Monday, May 18, 2015

The Politics of: Age of Ultron

The Omnivore had a rare chance to catch a hit movie while it's still in the theaters. The first part reviews Marvel's Age of Ultron--the second looks at the politics of it and contains spoilers.

Age of Ultron
Marvel is suffering from Pixar's affliction pre-Cars 2: today, when they make a difficult, innovative, hit movie, people are like "Yawn . . . another Marvel blockbuster." Playing almost exclusively in a genre that really wants to keep topping itself, that's actually kind a problem. They are also expanding at such a rate with their shared universe and number-of-characters that they more or less can't keep up. Fans want a lot of characters (where's the movie with a female lead? A black lead? etc.) and while the characters exist, getting them to the screen is proving difficult--and that's if you assume the best of intentions. A lot of fans aren't (more on this below).

Age of Ultron itself is a slick piece of work--if over-stuffed with characters and plot-lines. Introducing four completely new super-characters, keeping track of the core team, and tertiary characters (Jackson's Nick Fury, for example), while trying to give Hawkeye and The Black Widow more spot-light is a chainsaw juggling act that even maestro Joss Whedon isn't always up to.

Age of Ultron is pretty much crammed with one big F/X piece after another--many of these seem to be almost entirely CGI (scenes with dozens of robot antagonists can't very well be anything else--were human actors doing stunts in those battle scenes? The Omnivore can't tell). When the movie does catch its breath, the plot is fairly straight-forward but not exactly simple.

Ultron, the titular character, is a world-ending Artificial Intelligence, the kind Bill Gates and Elon Musk are starting to warn us about. It isn't specifically his intellect that makes him dangerous though, it's his powerfully advanced robot-body combined with a zillion robot-clones, and a few added super-villains which help him towards being a world-ending threat.

Perhaps Ultron's greatest asset, though, is his voice. Voiced by James Spader, hot off his success as the world's ultimate Machiavellian criminal on The Blacklist, Spader's Ultron is more or less the same guy in a metal body as the world's ultimate Machiavellian super-villain. Spader doesn't sound especially robotic but he hits the right notes of intelligence, competence, and disdain for his enemies.  Considering that he has to match Downey's arrogance as Tony Stark, that's no mean feat.

Taken as a whole, Age of Ultron proves that Marvel can not only nail the small stuff (Agent Carter, Daredevil) but can consistently 'stick the dismount' for the huge pieces. Yes, it might be overly kinetic, overstuffed with characters, and perhaps a bit overly reliant on CGI--but unlike Ultron it has a heart buried under all that technology, it radiates star power, and it's entertaining. Unlike the coming Batman vs. Superman movie which, from the trailer, looks like it might collapse under its own weight of seriousness, Age of Ultron manages to be apocalyptic and funny. It has a zillion moving parts--but we can still connect with Thor for that moment when the Asguardian god is just a little afraid that Captain America will show him up by being able to lift his hammer (it barely moves). We can even feel for a completely CGI Hulk.

Marvel's magic isn't just skin deep and it isn't just luck. Age of Ultron's various excesses just go to prove that even more strongly.

Let's do the politics.

The Politics of: Age of Ultron
The politics of Age of Ultron are the politics of the (online) Social Justice rule of speaking out on the Internet: Always Attack Your Allies. Huh? Let's break it down to start:

Social Justice Ally: A person, generally with more privilege than whatever group is involved, who (usually self-declared) aligns themselves with the cause and 'does what they can to help out.'

Examples could be white people marching with black people during the Civil Rights era. In the case of Age of Ultron it's super-rich white cis* dude, Joss Whedon, who (a) has at times proclaimed himself a feminist, (b) is noted for writing strong female characters (we'll start with Buffy The Vampire Slayer's titular protagonist), and (c) has then gone on to commit several crimes against the cause (Age of Ultron list extracted):
  • Claim that because a female character was unable to have children, that she was considered a monster (Natasha Romanoff, Avengers: Age of Ultron)
  • Taking one of the strongest female superheroes in the MCU and turning her into an outlet for her male love interest to pour his man angst all over and then completely dump her in the end without any expression of gratitude for all she did for him (Natasha Romanoff, Avengers: Age of Ultron)
  • Have one of the most popular superheroes in the MCU joke about raping women (Tony Stark, Avengers: Age of Ultron)
  • Feature two characters who were originally of Jewish-Romani descent and then have them whitewashed by hiring white actors to play them (Wanda Maximoff and Pietro Maximoff, Avengers: Age of Ultron)
  • Having two Jewish-Romani characters volunteer for a Nazi organization, despite the fact that Jewish and Romani people were victims of the Holocaust (Wanda Maximoff and Pietro Maximoff, Avengers: Age of Ultron)
As the highly critical Tweets begin to roll in (including some tweets about 'hegemonic masculinity' from Jonathan McIntosh of Feminist Frequency) Whedon announced he was quitting Twitter, causing many to speculate he had been run off the social network. He told Buzzfeed that was 'horseshit' and that he had always intended to take a break from the frenetic pace of Twitter after Ultron. He also said that being attacked by people on Twitter was nothing new (and that women, like Feminist Frequency's Anita Sarkeesian had it a lot worse).

