Age Of Ultron And That One Joke

So the new Avengers movie has been out for a while and holy shit, has it created a lot of talking points. But strangely, I haven’t heard anyone talking about the point that feel is the most salient, which is, “was it better than the first one?”

Nope, instead we need to discuss Tony Stark and his rape joke and thus the continuation of rape culture. Here’s the clip if you haven’t seen it, starts around the 40 second mark. If you didn’t watch it, basically, everyone is hanging out at a party trying to lift Thor’s magical hammer Mjolnir, which can only be wielded by one worthy of its power. Before Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man tries, he quips, “so, if I lift it, I then rule Asgard?” Thor dryly responds, “yes, of course.” Tony then says, “I will be reinstituting prima nocta.”

I have three points I wish to make:

1: Characterization. Tony Stark’s entire characterization is that he is a jerk. He’s funny, he’s witty, he’s insanely smart, and he frequently helps save the world . . . but he is an asshole. He’s on a heroic journey not to transition from asshole to good person but from asshole who used to make weapons that killed everyone to asshole trying to fix the mess he made.”I will be reinstituting prima nocta” is something an asshole would say. In fact, that’s one of the ways we know he’s an asshole!

If Captain “Language, please!” America had talked about the good ol’ days of America before women were people, yes, that would be considerably worse. That would be an indication that the creators of this story want us to think along those lines, want us to agree with that idea. We’re supposed to look up to Cap. He’s the icon, the standard, even if he’s not “the coolest” or the most powerful or the funniest.

But Tony is a dick. He insults everyone around him, often at the same time; I think it’s fair to say his word choice “reinsituting” rather than “instituting” was meant as a dig at Thor’s people.

2: Well, let’s say it’s not okay to make jokes about rape. I actually disagree with that point philosophically as I think humor is a powerful force for social change, but let’s save that for another post. Let’s imagine a different version of this scene: after Tony makes a joke about prima nocta, everyone laughs and nods, not in the audience, but on screen. Thor smiles and says, “yes, those were good times,” and Cap says something charmingly old timey about smacking secretaries on the ass as they walked by. Everyone has a good old laugh about it. Rape culture for everyone! This is a universe where that’s okay, what does it say about our universe and about us?!

Except that doesn’t happen. If you listen closely to the clip, none of the other Avengers even chuckle. No one agrees with him.

Instead, right after making his joke, right after reminding us that he’s a dick, the literal goddamn forces of the universe also point out that Tony Stark is not worthy. The universe itself, in the form of a magical hammer, tells Tony Star that he is an asshole. He does not get a cosmic pat on the back and a vindication of everything he does. He does not get approval. The hammer stays put. He cannot lift it.

God (well, a god) is telling him, Tony, that he is not good enough. Is his misogynist nature be part of that? COULD BE.

This wouldn’t be as noteworthy on its own initially, as no one seems able to lift the hammer, although there are hints that Captain America can and pretends not to, likely to spare Thor’s ego. But later on . . . potential spoilers if you haven’t seen the movie, although I’ll try to avoid specific names: later in the movie, there is a character that can lift the hammer aside from Thor and the fact that he can proves his worthiness to the team. So we know that people other than Thor can lift the hammer if it judges them worthy of it.

Does this mean that the hammer rejected him because of his joke? What about the other characters who also couldn’t lift it? Should we take this to mean they’re also assholes? I don’t think so; there’s enough to suggest that each character who tries to lift the hammer can’t for their own reasons: Banner, because in his heart, he doesn’t want to. Hawkeye and Cap (assuming Cap wasn’t faking) likely can’t because they’re soldiers rather than warriors; to them, the fight is a job, not a way of life as it is for Thor’s people. For Hawkeye, at least, given the choice, it’s obvious he’d rather be hanging out at home (which we do see later).

But Tony does want power in a way that Banner doesn’t. He isn’t fighting out of a sense of duty like Cap and Hawkeye. But Tony still cannot lift the hammer. He is not worthy. If “we” want to be worthy (in the sense that we learn values and ideas from stories), we need to consider that point. If we want to be worthy, we need to be better. Not just funnier, not just wittier, but better.

3: Won’t someone please think of the children? Kids shouldn’t hear this kind of stuff. First of all, the movie is PG-13. If your kid is thirteen, they already know. Secondly, how many children know what prima nocta actually is? Do you realize that the entire point of children’s entertainment (well, one of them, at least; merchandise was the main point) in the 90s was to see how many filthy references one could slip by the kids, because kids don’t know what that stuff means? Seriously, this joke is downright brilliant in its subtlety compared to the cartoons I grew up on.

A closing thought: Why is everyone freaking out about this, but no one seemed to seemed to really care when Loki called Natasha a whiny cunt in the previous film? Why is that?

