Cultural Junkdrawer – Black Widow, Cultural Nodes, and Bird Poop

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A turtle on its back – The Black Widow brouhaha; cultural nodes, agendas, and bird poop ice cream.

turtleWhoo-boy is this gonna be a tough one.

My girlfriend has a great story of an incident from her college years. She was in an English lit/poetry class and one of her fellow students read an original story about a turtle stuck on its back. After the reading, she recounts, one student said he really got the deep symbolism displayed by the helpless turtle in relation to a raped woman and how her life was turned upside down and she was unable to get right after the event.

To which the author (a woman) replied “Um, no, it’s just a story about a turtle on its back.”

“Turtle on its back” is now a shorthand she uses when I start to pick apart themes and undercurrents I detect in movies and TV. Where I see underlying messages in story structure and creative choices; for example, the elemental symbolism encoded in Dark Knight Rises, she sees Batman making a big fire bat symbol cause it looks cool. This has to do with our particular writing disciplines; she is a journalist with years of police reporting and newspaper work under her belt. I write fiction, snarky cultural analysis/comic reviews, and did my high school senior research paper on Bloom County (and killed it, I might add). But this story applies beyond her shutting me down when I get lost in the wankery (although I will confirm with one of the Nolan brothers one day, I swear). The story about the turtle on its back beautifully illustrates how a hundred different people can interpret something a hundred different ways (it should be noted that I’m talking about the story about the turtle on its back and not the story itself. Which, according to the author, is about a turtle on its back).


Anybody who follows comics and comic book movies and has access to social media has no doubt heard of the controversy surrounding Black Widow’s comments in Avengers: Age of Ultron and to a lesser degree an odd, in-character sorta-sexist/rape joke made by Tony Stark. Response has varied between outrage, threats of physical violence, overused terms ending in –ist, -ism or –ic, shrugs, political platforming, name calling, and one person wishing Joss Whedon would eat bird poop ice-cream.

There has also been some intelligent exchanges between rational individuals about the issues raised, or not raised for that matter, but that ain’t newsworthy.

To briefly recount what you already know (and if you don’t know SPOILERS AND THE FIRE DEPARTMENT HAS BEEN CALLED), Black Widow tells Banner about her “graduation” ceremony when she became an assassin. She was sterilized (as were all girls in the Black Widow program) because that would possibly be “the one thing” that would be more important than the mission. I’m paraphrasing a little here, I can’t remember all the dialogue specifically, but she ends with “You’re not the only monster”. Some people apparently heard “I was sterilized… I’m a monster.” And that’s it. Much gnashing of teeth, anger, accusations of –ist, –ic and -isms followed.

Age of Ultron and Whedon, in trying to do a tragic character background for Black Widow (a superhero trope if there ever was one), tripped a land mine of heated opinions about gender roles, societal expectation, personal and political agendas, and the imbalanced male to female ratios in one of the biggest and most successful genres in entertainment history.

The signal to noise ratio is big on this one, folks.

Case in point: a disturbing, rabid, sometimes silly in its outrage collection of hate tweets on Whedon

Mar Maximoff’s bird poop ice cream comment (#30 in the collection) is my personal favorite because at least it’s creative (and apparently written by Prince) in addition to the unhinged ranting that typifies most of the posts. I can grok “Neckbeard dudebro” but it has little impact as an insult for someone in my age group. Some of the bile can be attributed to Joss’ comments on the Jurassic World trailer or his back pedaling on resurrecting Coulson for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a week earlier, some of it is straight hater-ade, but most of the rancorous attacks focus on the Black Widow scene. Or at least being angry about the scene is a justification for any one of thousands of reasons to get worked up ranging from being legitimately upset by the implication of the scene, to bitterness over Avengers:AOU not being how someone wanted it to be, to using a cultural node to springboard one’s own personal agenda.

“Cultural node”?

The success and deep cultural impact of a movie like A:AOU unsheathes the proverbial double edged sword that comes with reaching such a level of awareness. A term I call “cultural node”. A cultural node is when an event is so ubiquitous in the public consciousness that all sorts of tangentially related or completely unrelated items glom onto the event as a springboard; The Superbowl, Ferguson, Age of Ultron, etc. For example, last year The Lego Movie had a surprising hundred million dollar box office opening. The attention that success brought included Fox business claiming that the character of Lord Business is a thinly veiled attack on Mitt Romney and the movie a condemnation of capitalism as a whole.