In any event, he has not apologized and Internet feminists (for lack of a better term--and that isn't a good one) have not forgiven him. Indeed, this has been happening for a long time: complaints about Whedon's work have gone back to almost the beginning.

The Reasonable Take On This
Before any Whedon-fans (fan-boys?) get too upset, let's keep a few things straight:
  1. Whedon IS a self-declared feminist. He thinks he allies with the cause and he's at least theoretically mindful of various tenants of social justice and progressive thoughts.
  2. Whedon, like everyone else, periodically "missteps"--that is, makes a comment or includes something in his work that is anti-feminist, anti-trans, etc.--but, notably, he doesn't apologize. Like, ever. Sometimes he even brags (or jokes?) about it (Cntrl-F: 'quim'). He's willing to take the accolades--but not the criticism (even as he's willing to call out other directors on feminist errors!).
  3. Whedon isn't just any rich cis white-guy: he's a rich, cis white-guy who the media goes to for opinions on feminism. His opinion, it seems, matters. A lot.
Whedon has communicated, again and again, that he is someone of whom I can and should expect more. If he identifies as a feminist ally, then I expect him to be receptive to feminist critique; otherwise, that identity is nothing more than a petition for cookies, with no accountability to the community with whom he identifies. 
. . .

Well, someone who tells me he's a feminist, someone whose friends assure me that he's "a deeply committed feminist," should care what I think. And he should understand that criticism from members of a marginalized community with whom you're allied is not an "attack," but a gift.
Expecting more is a brash act of courage, and it is also an extraordinary act of generosity. I am a better person than I once was because people gave me the gift of expecting more of me, of setting a higher standard and encouraging me to reach for it, of challenging me not to settle into the well-tread grooves of my socialization, of admonishing me to reject the vast and varied prejudices and myths with which I'd been indoctrinated, of urging me expect more of myself and persuading me to believe I could be the change I want to see. 
Being "a deeply committed feminist" is not supposed to be a suit of deflective armor against criticism from people who take that declaration in good faith. It is supposed to be an invitation to dialogue.
And, before we close, let's also keep in mind that the vehicle here--Marvel's magnificent superhero properties--has been extremely remiss in marketing to girls in any way or bringing out female characters other than as background or bit players (and the one who they have focused on, The Black Widow, has been (a) handled very unevenly in four different movies, (b) doesn't have an action figure, and (c) got called a slut by the Thor and Captain America actors on talk-TV).

On The Other Hand (The Less Charitable Take) . . . 
On the other hand, from the archive of Twitter-Hate:

In case that tweet image isn't clear: it's a threat--the tweeter wants Joss to turn on his phone's Twitter location so they can find him and beat him. Now, this is one threatening asshole out of a whole bunch of people who are mostly just calling Whedon a racist, misogynist, asshole--so this guy(?) doesn't represent the whole movement there--right?

Wait, wasn't that what we didn't say about #GamerGate? And, while we're here, there is a waterfall of hate in that link that isn't exactly 'criticism'--much less feminist criticism--and certainly not constructive criticism. If we're going to ask Whedon to apologize for various missteps, does that mean that Sarkeesian is also supposed to do some public self-criticism for getting anything wrong in her video-game series? In an environment of throbbing anonymous hate and threats? Really?

No, The Omnivore didn't think so either.

The fact of the matter is that the best Social Justice fire is friendly fire--this is because the structure of Social Justice--at least on the Internet--is such that the only really vulnerable targets are allies. Oh, sure, a few things--such as blatant racism--are so toxic that there is real-world economic backlash for committing them (this is one reason in social justice circles that racism is aggressively defined in its sociology '-ism' context--where its weaponized nature cannot be turned back on minorities).

For the most part, though, and people steeped in the principles of 'privilege' understand this: the nature of society allows those with more privilege--that's allies--the luxury of ignoring voices of less privilege (that's 'the people they are ostensibly allied with'). The only person who'll listen to a Social Justice advocate (or, 'Warrior'--the converse of 'Dudebro') is an ally. So that's who you vituperate most viciously!

When you combine that dynamic with with the two other rules of Social Justice criticism you get a particularity toxic mix. Those rules are:

  1. The person leveling the criticism, being of an oppressed class (in theory, at least: on Twitter, who can tell?) us under zero obligation to be polite about it. After all, they've been oppressed--personally and structurally--for their whole life and now you, ally, are going to get to hear about it.
  2. The recipient of the criticism doesn't get to fight back, justify, or even explain themselves--they are supposed to listen, apologize, shut up, and do self-study. If they don't like getting aggressively and rudely/insultingly called out on it? Too bad. According to some advocates, you should even manage to thank your critic.
In this environment it's difficult to figure out why anyone would sign up for The Treatment--and harder still to figure out how someone who is a public figure would even try to engage with a multitude of Social Justice critics. Would they pick a few to address apologies to? Issue a blanket statement once and hold the line there? Grovel repeatedly until the fire dies down? There's no game-plan for this.

