A guide to the growing controversy over Joss Whedon’s Avengers and Marvel’s gender problem

look at these angry tweets sent to the film director and screenwriter Joss Whedon, the serviceman behind both Avengers movies, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and a host of early beloved geek properties .

There are many, many more collected in this Storify .
Whedon has been a eccentric hero for years now, but a few of his directorial choices in Avengers : Age of Ultron have caused many to accuse him of misogyny and call for his headway. And his decisiveness to quit Twitter in the consequence of Ultron ‘s publish ( in what was largely a quirk of time ) has only fanned the flames. But is this controversy his fault, or separate of a larger problem with Marvel ‘s inability to know what to do with its one successful charwoman superhero ?
The controversy focuses on a scene partway through Avengers : Age of Ultron. Natasha Romanoff ( Black Widow ) and Bruce Banner ( the Hulk ) are taking a breath at a farmhouse owned by a friend. They ‘re hiding out from the apocalyptic doom raining down around them and their chap Avengers — the arrant opportunity to have a old world chat about their incipient relationship .
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Natasha ( who is played by Scarlett Johansson ) has a bit of a break down on Bruce ( Mark Ruffalo ), and she ‘s trying to convince him they would make a great match. Bruce demurs, referring to the ( quite literal ) monster inside him. Natasha, impassioned, tells him all about her train as a master assassin and reveals her deep secret : she was sterilized. Having a child might compromise her ability to kill people with impunity, her trainers believed .
It ‘s the way Natasha relays this information that has caused many to question the way Ultron treats the character — and whether the film is ultimately uninterested in the emotional lives of women .
Says Natasha :

They sterilize you. It ‘s efficient. One less thing to worry about, the one thing that might matter more than a mission. It makes everything easier — tied killing. You distillery think you ’ re the alone monster on the team ? *

In the context of Natasha ‘s overall quality bow — she ‘s a deadly assassin trying to atone for the awful ( mysterious ) things she ‘s done — it ‘s hard to argue that Natasha thinks she ‘s a freak specifically because she ca n’t bear children. She ‘s never seemed peculiarly concerned in starting a syndicate, and her narrative is about seeking redemption, not about having kids .
To a set of people, it seems as if Natasha, like so many female characters, is being reduced to her generative choices
But in the context of this setting, and specifically in the context of her relationship with Bruce ( which culminates in the two of them discussing running aside together ), it ‘s much easier to infer that Natasha is therefore sad about not being able to have kids that she thinks of herself as a monster. To a bunch of people it seems as if she, like sol many female characters, is being reduced to her generative choices .
For more on why many find this view troublesome, check out Meredith Woerner and Katharine Trendacosta ‘s excellent io9 mail ( which besides wonderfully explains why it ‘s pathetic to call Natasha ‘s brief capture by the film ‘s villain a damsel in distress moment ), deoxyadenosine monophosphate well as a piece by Jen Yamato at the Daily Beast. For defenses of the scene and character, Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post and Sam Adams of Indiewire are particularly astute .
But much of what ‘s driving fans ‘ anger is n’t in truth about Natasha. It ‘s about Joss Whedon in particular and, possibly more crucial, the Marvel Cinematic Universe ‘s general inability to launch a fib about a woman superhero .

Marvel will release 19 movies with male leads before its first film with a female lead

The cast of Avengers: Age of Ultron isn't exactly teeming with women.

When it comes to incorporating outstanding women into its movies, Marvel struggles. The studio apartment has Black Widow, american samoa good as a standard-issue girlfriend fictional character for each of its main heroes. One of these characters — Peggy Carter — has spun off into her own very enjoyable television receiver series. In fact, the caller ‘s record is slightly better on television, where it besides has Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a read that boasts gender parity bit. But its television receiver shows have a fraction of the cultural impact of its films .
Black Widow has been four different things in four different movies
Marvel ‘s discussion of Black Widow is frequently outright icky. In the buildup to the release of Ultron, the lack of Black Widow merchandise prompted an cry that grew to finally include Ruffalo himself, and the reasoning behind the company ‘s lack of said products was depressingly cynical. ( Disney bodied, it turns out, assumes it has the unseasoned girl marketplace locked down with its princess franchise. )
But Marvel besides does n’t know what to do with Black Widow. As Darren Franich points out at Entertainment Weekly, she ‘s a quality who has been four different things in four different movies, with only Johansson ‘s dependable performance holding all of these interpretations together .
Some of that is just a by-product of the means serialized storytelling tends to twist characters to fit the fib, preferably than frailty versa, but it ‘s besides well beyond what any of Marvel ‘s male heroes deal with. And despite the obvious fan desire for one, Marvel has no plans for a Black Widow solo movie — and its first female-led superhero film wo n’t arrive until 2018, after 19 movies led by men .
If Marvel were doing a better problem of appreciating that there are superhero fans of both genders, the outshout might have been a minor spit, rather of a major ramp .
But the rape is besides particular to Joss Whedon, the film director of Avengers: Age of Ultron, and that ‘s in part because of how Whedon has presented himself .