While I do admit that, in retrospect, there is a slight visual similarity.

They are both made of plastic.

They are both made of plastic.

This talking point would never have been brought up if The Lego Movie hadn’t done boffo box office! For conservatives to suggest that Hollywood has an “anti-business agenda” is ludicrous for two reasons: 1 – Most of Hollywood skews left, at least the actors and other creative types who are most in the spotlight. And skewing left is akin to being un-American, especially in Fox news’ book. So there is political agenda at work. 2 – To call Hollywood “anti-business” clearly shows that there is no understanding of the festering cesspool of back stabbing, and money-grubbing, demonic accounting/business practices that make-up the entertainment industry. It’s disingenuous… or perhaps jealousy. There is the spring boarding of an agenda totally unrelated to a clever story about plastic people trying to be individuals.

Just for kicks here is another example of Fox news using the cultural node of Frozen as a shameless push for items on the conservative agenda. More signal to noise but I can see where battle lines are drawn on the sexism issue here.

I know all of this is exhausting but they are there to make a point; the reaction to and politicizing of these cultural events or “Nodes” is just part of game nowadays. If you don’t have an opinion, most likely inflammatory or geared to your niche audience, you’re NOT part of the game. And that is career death for pundits, cultural critics, and others who make a living out of telling people what to think (and, yes, I’m part of that, kinda. Sadly, I don’t make a dime off this and I’m not trying to tell you what to think. Just a peek behind the curtains. More to the point this is all so “two weeks ago” but, hey, I’ve been working for a living.)

Let’s get back to how this relates to Age of Ultron. Criticism – The character of Black Widow is a “damsel in distress” because she relies on her teammates for help in finishing the job. I don’t agree but I see how, from a particular frame of reference, that interpretation could scan. Opening weekend Box Office – $187 million. Reaction – Thousands of twitter posts, blog entries, and facebook posts about the mishandling of the character.


Gotham’s Barbara Kean – A mess of contradictory (what could be charitably called) motivations ranging from threatening to leave Jim Gordon literally EVERY ODD NUMBERED EPISODE, to getting fashion tips from future Poison Ivy and Cat Woman, to passing out when the Ogre shows her his previous victims, to going crazy and killing her parents and trying to kill Jim’s new girlfriend Dr. Tompkins. It got so when Barbara returned from not being missed on the show and hooked up with The Ogre I was rooting for her to be put out of her (and our) misery. The character (?) of Barbara goes beyond “mishandling” and clearly into “What the fuck do we do with this plot contrivance, she’s signed for thirteen episodes!” territory. Average viewer numbers – six to six and a half million a week. Decent for network TV, but doesn’t set the world on fire. Reactions – next to nothing on any of the social networks that I see, that includes hard core Bat Fans and several geek female oriented news feeds I follow.

Why is that? Could it be that “Gotham” doesn’t draw enough attention in pop culture as a whole to talk about such a regressive, pointless and drastic portrayal of a female character?

Of course that’s my opinion of the character of Barbara Kean, some may find her interesting or tragic and you are entitled to that read on her character.

My personal take on Black widow is Natasha has always felt guilt over her days as an assassin. Remember she’s the one who feels that there is no point in even trying to lift Thor’s hammer. Wanda’s mind job shook more of that guilt loose. Though nobody seemed to care about the point that her “graduation” also includes killing a helpless person in cold blood which, all things considered, might inform her guilt as much.

We got to see several sides of Widow in A: AOU. She kicked ass with no superpowers and could calm the Hulk, perhaps because she was the only one who could (can’t see Thor doing it). She shares a connection with Banner; neither feel worthy of the title “Hero” because of their past actions. That’s where I think she considers herself a “monster”, what she did as a killer for hire and what was done to her. I’d argue she’s the most heroic; her character has come the furthest to become a hero than any of ’em.

As far as Black Widow not having a solo movie; Widow has always been the secret weapon of this universe, in my opinion, she’s a stronger glue for holding the team and the movies together. More than even Coulson. But, yeah, there could be a heck of a lot more merchandise for Black Widow out there. I scratch my head as to why there is not.

Other takes on Black Widow and the controversy include Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn on Facebook.

Mark Ruffalo –

“I think it’s sad. Because I know how Joss feels about women, and I know that he’s made it a point to create strong female characters. I think part of the problem is that people are frustrated that they want to see more women, doing more things, in superhero movies, and because we don’t have as many women as we should yet, they’re very, very sensitive to every single storyline that comes up right now. But I think what’s beautiful about what Joss did with Black Widow — I don’t think he makes her any weaker, he just brings this idea of love to a superhero, and I think that’s beautiful.

