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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  • Wizkamridr

    Here’s hoping Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck get into a
    drunken brawl next year on Jimmy Kimmel.

  • Max

    So are doing Jason bourne 1988 yes is real look IT up is was tv movie from 80s starring Richard Chamberlain and more movie recap crap movie like Spawn Hell highway some full moon feature manthing American Zombie or a Silver age comic or golden or a 90s comic or a ec comic knock off more tv-show i have a lots tv show recap i want to see like 12 monkeys dollhouse or maybe the dresden files tv show or some more b Movies like troma or brain damage films like project Poe or some the asylen movies attack force who your candy R O T O R penny dreadful and more i don.t any Money

    • MichaelANovelli

      Fun fact: if you translate all the letters into numbers, this post turns into a fun treasure map! ^_^

    • Doc Skippy

      Other fun fact: there IS a period in this post. Look for it!

  • MichaelANovelli

    This whole incident kinda came off like this might have been a running joke on the set, and they just kinda forgot someone else might have a problem with it…

    • Wizkamridr

      Or they’re all just a bunch of drunks on and off screen.

  • Murry Chang

    It was still a silly joke that shouldn’t have offended anyone. If you were offended by it, that’s on you, not them.

    • Danielle Osgan

      If it was a joke, it’s one that went over my head. Please explain the punchline.

      • jjramsey

        I think the joke was at least partly in the shear absurdity of talking about the Black Widow in that way, and partly in Renner and Evens playing the fool by talking in such a juvenile way.

      • Sykes

        Jokes don’t have to have punchlines.

        • Fantasy Mission Force (DISIS)

          Punchlines? My wife’s got punchlines on her face from where I hit her, Sah Ji Gwuhn style. *Oh*!

      • Murry Chang

        A: I’m not the joke explainerer.
        B: Not all jokes are meant for you.
        C: It’s pretty obvious that they’re laughing at the disconnect between what they’re saying and the way she actually is.

      • Circuit Strike

        I took it as a joke from the first time I heard it. The reporter asks them the question in a way that implies that their characters have somehow been rejected by Black Widow and that they are supposed to be upset on behalf of their characters or something. I think Renner was answering as if in character like someone would to play it off like “she’s just flirting with everyone anyway” to take off the sting of rejection it definitely seemed sarcastic on both of their parts. Like they thought it was absurd to get into their characters romantic motivations.

        They weren’t seriously calling the character a slut and a statement clarifying that it was a joke in context of the question was all that was necessary.

  • Doc Skippy

    Folks, please join me in NOT seeing this movie when it comes out. Not because I was offended by the press tour comments (although they ARE stupid and ARE offensive, and women should NOT rush to these two d-bags’ defense), but because we as a nation need to put a stop to comic book movies.

    • Wizkamridr

      Good luck with that.

      • Doc Skippy

        I anticipate perfect success in not seeing this movie.

  • Max

    So i forgot some films kill granny kill

  • Moppet

    I don’t know if it was an inside joke going wrong when taken out of context or them just being tipsy or what, but I still found it hard to be offended by this, let alone find any of the other supposed incidents along the Age of Ultron tour note worthy.

    Clickbait? Depends on the site, and the writer. Knee jerk reactionism in readers and watchers? Also a thing, as readily as someone that actually thinks something through. It’s an inevitability that people will become jaded due to a real article and a clickbait article saying similar things (albeit for different reasons) being hard to tell apart. That’s a reality of the world, and a legitimate article adds to it as much as one that’s just trying to stir the pot for views – intentions, road to hell. People see so much of a thing and the boys, girls, what have yous, can only cry wolf so many times before the villagers throw all of them to some actual wolves (regardless that some being thrown might have actually been pointing out some actual wolves in the first place).

    We only have so much outrage to spare before we get burned out. Maybe the issue could be better resolved by bringing up the issues that really count, that can really be rallied behind, rather than throwing all the issues at all the walls until people can’t tell the nonsense from the things really worth caring about. Then again, everyone’s idea of of nonsense versus things they care about aren’t exactly consistent, so.. well, anything is potentially a fool’s errand to someone.

    Could just be we have to learn to live with the fact that people are people and viewpoints on the same issue can be near countless.