Worse, The Omnivore thinks that the shape of the world that Social Justice has created is inexorably linked to the worst of our natures. Some of the people criticizing Age of Ultron and Whedon are measured, intelligent, and accurate in their criticism. These people are likely coming from a place of legitimately wanting to engage in global improvement. Whedon isn't some nobody and his flippant comments happen to matter--he needs to be as hyper-aware of that as a politician is--it would benefit his self-identified goals as well as the community's.

On the other hand, the atmosphere and environment enables the dog-pile and doesn't restrain the physical threats. This will attract people who are interested in venting / abusing someone and the thrill of self-righteousness is a powerful drug. It also creates a sort of reverse-privilege gradient where for the 'first time' people who have been voiceless get a voice and encourages them to use it as unpleasantly as possible.  While Whedon is likely not especially intimidated in a literal sense, this vein of toxicity poisons the movement (note: the 'movement' here is the feminist/GLBT critique of Joss Whedon--not all feminism or all progressives everywhere). Whedon can't do what he is 'supposed' to do in the face of the hate-storm and people writing "We get to expect better" pieces have to either be unapologetic for the excesses or ignore them altogether.

While the core of criticism against Whedon's work is legitimate feminist analysis which he, as a self-declared feminist has actively invited, the gestalt of it is a toxic mess that the Social Justice environment no only encourages--but also doesn't really allow the more measured critics to fully extricate themselves from. 

    In case it isn't clear, The Omnivore thinks that there are very differing bits of legitimacy to different facets of this whole discussion. Before Whedon was God-King of the Uber-nerds, he was just an uber-nerd. Some of what he is doing--the medieval sexist comments he's writing into his work, for example--are possibly coming from internal states that he could bear to look at some more. Certainly, Marvel's handling of non-white/male superheroes could be vastly improved (they've gone from ignoring that to denying it to working on it). And, finally, as noted above, Whedon, as a voice, has the capacity to do real and tangible good.

    Like it or not, he is a leader and a role-model. If he speaks out against #GamerGate it'll move the dial--at least a little. If he permeates his work with a kind of subliminal or linguistic sexism, that might have some negative impact as well. So in that sense, him getting feedback is probably a good thing from even a moderate social justice perspective.

    The converse, though, is that the politics of 'attacking allies' is ugly--when amplified by the Twitter-Hate dogpile, it's #GamerGate ugly. If you didn't like #GamerGate, you shouldn't like #WhedonHate. The emotional drivers are largely the same.

    Note 1: Not All Criticism Is Equal
    The Omnivore did look closely into the various 'charges' and was ambivalent around many of them. The Black Widow did get captured--but like everyone else who has captured her in her movie career, that turned out to be a really bad idea. The claim she was a "monster" for being sterilized also didn't seem to hold up--in her scene with Banner, she says she is a monster for what she did--not what was done to her. Her sterilization seems to be a way for her to connect with Banner rather than self-hate.

    Similarly, Stark's rape-joke may well be driven by Whedon showing off his medieval lore (this is the guy who made Much Ado About Nothing--a title that is a gendered joke--in modern parlance it's "A lot of stuff about a vagina")--but it isn't really about making Stark look good. It's doubling down on the idea that he's not qualified to wield the hammer: When he says that you know it isn't going to move. As an aside, too, Stark thinks if he can lift the hammer he's going to become the 'King' of Asguard, not earth, any woman of which would, in actuality, break him.

    Note 2: The 'Tone' Argument. One of the recurrent patterns in online Social Justice conversations is referred to as the 'Tone Argument.' In this, an onlooker (in theory, an ally) tells the minority speaker that hir 'tone' is going to turn people off and be detrimental to 'the movement.' The rejoinder is often that either (a) it takes in-your-face statements to get any kind of Social Justice movement and/or (b) someone concerned with social justice (the ally) should be sitting down and shutting up regardless of their 'concerns.'

    The Omnivore thinks that more importantly (c): The Tone and The Tone Argument are not just parallel to the movement but are really expressions of the emotional drivers that underlie it in the first place. The combination of (self?)righteousness and anger that motivates people to do anything social-justicy will innately imbue anything done with 'The Tone' and the reflection of the loss-of-privilege inherent to the message experienced by more privileged ally-observers will create the 'sense of insult' that will lead to a re-assertion of privilege/self-importance that expresses itself as "concern" for the speaker's stated goals.

    The fact of the matter is that while brand-damage is a real thing, feminism has already been brand-damaged into Congressional levels and there will be no rebuilding from the direction of Internet activism no matter what is done. In other words: The Tone and The Tone argument are all working as designed. Go nuts.

    * 'cis' means a person whose identified gender matches their assigned-gender at birth.


    1. It's Joss Whedon, if it matters.

      There's no justice.

      -- Ω

      1. It matters some! Thanks!