Yes, you can be sexist about fictional characters

Last week, during the never-ending press tour to promote Avengers: Age of Ultron (read our early review!) stars Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans incurred the wrath of Tumblr-ites everywhere when they gleefully made what many saw as insulting remarks towards the character of Natasha Romanoff, AKA the Black Widow.

A reporter asked the two men a silly question about fan “shipping” (which is apparently now a term journalists feel unashamed to use while interviewing professional actors) and how the fanbase really wanted to see Natasha get together with either Captain America or Hawkeye, but in the new movie, she’s instead romantically involved with Bruce Banner. Renner was asked what he thought of this, and his response was a deadpan, “She’s a slut.”

A (possibly drunk) Chris Evans began maniacally laughing and added that she’s “a complete whore”, and went on to suggest Natasha is “leading everybody on”. There was also a strange reference to a prosthetic leg, and the whole conversation touched off a minor furor on social media, with many taking offense at what they perceived as sexist remarks directed towards the Black Widow.

For the moment, I’m going to leave aside any discussion of whether or not their comments were actually sexist and/or offensive. What I’m more concerned about is the odd strategy that one of the two actors used to defend his comments, which has since been taken up by many fans.

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Ultimately, the whole incident will end up being a total non-troversy, and will most likely be forgotten (if it hasn’t already) by the time Age of Ultron opens in the US on Friday and breaks box office records. And yet, it was apparently serious enough to warrant public apologies from both Evans and Renner. I’m guessing pressure was applied from the top, and Disney/Marvel wants absolutely nothing to put even the slightest dent in its potential four-quadrant $200 million opening weekend.

Chris Evans released a statement which, while most likely written by a PR flack, at least appeared sincere and understanding of the anger his comments provoked. Jeremy Renner, however, took a different tack. He responded with a non-apology, which I suppose only befits a non-troversy:

“I am sorry that this tasteless joke about a fictional character offended anyone,” Renner also said in a statement provided to EW. “It was not meant to be serious in any way. Just poking fun during an exhausting and tedious press tour.”

I think by now, we all know a non-apology when we see one, and this statement is certainly the textbook case. But I find it interesting that his non-apology takes the time to specifically mention that the Black Widow is fictional, as if to suggest a joke can’t be sexist when it’s directed at a character in a movie. Alarmingly, a large number of internet commenters seem to think this is a perfectly valid defense.

Yes, you can be sexist about fictional characters
Yes, you can be sexist about fictional characters

Yes, you can be sexist about fictional characters

Yes, you can be sexist about fictional characters

As someone who’s done his fair share of joking about fictional characters, I’ll admit that in the past, I’ve also used variations on “this character isn’t real, and thus can’t be harmed/insulted by my words” to blow off criticisms of some of my more ill-advised attempts at humor. But now that I’ve thought about it for a bit, I realize it’s a shitty defense, and here’s why.

First of all, it’s pretty disingenuous to suggest you can say anything you want as long as it’s at the expense of fictional characters. If Renner and Evans had jokingly referred to War Machine or the Falcon using the N-word, no one would think twice about branding their attempts at “humor” as racist, even though Rhodey and Sam Wilson are just as fictional as Natasha. (And no, I’m not equating “slut” and “whore” with the N-word, but I can assure you there are many women who find these words quite tiresome and derogatory.)

Second, Renner is more or less implying that it’s idiotic and frivolous to take fictional characters this seriously. Gee, Jeremy, why do you think the first Avengers made a billion dollars and turned you into an A-list star in the first place? Could it possibly be that people were emotionally invested in these fictional characters after seeing them in previous movies? Could it be that these characters actually have meaning and importance to your fans, despite not being real?

Thirdly, Renner’s statement also carries the patronizing implication that his critics are incapable of differentiating fiction from reality. But I don’t think anyone over the age of three is angry that his comments might have hurt the Black Widow’s feelings. People are taken aback because it’s two extremely popular and well-liked actors revealing a bit of an ugly side.

I mean, do those rushing to the “fictional character” defense truly believe Evans and Renner have only ever used these words to refer to fictional women? Or do you think maybe they’ve deployed “slut” or “whore” (or worse) against a real woman or two in their day? It’s not the nonexistent feelings of a fictional woman that’s drawing ire, it’s that two real men are revealing their real (and not so great) attitudes towards women.

