Why creators need to listen: responsibility and the Age of Ultron debate

Posted: May 7, 2015 in Uncategorized
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Let’s talk about feminism, hacktivism, and responsibility. A little light reading for your Thursday, right?

Avengers: Age of Ultron debuted last weekend (full disclosure: I have not seen it as I was at a funeral). Before it debuted, people already called out some of the questionable dialogue: a rape joke Tony Stark (quite uncharacteristically) cracks. I dismissed it with the same phrase I’ve used for years about AoU writer Joss Whedon: well, yeah, because he isn’t nearly the feminist he thinks he is.

Whedon has built his reputation on creating some downright amazing dialogue, and engineering a kind of dramatic tension between friends (and family) that makes you fall in love with characters because, hey, they interact like a real group of people and not some cardboard constructs. He did it in Buffy (which again I have only seen a few episodes of), he did it in Firefly (which I’ve seen front to back several times), and absolutely in the first Avengers movie. The comic book fan in me desperately wants Whedon to write a Fantastic Four film because he’d nail the family dynamic that makes the comic so great.

Let me fanboy out for a second: as a writer, his handling of dialogue is nothing short of sorcery. It’s really fucking good and it will take me a lifetime to get my prose to the level he can write in his sleep. I respect him for this ability, even more than I respect the interesting fictional universes he’s created (Firefly).

Whedon’s also built his reputation on being a feminist—and, by and large, he is. One of his oft-quoted quips, from a 2006 speech to Equality Now (an NGO dedicated to ending discrimination against women), Whedon mentioned that he’s asked “why do you write strong female characters?” His answer: “Because you’re still asking that question.” In other words, because strong female characters are still so rare that they’re remarkable.

I do not doubt Whedon’s intentions in this regard, but there are a lot of reasons to suspect that he exhibits a lot more (likely unconscious) gender bias than he thinks he does. The Mary Sue posted an essay in 2011 called Reconsidering the Feminism of Joss Whedon that goes into far more research and depth on the subject than I care to here. I will say that there were several instances of slut-shaming in Firefly that stuck out like a sore thumb, and the premise of Dollhouse struck me more as the creation of the Fighting Fuck Toy stereotype than any kind of strong, feminist, female character.

An Internet-friend of mine, Rachel Brody, posted this comment on a third party’s Facebook thread about an article from the AoU kerfuffle. It perfectly summarizes how I feel about Joss the Feminist:

“Ok, so, as someone who was feeling very mad about this yesterday and has thought about it (mostly because he made a statement re not being chased off by feminists) here is something. I don’t feel like his feminism has evolved for a while now. It was awesome feminism in 1993, but social justice demands evolution, and he is very much a third wave feminist who hasn’t quite twigged how to move into fourth wave or intersectional feminism.

Is that something he should be required to do? Actually, nope. He is absolutely within his rights to tell the stories he wants to tell. Similarly, people are allowed to react how they will.

Now, when you have a prominent man who is also a self-avowed feminist running a huge tentpole production, the thing is…feminist is going to mean different things to different people. And today’s next wave feminists simply want more from their feminist icons, and that probably means they need different feminist icons. A guy who was breaking barriers in the early 90s is going to look just as archaic nearly 30 years later as some first and second  (and honestly even third) wave feminists look today.

I agree that vilifying him isn’t the answer, but I think part of the reaction might be because people really did hope he would keep pushing boundaries and breaking barriers, and he really just hasn’t. Through the lens of today’s cutting-edge feminism, his work is problematic. But he’s not a philosopher, he’s a writer and director and producer who answers to a conservative (fiscally) entertainment machine.”

The point I’m trying to make is that Whedon isn’t the perfect feminist. None of us are. But, as Rachel said, “social justice demands evolution,” and that means creators like Whedon, who may have the best of intentions, haven’t evolved to the point where they realize that sometimes, they may be subtly reinforcing male gender bias.

But.

In true Internet fashion, after AoU came out, things took a turn. Did people turn to Twitter to try to begin a conversation with Whedon about his likely unintentional gender bias in his creation? No, they called him names (and in some rare instances resorted to threats of physical violence—even death).

Hold the phone: what was the actual ratio of people calmly saying “hey Joss, you might want to reconsider a couple of parts of your story,” versus people saying “OMG DIE IN A FIRE!” We don’t know, because, so far, the dialogue has focused on these threats and Whedon leaving Twitter. And that is a grave disservice to the people who were genuinely bothered by parts of the film.

Which brings me to my real point here: responsibility.

Creators who call themselves feminists or allies have a certain degree of responsibility to be self-reflective about their own work. If someone says, “hey, there may be some subtle bias here you weren’t aware of, you should think about that,” if the creator genuinely cares, he or she should at the very least listen and take that feedback into consideration.

