Trigger warning: Internet drama.
I don’t know much about Joss Whedon, but apparently a lot of readers do. As his Wikipedia bio notes, he’s a movie polymath:
[Whedon is] an American screenwriter, film and television director, film and television producer, comic book author, composer and actor. He is the founder of Mutant Enemy Productions and co-founder of Bellwether Pictures, and is best known as the creator of the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), Angel (1999–2004), Firefly (2002), Dollhouse (2009–10) and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013–present). Whedon co-wrote Toy Story (1995), wrote and directed Serenity (2005), co-wrote and directed Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008), co-wrote and produced The Cabin in the Woods(2012), and wrote and directed The Avengers (2012) and its sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).
And, by several accounts, he’s just quit Twi**er over a bunch of abuse he’s gotten for his latest movie: “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” As Time magazine reports, the firestorm is apparently over the depiction of characters in the movie and some of their language, although the magazine is short on specifics:
Whedon’s departure did create a wave of speculation on Twitter that he closed his account because of “death threats.” A search of tweets directed at him over the past week definitely turned up some deep ugliness, with some of the abusive users urging him to “die” or “commit suicide” over plot points they didn’t like in Age of Ultron. Although these comments are clearly disturbing, there was no unifying complaint or groundswell of attack beyond just the random (but all-too-typical) viciousness of anonymous social media trolls.
The most abusive bullying came from viewers who objected to Black Widow’s tentative relationship with The Hulk’s Bruce Banner and another scene in which she was briefly captured by Ultron. There was also anger about how he depicted Quicksilver and a number of other plot points that “fans” of this comic book title apparently felt justified harassment. Filtered out and pasted together, as some on Twitter have done, it looks like significant vitriol – but compared to the immense volume of conversation about this film on the social media platform, it’s really background static.
A post by Brother Russell Blackford at his Metamagician and the Hellfire Club site links to some of the abuse, in which Whedon was called, among other things, a “racist, ableist, transphobic misogynist,” with some people (mostly anonymous, of course) saying they’d like to punch him in the face or put a foot up his ass. Have a look at some of those tw**ts: it’s unbelievable. Apparently the “misogyny” trope (the term for someone who hates women) was very common.
Yet if anybody’s an unlikely target for this kind of invective, it’s Whedon. As one reader wrote me (a woman, by the way): “Whedon has a name for creating writing strong female roles. If anyone has been a active advocate for women, it would be him. He is most famous for writing Buffy the Vampire Slayer which was a long-running TV series, and as silly as the premise was, it was much loved by kids everywhere and even gained the approval of academic feminists. . . Joss has always been fucking awesome. He is the exact opposite of a misogynist.”
But let’s back up. What, exactly, motivated the invective heaped on Whedon? I asked Russell for his analysis, for I know he knows a lot about comic-book culture; and I also did some digging on the Internet. Here’s what Russell wrote me:
I do have some insight into the background, having seen the movie and knowing a bit about the Marvel Comics stories that it draws on. There seem to be four things that have led to the attacks:
- The movie is as violent (in a stylised way, etc.) as you’d expect of a superhero movie. There’s a scene, as I mention in my review, where it makes some fun of male competitiveness, etc., but as you’d expect a lot of it consists of battle scenes. [Jonathan] McIntosh has been banging on about this on Twitter: “toxic masculinity” and so on.
- The main female superheroine is the Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson. In her backstory, she was a Russian spy, trained to be a perfect/near-superhuman assassin before she turned good, etc., etc. Some people seem to object to the revelation that she was trained and brainwashed from childhood, which I suppose might arguably deny her agency and responsibility or something. Second, she is captured at one stage by the villain – the malevolent artificial intelligence, Ultron – creating a “damsel in distress” situation. Third, it’s revealed that she was forcibly sterilised as part of the process of brainwashing/training her. In a scene with Bruce Banner (the Hulk), with whom there’s a romantic sub-plot, she reveals this, and she comments that both of them are monsters. This has been taken to indicate that Whedon thinks that women who can’t bear children are monsters. In context, that’s not what she’s saying at all. She’s reassuring him, in response to his fear that any children he had would be freaks, that she can’t have children anyway. She also tells him that both of them are, in their ways, monstrous.
- At one stage Tony Stark/Iron Man – who is always a bit of an ass – apparently jokes (I missed this entirely) that if he were in charge he’d institute the right of prima noctis. This is apparently viewed as a rape joke.
- Whedon is supposed to be a racist for presenting two characters – Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch – as Eastern European but not of any other particular ethnicity beyond the fictional Balkan country they are from. In the comics, they were long supposed to be the children of Magneto (who is Jewish) and his Roma wife, and they were brought up as Roma. Eliding this supposedly makes Whedon/Marvel Studios racist. I liked the connection with Magneto myself, and I regret that Marvel has now altered it in the comics as well, but much of what is going on here relates to intellectual property rights. The movie rights to Magneto are held by FOX, not by Marvel Studios. The IP thing with these companies/properties is a mess.