Joss Whedon is an outspoken feminist — but his work doesn’t always reflect it

Samsung Celebrates The Release Of 'Avengers: Age Of Ultron'

personally and politically, Whedon is decidedly a feminist. He frequently labels himself as such, he works with groups like Equality now, and he ‘s been a frequent populace athletic supporter of figures like Anita Sarkeesian, whose Feminist Frequency YouTube serial has been the target of misogynous rape .
Whedon ‘s work trends toward feminist movement, but his true great campaign is storytelling
But artistically, things are more complicate. Whedon ‘s study trends toward feminist movement, but his true bang-up lawsuit is storytelling, and he always prioritizes the latter if it makes for a better fib. Whedon likes to tell stories that test the strength of communities, stories where hideous actions are often forgive and written off because the larger community requires it. And though this is why his stories are therefore frequently thoroughly, it besides has a inclination to clash with his fictional feminist movement. ( More on this in a act. )
As he told BuzzFeed ‘s Adam B. Vary when explaining that he ‘d left Twitter to concentrate on his write, not because he was being attacked by belligerent feminists ( as some had assumed from his clock ) :

I ’ ve said before, when you declare yourself politically, you destroy yourself artistically. Because abruptly that ’ s the litmus test for everything you do — for example, in my case, feminism. If you don ’ thymine live up to the litmus test of feminism in this one exemplify, then you ’ re a misogynist. It circles directly second upon you .

How Buffy the Vampire Slayer helps explain Whedon’s Avengers

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an early, fantastic model of television receiver establishing that women can be in control of their own lives and their own action shows, precisely a well as men. The arrival of Buffy and Xena : warrior Princess in the deep 1990s signaled the arrival of the feminist action hero on television. Whedon has specifically pointed to the landmark portrayals of Ellen Ripley from the Alien franchise and Sarah Connor from the Terminator franchise as touchstones.

Both Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor were celebrated for the way they just overthrew existing military action paradigm by putting a woman at the center of both stories. Yes, their films were skill fiction, but the characters felt like actual breakthroughs. Alien, in particular, is structured in such a room that the emergence of Ripley as the hero is about a twist ending .
Whedon ‘s characters exist within patriarchal institutions designed to control them
It ‘s easy to see how Buffy ( and Whedon ‘s late female natural process heroes ) are inspired by this particular character type. But Whedon traditionally goes one gradation far. alternatively of being menaced by science-fiction monsters, his characters have to exist within patriarchal institutions designed to control them .
indeed, this is specifically the message of the final sequence of Buffy, where the title character ‘s prevail over malefic itself is n’t a matter to as her decision to endow every “ electric potential ” vampire killer in the world with the might that was within her all along .

The slayers were once controlled by a male council of watchers ; nowadays they ‘re not. sure, part of the reason is the evil itself blew up the watchers. But it ‘s even more significant that Buffy decided the former structure should be destroyed in the first invest .
like storylines exist in Whedon ‘s by and by sci-fi serial Firefly ( where a potentially superpowered girlfriend is experimented upon and finally goes rogue ) and the a lot dark Dollhouse ( where a woman is literally exploited by a sci-fi escort avail before realizing what ‘s happened to her ) .
Whedon ‘s feminist storytelling is, frankincense, placed within the estimate of institutionalized, patriarchal sexism that ultimately must be destroyed if women will finally get everything they deserve. And because he ‘s a scholar of action film, he represents those forces literally, so that his heroes can physically kick those institutions in the face .
In this context, the Black Widow storyline becomes not about her lamentation for the children she ca n’t have, but about her creation by a arrangement that cared nothing for her as a human being and everything for her as a plot piece it could move about on the board. Her generative rights were violated in the most flagitious way possible and her freedom of choice stolen from her .
As Libby Hill, with whom I partake a marriage and a Netflix account, writes at Salon :

a a lot as it may look on the surface like Natasha is mourning motherhood, what she ’ s actually mourning is her ability to choose. It ’ s not about children ; it ’ sulfur about choice. What she has lost international relations and security network ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate even so much her ability to have a syndicate ( as mind-bogglingly bright as she is, she, of all people, could find a room to procure a baby ). No, what she mourns is her ability to fantasize about that “ normal ” life, the global opposite the one she presently lives in .