And yes, I think most people realize the two guys were joking around. They were responding to a really silly question, and pseudo-speaking in character, and Renner was trying to think of what Clint Barton would say upon finding out Natasha was involved with Bruce. Yes, it’s clear Renner doesn’t really think the Black Widow’s behavior qualifies as “slutty”; he was most likely tired of answering a dumb question for the hundredth time that day and decided to say something shocking and outrageous for a laugh. Unfortunately, “it was a joke” is just as much of a bullshit excuse. Humor is not a license to say whatever crappy thought pops into your head at any given moment. I’m pretty sure those frat bros in Oklahoma singing about hanging black men from trees thought they were being absolutely hilarious.

But in total, I think I’ve seen more outrage about the outrage than any actual anger over the two actors’ remarks. I keep reading stories that mention some supposed social media firestorm (I guess Tumblr exploded or something?), but I have yet to see much evidence of it. It seems like the real firestorm here is that the two actors were actually asked to apologize.

I’m sure Renner’s non-apology came about because he, like many others, are thoroughly sick of the expectation of a public apology every time a celebrity makes an even slightly controversial remark. (Though, I think I would have respected Renner a lot more if he’d simply said something directly along the lines of, “The constant expectation for public apologies is ridiculous” instead of characterizing his fans as infants who don’t know the difference between fiction and reality.)

And I mostly agree with the sentiment. The relentless cycle of offend-apologize-rinse-repeat has become wearying. Gary Oldman groveling on Jimmy Kimmel Live (after issuing his own non-apology for statements made disparaging Jews) was over the top and embarrassing. Jonah Hill’s apology tour for using an anti-gay slur against a paparazzo was like watching a man voluntarily subjecting himself to the Stations of the Cross.

In fact, I don’t even think Evans or Renner needed to apologize. Their comments were inappropriate, but they hardly rise to the level of requiring a plea for forgiveness, and an apology without remorse is meaningless, anyway.

And yet, there’s clearly a case to be made for why these comments were sexist and demeaning. Regardless of whether or not they were directed at a fictional character, they reveal a lack of understanding and empathy for what goes on every day in the real world to real women. Women are constantly called “bitch”, “slut”, “whore”, and far worse for even daring to reject a man in favor of another. This happens all the time.

In addition, The Avengers is one of the biggest action films of the last ten years, and it basically only has one female character involved in the big battles. And that female character happens to be one of the few superheroes in the entire MCU with no superpowers, unless you count “being sexy” as a superpower. And recently, the news broke that Black Widow is once again not being included alongside her male teammates in most of the current Avengers merchandise. In that context, I can see how a slightly sexist joke at the character’s expense from the actors in the film would be like pouring salt in the wound.

Yes, you can be sexist about fictional characters

But, you know, I think everybody knows all of this. Jeremy Renner is fully aware, and so are all of his defenders, that fictional female characters can be (and have been) portrayed in sexist ways, and that real-life people can react (and have reacted) to fictional female characters in sexist ways. The “fictional character” defense is really just part of a larger pattern of attempting to effectively nullify all criticism of sexism in media.

Whenever anyone says that, you know, it might not be that cool to call a woman (fictional or otherwise) a “slut” or a “whore” in public, they’re accused of being “SJWs”. When websites dare to suggest that the media we consume might occasionally present sexist attitudes and stereotypes, they’re accused of “manufacturing faux outrage” and posting “clickbait”. And now we get this tactic, where people are mocked for getting all emotional about silly fictional characters—though I’m guessing most people hiding behind this defense cried like little babies when Han and Chewie reunited in the latest Star Wars trailer.

Whether or not these particular comments actually are sexist is beside the point. The point is, we should be able to have a mature discussion about these kinds of incidents without anyone being characterized as so mentally deficient as to be unable to tell the difference between a movie and reality. But sadly, as far as online conversations go, even that low, low bar is way too much to hope for.

Though I have to say between this, Robert Downey Jr. walking out of an interview with a British TV reporter, Renner and Mark Ruffalo’s alleged “gypsy” chant on The Graham Norton Show, Downey’s “can you believe a Spanish speaker is so articulate” comment about Alejandro Iñárritu, and the whole cast getting drunk on Kimmel, the disastrous press tour for Avengers: Age of Ultron might end up being more exciting than the actual movie.

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