Joss Whedon not a feminist? Only if you wilfully disregard certain key facts

True equality, when it arrives, will announce itself with diversity

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The Independent Online

If there was male film maker in Hollywood you’d feel confident calling a feminist it would be Joss Whedon. Not only did he set out to create a feminist icon with Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the greatest female superhero for a generation), he’s spoken passionately at events advocating gender equality, and he’s consistently included interesting and complex women into his work. In 2006, Meryl Streep introduced him on stage to receive an award from the Equality Now group as they honoured the “Men on the front lines” of their cause.

So it would seem unlikely that Whedon would become the target of feminist ire, yet the release of his movie Avengers: Age of Ultron has resulted in exactly that. Many have attacked his handling of Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson) and on Twitter, he was met by a flurry of criticism ranging from the disappointed through to the outright abusive. Whedon left the social media site on Monday, and though he denies that messages like these were the cause, I wouldn’t blame him if they were.

So what in Age of Ultron has caused people to label this hitherto feminist champion a misogynist? Spoiler alert – but it largely (though not exclusively) revolves around Black Widow’s revelation that as a young girl she was sterilised, and her calling herself a “monster” because of it.

On the face of it that would seem, to use the favoured term in such discussions, “problematic”. A badass female superhero is reduced to her to her fertility, and loses self-worth because of it. Are infertile women invalid as people? Are they monsters? Is that what Whedon is saying?  These conclusions can be drawn, but only if one wilfully disregards both the themes of the movie, and the context of the scenes.

The characters in Age Of Ultron are driven by creation. The villainous Ultron speaks on how humans come to accept their own mortality once they have had children. Ultron is a child of Tony Stark and sees the destruction of his father as necessary for evolution. Hawkeye is revealed to have children, and he is fighting for them to have a better world. The twins Quiksilver and Scarlett Witch are orphaned children, fuelled by their grief and anger. The Vision is a child of Ultron, but he is only brought to life thanks to creative contributions from other Avengers.

And Bruce Banner, the man who loves Widow, is unable to have children due to the gamma radiation which riddles his body. Viewed in this context, we see that Widow’s own plight is a function of the movie’s overall theme. She had her ability to create taken away from her. It’s not that she wants children, it’s that she cannot have them even if she did. Anything which might detract from her being a killer was stripped from her. It is not her infertility that makes her fear she’s a monster. It’s that her creators stole it from her. That they might have made her more weapon than human.

A lot of the criticism has been hung on this word: “monster”. But she doesn’t actually call herself that. She asks Bruce “Still think you are the only monster on the team?” She is vulnerable, sharing a secret. And it’s worth noting that the use of the word “monster” is deployed very deliberately. The movie invokes Frankenstein as it fills its cast with creators and creations.  Captain America, Iron man, and The Vision all refer to themselves as monsters in various ways.

Whedon told Buzzfeed: "I’ve said before, when you declare yourself politically, you destroy yourself artistically. Because suddenly that’s the litmus test for everything you do — for example, in my case, feminism. If you don’t live up to the litmus test of feminism in this one instance, then you’re a misogynist. It circles directly back upon you."

Perhaps Whedon isn’t allowed to write actual characters anymore. Perhaps by fighting so hard for feminism in media, he has restricted himself to only being able to write virtuous and infallible women. What a shame that would be. True equality, when it arrives, will announce itself with diversity. Those characters will be smart and stupid, strong and weak, good and evil. Just like all the men.