Dear Joss Whedon,
Sara here. Longtime fan, encyclopedic “Buffy” expert, unofficial Browncoat, “Dr. Horrible” soundtrack-lover, “Dollhouse” apologist (you tried!). You’ve been a formative influence in my pop cultural tastes for the past two decades. I’ve always maintained, loudly and publicly, that you were on the side of making that world a better, more welcoming, more nuanced place for women — as fictional characters, and as viewers. I mean, just a few short years ago, you said this:
So, um, we need to talk about “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” I had my doubts when I saw one bombastic, testosterone-soaked trailer after another make its way around the internet, but I tempered my reaction with a soothing refrain of, “But it’s Joss Whedon. They’re just not showing the smart parts. That’s not what trailers are about.” I really liked the first “Avengers” movie, for the record. I thought it was intelligent and funny and, OK, short on women — but at least you had Black Widow, which was kind of new and exciting in a landscape that had been uniformly male for forever. That was progress, I thought, upon which you would capitalize in the next film.The disappointing treatment of Scarlett Johansson’s character in the sequel (and, for that matter, beforehand) has already been examined in an excellent Daily Beast piece by Jen Yamato, so I won’t retread everything she’s said. But I would like to add, did we really need Natasha to have a mini-breakdown over the fact that she can’t have children? Haven’t we gotten to a point where the one lonely female superhero in our current landscape can just pursue the business of avenging without having to bemoan not being a mother? Caitlin Moran, help me out here:
“I have a rule of thumb that allows me to judge, when time is pressing and one needs to make a snap judgment, whether or not some sexist bullshit is afoot. Obviously, it’s not 100% infallible but by and large it definitely points you in the right direction and it’s asking this question; are the men doing it? Are the men worrying about this as well? Is this taking up the men’s time?”
Male superheroes generally don’t have kids, which makes sense; it’d get in the way of their superheroing. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) does make reference to not being able to have kids, too, but it’s in more of a “well, obviously” way. Couldn’t it just be the same for women? For this rather busy woman, anyway?
Black Widow, unfortunately, is only the tip of the iceberg. Let’s take a look at all the other female characters in “Age of Ultron.”
You got Linda Cardellini — Lindsay goddamn Weir! — in your movie, and you made her a housewife. As Hawkeye’s secret spouse (he’s kept his family in some sort of superhero protection program, apparently), she is literally pregnant and in the kitchen for most of her screen time. Sure, she dispenses some womanly words of wisdom and lets the Avengers crash in their Pottery Barn-tastic farmhouse, but seriously? That is some reductive gender shit right there. She is literally keeping the home fires burning. (How do I know this? Because there’s a lengthy scene in which two male Avengers show off their muscles chopping firewood.)
And let’s talk about the support staff at the new state-of-the-art Avengers building. Cobie Smulders is on hand again as Maria Hill, a high-ranking officer in the establishment who seems to do nothing but walk around with a clipboard, wear tight black pantsuits and have the occasional chastising Skype session with our heroes (I’m not watching “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” so maybe she’s tearing it up there, but you can’t count on moviegoers to know these things). And Claudia Kim plays Dr. Helen Cho, who can apparently do brilliant things with genetics but mostly just gets mind-warped by the villainous Ultron and, later, beaten up by him.
Early on, both women look like a million bucks at the superhero cocktail party, of course. And it’s at this party where both Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) brush off the lack of appearances from their significant others — Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) — by making brief, competitive mention of how the ladies are too busy out there changing the world to show up. OK, but either of those characters would really have upped the quotient of substantive females onscreen in this nearly two-and-a-half-hour sausage-fest. Seriously, you couldn’t get Gwyneth or Natalie for a couple days?
Then there’s Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch character. Yes, she has a superpower, but it’s one that feels dreamed up by men who are terrified of women: She messes with people’s minds, dude! That’s not on you, Joss; the canon is already there, I know. No, my main beef with your treatment of Olsen is that this very talented actress gets zero quippy Whedony dialogue. There’s plenty of it elsewhere in the film, but mostly it belongs to Tony, Thor, and Cap (Chris Evans). The Hulk and Black Widow/Natasha, meanwhile, are too busy making eyes at each other in this one to be much fun.
Giving characters — particularly women — snappy, juicy, reference-laden dialogue is, like, YOUR WHOLE THING. It’s what MADE you.
Scarlet Witch could have been really memorable — or, at a minimum, a fun, articulate contrast to the film’s nonstop cavalcade of robot-fighting scenes, which blend into one another almost immediately. Instead she’s just a red-eyed millennial who gives the Avengers bad trips.
Again and again, you’ve paid lip service to the idea of fighting misogyny in the film industry — most recently, in the comic-book arena. “It’s a phenomenon in the industry that we call ‘stupid people,'” you’ve said. “There is genuine, recalcitrant, intractable sexism, and old-fashioned quiet misogyny that goes on. You hear ‘Oh, [female superheroes] don’t work because of these two bad ones that were made eight years ago’… there’s always an excuse.”
So what I want to know is, what’s your excuse?