Thursday, January 14, 2016

I Am Not a Monster: Why That One Scene Will Always Cheese Me Off

           Oh hey, I finally wrote an essay for the blog! What did I choose to write about? Some cool science thing? Some show I'm really excited about? Nope, I decided that the first thing I should write, right out of the gate, was an essay about why the "You're not the only monster," scene in Avengers 2 disturbed me so much. Batten down the hatches and put on your flame-proof clothing, because I'm really sure I won't regret this choice.
            For those of you who somehow managed not to hear about this particular brouhaha, let me summarize what happens. (Full disclaimer, I haven’t actually seen the movie, just had this scene described several times. Some would say that means I shouldn’t comment on it at all. Perhaps I shouldn’t. Perhaps the scenes before and after are filled with context that somehow makes this one scene better. I doubt it but maybe. So take my analysis with a grain of salt.) While trying to relate to the Hulk, Black Widow decides to unleash some weapons-grade exposition and gives some insight into her backstory, which involves being trained by the Black Widow program, killing people, and being sterilized. After relating this last bit of information, she tells him, “You’re not the only monster.” People got upset. And by got upset, I mean they threatened Joss Whedon with death and inundated his Twitter with so many mean Tweets he eventually took his Twitter ball and went home (though he said it was for different reasons, the timing was just a bit too convenient to believe that). Obviously, threatening anybody with death over anything short of actually committing a serious crime is wrong, and even then you should probably leave it to the authorities, keyboard warriors. However, I understood exactly why people were upset … because I was mad as hell. I don’t plan to ever see this movie, not only because I’m so over Marvel, but because I would know this scene was coming and be unable to give the rest of the movie a decent chance because I’d be sitting there with butt and teeth clenched waiting for it to be over with.

            I’ve tried to joke about it. I’ve tried to be lighthearted about it. I've actually had some productive conversations about it. But the majority of the time, when I try to be lighthearted about it, I get yelled at and called a bitch for questioning Lord Whedon. His fans pushed back, and pushed back hard. Understandable I guess, but I really could do without being painted with the same brush as people posting barely literate death threats. I could really, really do without being called a “child-hating, man-hating bitch” for expressing an opinion on a work of fiction in the format of a joke, as well. So, if you’re not going to give me the benefit of the doubt anyway, I’m just going to be a bitch so that when I get called that, at least I’ll have earned it. I’m done being nice. There will be profanity. You have been warned.

            To everyone rushing to their keyboard to type, “Well clearly, she meant that she killed people. That was the monster part.” Then why include the sterilization story at all? Would the movie have lost anything if they’d just taken a blue pen to that part of the monologue? I’d argue it would be better. Why is it not only included, but given a place of prominence at the end of the story right before the pivotal “monster” line? Hell, even if we assume that it’s only part of the whole picture – and I know this part is hard to follow so please stick with me – that’s still offensive as hell to put not being able to have children on par with murdering innocent people. Good Lord, Whedon, what were you thinking?

            Let’s unpack the word “monster.” “Monster,” as it is applied to people, is loaded. When I hear the word “monster” I think of … well I think of the adorable mobile game My Singing Monsters, but that’s because I like cute things. When I think of monster as applied to people, I think of Jeffrey Dahmer. I think of child molesters. I think of people who force bleach up their children’s rectum in an ill-fated attempt to “cure” their autism. (Yes that’s a thing and yes I bring it up every chance I get. I’ll stop when the bleaching stops.) I think of Dylan Roof. I think of people who traffic human beings. Some of the things Widow is implied to have done definitely might put her in that company – like burning down a fucking hospital. (Maybe it was empty like the one Joker blew up in Dark Knight, who knows?) But not being able to have children? Um, no, no that doesn’t make someone a monster. That doesn’t even make you a bad person. That doesn’t even make you a less complete person. That doesn’t even make you less of a woman. That just means you can’t have children. It has no effect on your completeness as a woman or person, and certainly not on your moral fiber. You have every right to be sad about it, but please don’t devalue yourself because of it. And see above if you’re going to try to argue that’s not meant to be just as much a part of the speech as everything else. If it’s not, it’s horribly, horribly structured.

