Joss Whedon, sports analogies and peeing on your allies #SFFLove

Conspiracy Keanu is into peace and love.

Conspiracy Keanu is into peace and love.

Kelly and I rewatched The Avengers: Age Of Ultron not long ago, and there are things about it that are just plain better on rewatch. The pieces of the plot make vastly more sense when you know where everyone ends up. In an fast-moving and fairly noisy movie, there are lines of dialog that just slide past me.

Turned out a few of them actually mattered.

The problematic stuff with Natasha is still problematic, no doubt about it. You can choose to believe that every word she utters to Bruce is, on some level, exactly what she thinks he needs to hear. There’s a little bit of set-up for this, and it’s a reading that can serve as the sugar necessary to make her monster speech go down. Still, if we give the film this reading, we do it knowing that we’re superimposing meaning, adding in stuff that isn’t really on the screen.

And, wow, Bruce really should have replied that not having ovaries and or a uterus isn’t monstrous, OMG. Or that cutting them out of your baby spies, against their will, is.

For my part, I was bothered by a related disconnect between them, one Nat’s failing to acknowledge. Bruce’s position in this exchange falls somewhere in the neighborhood of I’m afraid we can’t share a normal life and have babies because what if Hulkie Junior rips out one of my silky chestnut hair locks on a particularly bad day and I go all ARRRHGHGHGH!! and then pound everyone I love, you included, into a gooey red stain?

Whereas Nat’s is I’m afraid we can’t share a normal life because I have no organs anymore that will combine your genetic material and my genetic material. How ever will we find ourselves some tiny green-eyed, red-haired Baby-Gap wearing gamma monsters to raise and love?

She’s not concerned about becoming an abusive, family-annihilating nightmare. Come on, Nat, agree that it’s not the same. He’s pointing out that of the two of you, he has way more superpower, and he’s trying to be responsible about it, and do the stand-up thing.

This movie does barely pass the Bechdel test – Nat and Laura talk about baby names. And I am, like many a fan, curious to see whether a director’s cut can restore the things that felt missing from the story.

AAoU, and particularly the above segment, threw gasoline on some commentary that had been smoldering around the Intertubes for awhile. People have been asking things like: is Joss Whedon that much of a feminist anymore? Was he ever? They’re realizing that the Serenity crew from Firefly were basically bad guys and wondering if the feminist emperor ever had clothes.

Some of this conversation is legit critical discussion, respectfully phrased. Some of it is a big ol’ Internet pile-on. (The SF community’s started talking about pile-ons, just lately, and how to fucking not, and I couldn’t be happier. Have you all seen Andrea Phillips’ How to Not Be A Bullying Mob flowchart? I heart this!)

I’m not going to argue that AAoU is a better film or a more feminist movie than you think it is. If you want to get into legit critique, and give that deeper consideration, here’s an open letter by Sara Stewart to Whedon that looks at all the women in the film.

I am, instead, going to argue a proposition that I hope many of you will buy into:

For starters: during the BtVS years, Joss Whedon was at the heart of a creative team who produced a cutting edge, explicitly feminist, heroic fantasy adventure.

Cutting edge doesn’t mean perfect, or without challenges. It simply means “The position of greatest advancement or importance. The forefront.”

If the idea of putting heroes of the female gender on our flicker boxes could be said to be some kind of distance race, Buffy ran a lot of her predecessors–fantastic fictional women who inspired us all–into the ground. She and Willow surpassed Red Sonja, Uhura, Leela, Romana, Captain Janeway, Ellen Ripley, Xena and so many more. The show set a pace that was hart to beat.

Hard, but not impossible.

Other creators started running faster. Nobody wants to be running behind the shapely spandex-clad ass of Cutting Edge forever. They want to be out in front. Otherwise, why run?

(Yes, my metaphor has bled into itself, and Buffy has somehow morphed into Joss, and they’re both being hopeless jocks. I hereby apologize for this now, which is helpful to me financially because, as you all know, Canadians who never apologize for anything do pay higher taxes.)

Where was I? Joss’s fellow TV and film creatives, running bigger, harder and faster. Meanwhile we in the stands were howling–with glee and joy and the occasional burst of fury–as our expectations rose. And rose. And rose some more. And were, occasionally, disappointed. We have been hoping for the best and making fan GIFS on Tumblr and examining strong female characters wherever they pop up. We’ve been asking if we can have more diversity. Can we have more heroes of color? Can we have female-led Marvel movies that aren’t Electra? When Imperator Furiosa punches someone in the face with her nubbins (as Nospockdasgay puts it)  or I turn on Sense8 and am confronted with what might as well be an actual snapshot–not an approximation, not a rose-colored glass half-full skewed vision–of my fucking queer GenXer life… well, holy shit, right? We see a world created in this massively expensive and entertaining art form that is welcoming. That is delightful and kaleidoscopic and more complete than the tunnel we’ve been staring down since the days of Star Trek and Charlie’s Angels.

