whedon is a traitor for writing her that way, as well as for giving Tony Stark a “rape joke” when Stark cracks wise about re-instituting primae noctis if he lifts Thor’s hammer.
This is not just bad feminism. This is a terrible way to go about critiquing popular culture. It’s an immature criticism that acts as if artists agree with everything their characters say, and as if fictional heroes can’t sometimes behave improperly, say by telling off-color jokes.
If writers and filmmakers actually paid attention to their social justice critics, we’d end up with art and entertainment about as inspiring as the old boy-meets-tractor morality plays of Soviet realism.