Because the program that created Black Widow is in Natasha ‘s distant past, she ‘s perplex trying to right the wrongs that were committed against her and the wrongs she perpetrated as an assassin. flush if we think Whedon literally meant that her sterilization made Natasha a freak, I ‘d wager it ‘s because it was function of her education in dealing out end .
Whedon has frequently said that he finds Natasha the most bewitching of the Avengers. Viewed in the model of his other characters, this makes a lot of common sense .

The Avengers have a gender problem

Avengers: Age of Ultron

calm, the scenery in doubt is clumsily written, and the mere fact that it could incite such an hubbub marks it as one that credibly needed another edit or two .
But it besides speaks to a growing discrepancy between Whedon ‘s storytelling techniques and feminist music genre storytelling in general. Whedon ‘s onscreen feminist movement much follows a identical basic blueprint — take a character type traditionally played by a homo and gender-flip it to see what happens. It ‘s the same thing Ridley Scott did with Alien ‘s Ripley ( who was literally scripted to be played by a man ) .
But this method acting has been around for decades now. The “ Hey ! look ! It ‘s a woman ! Playing a part normally played by a man ! ” approach no longer feels transgressive. alternatively, it feels like a trope in its own right, and one that verges on overexploitation. interim, fans are increasingly responding to characters who embrace the entire spectrum of what it is to be a woman, from identical feminine to very masculine .
Black Widow is basically the only big female character in the Avengers franchise
interestingly, Whedon is normally pretty good about this. All of his television receiver series ( save possibly the Buffy spinoff Angel ) feature a wide fleet of women to surround their protagonists, who hit many of those early points on the full spectrum of womanhood. In that way, he can have his feminist carry through hero, while besides offering batch of early characters for people who do n’t peculiarly identify with the Buffy type .
But he does n’t in truth have that in the Avengers franchise, where Black Widow is basically the entirely big female character. Yes, there ‘s Cobie Smulders ‘s Maria Hill and Elizabeth Olsen ‘s Scarlet Witch ( at least in the sequel ), but neither quality is closely ampere authoritative as Black Widow. That leaves Black Widow to represent about all women in a very guy-heavy story, and that, of course, is an impossible task .

Whedon’s overriding obsession: how communities of people manage evil

'Firefly' 10 Year Anniversary Reunion Press Conference - Comic-Con International 2012

The theme Whedon has been charting throughout his career with the most nuance is the idea of community. Every single one of his projects is about a little band of friends who find themselves facing off against a universe that wants nothing more than to snuff them out. That even applies to the two most celebrated movie scripts he worked on, Speed and Toy Story .
What makes Whedon ‘s work resonate with then many people is that his communities are often fractious, made up of individuals who do awful things and hate each other from time to time. But because the community takes primacy, friends are always welcomed back, evening if they ‘ve become evil rage monsters. ( This happens in Whedon ‘s work army for the liberation of rwanda more frequently than you ‘d expect. ) forgiveness comes well in Whedon’s oeuvre ; redemption takes more time .
But this means there are batch of situations when Whedon ‘s characters make decisions that jibe with the story but ultimately seem to undercut his feminist themes — particularly when the community ‘s primacy requires forgiveness of the truly contrite above all else .
Forgiveness comes well in Whedon ‘s oeuvre ; redemption takes more time
Consider, for example, possibly the most amusing moment in these regards in the Whedon canyon. Vampire Spike, frustrated at his inability to possess Buffy, attempts to rape her. She fights him off, and he finally travels to Africa, where he has his soul restored by an ancient ritual. ( In the Buffyverse, the soul is what separates humans from monsters. ) late, everybody agrees to forgive Spike and move on — despite the fact that he attempted to perpetrate a flagitious crime against the group ‘s leader .
This is the most obvious moment when Whedon ‘s desire to push his fictional communities to the break point conflicts with his submit feminist movement ( or even estimable storytelling ). But he ‘s much come across as excessively fond of about punishing his characters in everything he ‘s worked on .
One of Whedon ‘s most celebrated quotes about storytelling explains that he wants to give viewers not what they want, but what they need. broadly stated, this means not giving in to fan desire for certain stories but, rather, charting what might actually happen to these people in this antic position. This has resulted in some of the best moments in television receiver history, like Angel ‘s turn toward malefic on Buffy, but it ‘s besides resulted in some absurd ones, like when Xander and Anya broke up on that show by and large because cipher on it could always be felicitous. Or, for that matter, Black Widow ‘s reveal of her asepsis in Age of Ultron .
At his best, Whedon is a overlord of ensemble storytelling that packs an emotional punch. But at his worst, he ‘s constantly trying to subvert typical storytelling, to the academic degree that his efforts to not be predictable become their own kind of predictability. And in that awkward Black Widow scene, it ‘s this hope that ‘s most likely gotten him in trouble again.

*Correction: An earlier version of this post misquoted the line from the film. The quote has been corrected .
WATCH: How popular perception shaped popular culture for women

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