            And let’s review for a second. What did they even do to Natasha? An ovariectomy seems unlikely, since you’d have to take hormone replacement and that wouldn’t be conducive to being a femme fatale I wouldn’t think. If it was tubal ligation, there would at least be a possibility of it being reversed depending on the exact technique used (very likely if the fallopian tubes were closed with a ring or simply cut, less likely if parts of the tubes were excised or cauterized), and if she’s angsting about it enough to call herself a “monster” she must know that. Even if it is irreversible, she could always have one ovary removed, eggs harvested from it, matured, and used in in vitro fertilization, then have an embryo implanted. Repeat as desired. So it must not be that – either they took the uterus out completely (hey, at least you don’t have to have periods anymore) or they just cauterized the lining – literally burned it away.

            Did that paragraph make you uncomfortable? Thinking about a character we know and like (well … some people must like her, I’ve never been a big Widow fan, but I certainly didn’t want to see her subjected to this) having the lining of her uterus burned away, probably while under poor anesthesia, under very questionable consent? Well then maybe that’s a good fucking reason not to put a line like that in a movie that was heavily marketed towards children. Now, usually, I’m the one to say “PG-13 is not G.” But this movie had Target toy commercials and fucking coloring books. Any director who is not comfortable making content that is acceptable for a movie that has fucking coloring books should not accept a job for this franchise. Some of you that know I like a certain Frankenstein-esque movie starring a certain very young character actor that I have a wildly inappropriate crush on are probably rushing to crucify me for hypocrisy given that that movie has a scene that is much, much worse in terms of depiction of women. (Re-Animator. It has a scene where a zombie tries to sexually assault a woman. Yeah I know, I usually fast forward through it.) But that movie is rated R, and while plenty of kids saw it due to careless parents or the kids sneaking it, there weren’t fucking coloring books or Target toy commercials. There wasn’t even a cartoon, and there was a fucking Robocop cartoon. Also, if other superhero fans get to clutch their pearls and squeal, “Won’t somebody please think of the children?!” about Superman killing Zod for (at least) two years, I think I’m entitled to do a little pearl clutching of my own. What the hell kind of message is that to send to little kids?! If you can’t pop out your own kids, Little Susie, you’re completely worthless as a human being? Listen good to that Little Henry, and keep it good in mind when picking out a wife. And don’t tell me little kids wouldn’t pick up on it – the first question I bet most kids asked after seeing that scene was, “Mommy, what’s sterilize mean?”

            *reins self in* Ahem. Of course, speculating on the method of Natasha’s sterilization may be a moot point because it’s fully possible that Lord Whedon didn’t bother to research it. Just put down in his notebook, “sterilization is a good backstory for our only female character, right? I mean, it’s not like women are just people, or that we already have her being trained to kill people, and we know from Loki’s monologue in the first one that, among other things, she lit a fucking hospital on fire, nope! I need a lynchpin centered on her lady parts. I mean, it’s not rape. That makes it original!” And knowing that arrogant bastard, if I swallow my bile and get the Blu-Ray of Avengers 2 and listen to the directors’ commentary, he thinks he made this grand statement about reproductive rights or something. (If you think I’m being uncharitable, listen to his laughable assertion that “most movies wouldn’t even touch this subject, but we went there” to the scene in the first one where Fury implicitly asks Thor if he’s willing to torture Loki, which cuts away before Thor can even answer. I take it Whedon has never seen any of the Punisher movies or even the Dark Knight trilogy.) It’s very clear a lot of effort didn’t go into this particular scene. Because as much as I bitch about this scene, I know it probably wasn’t intentional. Hanlon’s razor, and all that. As much as I rail, I know Whedon is not a mustache twirling villain trying to figure out how to use his status as a feminist icon to get a Trojan horse of backwards anti-feminist thinking into a movie that will seen by many young children to warp their minds and further entrench the patriarchy, and inflict mental anguish on a lot of adult women watching as a nice bonus.  No, I bet none of the things I’ve brought up in this essay so far or will later on occurred to him at any stage.

