When Super Heroes Aren’t So Super: Sluts and Whores and Other Lessons

It seems unreasonable to expect super heroes to be super every minute of every day. From Achilles to Superman to Wonder Woman, every hero has their weakness. For Hawkeye and Captain America, that weakness appears to be sexism and misogyny.

For example, during the Avengers: Age of Ultron press tour Hawkeye actor Jeremy Renner made a “joke” during a  Digital Spy interview that Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow was “a slut” (00:15) because she chose to date a man other than his character. Captain America actor Chris Evans begins laughing so hard he can barely breathe. Mostly because he was thinking the exact same witty reply. Evans decides to call Black Widow “a complete whore” instead (00:18).


Wait one minute, Friends! Let’s see our heroes in action again!

Chris Evans cannot contain himself over Jeremy Renne's "slut joke".

Chris Evans cannot contain himself over Jeremy Renne’s “slut joke”.

Do you get it, mere mortal? It is funny that she is such a “slut”. A “complete whore”. Because she is dating a different guy than either of these catches. Both these guys were thinking the SAME THING! AT THE SAME TIME! And she’ll always just be the flirtatious sidekick in any super hero film. I mean, that is just grab-your-chest-hilarity.

See how funny it is to call a woman a slut and whore?

See how funny it is to call a woman a slut and whore?

The thing is, you don’t think of the words “slut” or “whore” instantly when asked a question about a woman and her romantic life, even if fictional, because you are overtired from your hard job as a movie actor. Or because you’ve become bored being a grown up sitting in a chair at work. You don’t think those things about a woman because you are behaving in a juvenile manner. You don’t think those things because the woman is just a fictional character.

You think those things because you are misogynist. You laugh at them because you are sexist.

If you didn’t think that way about women you wouldn’t say those things about women. You wouldn’t find them funny. It wouldn’t be the first thing that comes to mind.

You make comments like that on camera, while doing your job, because it is what the industry permits of you. Maybe even expects of you. It is what you felt is permissible, professionally and culturally.

After all, before this incident the big Avengers: Age of Ultron news was how Black Widow is missing from so much of the merchandise. Of course, having girls disappear is nothing new to the super hero genre. Consumers have to rally to #IncludeTheGirls, even when those female characters are a major part of the original super hero villian-fighting force.

The lessons we take away from this week are that Chris Evans has an effective damage control team he hopefully pays well, Jeremy Renner is the master of sorry-not-sorry apologies, and female super hero fans get the choice between their female characters go completely missing, or be present/sidelined/called gender-based pejoratives.

The second choice of being present but sidelined and denigrated are experiences every girl and woman has nearly every day of her life, which is why Renner’s “well I’m sorry you were offended by my funny joke about a fictional woman, get over it” attempt at an apology is just doubling down on the offensiveness of his original remarks. Do you know a single female who has never been called a slut or whore? I don’t.

The attitudes Renner and Evans – two of the biggest stars in the super hero franchises – display are indicative of the culture that surrounds that type of media and merchandise. It is why I gave my daughter her first comic book this week, Wonder Woman, with great trepidation. Even with the announcement of DC Comics pairing up with a team of licensees including Warner Bros, Mattel, LEGO, and Random House to reboot the super heroines and villains as a cast of teens aimed at girls ages 6-12, the majority of parents I talked to were underwhelmed.

Even if you do not buy into this type of media and merchandising, millions do and millions are impacted and influenced by the messages sent. This was brilliantly outlined by Donna Dickens in her article here:

“Disney has an on-going problem when it comes to lady action figures and swag. With the exception of their Princesses and Tinkerbell, Disney tends to forget their female action stars exist when it comes to merchandising them. It happened with “Guardians of the Galaxy.” It happened with “Star Wars Rebels.” There’s even a Tumblr called But Not Black Widow dedicated to pointing out these disappearing heroines. It’s been an issue since action figures and summer blockbusters made a deal with capitalism devil.
So here are my thoughts to Disney: Between Disney Animated Studios, Pixar Animation, Marvel Studios, and Lucasfilm, you are the world’s greatest commercial influence on childhood. Don’t put up a bar to what kind of toys kids should play with, whether on purpose or due to the outdated idea that women like glitter and men like grit. To use a completely over-the-top paraphrase, “With great power, comes great merchandising responsibility.
Girls don’t want to date superheroes, they want to BE superheroes. And boys don’t need to learn to minimize the impact of women’s accomplishments from a lunchbox.”  

The behavior and words of these two men employed as actors to play super heroes was less than super and far from heroic. It wasn’t a mistake or a slip of the tongue. It was a glimpse at who they are behind the mask. It was a look at the way so many men regard women and girls. And it showcased their greatest weakness.


UPDATE 4/24/15: Cosmopolitan flips the script while interviewing Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo, sending Ruffalo the sexist questions and ScarJo the awesome movie actor ones. Take a look, it is great!

Also this post by Emily Sexton for Grounded Parents is worth the read, connecting the dots between how kids view these “heroes” and what messages they learn from sexist and casually misogynist behavior in real life.

“Have you ever watched the hordes of kids at amusement parks who think that they are really meeting their favorite character when they encounter the poor souls in badly ventilated plush suits?Kids don’t always get the distinction. So when the guy who plays Hawkeye says that the one female hero in the group is a slut, the kids who are the intended audience for the franchise don’t necessarily get that a) it’s a joke and b) that it’s Jeremy Renner saying it, not Hawkeye. They see guys they look up to casually calling women who are supposed to be respected and powerful these names like it’s no big deal, and it should be. One of the handful of women who my daughter actually identifies with was just reduced to a sexual object by her peers. Not cool.”


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Melissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009 www.pigtailpals.com.

Find her at www.melissaatkinswardy.com. You can connect with her on Facebook (Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies) and Twitter (@PigtailPals) and Pinterest (Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies). 

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