Superheroes and cringe comedy: Why women aren’t allowed

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, May 14, 2012 20:26 EDT
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Had some folks asking, and now I can finally say yes, I saw “The Avengers” on Friday night. And yes, I liked it. I like to tweak the noses of fanboys who brook not even the mildest criticism of their heroes, but I’m sure regular readers know I’m a big lover of Sir Whedon, and thought he managed the impossible: A coherent movie based on all these characters from other movies that still had enough action to make big overseas box office. It’s a miracle, really, even if personally speaking, I thought “Cabin in the Woods” was a whole lot better.

My biggest complaint with the movie was casting. Not all of it, just I really thought Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo dragged the whole thing down with their wooden performances. Which is a shame, because the Hulk is fun* and Black Widow, upon reflection, was the best written part in the movie. I know Whedon fought hard to keep that character in the flick, and the reasons he gives for these things are admirably ideological—he hates the sexism of geek culture—but I also can’t help but imagine he’s thinking like a writer. Which is to say, he knows what he’s good at, and in trying something new, he wants to bring his A game. And he’s really good at writing female characters. That’s not just ideology, but something that he just excels at. Talent is a bit of a mystery that way. 

Anyway, point being, the first thing my friends and I talked about as we left was recasting Black Widow with someone who has not just beauty, of which Johansson’s is legendary, but charisma and can act. Because it was clear to me that if the right actress had been in that role, the fact that Black Widow is the hero of the movie would have been more obvious. She certainly has the most layers of any character, besides perhaps Tony Stark. I can see why some audience members didn’t really grasp her importance as a character because of this. You go to action movies expecting to sit back and be taken for a ride, and calculations like, “This character is well-written but poorly acted” aren’t something you get into. 

But there’s no excuse for movie critics making the same mistake. Which is why I was really sad to see this round-up of male movie critics who downplayed, ignored, or otherwise minimized Black Widow’s role in the movie. The character has, from what I recall, more separate individual actions that lead to victory than any other character, with Tony following right behind her, and yet, well, I can’t state it better:

Writing in The Guardian, Henry Barnes noticed Black Widow but could not be bothered to isolate just what she did in the film. The New York Post’s Kyle Smith dreamed of a Black Widow who would perform one errand and and then be gone.

The New York Daily News’ Joe Neimaier admitted that Black Widow “kickstarts” things, but by deleting her from the rest of his coverage, implied that was that. Still, that was a lavishment compared with the treatment by A.O. Scott, who in his New York Times review found it beneath himself to even give Black Widow a job description, while The Globe and Mail went with “token sexy female,” clearly hoping only young boys and people who hadn’t seen the film were reading.

Meanwhile, in The Wall Street Journal, Joe Morgenstern claimed Black Widow “spends lots of time looking puzzled or confused,” while Steven Rea’s Philadelphia Inquirer review dispensed with Black Widow’s name, suggesting we “watch Scarlett Johansson clench her brow” while in “Ninja garb.” The Miami Herald’s Rene Rodriguez wasn’t as generous—his single sentence also accused Johansson of playing dress-up, but, perhaps mercifully, did not specify what in.

That last one hurts the most, because there’s no more blatant sexism than sneering at a woman for playing “dress-up” in a movie where the men around her are dressed in tights and robot costumes. The belief that superhero movies are a No Girls Allowed zone couldn’t be more obvious.

It seems to be part of a mini-trend of some men throwing a fit over the very idea that women might have a role in fiction besides decorative objects and damsels in distress. You had Lee Aronsohn treating a small uptick in female roles like it was the beginning of a horrific gynocracy. And of course, there’s the over-the-top reaction to “Girls” and Lena Dunham. Outside of reasonable complaints about yet another show lacking in racial diversity when it would have been easy to make it diverse, most of the criticism of Dunham has a strong grasping-at-straws quality to it. Gawker especially has been humping the insinuation that the show only got on air—wait for it—because women’s stories are like a freak show to attract lookee-lous. Anything but accept that it could be that the show is good. Apparently, we were supposed to just know that cringe comedy is a man’s territory, and Gawker is terribly, terribly offended that women think they get to be in the club. I mean, look at the illustration they came up with:

The implication couldn’t be more clear: Merely having to endure a woman’s point of view is for men just as unsettling and oppressive as being adrift in a male-dominated world is for women.** Sure, women have to live in a world that values them less, and where that means they get an extra dose of humilation and bullshit just for being female. But man, that’s nothing compared to the misery of a hip dude having to think about women’s experiences from women’s point of view. Ugh, I mean, really, could you stuff a cock in it already?

I think it’s all about sex, which is why the reaction to “Girls” is the ugliest example of this. Cringe comedy is a “man’s” genre because so much of it relies on laughing at bodies. Men laughing at their own bodies and at women’s bodies, and especially at the sexual desires emanating from them and the awkward and often futile ways we try to satisfy those bodies. If women adopt this comedy form, then that puts women in a position where we’re not only laughing at ourselves, but at men. Turning the tables in this way makes a lot of men deeply uncomfortable. I’ve often seen that this kind of sexism in pop culture gets its ugliest when a woman is in a position to say that men are only human, and let men know that we look at them in the same way they look at us. That is the great cultural taboo, and “Girls” is breaking it, and reaction is fierce. 

I think the same underlying urges are why there’s such heavy guarding of the superhero genre from a female presence. It’s just coming at it from another direction. If cringe comedy is about looking at human bodies as comically frail, superhero movies are about projecting fantasies of strength. But as long as the fantasy is male-only, fans can sort of convince themselves that it’s something more than just a fantasy, because the strength of the male superheroes is seen as just an extrapolation of men’s supposed physical superiority over women. If you put a female superhero in the mix and  have her body performing the same unreal feats, it’s a lot more obvious that it’s just a fantasy. In fact, neither men nor women are superbeings. The notion that men are closer and therefore more plausible as superheroes is just ridiculous. We are reminded by the presence of female superheroes that we’re all actually just human. Which provokes a lot of men into discomfort, this realization that actually they’re just deteriorating sacks of muscle and bone, just like women. 

Anyway, it’s all very annoying and I wish people would cut it out. Let women have our comedy and our superhero fantasies without demanding that it become an existential crisis for men who have had these things all along. 

*In my ideal world, it would be Brad Pitt, who does somber-to-maniacal really well. I realize that’s unattainable, but still, a million actors are better the Ruffalo.

**For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, “Exile in Guyville” is a seminal album from Liz Phair where all the songs were held together loosely by the common theme of what it’s like to be female in a world where men have more social power, which they wield in ways both overt and subtle, leaving women feeling a nervous and a confused, and often angry. 

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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