“So what’s your problem with him if you know he didn’t mean it, then? You’re just being mean!” Well, see, if I’m wearing flip-flops and someone in boots steps on my toe and immediately apologizes, that’s one thing. My toe still hurts. The nail is still split. Blood is still everywhere. My pedicure is still ruined. But I can’t really be mad because the person didn’t mean to hurt me and they did the only thing they could when they realized they had. All though they could offer to pay for a new pedicure, that would be nice, but way above and beyond the call of duty. If someone steps on my toe, doesn’t realize it, and goes on, I might be mad and think they should have paid more attention, but I’d be very unjustified to do anything but swear under my breath as I hobble away to check the damage. Now, if someone steps on my toe, and I yelp involuntarily when he does so he knows he hurt me, but instead of apologizing or even ignoring me, he tells me to watch where I’m going, say it’s my fault for wearing open-toed shoes just to show off my pedicure which he thinks is shabby, and claims I’m only mad because of the shirt he’s wearing, I’d be fully justified in thinking that person was a total sodding arsehole, to borrow some British cursing from my boss, and I don’t think a jury in the world would convict me if I slugged him. And Whedon claiming that everyone upset with Avengers 2 for any reason is really just mad that Natasha didn’t get with Clint seems, in my mind, to qualify as metaphorical yelling at the people whose toes have been stepped on.

            “But your toes weren’t stepped on! You’re just being over-sensitive.” First off, who the fuck are you to tell me why I should or shouldn’t be hurt by something? Second of all, I’m probably airing way too much of my family’s dirty laundry, but I’m throwing this out there because maybe, just maybe, if you’ve stuck with me this far, and no other argument has worked, this will. I’m relating this not because I think it makes me an authority who can speak for everyone in a similar situation, but just to let you know why when my best friend told me not to see this movie because this scene (and several other things) would just upset me, and then described the scene, I went in my room and cried for a good half hour.

            Before I was ever born, my aunt had a baby named Casey who only lived two months. She died of a horrible, horrible chromosomal disorder nobody deserves called Trisomy Thirteen. It’s usually spontaneous, but can be caused by chromosomal abnormalities in either parent. My aunt and uncle were both tested. My uncle, as it transpired, had what’s called a Robertsonian translocation of his thirteenth and fourteenth chromosome. That’s fancy medical speak for one of his copies of chromosome thirteen is stuck to one of his copies of chromosome fourteen. He’s my father’s brother. My grandparents refused to be tested – I wildly speculate that my grandmother couldn’t have stood it if it was her “fault” and Grandpa refused because if he came back negative we’d know it was Granny and he refused to do that to her. Maybe neither one of them wanted to know. It doesn’t matter anyway. My dad and one of his brothers were tested, one refused. My dad is a carrier. My parents decided to have children anyway. They agonized over whether or not to have an amniocentesis done on me when I was in the womb (the only way to know for sure if something is wrong before the baby is born). They decided to leave it in God’s hands since the amnio might have caused a miscarriage and my aunt and uncle had had another healthy baby since losing Casey (and had had one before). I was born healthy. So I was either a carrier or all my chromosomes were normal, depending on whether I got Dad’s normal thirteen/fourteen pair or his wonky ones.

I became aware of all this when I was twelve. I somehow had it in my head that I had a twenty-five percent chance of having a baby with trisomy 13 if I turned out to be a carrier. (In hindsight, I have no idea how I arrived at that conclusion.) I agonized over it frequently. I knew I could get karyotyped at eighteen (my blood taken, my cells grown, and my chromosomes examined by a specialist). I decided, at the tender age of thirteen, that if I found out I was a carrier, my next doctor’s visit would be to get my tubes tied. I simply wasn’t going to take that much of a risk having a baby that would die in such a horrible way. I couldn’t fathom putting the baby, myself, my future spouse, and my family all through that knowing what the risks were. I’d wanted kids since I was even younger, so just not having kids wasn’t an option for me. Depending on my future spouse’s input, we could use an egg donor and in vitro to get a baby that was at least biologically his that I carried, or we’d just adopt or foster. Maybe both. I told my mom this. She told me I was too young to worry about it but was supportive of my decision. We cried a while and tried not to worry about it for the next five years.

