Is Joss Whedon a feminist?

Story highlights

  • Jeff Yang: Let's not read too much into Joss Whedon's quitting Twitter because of allegedly feminist critiques
  • Given Whedon's record in creating strong female heroes, why doubt his stance based on the latest Avengers movie?

Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal Online and contributes frequently to radio shows, including PRI's "The Takeaway" and WNYC's "The Brian Lehrer Show." He is the co-author of "I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action" and editor of the graphic novel anthologies "Secret Identities" and "Shattered." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)It's almost cliché to call Joss Whedon a polarizing figure, because you don't get to be an auteur of billion-dollar blockbuster epics without breaking eggs, and occasionally hearts.

He's one of those rare creators with a fan base so cultishly devoted that they'll follow him from platform to platform and genre to genre without pause, embracing projects simply because his name's above the title (yes, he did direct a film adaptation of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" -- why do you ask?).
Jeff Yang
Yet he also has more than his share of detractors, who call his writing heavy on snark and short on substance, his plotlines thick with tropes recycled from project to project, his directing clumsy and uninspired. Yet generally, even those who question his talent acknowledge that he's been responsible for some of pop culture's most memorable and empowering female characters — Buffy Summers and Willow Rosenberg of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," River Tam of "Firefly," Melinda May of ABC's "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." And yes, Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, the one-woman black-ops brigade of Whedon's star-studded superhero super-hit "The Avengers."
    Since last week's release of that film's sequel, however, "The Avengers: Age of Ultron," Whedon's reservoir of feminist goodwill seems to have evaporated as if struck by a white-hot meteorite. The reason, as aptly articulated by the likes of Sara Stewart in IndieWire, is that in "Age of Ultron," the butt-kicking Black Widow is a shadow of what she was in the original film.
    She's a subordinate presence, there to retrieve Captain America's shield and serve as Hulk Whisperer to stem the Angry Green Giant's rage with a caress and a lullaby. She's a romantic foil for the Hulk's alter ego, Dr. Bruce Banner (which, given her previous onscreen pairings with teammates Hawkeye and Captain America, prompted actors Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans to make disgustingly misogynist remarks at Black Widow's expense during "Ultron"'s press junket). She's a lady in distress, captured and caged by the titular killer android, and saved from certain death by her gamma-irradiated champion.
    Most troubling of all is the scene in which she reveals a hitherto-unknown secret of her character: As part of her adolescent "processing" as a candidate for Russia's covert assassin corps, she was sterilized, to prevent her -- a death-dealer -- from ever bringing life into the world. "You're not the only monster on the team," she tells Banner, with the implication that a woman unable to give birth is somehow as grotesque as a man whose unstable temper turns him into a mindless, unstoppable force for destruction.
    Alongside lucidly disappointed voices like Stewart's were more vitriolic ones raised on social media, calling him sexist, misogynist and worse. The volume of condemnation may have proved overwhelming: On May 4, Whedon quietly bid farewell to his 1.14 million followers and deleted his Twitter account, prompting some to suggest that it was "feminist backlash" that led him to flee the platform. (Whedon has denied this vociferously, saying instead that he needed to step back from an activity that had become like "another job" so he could focus on his actual writing.)
    Whatever the truth behind Whedon's decision to sign off of social media, the still-raging debate does highlight serious questions around the endemic sexism of the superhero canon, which is now an immensely lucrative and increasingly influential pillar of popular culture.
    The treatment of Black Widow in "Age of Ultron" was cringeworthy. But it's just a tree in a forest of anti-feminism. Female superheroes still get short shrift in the world of TV and cinema -- long after Superman and Batman have been remade multiple times, a Wonder Woman movie is just now getting off the ground and targeted at 2017. Marvel won't launch a film centered on a female hero until 2018, when "Captain Marvel" finally takes flight. A leaked email from Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter suggested a reason why: The history of female superhero movies has been financially disastrous.
    Now, to be fair, there is absolutely no reason to believe that these films failed because they focused on female masked marvels; that itself is a sexist assumption, and one easily contradicted by available evidence.
    After all, there are any number of films that prove a woman hero in a quality vehicle can deliver at the box office, from last year's $460 million-earning "Lucy" (starring Scarlett Johansson, out of her Black Widow catsuit), to 2010's $300 million-scoring Angelina Jolie vehicle "Salt," to all three "Hunger Games" movies.
    As with many things, we tend to get the movies we deserve. If we want to see a woman superhero take flight, fans have to demand it -- and support it with the only votes Hollywood cares about, our ticket-buying dollars.