Some of these points about the movie could be worth civil, subtle discussion by aficionados, but nothing in them could possibly excuse the way Whedon has been abused.
Even the feminist website Feministing can’t bring itself to fully damn Whedon for the joke discussed in point 3, noting that it might have been used to poke fun at Tony rather than express the sentiments of the moviemaker. (As Russell said, “Tony is a bit of an ass.”) Given Whedon’s history, I suspect that the first explanation is more likely. As for Whedon being “transphobic,” I haven’t seen any substantive reason for that accusation.
Finally, Russell’s post calls out those who became vicious toward Whedon. I don’t use the word “haters” lightly, but there is a subset of people on the internet who are always poised to take offense at anything; they are the internet equivalent of those Muslims who fly into a rage when somebody draws Muhammad. And their hatred just compounds itself as individuals work each other up into a mutual frenzy, creating a torrent of abuse of the kind that Whedon and many others have endured. This, of course, holds not just for Whedon, but for anyone who’s been subject to “internet shaming.” Here’s an excerpt from Blackford’s post:
Whatever Whedon’s personal faults may be, and whatever legitimate critiques of Avengers: Age of Ultron may be available from a range of viewpoints, many of the responses on Twitter are unfair, unprovoked, vile, cowardly, and morally despicable, and I utterly, unequivocally denounce and condemn them. This won’t prevent me, in the future, from making whatever criticisms of the movie I might think fair and fitting; however, I will always try to show appropriate generosity and charity toward Whedon, as I always do when discussing movies, books, and other such cultural products (and their creators). That attitude is obviously not the case for the people who have attacked Whedon with the poorly evidenced and patently ridiculous claims that he is a racist, a misogynist, etc., etc.
Those terms have not entirely lost their hurtfulness for those of us who support basic ideas of social justice, although they are starting to leak away their meaning as – increasingly – they are applied to decent, gentle, thoughtful people with solid liberal and feminist credentials. They are used as a weapon against precisely those sorts of people because they are the people who can be most hurt by them. It’s a case of using words as weapons – of using them to wound – rather than using them accurately.
It’s long past time to push back against this.
Taking the point a bit wider… I am very unhappy with the sort of personal nastiness – even against individuals who should be acknowledged, respected, and assisted as cultural and political allies – that has become so prevalent on the internet over the past few years. Again and again, reasonable charity and basic decency are not even factors. Accusations are made in the hope of inflicting psychological wounds and social harm.
Very many people have disappointed me in recent years with their abdication from the realm of rational debate and discussion – preferring the tactics of smearing, abuse, and psychological destruction. The result is a toxic environment for everyone. People trying to oppose it are often poorly organised and confused about what they are trying to achieve, and some of them are prone to counterproductive actions. In certain cases that I won’t specify, I am unhappy with the approaches they have taken. Some appear to have unpleasant ideologies and agendas of their own – but who can be sure these days?
I don’t sanction that kind of language used towards anybody, much less Whedon, and it’s even less justifiable when the people who use it hide behind pseudonyms. As for threats of physical harm, they’re reprehensible, even though most are clearly wish-thinking. But these people are cowards, pure and simple. If you want to accuse someone of dastardly ideological crimes, have the guts to at least use your name! (By the way, I’m pretty sure that none of the readers here engage in this behavior; I’m just discussing a trend that saddens me.)
I try to avoid this kind of abuse on my site, either from me or the readers, and I hope I’ve largely succeeded, though there are times when I can’t hold back some invective—particularly concerning the hyper-religious or creationists. But this kind of manufactured outrage has gone on long enough, and its connection with slurs, invective, and obscenities is disgusting.
So let me make just one point. The issues in the movie can be subject to debate. They are not something to ostracize somebody over, or to prompt calls for putting a foot up somone’s ass, particularly when the fundament belongs to someone with a history of pro-feminist views. This also goes for those feminists who have been attacked, sometimes by truly misogynistic men and sometimes by other feminists who are ideologically opposed to their brand of feminism. Nothing is gained by such mud-slinging, or calling people things like “douchebags”. That’s not any way to change people’s minds, nor to have a debate that third parties can take an intellectual interest in.
This is the reason, of course, that I use Twi**er only to publicize my website posts. It may be good for learning about articles, but it’s certainly not useful for discussing substantive issues. Too often it serves to inflame rather than enlighten.
Oh, and one further point. Although harassment is not debate, it also works the other way around. Serious criticism should not be taken as harassment.