Thankfully, when I got tested, my insurance company required me to also talk to a genetic counselor. Well, for once, thank God for bureaucracy – she explained to me that I’d massively inflated my risk. It’s really only one percent, plus one percent for a related but not-fatal and not-all-that-debilitating complication where the baby would end up with both of my fourteens somehow, but have the correct number of chromosomes. (The only reason it causes any problems at all is because of something called imprinting which is a science topic for another day.) If even that is unacceptable, I could get in vitro, and the embryos could be safely screened at the eight-cell stage and only healthy ones would be implanted. I’m not at the point where I want to worry about that yet, but it was a huge relief, even though the karyotype did come out positive. I decided not to have the surgery.

I would have been completely horrified by that scene as a thirteen-year-old girl who’d made this very hard decision already. I might have questioned it. I might not have. Either way, I would have been hurt. I would have felt betrayed, knowing that sentiment was expressed by a feminist and found in a thing that I loved. (I had shitty taste as a kid, I would have still been on the Marvel hype train.) Hell, I was hurt as an adult, just thinking about it.

And I had good news about my situation, ultimately. What about the woman who had a double mastectomy and ovariectomy because she knows she has the BRCA mutation, and just watched her mother die horribly of ovarian cancer? What about the woman who had to have an emergency hysterectomy or ovariectomy due to an accident or illness? What about the woman who’s been trying for years to get pregnant and now knows it’s because her uterus is imperfect, or because she has PCOS, or the doctors have just given up figuring out why? What about the seventeen-year-old girl waiting a year to get the test to find out if she’s a carrier for the hemophilia, cystic fibrosis, Lesch-Nyhan, Tay-Sachs, or any other litany of horrible Mendelian recessive or X-linked recessive diseases she’s watched killing or causing suffering to her siblings who’s got the same idea I had if they are? What about the twenty-year-old woman whose already had her test for the same, and has already had it done so her child won’t have to suffer the way her sibling did?  What about the trans-woman who just got a slap in the face from a supposedly feminist director who just reminded her that so much of society will never view her as a complete woman, no matter how many thing she changes, because she lacks a womb. What about the woman who’s simply decided not to have children and already has an ass-ton of societal pressure on her to change her mind? Hey, Joss, didn’t you criticize the Jurassic World trailer for that very fucking thing? Does the expression “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” mean anything at all to you? And God forbid anybody who was actually forcibly sterilized or coerced into it or even chose to but regrets it saw that scene without warning! You’re probably thinking the chances of that happening are small, but this was a huge hit movie whose predecessor had an audience of (gasp!) forty percent women, so that’s more likely than you think.

And I’m not even done explaining the awful. As I hinted at when speculating on what was done to Natasha, it may not even be fucking accurate. If it’s tubal ligation, it may be reversible. If it’s irreversible tubal ligation, she can still use in vitro. If it’s a hysterectomy or a uterine cauterization, she can use a surrogate. I mean, it’s fiction, and she’s pals with a billionaire with more money than sense, so I assume money is no object. If it’s some magitech futuristic bullshit, Tony Stark can probably figure out how to undo it. And regardless of whether, any, none, or a combination of these apply, she could always adopt or foster. Implying that women who adopt or foster children are less their children’s mother and therefore less of a woman is way, way more fucking offensive to adoptive families than that “he’s adopted” line some people got their panties in a twist over in the first one.

“Well but they couldn’t possibly have discussed all that in the movie.” That’s a great reason not to fucking put it in, then, isn’t it? You don’t touch on serious issues like that if you don’t have the time to put it in properly.