  • Jon David

    I think a lot of people can make a mountain out of a molehill. It was tasteless, yes and these guys should get a smack upside the head and a “what the hell were you thinking?” type of question. But demand a public apology? A little too far. Yeah, they were putzes for saying it and go ahead and call them out.

    HOWEVER…I would like to point out that my own work has been torn to shreds by people and my characters, FICTIONAL CHARACTERS, have been mercilessly destroyed and called all sorts of names, my main character Morgalla especially.

  • Jerry_Fritschle

    Overlooked in this non-event is the fact that they did not “volunteer” this. They were in fact responding to a question…why would Natasha go for Banner over either of them? A flippant answer in the voices of their own characters (actually poking fun at Hawk and Cap as being closet misogynists) may or may not be considered funny, depending on who is listening; however, it was probably the best answer that a question like this deserved :-)

  • hermit_boy

    Words have as much power as you give them. The tendency now days is for people to give too much power to words in the guise of those words being ‘offensive’. The N word is a good example of a word being given too much power. Someone that uses the N word may or may not be racist. That person may or may not take actions that hurt other people. We don’t know anything about a person by their use of the N word, but we THINK we do understand them when they use that word.

    In this case, they used a couple words that some people give more power to than they should. And as such, we are now judging the character of these 2 actors based not on their actual beliefs, and definitely not because of their actions. Didn’t Chris Evans just visit children in 2 different hospitals as Cap, bringing a huge amount of good will? Is this erased because of something he said, possibly as an inside joke?

    The point about Black Widow being fictitious has nothing to do with whether or not it is OK to be sexist. The sad point of this article is that the assumption was made that these 2 actors are sexist because of a couple words they used in 1 of a long string of grueling interviews, instead of basing that judgement on what they do or what their actual heart-felt beliefs are.

    Is it OK to be sexist toward a fictitious character? Maybe not. But is it OK to call someone sexist only because they used a couple words that you find sexist? I don’t think that is fair at all.

  • James

    We sometimes forget that the law of Earth guarantees that everyone, everywhere, from the moment they’re born to the moment they die, will live a life free from anything – no matter how stupid, juvenile, or taken out of context – that may offend them.

  • Wizkamridr

    She is one in the comics. She uses her body to get information. Tony Stark is also a tramp.

  • tcorp

    Let’s imagine a spectrum that, at one extreme, consists of all things, speech, and behaviors that we could and will categorize as “Definitely Sexist.” At the other extreme, the spectrum consists of things, speech, and behaviors, that we could and will categorize as “Definitely Not Sexist.” Thus, we have the following:

    Definitely Sexist —————————————————————————————— Definitely Not Sexist

    Now, our spectrum assumes a lot philosophically, but I think that, in practical terms, this spectrum is how most people approach the issue of what is and what is not sexist. We can easily think of actions that are obviously sexist–e.g., violence against women because they are women. We can also think of actions that are obviously not sexist–e.g., me writing a “To Do” list with the blue pen that currently sits beside me. But we can also imagine things that sit perfectly in the middle of our spectrum, things that we cannot be sure either way whether they are sexist or not. And therein lies the issue.

    “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.’ ”

    It’s easy to make this argument in the face of someone like Faulkner, a guy who comments on TAB with a string of misogynist insanity–sincerely or not. But it’s disingenuous to say this about everyone who argues that something may really not be “sexist.” We are, after all, typically arguing about things, speech, and behaviors toward the middle of the spectrum. No one disagrees that violence against women is bad (at least I hope no one disagrees). And no one disagrees that me writing a “To Do” list with my blue pen isn’t bad (unless the content of my “To Do” list is itself bad). So when we’re faced with the stuff in the middle of our spectrum, how do we determine whether a given thing, speech, or behavior is or isn’t sexist? Is it objective? Is it subjective? And who should have the burden of proving that it is or is not sexist?

    We also recognize that, in addition to the decision as to what is and what isn’t sexist, we usually cultivate a sense of prioritization among harms, as Moppet mentioned. These two criteria are built in to any discussion of sexism. Thus, it’s difficult to understand how Bell, you, and other TAB writers aren’t “manufacturing faux outrage” in instances if your argument seems weak as to both criteria AND you behave in a way that makes the argument seem like it’s more about your ego–e.g., deleting comments that you don’t like.

