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Yes, Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans’ Black Widow Comments are Problematic

On late Wednesday night/early Thursday morning, the Internet churned itself into a frenzy thanks to an interview with Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans wherein they called Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff a “slut” and a “whore.” It was …not great and immediately incited a litany of reactions regarding whether or not the joke was inherently sexist. All of which contributes to the continuation of an almost Sisyphean conversation about the effects of language couched in humor on society.

Sometimes sexism just slips out. Sometimes it’s well-intentioned but doesn’t consider the bigger implications. Sometimes it simply doesn’t land as it was meant. None of which means the person doing it is inherently “bad.” But that’s exactly why we bring it up.

Now, let us be the first to state the obvious: no, we don’t hate either of these men, nor do we think they’re inherently sexist, nor is it lost on us that they were trying to bring a little levity to a tedious process (press junkets) that can be draining, monotonous, and really boring. Quite the opposite on all fronts, in fact. It’s about recognizing the very real issue of female representation and roles in the societal mindset-shaping world of entertainment.

Consider for a second the radical notion that damage can be unintentional. Representation of female characters are constantly evolving — and it’s great to see a female Avenger tackling a lot of meaty goodness. Black Widow kicks ass and does more than simply wait around for the boys to do the heavy lifting: she’s active in her own storyline. But the fact of the matter is this: even being an Avenger in name, she is still pushed aside on t-shirts and promotional materials, with merchandise featuring Black Widow paltry in numbers compared to her male counterparts.

Black Widow has more to do than ever before — and she’s allegedly getting a movie (yes PLEASE says the lot of us), but still her character’s sexual agency is the main topic of conversation. Who she is or isn’t flirting with or sleeping with is the go-to question. And to make jokes about a woman who is confident and secure is ultimately damaging. Because it gives credence to the idea that this is what the representation should be, and that it’s OK to — subconsciously or otherwise — forget that she is more than that. It’s callous and ultimately, regardless of intention, adding fuel to the fire of how we talk about and portray female characters.

Yes, she’s “a fictional character,” Jeremy Renner (read Renner and Evans’ apologies here), but that’s not the point and ultimately is a disservice. Black Widow is still a role model to a lot of young girls: she inspires them to be strong, powerful, hold their own, and gives girls a way to escape into the fantasy that superherodom provides. And for young girls seeing Black Widow and having their own, positive feelings about the character to be shit on by the guys as nothing more than a sexual object has ramifications. It tells girls that despite all the badassery of Natasha Romanoff, her power is subverted by whether or not her sexual actions are deemed “appropriate.”

Imagine for a second if you will, you had a little sister who loved Black Widow. She loved her intelligence and abilities — she was inspired by how her past didn’t stop her from being the kickass former Russian spy turned Avenger. She was impressed by her ability to do martial arts, defend herself and those she cared for, getting to play with the same high-tech weaponry as the boys. Imagine your sister then saw or overheard Black Widow being referred to as a “slut” and a “whore” by her fellow Avengers. As someone who once was a young girl, I can tell you that stuff sticks and causes an internal riff. It’s confusing, upsetting, and ultimately impresses upon young people that regardless of all the awesomeness of Black Widow, she’s still defined by the man with which she is or is not involved.

So there are some problems here. Little things that, when added together, ultimately paint a bigger picture about the underrepresentation and lack of respect for the women of the superheroverse. A woman with sexual agency who is confident and secure in herself is a great, progressive step forward in terms of female representation. But it’s unfortunate that we’re still defining her by with whom she sleeps or flirts. Even if it is “just a tasteless joke about a fictional character.” A character that’s a very real entity despite the fact that she’s made up.

We’re not looking for another apology or a moratorium on jokes (if that happened we’d be out of a job, frankly), just trying to bridge the understanding gap that seems inherent between those that understand just how subtle, insidious, and socially reaffirmed sexism can be.

What do you think? Let us hear it in the comments.

GIF Credit: Giphy [4]

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