The Black Widow Controversy, Criticism, And How We Are Failing Our Creators

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It’s getting harder every day to be a creator in the age of the internet.

It’s never been an easy thing to put your work out in public, at least not for most people I know. Sure, maybe there’s some folks out there, funny humans with indomitable wills and stomachs of iron, who aren’t petrified by the notion of getting their work in front of an audience. Maybe there are some folks who don’t publish a piece of work, or a blog post, and get that tightness in their tummies, that shortness of breath, that little flop sweat that says, “Please, this is my work, don’t judge it too harshly.” Most people I’ve ever spoken to have some degree of anxiety sharing what they’ve created though, and never has it been harder than in the age of the internet.

Over the last few years, however, it seems like more than ever sharing your work with the world has become a minefield. Put something out for public consumption and be prepared for a tidal wave of backlash, ranging from cutting comments and blog posts to threats of violence and rape. Take a moment to process that. A person creating something today needs to be worried about threats of violence ranging from beatings to home invasion, rape to swatting. They can be doxxed and have bomb threats sent against them. We’re a hell of a distance away from someone throwing a rotten tomato.

082c950c-8ef0-436a-8659-6a23913a3aedTake this week’s latest controversy. Avengers: Age of Ultron debuted this past weekend to stellar numbers in the box office. The movie was a huge success financially, but received some critical responses regarding its pacing and the coherence of some parts of the plot. Overwhelmingly, however, the biggest noise about the film has been regarding the treatment of its heroine, Black Widow.

Critics and fans of the film were vocal about the way the MCU’s biggest heroine at the moment was relegated to the role of love interest opposite Bruce Banner in the film as part of her personal subplot. While other members of the Avengers explored complex issues of guilt and past mistakes through flashbacks and interactions with one another, Natasha was given the love plot as her major character development throughout the film and issues with mommyhood instead. When she was also kidnapped by the villain halfway through the film and turned into a damsel in distress (albeit briefly), this raised the eyebrow of some fans. Those criticisms, along with Marvel’s unwillingness to support the women of Marvel with any action figures or merchandise of the women characters in the film, build a solid backbone for a conversation about Marvel’s difficulty understanding or serving its women characters and therefore their fans.

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Correct face, Chris Evans. Not funny.

All of these, in my opinion, are valid criticisms. A discussion in my eyes ought to be had about the necessity of these plot points included in the film, and the inherent issue that comes from every film pigeon-holing their main woman character as a love interest or sex object. I think there’s validity to fans getting angry over casual comments by actor Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans when, during an interview about the film, they called Black Widow a “slut” and a “whore.” (Renner later doubled down on the mess after Evans apologized, which was even worse). I think its all indicative of a way that women characters are seen in Hollywood and within comic book films, and that there is a real discussion to be had about how to tackle diversification of roles for women in the action film genre. All of these are thoughts I’ve had, that I support, and I’d love to explore further.

What I do not support is threats. Which is not something I should have to say, it’s kind of obvious.

OUu.1280x720Joss Whedon, director of Age of Ultron, faced a firestorm on Twitter that included threats of beatings and murder for the way he portrayed Black Widow in the film. Though the fact is the film went through revisions based on input from Hollywood execs and worked around Black Widow’s pregnancy, despite the fact that Whedon doesn’t control all the aspects of the film, Whedon became the face of the anger many fans felt over Black Widow’s portrayal, and they got aggressive. Articles published streams of Tweets (many since deleted) aimed at Whedon threatening to “beat his ass” for the direction of the film.

It’s not like this is anything new. We live in a world today when creators can be the targets of the worst kind of hate when consumers disagree with their work. This has become especially true when issues of social justice are involved, or when those creators or speakers are people from marginalized backgrounds. Anita Sarkeesian has received years now of the worst kind of hatred because of her work on Feminist Frequency and her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games web series. Women game developers like Brianna Wu have been targeted by this kind of harassment for the inclusion of more diverse content in their material at the hands of the Gamergate movement. This hate movement has spread to other parts of the geek media world where fiction authors, comic creators, and television creators have received harassment for their work as well.

The list of those affected include those on both sides of issues, from progressives to conservatives. The stances may be different but the tactics are the same. And while I do not believe in the equivalency of ideas (meaning, I do believe that in some arguments one side is more right than the other), I believe that the kind of harassment and bullying creators now face online has got to stop.