Witches Waiting For Wizards

I watched Oz the Great and Powerful last night and had a few thoughts.

A few notes of preface: I realize that it’s a Disney movie which brings with it an entire host of gender conventions, not all of them positive. I realize, too, that it’s a children’s movie, even considering the efforts of director Sam Raimi to push the movie’s scare factor to the very limit of what was appropriate for its target audience. Seriously, Evanora’s true face? Looks just like the evil gypsy woman from Drag Me to Hell. Also, the shot of the Wicked Witch of the West’s arm reaching up and clawing the table? Classic Raimi.

The mixed reviews kept me from going to the movie theater when it was playing, although to be honest, these days I’ll avoid movie theaters even for movies I really want to see. I just don’t like movie theaters anymore; too expensive, too many irritating people, my favorite theater is still closed, etc. etc, somebody call the wambulance. Also, my home theater set up is pretty kick-ass, and I can drink beer without having to smuggle it in, and I can pause the movie when I need to expel that beer from my system. So, really, home theater is where it’s at these days. Apologies for the digression, let’s talk about the movie.

After I’d finished watching it, I couldn’t quite decide how I felt about it. Did I like it? Was it a good movie? Such indecision is usually a sign for me that there were high points being held back by other issues.

The highlights for me, aside from the visual effects, was Mila Kunis’s performance as Theodora, who (spoilers) manages to combine a little of Wicked’s sympathy of Elphaba as well as Margaret Hamilton’s iconic, delightfully over the top performance as the Wicked Witch in the original movie. Sure, in this movie, Theodora goes from 0 to crazy in about 0.5 seconds and has all the subtlety of a rabid wolverine, but she was still fun to watch.

So, the basic plot in one paragraph or less is that Oscar is a stage magician who lands in Oz. It turns out his stage name is Oz, which means he fulfills a prophecy made by the old, now-deceased king where a wizard will appear and save the land of Oz from the Wicked Witch. Theodora the Good Witch tells all of this to Oscar when they meet. Hilarity ensues since Oscar is more con artist than competent sorcerer.

I think my uncertainty about the movie is that I never really bought into this prophecy thing or why Theodora believed in it so fervently. She’s a true idealist and believes that the prophecied Wizard will make Oz safe from the Wicked Witch. But why is she waiting for a wizard at all? She’s a witch, one of the most powerful beings in Oz! Why isn’t she out fighting the Wicked Witch?

At first, I thought her reluctance to fight was because she didn’t have the same level of power as the other witches, but that notion is very clearly dispelled (hah) when she’s shown throwing a fireball while angry. She definitely has the magical strength. Furthermore, she’s one of two witches in the Emerald City. She and her sister outnumber the alleged Wicked Witch, so they’ve got numbers on their side.

Even though the plot reason is that Theodora isn’t aware that (spoiler) the actual Wicked Witch is her sister, she still thinks she knows who the enemy is. She could and should be out hunting Glinda, who is the alleged Wicked Witch initially.

I kept hoping for some explanation for why Theodora needed the Wizard to save Oz. A scene of Evanora manipulating her or some indication that she doubts her own strength would indicate why she’s not fixing the problem herself, or at least trying to do so. Theodora clearly wants to help and is shown to have the power to do so, since she can throw fireballs around (“as the size of an explosion increases, the number of social situations it is incapable of solving approaches zero“). She doesn’t gain any real agency, however, until she transforms into the Wicked Witch of the West.

Of course, once she turns green, she immediately  flies out and starts kicking ass, exposing Oscar’s lack of actual power for all to see. Why didn’t she have that motivation prior to her fall? Is this a Space Balls-esque “good is dumb” situation?

In the end, I came away feeling that, while the movie was entertaining, it fell short of its own potential. I love, love, love a good tragic villain. I love fallen hero stories. I love redemption arcs and I love villains that throw offers of redemption right back in the hero’s face. There’s so much potential here to do all of those things. Why wasn’t Theodora with Oscar when he went witch-hunting? The movie poster made it seem like it would be Oscar and the three witches on a journey together, but you actually never see all three of them in the same place at any point (other than the end, sort of).

In Black Swan, Mila Kunis proved she has serious acting chops. I think the success of Wicked (both the book and the musical) have shown that, as a culture, we are fascinated by the Wicked Witch of the West. She’s as iconic a character as Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, and so many other great movie villains. This movie could have, and should have, been as much about her as it was about Oscar himself.

Instead, she’s . . . well, she doesn’t really even do enough to qualify as a sidekick. Glinda gets that role later in the movie. It’s disappointing. The bones were in place for a great story, but so much of the screen time was spent on Oscar, the reluctant hero (apparently the new heroic archetype of this decade, much as the anti-hero was for the 90s).

Sam Raimi and his cast still delivered a decent movie . . . but I feel like the potential was here to do a truly great one.