If anything, Black Widow is much stronger than Banner. She protects him. She does her job, and basically they begin to have a relationship as friends, and I think it’s a misplaced anger. I think that what people might really be upset about is the fact that we need more superhuman women. The guys can do anything, they can have love affairs, they can be weak or strong and nobody raises an eyebrow. But when we do that with a woman, because there are so few storylines for women, we become hyper-critical of every single move that we make because there’s not much else to compare it to.

So I know Joss really well. I know what his values are. And I think it’s sad, because in a lot of ways, there haven’t been as many champions in this universe as Joss is and will continue to be. And I know it hurts him. I know it’s heavy on him. And the guy’s one of the sweetest, best guys, and I know him – as far as any man can be a champion for women, he is that.

Another bit from Mark which I loved; he pointed out that it wasn’t Natasha that was a love interest that needed saving. It was Banner that was the love interest that needed saving.

Blogger “Liz O’Ginger McIrish” (guessing not her real name) had an astute, rational and considerably less wordy than my column take on this whole mess…

Sam Adams of Indiewire came in at an angle I hadn’t even considered

And, as a Facebook friend on a discussion thread pointed out in people poo pooing valid issues of the imbalance of female characters – “Well, sure, and similarly, aggressively denying the feminist critical view as an unwarranted or inappropriate reaction is also a big problem.” Sure and I agree wholeheartedly but go back and read the link on hate tweets on Joss Whedon and try and find anything resembling constructive criticism. Nope, just the twitter equivalent of being a Dodger fan in a heavy drinking section of AT&T park.

Another participant in the thread, Tina Beychok, said, “Speaking as somebody who did get fixed without having children (a for-shite set of DNA I did not want to pass on), I didn’t read it as sterile = monster, but more as forced training to be an assassin including sterilization made her one.”

Multiple takes on the one scene and what it means to them and beyond. Sure, I’ve cherry picked a bit, but there are only so many hours in the day… I think you, kind reader, get what I’m trying to say here.

There is the essence of the situation; there are multiple reads on the scene. Each one has validity (in different degrees) but to aggressively and, in some cases, violently insist that one interpretation is the ONLY one because it supports your particular agenda, world view, reality tunnel, etcetera is, bird poop ice cream notwithstanding, unimaginative at best. Totalitarian at worst.

Because that’s the point; everyone WILL have a different read on an artistic piece. That is kinda the beauty and magic of most art; it connects with you as a person. It may not be comfortable; it may slam on the unique jumble of neuroses, personal experiences, reality tunnels, and societal filters that make up “you” like Mjolnir striking Captain America’s shield. That’s alright but there needs to be more understanding that there are other takes on the same material.

I joke about my column being the writing version of a man in a gorilla suit but I do have a stake in this; at seven my daughter is already a fan of Doctor Who, Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Wars, Superheroes (male and female), and a host of other items in geek (the currently dominant) culture. I want my daughter to grow up with as many choices as humanly possible and with open, understanding, and tolerant eyes and for that the culture has to grow and evolve in all directions.

In closing; that goddamn turtle on its back IS as much about how you interpret it as what the author meant. What you do with that and how you react is up to you.

Other bits connected to this rant.
A better, funnier and literal different take on the “Prima nocta” Thor’s hammer scene that was in the trailer:

I’m confused as to why this wasn’t used or any one of the probably thirty other choices Downey probably gave them. That being said it is in character for Tony to make a joke of that ilk.

I’ll rant and snark on Gotham at length with my “Season’s End – Gotham” coming soon. Till then here is my original defense of the show.

Joss on quitting twitter:

“That is horsesh*t. I have been attacked by militant feminists since I got on Twitter. That’s something I’m used to. Every breed of feminism is attacking every other breed, and every subsection of liberalism is always busy attacking another subsection of liberalism, because god forbid they should all band together and actually fight for the cause.”

“I just thought, ‘Wait a minute, if I’m going to start writing again, I have to go to the quiet place, and this is the least quiet place I’ve ever been in my life. … It’s like taking the bar exam at Coachella. It is like, ‘Um, I really need to concentrate on this! Guys! Can you all just…I have to…It is super important for my law!’”