Why should it stop? We can start from the top by saying because it’s just wrong!

obvious

There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. Harassment of another person, on the internet or otherwise, is just wrong. You can have differences of opinions all you like, but the moment you threaten another person with violence, the moment that you step over the line into belligerent bullying behavior, you are now at best a vulgar nuisance and at worst a criminal. You become part of the screaming mass of people on the internet who believe that anonymity behind a keyboard makes them powerful and drives them to say anything they wish, believing there are no repercussions. Let me say it one more time: Harassment on the internet for any reason is wrongEnd of line, no further discussion needed, period.

But okay, maybe there’s one more reason why this needs to stop. And that’s because of the state of criticism itself in the world.

Quote_Elbert-Hubbard-on-escaping-criticizm_wwwalexlaughlincom_-p1676_US-1The arts and criticism have always had a tense, contentious relationship to begin with. Artists would live in mortal fear of waking up to read bad reviews of their plays or art shows or books. People would sniff and make snide comments about how “those who can’t create become critics.” As someone who is both an artist and a critic, I’ll tell you that’s bullshit. Sure, anyone can sit down behind a computer screen and type out a screed about how they hated a piece of television. But there are people who actively study media, the history and execution and presentation and social context, and who are capable of presenting valid media criticism from a place of education and experience.

I went to school and got my degree in film studies so that I could produce not only better works of art in the future based on knowledge I gleaned from studying film as a medium, but also so I would have context for criticism I provided. True criticism isn’t about simply emotional response but contextual understanding of an art form, of the society in which it is created and the manner by which it is executed. It takes understanding and in depth consideration. It does not, however, require high-brow consumption and snooty reviews. And it certainly doesn’t require threats.

The era of mass threats to creators, however, has begun to drown out real criticism in the field. Creators can’t hear legitimate conversation when inundated with a barrage of hate-filled noise, and that kind of ratio of good critical content to nightmarish abuse can make a person shut down to any input. Criticism serves a purpose, folks: to respond to media, discuss ideas put forward, and help creators learn from their work and perhaps improve or choose differently in the future. It is not meant as an opportunity to abuse those who have put their hearts into their work, no matter how much you dislike or disagree with them. Hate filled terrorizing of creators is counterproductive and shows no respect for them as a producer of content or as human beings. It also defeats the purpose of trying to get yourself heard, because you won’t be. And neither will anyone else.

What suffers alongside our creators at the hands of these hate mobs is our ability to have discourse about anything relevant. Issues of representation, content, or execution are pushed to the wayside, drowned out by the threats of beatings, the instances of doxxings and swattings, and the bomb and death threats. You have creators afraid to put their work forward, for fear of what might happen to them or their loved ones. Their creative cycles are eaten up by the stress of dealing with such hate-filled sound, and their inability to engage with their fans is damaged. And our world becomes just a little less capable of learning from one another in an age when we are so much more capable of reaching one another then ever before.

120893bfb25c634d7aa87123f62826e65d300e4ea6c69f01a7c75e10f3b663beWe are not bystanders in this issue. Everyone who is a fan, who reads or posts commentary online, who engages in social media, is complicit in this ecology of hatefulness, if not as contributors then as witnesses. We say “don’t feed the trolls” or “don’t read the comments,” telling us to keep our heads down, don’t encourage them, and maybe they’ll go away. But the fact is, they don’t, and the silence only encourages a lack of repercussions and an allowance for bad behavior to continue. By staying silent when we see such behavior, we are allowing ourselves to stay safe while our creators twist in the wind and endure these hate-filled tidal waves alone. We don’t want to attract the attention of the mob, so we hope if we ignore it, it’ll go away. It won’t. They won’t.

You may not have the bandwidth in your life to always engage. I’m not saying you should all the time. That’s how burnout occurs, how you get consumed by the hatefulness and negativity that surges around the internet these days. What I’m suggesting is that we must all take little steps, as we see fit, to combat this environment of hatred. We may not agree with the ideas or creations we fight over, but we can at least agree that threats of violence and hate-mobs against someone are wrong. Right folks? Right? I sincerely hope so.

3 Comments

  1. What a brilliant piece, I agree with you. Has anyone ask what Scarlett Johansson think all about this?

  2. Excellent post. It’s so sad that disagreements become hate-filled one-sided arguments or escalate into threats. It’s sad that we can’t share our work or opinions without fear. I don’t understand why we can’t discuss things with passion but without hate and bullying. Thanks for posting this- hopefully we won’t be afraid to stand up and say, this is not okay, to all the trolls out there.

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