I’m about to spoil Age of Ultron. And I mean spoil not only in terms of plot, but also in terms of unconditional Whedon Love. Joss Whedon, the creative mind behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Fray, and Dollhouse—not to mention a consistent source for social-media-fueled feminist soundbites—nonetheless is responsible for a line of dialogue in the movie that is impossible, and irresponsible, to ignore.
I was primed for a rape joke in the film thanks to this excellent Feministing article by Jos Truitt, but I wasn’t prepared for how this one sloppy reference would serve as a metonym for the film’s treatment of women throughout.
In order to understand what I mean, I must share the line: Early in the film, Tony Stark, when attempting to lift Thor’s, ahem, hammer, promises that if he is judged worthy, he “will be reinstituting Prima Nocta.” Prima Nocta, as Truitt explains, is the archaic right of noblemen to “claim” the virginity of any peasant woman before her marriage. So, you know, legalized rape.
This line might appear throwaway, but sadly it’s anything but. Age of Ultron persistently, and disappointingly, claims women’s bodies as crude tools for humor and tragedy throughout, mainly through the otherwise badass character of Black Widow.
Natasha Romanov’s power, in the Whedonesque tradition of not only Buffy, but also River Tam (Firefly) and Echo (Dollhouse), has been partly forged through physical trauma: as a child she was unwillingly trained as an assassin. Her body is first used by the sadistic instructors, and then by the script itself.
In a subplot that feels half-hearted and forced, Natasha and Bruce Banner explore a romantic relationship. Her participation in this arc consists of having his face smashed into her breasts while dodging gunfire (“humor”) and then revealing that she had been “sterilized” in her youth (“tragedy”).
Both moments felt insultingly unearned and cheap, particularly the latter. A woman’s body is neither a playground nor a baby-factory, and the idea that Natasha’s defining wound is an inability to bear children demonstrates a staggeringly offensive and unsophisticated understanding of female identity and potential.
However, even more telling, and more dangerous, is the insidious appeal of Whedon’s rape joke. The “Prima Nocta” reference is an intellectual dog whistle—much like the film’s references to T.S. Eliot and Eugene O’Neill, the line makes those “in the know” feel safe and privileged. Which is precisely how feminists and allies shouldn’t be feeling in a conventional action film.
In this line, Whedon manages to simultaneously appeal to the nerdy in-crowd and the lowest common denominator. We’re so busy patting ourselves on the back for getting the reference, we don’t realize that it comes at the expense of understanding and accepting women’s bodies as disadvantaged and devalued.
There is much that Age of Ultron does right—see Brittany Kenville’s post for an excellent reading of the Scarlet Witch’s power and agency—but it’s hard to excuse where it misses the mark, especially with a formerly sacrosanct “Written and Directed by Joss Whedon” credit.
However, Joss Whedon is not a god and he’s not a saint (both appellations I have personally used to describe him in past). He’s a man. He’s an ally. He’s a human being. He is as susceptible as anyone to eruptions of sexist language and imagery for easy laughs or shoddy emotionalism. Whedon’s rape joke is a reminder to us all that misogyny isn’t something we disavow once, but that we must battle (even avenge) every day, with every word.