Note that I’m not saying we’re obliged to act on that feedback. But if you’ve (proudly) built your reputation on being a feminist and ally, you should listen when someone tells you your privilege is showing. It’s at least worth considering.

This, incidentally, is something I tell both my editor and my Primary Reader when I complete a new bit of writing: “Check it for unintentional privilege.”

That in no way justifies the acidic reaction against Whedon. Someone (I tried but failed to find the article) noted that it’s becoming harder and harder for creators to share their work online, because of the risk of pissing someone off and that person reacting not like a human being interested in dialogue, but like a full-on attack troll. I’ve dealt with this professionally for years, as a CM and digital marketer at my day job, and it fucking wears on you. I am not looking forward to the day I collect my first troll as a creative, especially considering the levels of insecurity I’ve had to overcome around my own writing.

Mark Finn wrote a spoiler-filled takedown of the reaction against Whedon. I think he misses the boat by outright dismissing concerns around Black Widow in the film (which, again, I haven’t seen), but he makes some fantastic points about the lack of Black Widow merchandise and Disney kowtowing to traditional gender roles with their toys.

I do agree with much of what he says about people intentionally being critical of works that achieve mainstream success, and I totally agree with him about the way that any kind of outrage online can very quickly turn from “constructive conversation” to “scary witch hunt.”

His most salient point is this:

“[P]utting a sexist remark in your work does not make you a sexist. Writing misogynistic dialogue in a scene doesn’t make you a misogynist. And showing violence done to women onscreen is not an endorsement for rape. In what high school or university are young people being taught that plot, characterization and dialogue all speak to authorial intent? It’s so weird how people miss the subtext inherent to a scene and simply invent their own, based on a literal reading of the dialogue. Who does that? Please, tell me how that is now a thing. Regardless, if you go through life expecting only to consume fiction and popular culture in all of its various forms that only conforms to your internal barometer for what you consider to be good and right and fair and just, let me tell you, you’re in for decades of rage and disappointment. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to learn how to deal with something you don’t agree with.”

Yes, a thousand times yes.

But.

Creators who do deal with these issues can and do slip right back into male gender bias because it is so deeply ingrained that we do not always recognize it. To take an extreme example: was it The Bride’s near-murder and rape that demonstrated Quentin Tarantino’s misogyny in Kill Bill? No, it was the fact that the character’s response to that situation was a male response, created by a male, for a male audience, while satisfying the male gaze.

That does not excuse either the trollish behavior or the focus of the dialogue on it, to the detriment of a larger conversation about whether parts of AoU were subtly, unintentionally misogynist. For example, Finn says something that, on the surface, makes a whole lot of sense:

“We used to play this game in the 1980s—during the time when the ultra-right-wing of the church was actively campaigning against heavy metal music, Dungeons & Dragons, and Warner Brothers Cartoons. There was this dictum that Pat Robertson used to employ that boiled down to, “if it’s not For God, then it’s against God.” We got pretty good at taking anything commonplace and by the transitive or associative properties of language and numbers, proving that it was, in fact, satanic. Jello? The most popular color is red. Red is the color of the devil. It jiggles when you shake it. Much like how the body shakes while committing sin. But the real proof? How many letters are in Jello? Five. How many letters are in Satan? Five. That can’t possibly be a coincidence. Thus, if you like Jello, that’s Satanic.”

He’s not wrong. The Internet breeds witch hunts, because it’s super-easy to focus on the wrong, and super-easy to react quickly, and super-easy to insult or threaten someone you’ve never met as a result. And let’s face it, any time a response to something is comparable to Pat Robertson’s anti-D&D crusade, it’s terrible. But does it match the majority response, or is it firmly in the realm of the fringe? I strongly suspect the later, despite the focus on it.

The sad part about this situation, which I caught in a conversation yesterday, is that any opportunity for dialogue is being swallowed by focusing on this small group of people who have engaged in the vocal, acidic witch hunt. It’s easy as a creator to wag our fingers and say “nope, death threats are bad, so I’m not listening to a word you’re going to say because people with similar opinions are flat-out jerks.” Just as it’s our responsibility to listen, it’s also our responsibility to tune out the crap and not fall into the “well, it’s just a big old witch hunt” trap and put our fingers in our ears.

And, to be clear, the people spewing such crap need to take responsibility for their words and the environment of persecution it creates.

I really hope there’s something to be salvaged from all this, because Whedon is a fantastic writer whom I respect for his craft, and his heart is probably in the right place, even if he needs to revisit what feminism means now.

Comments
  1. […] The second is actually a blog by a friend of a friend, Jason Mical, where he quotes some of my thoughts on Black Widow, Age of Ulton, and the feminism of Joss Whedon. It’s over on his blog, so click here. […]

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