No I’m not just a pissy feminist. If they’d had Steve try to get Hulk to calm his tits by saying the super soldier formula sterilized him or had Clint say he felt raped by Loki or had become impotent because of the mind control or had Tony say the terrorists from the first movie raped him or castrated him or something I’d have been equally like, “What the fuck, Joss? Why would you just drop that shit in there?” And if they’d also called themselves a monster, I’d have been equally like, “Fuck off with your victim-blaming shit,” and been upset on behalf of anyone who might have been through any of those things, even if I didn’t take it quite as personally since, obviously, none of those things have happened to me. See my point above about “making sure you have the time and the tonal depth in your story to appropriately deal with a serious subject, before bringing up the serious subject.”

I’m especially offended by the implication I get from some defenders of this scene that because Joss is like omg such a feminist and he bothered to have a female character who had dialogue at all in the movie, I should just be grateful for the table scraps I’ve been thrown and not complain about anything Lord Whedon has done. You know what, fuck you. Anyone who thinks that, fuck you. I know arguing will do no good, but here goes nothing. You know why I don’t have to hop on my hind legs and beg for table scraps when the master deigns to toss me some? Because at the same time Joss Whedon was saving the world from the robot apocalypse and curing cancer, AIDS, and male pattern baldness by having a squad of conventionally attractive female characters with supernatural powers to make them as good as the boys beating monsters, Deep Space Nine had two main female cast members (still conventionally attractive) who were awesome all by them damn selves, unless you’re counting the trill symbiosis and awesome red hair as super powers. That show would have female guest characters pop in who easily qualified as strong without any comment. Hell, I even feel the need to compliment their female villains – none of them were stereotypical wicked stepmothers or femme fatales. Hell, Mulan came out in that time period. Any time I wanted to give up on something growing up, I reminded myself Mulan wouldn’t give up. I went to Disney and took pictures with a very patient and non-judgmental actress playing Mulan this summer and I’m twenty-five fucking years old, that movie made such an impression on me. The same year we got the first Avengers, in which Hill and Widow were so much alike in personality that my mother, trying to recall the movie later, thought they were the same person despite Cobie Smulders and Scarlett Johansson looking nothing alike, we got Hunger Games, Amazing Spider-Man, and Wreck-It Ralph. If you need refreshing, the former is the one that became the highest grossing action movie with a female lead until Force Awakens went on a record smashing spree, the middle had a well-developed, authentic, competent, funny, and intelligent love interest, and the latter had an adorable tomboy princess in a prominent role (in a movie for boys?! What what what what?!) and a hilarious parody of the Strong Female Character that Avengers played straight. I am writing this essay right after finishing the newest book in the Chronicles of Elantra series by Michelle Sagara, which has a “strong female character” with way more personality than any of the women in the MCU so far (that I’ve seen, I haven’t watched Jessica Jones yet) in the lead and a gender equal cast including varied, interesting, complex, and frequently badass women. Just a few weeks after Age of Ultron, Mad Max: Fury Road introduced us to Charlize Theron playing a character who kicked all of the ass in a film with a very deliberate feminist subtext.  In other words – no I don’t have to eat the crumbs Lord Whedon throws me anymore. I really haven’t since, like, the fucking nineties. Lots of other people are willing to let me sit at the table. Some of them are even women themselves.

            In conclusion: Yes this scene pissed me off. You’re free to disagree with me on whether or not you think it was poorly executed and/or offensive, but please don’t try to tell me I don’t have every right to be angry. If you can actually come up with an argument why I don’t (besides not actually seeing the movie, that one’s pretty valid) that I haven’t addressed here, feel free to let me know. But if you’re just going to keep repeating the defenses that, “Oh but he didn’t mean it!” “But Whedon is a feminist icon! He can do no wrong!” “You’re just a pissy feminist!” “You’re just a shipper!” “She wasn’t even talking about that when she said she was a monster!” or any variation of “But women are supposed to have babies and of course someone who can’t isn’t a complete woman!” (yes I’ve actually gotten that) as an attempt to invalidate my anger, then feel to address those arguments to my left butt cheek, and while you’re down there you can kiss it. 


  1. I think people don't realize that you can criticize something without being a hater. Sigh, Whedon fanboys...

  2. Fandom can be like a cult at times.