(ET online, John Boone)

Joss makes a good point. If you want to get justifiably upset about real and serious sexism and threats to women’s rights on all fronts look no further than several G.O.P. candidates running for president…

Mike Huckabee on family values:

We’ve abandoned the building blocks of civilization. Life, marriage and family issues aren’t bargaining chips or political considerations. They are moral issues.
I will never apologize for my faith, my convictions or my values. Period.
Life begins at conception. This isn’t just a Biblical view — it’s affirmed by modern science and every unique human DNA schedule, which is present at conception.

Or even better: Ted Cruz quotes:


House Republicans lose two different democrat co-sponsors for the “Justice for victims of trafficking act” because of anti-abortions tucked into the bill, stalling important legislation in dealing with human trafficking.

Republicans in the House proposed a bill (HR 1179) called “Respect for Rights of Conscience Act of 2011.” The bill, introduced by Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb), allows health care providers and pharmacists to deny birth control to women if it conflicts with their religious or moral convictions.

How ‘bout Rick Santorum on pre-natal care:

“One of the things that you don’t know about ObamaCare in one of the mandates is they require free prenatal testing,” Santorum said on MSNBC. “Why? Because free prenatal testing ends up in more abortions and, therefore, less care that has to be done, because we cull the ranks of the disabled in our society.”

These are a few of many examples of things that might be more worth getting upset about than Black Widow not stopping Ultron all by herself.

Just a suggestion.

UPDATE – As of late Wednesday night another example of the cultural node theory has reared its head. The other extreme side of the cultural-war-with-the-sub-classification: gender battles, has launched an odd, counter-agenda soaked, head scratching volley into the battlefield; A call for the boycott of Mad Max – Fury Road. And this is from guys!?!?!

A self-proclaimed men’s rights advocate blog (and not, as you might think, a Lord of the Rings fan site) “Return of Kings” claims that Fury Road is a bait and switch. Bait: Exploding cars, guitars with flamethrowers, more exploding cars, guns, harpoons, pole vaulting between exploding cars at speeds exceeding recommended safety limits, fire tornados, Charlize Theron with a frickin robot arm, and possibly some exploding cars.

Switch: a feminist agenda.

Now this claim comes from Arron Clarey, who admits that he hasn’t actually seen the movie (which, ya know, kinda immediately undercuts his position). Nor have I (that changes tonight). He gleaned a feminist agenda from this…

Personally, watching this trailer makes my testosterone spike to the point that I want to go to the zoo and wrestle a tiger while eating hot wings and chugging a keg of Guinness.

But that’s just me… and just about every other guy out there that is looking forward to this movie because it looks like insane-o-ass balls to the wall action.

Apparently Arron is upset that Max helps Charlize’s character rescue a group of sex slaves from a demented warlord instead of doing it all by himself. As a real man would.

I’m sure that the buzz about this movie and the projected fifty million or more weekend opening provided a great node point for Arron and his put upon “He-Man woman hater’s club” to push their particular extreme agenda. And I call it an extreme agenda because it makes no sense that you can have a Y chromosome and be angry at this movie.

I’m not hating on men wanting to be understood. Spoiler: I am one. There are sins committed on both sides of the gender issue against the opposite team. Too many to list here and somewhat pointless in fact. I’ve witnessed and experienced both. But folks, hunkering down into an “Us” vs “Them” mentality does nobody any good. Especially when guys don’t want to see multiple exploding cars.

In truth I expected an outcry from the militant feminist side of the coin because, you know, female characters being victimized in a movie. That faction has been curiously quiet. Maybe because director George Miller opted for some verisimilitude by having Vagina Monologues creator and notoriously female writer Eve Ensler as a consultant. Maybe because of Charlize Theron’s robot arm. I don’t know; I am neither an extremist nor have a vagina.

I’m only a moderate who is pro-vagina, pro-verisimilitude.

Might I make a suggestion? Let’s get all the extreme factions on both sides of the coin and take away their computers. Then throw them on an isolated island with a bunch of weapons, Mai Tais/vodka shots, and an unlimited supply of birth control and let ‘em hash it out amongst each other. That way the rest of us can enjoy our movies without the self-serving politics creating more noise than signal.


My esteemed colleague, Sean Mulvihill, saw the movie on Wednesday night. I asked for a one word description from him. His reply – Badass. And unlike me, Sean has taste.

I believe he is also pro-vagina, pro-verisimilitude.

One last time; EXPLODING CARS!

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