Captain’s Log: Modern Day

It’s one of those nerd questions you’ll answer eventually: who is your captain? Kirk? Picard? Janeway? Those other guys from the Star Trek series that I didn’t watch? Usually after giving your answer, you justify it. Kirk was the original captain and the heroic space-cowboy. Picard was the diplomat. Janeway was tough as nails. And so on.

Picard has always been my pick for captain, but my reasons go beyond the fact that The Next Generation was my favorite series. Part of the reason is that Patrick Stewart is just an amazing guy.

If you want an example of the kind of person I think all men should aspire to be, take a look at this video of a fan Q&A session at a convention. The entire video is excellent but it’s at about 5:44 that really stands out as Patrick Stewart discusses his own childhood experience watching his father’s domestic abuse of his mother:

As a child in my home, I heard doctors and ambulance men say, Mrs. Stewart, you must have done something to provoke it. Mrs. Stewart, it takes two to make an argument. Wrong. Wrong. My mother did nothing to provoke that. And even if she had, violence is never, ever a choice that a man should make. Ever. 

It’s a cultural cliche to scorn people for regarding actors and celebrities as heroes. Kids shouldn’t look up to movie stars, not when there are doctors and soldiers and police and scientists and so many others who are working hard to save lives without any of the fame or fortune that the celebrities of the world receive. And those people are heroes, undeniably.

But I think it’s important to recognize, too, the contributions to the world that a person like Patrick Stewart can make with moments like these. When a person like Patrick Stewart speaks, people listen. The power of language holds within it the power to change minds. It’s a power every bit as real and valuable as any new technology, maybe even more-so.

So it’s important to recognize those who use their voices and their status to help champion these messages. Star Trek seems to be a bastion for these types; I’ve already talked about why George Takei is excellent. Whether it is on behalf of gay rights or speaking out against violence against women, I’m glad that their voices are being heard. I’m glad that sometimes, the people who play our fictional heroes turn out to be pretty heroic in their own right.

The woman in the video who asked the question has her own write-up of the moment that’s worth your time. It has a few pictures that are particularly poignant.

Men’s Rights Activists: A Follow-Up

I told myself I was going to write about something happier (or at least more whimsical) but I couldn’t let this one pass by. Chloe over at the Bodycrimes blog has some great posts on the topic of Men’s Rights Activism. I wanted to highlight one of her posts because it sums up my feelings on the topic perfectly:

These reactions are rarely about addressing imbalances. They’re about the dominant group trying to stay dominant. Let’s face it, the Men’s Rights movement is never going to get out and campaign for child care in their work place, so they can see more of their kids, or shorter hours for working fathers, or the right to paternity leave. They’re not going to be marching against the sexual abuse of children, or even putting programs in place to support men in prisons and the military who are victims of rape. That’s not what they really want. What they want is for equality to go away and for us to return to some idealised time that never really existed.Let’s face it. They just hate women.

I couldn’t have said it better. The entire post is worth your time. You should go take a look.

The Irony Of Men’s Rights Activists

It’s a generally accepted consensus by sane people on the Internet that, among all the various subcultures, there is no bigger group of douchebags than the Men’s Rights Activists.

A brief explanation, in case you’re not familiar with this particular breed of insanity. These are the guys who whine that the single white male is actually the most oppressed minority in the world today due to things like affirmative action, political correctness, and rules about workplace harassment. I don’t need to explain in any great detail about their position because their position is inane. Simply put, these are the guys who mistake the loss of privilege as persecution. They’re the spoiled brats who, when asked to share their toys, pitch a fit about how they’re being mistreated.

They imagine themselves as soldiers in some great war against feminism and/or political correctness and they imagine that they will use their superior maleness and alleged intellectual capabilities to browbeat the world into seeing the truth. Which, of course, is hilarious because the only thing they’re ever going to prove to the world is that they’re spoiled douchebags. They’re not going to affect the change they desire. They’re not going to stop the march towards equality anymore than any previous hate group has done. They’re not a barrier; they’re a speed bump, at best.

The reason why I mention them at all is because of a very poignant comment a friend of mine made on Facebook. He pointed out, correctly, that there is one group Men’s Rights Activists do harm, which is other men:

What’s bothersome is that there are certain areas where greater sensitivity towards men would be nice (like the relative absence of community support for stay-at-home dads) but the irrational fucknuttery of the “men’s rights activists” sours that Discussion quickly.

But of course, a manly man wouldn’t bother to be a stay-at-home dad, because that’s wimmen’s work, amirite? It couldn’t possibly be that there are real mans who would rise to the challenge and opportunity of being the primary caregiver to a child. An Alpha Male would never do such a thing! Only beta or gamma men would allow themselves to be pushed around in such a form. Pawns of the matriarchy, etc. etc., rabble rabble rabble.