    So no, I’m not attempting to “nullify all criticism of sexism in media.” I’m asking whether your arguments make sense. And so should you.

  • CaseX

    This plus two other articles in recent memory on this site about sexism. Why not just change your name to “The Sexism Booth”?

    • MichaelANovelli

      Because that would imply that we are a Booth *of* Sexism, rather than a Booth *about* Sexism. Grammar, foo! ;)

      • CaseX

        “The Sexism Police,” then?

        • MichaelANovelli

          Actually, Team AB does have a secret second name. I can’t tell you what it is, but we fight for freedom, wherever there’s trouble! ;)

          Yo, Joe!

          • CaseX

            Is it “Slowly Turning Into An All-Sexism Website”? Because that name would be appropriate.

            Either way, keep fighting the good fight.

          • MichaelANovelli

            Excelsior! :)

    • Wow, three WHOLE articles in “recent memory” about the same subject? How are you coping?

  • noway

    I’ve been enjoying Agony Booth articles/recaps for the past decade, but the onslaught of SJW-pandering crap over the past year or so is why I’ve been reading it less and less.

    • Let me make this clear: I find these topics interesting and I intend to write/post more articles along the same lines, and no amount of complaining in the comments is going to stop me from writing about what I want to write about. If you think articles like this are “pandering SJW crap”, then you’re probably better off not reading this website at all.

      • hermit_boy

        Don’t mean to criticize unfairly, but I wanted to see if you would extrapolate on this statement. It is pretty rare when someone that writes on a websites asks people to not visit the site.

        From your FAQ, it makes it sound like Agony Booth focuses on writing about movies. You know, reviews about the movie, and commentary on the movies themselves. The topic of this article has nothing to do with the movie, but comments made from actors, doing interviews, that just happen to be acting in a movie. I’m all for you writing what interests you, and you should not stop doing so. But is this site the best place to flex your SJW writing muscles?

        • Jonathan Campbell

          Yes, yes it is.

        • Wizkamridr

          ex·trap·o·late
          ikˈstrapəˌlāt/
          verb
          verb: extrapolate; 3rd person present: extrapolates; past tense: extrapolated; past participle: extrapolated; gerund or present participle: extrapolating
          extend the application of (a method or conclusion, especially one based on statistics) to an unknown situation by assuming that existing trends will continue or similar methods will be applicable.”the results cannot be extrapolated to other patient groups”
          estimate or conclude (something) by extrapolating.”attempts to extrapolate likely human cancers from laboratory studies”
          Mathematics
          extend (a graph, curve, or range of values) by inferring unknown values from trends in the known data.”a set of extrapolated values”

    • Wizkamridr

      Sexist Jehovah Witnesses?

    • Yes, how dare this website acknowledge that people besides young angry entitled white dudes exist. So terrible. *cough*

      • Josh Graham

        So sexism is limited to white people. Good to know

  • Kanonite

    Why is this a deal? An actor said a character gets around. Thats it.

    • CDF-CRO

      Well yeah but it’s the wording used. Somebody could describe Nick Fury with the N word and you’d shrug and say “What ‘s the big deal, they just called the guy black!” which is technically true but misses the point. Words can demean and insult.

  • Circuit Strike

    The part I found the most infuriating about all of this were the responses basically saying “well, she is”. The character in the movies isn’t overly sexualized and she really hasn’t been flirting with the other avengers. The commenters justified that she is a “slut” or “whore” because of her “tight outfits” or other nonsense. Then they would elaborate that she is not meant to be taken seriously, just eye candy. It just shows that there are still many people with inherently sexist attitudes out there and that is disheartening.

  • msgundam2

    Fake outrage ftw

  • Madpac

    This whole discussion is ridiculous. They were not being sexist. They were making a joke, reacting as if Captain America and Hawkeye were juvenile spurned lovers instead of the heroes they are supposed to be. Basically they were expressing sour grapes. “She’s a whore and has a prosthetic leg anyway” is exactly the kind of thing a silly jilted lover would say. Besides, the whole writing for fictional characters existing along so many years makes them seem weird. It’s the same thing when somebody says Superman was a dick for not committing with Lois Lane after so many decades. Would any adult man take offense on that? That’s laughable, and by the way Superman was written in many stories, he *was* a real dick.