We are insatiable. We want more. We want better. We want to be surprised and blown away and damned well included.

And the creators respond. Art is a conversation. People coopt and embroider upon the best that front-runner can do. So George Miller and the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski have pulled ahead of Joss Whedon, for now. Look at the cool things they made, and rejoice!

Is this a reason to throw dog doots all over the track?

These things have a natural rhythm. Having one person drive that cutting edge forever would, in itself, be limiting. If Joss kicked forward our standards in the Nineties, how much of a shame would it be if nobody had, by now, exceeded him? The fact that people are busting their buns to give us things that make BtVS look hokey and retrograde in comparison? Hey, that’s cause for joy!

Falling into the pack for awhile… this may not be the sexiest phase of the artistic life cycle, but is comfortable ongoing success really the thing that makes you try harder? After seeing the second and third Matrix movies, I forgot about the Wachowskis. I would never in a billion years have expected them to turn up in my living room and blow my mind to smithereens. Maybe I should have. Maybe I should’ve been sending them ransom-style cut-out notes of encouragement over the years.


Joss Whedon has put his money and his mouth as well as his creative visions on the side of the angels for years. Surely we can criticize AAoU and all his other work while allowing him a little space, now and then, here and there, to be imperfect. We know he has the talent and the resources to create something, some bright future day, that could jolt the whole media-creating pack of his peers into the next breakthrough. Won’t that be fantastic? Imagine how much you’ll love it! Take a breath, send him a good vibe, and keep an open mind. Give the man time to pick up his pace.

And, by the way, M. Night Shyamalan and Sam Raimi, innit time you laced up your running booties and gave us all a run for the money?

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About Alyx Dellamonica

After twenty-two years in Vancouver, B.C., I've recently moved to Toronto Ontario, where I make my living writing science fiction and fantasy; I also review books and teach writing online at UCLA. I'm a legally married lesbian, a coffee snob, and I wake up at an appallingly early hour.

9 Responses to Joss Whedon, sports analogies and peeing on your allies #SFFLove

  1. Yeah! I totally buy in, but that’s probably not a surprise.

  2. I couldn’t get the “Firefly were bad guys” link to work.

    I find that rather odd. They’re certainly rogues, anarchists, freebooters and rule-breakers, but that’s only bad from the viewpoint of the Federation police.

  3. Hmmm. It was working. I’m gonna leave it as is for now and see if the site’s up again tomorrow.

  4. As for Natasha’s monster speech, I never thought it was her being sterilized that was supposed to make her a monster.

    Banner said that he could never be part of a “normal” family unit like the one they’re seeing. She replies that she’s just as much of a deadly oddball as he is, in her way.

    I assumed it was about her being trained/engineered/brainwashed as an unstoppable, totally ruthless assassin, of which being sterilized was simply an indicative moment revealing the nature of her controllers/creators, and something she and Banner had in common.

    They’re both the result of human experimentation aimed at producing killing machines.

    The whole point of the speech being that neither of them was ever going to be a candidate for rural familial bliss, and that they were fundamentally much alike — hideously dangerous people who have to be isolated or stringently controlled lest they endanger everyone in their vicinity.

    They’ve both been robbed of part of their humanity and this cannot be undone, struggle against that as hard as they may.

    In fact, since Natasha always had more autonomy than Banner has in Hulk mode, she’s -more- of a monster, at least in the moral sense.

  5. Yeah–I saw that point being made, textually, but the emphasis didn’t fall right. What she says is, as you say, that they’re both monstrous because they’re both lethal killing machines. But how it comes off is “No ovaries, therefore monster.”

  6. There’s a larger point that both Black Widow and the Hulk are violence specialists — dangerous people, but necessary to keep off even more dangerous people/things. That’s an old point. There’s a bit in the Iliad where two of the characters are talking, and one says:

    “Why do our people give us the best they have — the vineyard and the good land down by the river — and honor us next to the immortal Gods? Because we put our bodies between them and the war’s desolation.”

  7. Yes, they absolutely are. Not that anyone’s giving these guys any vineyards. I don’t think either Nat or Bruce is making that point, though Nat would definitely see herself that way: perhaps as a necessary evil?

    • Yeah, that she does it so other people don’t have to do it. With the added frisson that she used to be the sort of person she now spends her time guarding against.

      Necessarily, the guard dog and the wolf have more in common with each other than the guard dog does with the flock.

  8. That’s very nicely put!