The irony of the whole situation is that, barring a very few actual male-hating fringe-extremists, it’s probably the feminists who have the backs of all the stay-at-home-dads out there, not the so-called Men’s Rights Activists.

Just something to think about.

Feminism And The “Best Looking Attorney General” Comment

I consider myself a pretty dedicated male feminist, but this whole backlash to a comment President Obama made about California attorney general Kamala Harris has left me wondering. I guess I just don’t see what is gained here; in my opinion, there’s a lot more to lose.

This might be one of those things that proves what some have argued: that men can’t be feminists. Certainly, I don’t know what it is like to be a woman; all I have to go on is whatever approximation I can reach through sympathy. Maybe I’m caught up in my own male privilege here, though I sincerely hope not. Regardless, here’s my case for why I think the reaction to President Obama’s comment has done more harm than good.

Like all causes, feminism is out to win hearts and minds. That’s the core of the issue, of any issue and virtually any “ism:” try to get people to agree with you, because only through agreement can we achieve the egalitarian society that is at the heart of feminism’s goal.

I hesitate to call this a “game” because that seems denigrating. It’s not a game; we’re talking about the lives and well-being of people. However, the same can be said about politics as a game; it’s a deadly serious game for which the stakes are the lives and well-being of people. These games have certain rules and more importantly, certain strategies.

I try to be more of an idealist than a pragmatist, but at some point, pragmatic concerns must be taken into account. I want feminism to “win,” by which I mean achieve all of its goals and foster a culture where feminism and humanism can be truly synonymous in all respects.

The problem is that this goal cannot be achieved by force. It cannot be achieved by browbeating or shaming or any form of negative reinforcement. No cause can win through these means. The Pondering Humanist articulates this point very brilliantly and although the context in this quote is for atheism rather than feminism, I believe the logic is applicable:

For those of you who have escaped religion, I don’t need to explain how hard it is to get your mind out of the pew. But for the benefit of those out there slinging insults like “Religitard” or “Creationshits”, allow me to explain why you need to turn down the heat. As the entertaining and enlightening Seth Andrews says in his book Deconverted: The Path from Religion to Reason, no one was ever “brow-beaten into an epiphany.” The louder you yell, the ruder you get, the less anyone listens.

I’m not calling feminists rude. However, at some point, we must realize that to win hearts and minds, that means overcoming the patriarchy that has permeated our society. That means realizing that there are those men who are, quite simply put, afraid of feminism are the ones that we most need to convince. It doesn’t matter that they are wrong in being afraid of feminism. It doesn’t matter how misconceived these fears actually are. We know that feminism isn’t going to put every man in chains and remove the “taint of masculinity” from the world. But they don’t know that, and that’s the problem.

When those fearful men see this kind of reaction to what they perceive as an innocent comment, they aren’t going to follow the train of logic about how comments like this are reinforcing a pernicious belief that women are judged by appearance. They are going to see a reaction that confirms their fears about feminism and they are going to dig their heels in and resist listening to everything else feminism has to say. They are going to believe that feminism will create a world where a man has to be afraid of everything he says. Again, it doesn’t matter that that’s wrong. It’s a real fear for him and it will cause him to oppose feminism simply because he fears it, because he does not understand it, and because he fears what he does not understand.

No, it’s not right that these small-minded fears being allowed to “get their way.” It should be incumbent upon those fearful men to open their minds and grow up a little. But if they were capable of doing that on their own, they would already be feminists and the world would already be better. Feminists have to be more than just “right” in this scenario; feminists have to be out to win.

I don’t think the reaction to the comment was oversensitive, like others have claimed. I understand the reaction and I understand how much it rankles to be told to allow a comment to pass, because isn’t that how we got into a rape culture in the first place? However, I do think that this time, it did more harm than good to the overall cause of feminism. I think that it was a battle that should not have been fought, because whatever victory was gained through President Obama’s apology was lost by all the men who don’t identify with the feminist cause and are now shaking their heads thinking that all their heads and thinking “man, those feminists sure are crazy.”

What it comes down to is the tired, but nevertheless accurate statement: “pick your battles.” Or, if you prefer, the Confucian saying “the man person who chases two rabbits, catches neither.” This doesn’t mean to simply allow any comment to pass unchallenged for fear of alienating non-feminist men. It does mean, however, realizing that any cause, no matter how noble, no matter how just, only has so much capital to spend in the arena of public opinion. Shouldn’t we be saving that capital for the kinds of comments that truly garish and offensive?

Sticking to your guns wins battles, this is true, but diplomacy end wars. I think that this was a battle that feminism should not have fought, because the media firestorm eclipsed whatever progress was made. But maybe all that does is prove that men can’t be feminists and I’m completely wrong in all of this. That’s entirely possible, too.