Thursday, April 23, 2015

When Ur Fave Is Problematic: Chris Evans, Jeremy Renner, and Fandom Responses to Mistakes

Welp, it finally happened. Chris Evans put his foot in it.

In an interview with Digital Spy, Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner were asked what they thought of Scarlett Johansson's character, Natasha Romanoff, being paired up with Bruce Banner in spite of fan preferences that she be paired with Steve Rogers or Clint Barton (or both!) instead. Renner said that Natasha was a slut. Evans cracked up laughing and said that she was a complete whore. And a large swath of fans on Tumblr and Twitter (and elsewhere, I imagine) got very upset. Another swatch of fans got very upset with those who were upset, admonishing them to calm down and take a joke. It wasn't long before a decided portion of responses were more about other people's responses than they were about the original incident.

Interestingly, most of those who were upset were upset about Evans rather than Renner. A fan darling, particularly in the MCU fandom, Chris Evans is typically perceived as the ideal white frat boy with a heart of gold—the one good dude in a sea of dudebros. Very few people seemed to be surprised by Renner’s comments, but almost everyone was shocked and dismayed by Evans’.

These fandom outcries are pretty common, and they follow a standard pattern. An actor or performer makes statements about social justice issues that are intelligent and thoughtful, thereby putting them on fandom’s radar. If such statements continue the person comes to be idolized by the fandom. Eventually, however, they wind up saying or doing something that is ill-considered, insensitive, or inappropriate. Certain members of the fandom reel with shock, certain other members of the fandom tell everyone to take a joke, and the conversation about the original issue gives way to a conversation about the problematic attitude of the fandom.

And frankly, I don’t know how to avoid enacting that pattern here and now with my own response. Perhaps, I cannot. Perhaps, I should not.

So, let’s take it from the top, shall we?

First of all, and let there be no mistake: Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner’s response to the question they were asked was ill-considered, insensitive, and inappropriate (1). What could have been an opportunity to call out—or at the very least point out—the sexism inherent in the media approach to the MCU franchise in general and the Black Widow character in particular, became a pile on. It probably was not intended to be, but that's what it was. When faced with a chance to do something positive, these men instead did something negative. They made light of an ugly stereotype about women that is fundamentally grounded in a double standard that normalizes misogyny and male supremacy: men who play the field are studs; women who play the field are skanks (2).

It’s a disgusting, oppressive, and boring trope, and the people who were disappointed to see it perpetuated by some of their favorite actors were not wrong to be disappointed or to want to have a discussion about it. Yes, it was just a joke. But it wasn't a very good joke. And it's worth having a civilized conversation about a) why it wasn't a very good joke and b) why it is so easy for people to tell these sorts of not-very-good jokes without really thinking about it.

Which brings us to our second point: telling people to shut up and take a joke when they are upset about something is an inadequate and unhelpful response to such a conversation. Everyone has the right to dislike a joke—to think it was discriminatory or stigmatizing, to think that it was inconsiderate, to think that it was just not funny—and they have the right to express their dissatisfaction. You don’t have to agree with them, but you can’t really tell them to shut up and get over it either.

The thing about problematic performers, productions, actions, and statements is that everyone’s line in the sand lies along on a slightly different axis. We’re all pretty much agreed that if you can’t like problematic things then you can’t like anything at all. We’re less clear on the idea that different people are going to have different ideas about what is too problematic to be acceptable.

This gets us to our third, and final, point. We’ve reeled with disappointment, we’ve been told to learn to take a joke, and now we’re simmering with resentment at the fans who attempted to silence us or otherwise remained silent themselves. But the thing is that, for some people, the sexism demonstrated by Evans and Renner was simply not problematic enough. It didn’t cross their line. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t aware of, and/or frustrated by, it. It simply means that it didn’t cross their individual line. And just as telling people who are upset to take a joke is neither appropriate nor productive, telling people who decide that they are going to like something in spite of its problematic nature that they are wrong to do so is neither appropriate nor productive.

Now, certainly, there’s a value in critiquing the ways in which fandom falls short of its claims to fairness and equality—just as there is a value in critiquing the actions of people who fall short of social ideals. But the line between critique and shaming can get awfully thin in situations like this. When these spurts of outrage ripple through the fandom—as they inevitability do (I remember how disappointed fandom was when Anthony Mackie said that Selma failed not because of racism but because of America’s racism conversation fatigue; how let down we were when Scarlett Johansson accepted the title role in the upcoming live-action Ghost in the Shell remake)—I cannot help but be struck by the notion that, intentional or not, fan responses often run the risk of translating into a metaphorical public whipping.

For better or worse, we now have the technological tools to enact a call out culture that, in my opinion, is fatally based on the patently false notion that your fave (and you yourself) will never be problematic, and therefore will never need an empathetic critical response, and therefore will never need to moderate your own responses to other people's verbal mishaps. And this misapprehension is particularly dangerous in an era of online shaming, self-righteous harassment campaigns, and doxxing as a form of vigilante justice. It may be tempting to imagine that such tools can be used safely in the pursuit of a good cause, but the reality is that if you condone such behavior for a good cause then you have to accept it when it is utilized to intimidate activists and silence minority critics and creators (3).

This does not mean, of course, that people cannot (or should not) express their opinions. I'm not referring here to fans who have posted measured responses to the video that point out the context of the interview—which takes place well into a long press tour and involves two notoriously flippant interviewees—and discuss the ramifications of sexism in culture broadly and in this interview specifically. I'm referring to those people who are calling Evans and Renner disgusting, suggesting they die in a fire, haranguing them on twitter, etc (4).

Yes, Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner said something incredibly sexist, and it was hugely frustrating—although not entirely unexpected in our age of constant media exposure. But people say fucked up things from time to time, and incidents like this are going to continue to happen. (I shudder to think what we’ll do when Mark Ruffalo finally says something problematic.) Given human nature, and the nature of humans on the Internet, we need to think carefully about how we can respond to situations like this in a way that will truly effect change.

1) And they have already apologized for their remarks. Evans' apology was particularly free of equivocation or excuses.
2) I am not even going to get into the argument that in the MCU Natasha wasn’t actually playing the field. While it’s true that she wasn’t, that’s not what makes Evans and Renner’s response wrong. It would have been wrong regardless of the level of Natasha’s promiscuity.
3) Neil Gaiman's excellent piece on what it means to support freedom of speech raises some points that are relevant for this discussion. In it he notes “The Law is a blunt instrument. It's not a scalpel. It's a club. If there is something you consider indefensible, and there is something you consider defensible, and the same laws can take them both out, you are going to find yourself defending the indefensible.” In my opinion, the same rule of thumb applies to shaming, harassment, and doxxing. The minute you utilize one of those tools to achieve a goal, even a good one, you are no longer in a position to rail when the same tools are used in service to a cause that you find deplorable. See also: Ijeoma Olou, “Taking Down Bigots With Their Own Weapons is Sweet, Satisfying—And Very,Very Wrong,” Medium (April 6, 2015).
4) Many of these sorts of responses appear to have been deleted, but several of them remain.


  1. Hate to break it to you but Mark already has lol....just Google/Bing "Mark Ruffalo" and "gypsy"....

    Apparently, the Graham Norton show edited that part out.

    1. Well, that didn't take long. It seems to have flown under fandom's radar for the most part, however. That's probably because there's no footage out for people to evaluate, which I can somewhat understand. It's hard to make a judgment on something you're only hearing about second-hand.

      Still, it speaks to my point that it's only a matter of time for everyone. Thanks for bringing it to my attention! :)