In which I continue to explore the fallout from, and possible precursor to, Joss Whedon’s exit from twitter.

Being a fan of Joss Whedon’s work I’ve been quite intrigued by the furore surrounding his exit from twitter (the reason for which may, indeed, be as benign as him simply wanting time for other things). A lot of focus has been placed on the abuse he received relating to Avengers: Age Of Ultron. Since I’ve only just seen the movie I’d been avoiding reading too much about it until now; and the fuss around Whedon gave me reason to look a bit more deeply into what people were saying.

There’s been plenty of criticism of Age Of Ultron (especially around Black Widow), some of it valid, some of it less so (you can make up your own minds which is which). I’m going to leave most of it alone, except to say that one certainly gets the impression that a male writer attempting to move away from standard female character tropes will attract the attention of both MRA/gamergater types and feminists, and there’s no guarantee that either will be happy (see also: Steven Moffat).

However, what really jumped out at me was this: Let’s Talk about Age Of Ultron’s Rape Joke. It drew my attention for a couple of reasons:

  1. Whatever it was I completely missed it on my first and (so far) only viewing;
  2. It seemed an odd thing to have in a tentpole blockbuster movie (one that Michael Bay wasn’t involved in);
  3. It seemed an especially odd thing to have in something written by Joss Whedon

You should read the above article—but if you don’t then know that the joke appears during the scene where the Avengers gather round and attempt to lift Thor’s hammer (you’ll all have seen this as part of the relentless onslaught of publicity, even if you haven’t seen the film itself). Tony Stark quips that if he manages to lift Mjolnir then he’ll reinstitute Prima Nocta. If you don’t want to go and read up on Prima Nocta: it’s something that allegedly allowed a medieval lord “to take the virginity of his serfs’ daughters” (regardless, one presumes, of the consent of the daughter).

So far, so baffling. Why would Whedon put a joke in his move that was not only offensive, but also sufficiently obscure that only a small percentage of the audience would understand it anyway? It puzzled me, and it clearly puzzled other people too. Of course, this is the internet, and most people would prefer to assume that someone’s an idiot and in the wrong (i.e. they’d rather find something to be offended by) instead of taking a bit of time to try and understand what they might actually be trying to say. The larger problem with looking at things through your own specific lens is that you only ever come away with exactly the same understanding you had when you went in. If you want to try and understand someone or something else, staring into a mirror is never going to be your best tactic (unless it’s Medusa, of course).

mona-lisa-bridgeThere are (at least) two standard failings when the average netizen tries to dissect someone else’s creation. The first is that you can never really take anything in isolation: you always need to look at the context. It’d be like looking at the Mona Lisa and wondering why the hell Da Vinci painted a bridge. The second is, arguably, the bigger mistake and it’s to assume that the words a character speaks are the words the author would speak. It can be hard to separate the art from the artist sometimes, but you can’t, in all honesty, suggest that Whedon is making light of rape simply because Tony Stark says something unless you’re also convinced that Whedon is plotting to unleash a robot army upon us all and destroy the world.

Sure, Joss Whedon wrote the words, but given that he’s the screenwriter of this movie it is literally his job to put words into Tony Stark’s mouth. That doesn’t make him into Tony Stark any more than it means Tony Stark is a thinly veiled mouthpiece for his own views.

So let’s look at the context, and let’s look at Tony Stark.

Here’s what I think …

Whoever manages to wield Mjolnir is ‘proven worthy’. Looking back at Thor’s origin movie (and we’re ignoring whatever might have happened in the comics; this is a cinematic universe here) Thor is eventually proven worthy because he’s willing to give up his own life in order to protect his friends and various other humans.

Now what happens at the end of The Avengers? Tony Stark proves willing to give up his own life in order to protect his friends and various other humans. In other words, Tony Stark should, by the same criteria, be as worthy as Thor is of wielding Mjolnir (so should Captain America, for that matter—and, indeed, he’s the only one who even manages to make Mjolnir wobble).

This gives Whedon a problem. We, the audience, understand that only Thor should be shown to be worthy (and this leads to a great payoff later in the movie). Whedon, in turn, knows that we’re going to start seeing a darker side to Tony Stark, but it’s a bit too early for that as we haven’t met Ultron yet. Put this scene just a little but later in the movie and no one would question why Stark can’t lift the hammer, unfortunately the team have more important things to do later than indulge in light-hearted pissing contests.

So, how does Whedon show that Tony Stark is not worthy (and in a way that doesn’t abruptly make Stark the focus, because this scene is primarily about sidelining us so we don’t expect Ultron to appear)? Because, despite being a superhero and saving the world, he’s still a man who makes crass rape jokes. It’s a subtle pointer, in many ways. Put it right in the audience’s face and Tony Stark is lost as a character because no one’s going to root for a man who makes rape jokes (unless he’s an astoundingly charismatic villain, and even then …). At the same time, and especially to a feminist writer, what better way to subtly underpin exactly why Stark isn’t worthy than to have him make an obscure rape joke.

(There’s probably also a parallel with Ultron’s philosophy and actions here, but I can’t quite see it at the moment).

Again, that’s only my opinion (man). I have no idea what was actually going on in Whedon’s head when he wrote it, and I have even less idea of what might be going on in Tony Stark’s head. But it certainly makes more sense to me than suggesting that Whedon (who gets paid for his skill at putting words on pages and is probably the polar opposite of an MRA) is casually and carelessly perpetuating rape culture.