On the one hand, it’s your classic teapot tempest. In brief:
When an interviewer asked about potential relationships for Black Widow with both Hawkeye and Captain America, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” actors Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans decided it would be a good idea to respond by calling her a “slut,” “trick” and “complete whore,” and noting dismissively that she had a prosthetic leg. “HO HO HO HO HO HO,” Evans laughs, in a gratingly excessive bout of laughter generally heard emanating from the men’s golf locker of a country club. “HUHAH! Hahaha! HOhaHA!”
The Internet, as is its wont, got ticked off about this. Soon both stars issued apologies, and these, too, were meat for the gristmill, to mix a metaphor. “Yesterday we were asked about the rumors that Black Widow wanted to be in a relationship with both Hawkeye and Captain America. We answered in a very juvenile and offensive way that rightfully angered some fans. I regret it and sincerely apologize,” Evans said in a statement to Entertainment Weekly.
Renner also emitted a statement to EW: “I am sorry that this tasteless joke about a fictional character offended anyone. It was not meant to be serious in any way. Just poking fun during an exhausting and tedious press tour.”
“Goofus and Gallant,” Tweeters suggested, glancing from Renner’s response to Evans’ own.
“Bold choice for Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner to publicly apologize in-character,” quipped Daniel Kibblesmith.
And so Jeremy Renner trended, angrily, on Twitter, for an afternoon.
So, what do we take from this?
On the one hand, PERPETUAL CAPITALIZED OUTRAGE ABOUT EVERYTHING is one of the top three reasons we can’t have nice things (the other two both have to do with the continued existence of Donald Trump). On the other hand, just because it is frustrating to be outraged all of the time does not mean that a particular moment of High Dudgeon is necessarily incorrect.
“Cut them some slack. They are only movie stars, not role models” is a generally good rule when you have asked a person known for Exceptional Bone Structure and Great Acting about some sort of hot-button issue. (“Are you a feminist, Shailene Woodley?”) Why is it so urgent that people skilled in acting also be Tremendous, Wise, Compassionate Humans for us to look up to? Secondhand actor fashions can be delightful; secondhand actor opinions can be pretty dubious. We’ve been through this before.
And yet. The fact is that people do look up to them, and the ways they talk and joke and the things at which they uproariously laugh are not, unfortunately, matters of total indifference.
This isn’t a hot-button issue or anything that resembles a gotcha. This is just a question of how you talk, what jokes you make, what makes you laugh.
On the one hand, it’s a joke. On the one hand, lighten up. On the one hand, don’t be such a feminist kill-joy all the time.
On the other hand, no. On the other hand, rude. On the other hand, this is the line. What we let Cute Guys get away with is always a test of the leading edge of what’s acceptable. You know that something really isn’t cool when the room still falls silent, even in the face of Captain America.
What slack we give the people we want to like us. If I lined up all the dumb, hurtful jokes I’d laughed at because I wanted to stay in The Guys’ good graces, I could probably assemble a high-ranked Reddit post. It can be hard not to laugh along when you’re in the room. It can be hard not to want to give them a break, be the Cool Girl who laughs and not the uptight [gendered noun] who pulls a face.
You want to be laughed with, not at. It’s okay. They were joking. They’re good guys. Why do you hate fun? We’ve been over this.
But there’s another more important question that Renner’s apology highlighted: Why get upset about something as trivial as remarks about a fictional character? Put it like that, and anyone who took offense sounds like a moron, arguing in the comments section about whether Batman could take down Tony Stark. It’s just fiction! Don’t get excited!
But there’s nothing less frivolous than fiction. You’d think the star of the mind-blowingly successful Avengers franchise might have realized that. (This is where I could say something dismissive along the lines of “Maybe Renner didn’t realize what incredible levels of adulation the Avengers had received because he played Hawkeye, the Avengers equivalent of the human appendix,” but I actually like Hawkeye, the character. It is on the strength of the goodwill that Hawkeye’s writers have amassed over comic books and on screen that I have even the slightest interest in what the actor who portrays him has to say about anything.)
Fiction matters. You don’t have the luxury of getting to know most people. But fictional characters you can learn inside and out. You see them in situations most people never get to face; you watch them grow and change; you get glimpses of their interiors that most people, even the people you’re closest to, never afford you. You internalize them and make them a part of yourself. They, and their stories, accompany you wherever you go. What you say about them matters, what jokes you make matters. Archie doesn’t get called names for fluctuating between relationships with Betty and Veronica. What would you say about Black Widow that you wouldn’t say about Captain America? You’re not talking about Black Widow doing something only fictional people do — elaborately choreographed fight sequences mid-air between buildings against aliens, say. But love triangles aren’t the exclusive province of comic book characters. These things happen in the wild. The way we talk about fictional people is the way we talk about real ones, unless we’re saying something like “Then he crushed the building with his magical hammer.”
This is the part I think Renner definitely got wrong — the way his apology dismissed the idea that you could have real feelings about fictional characters. South Park said this incredibly well in its Imaginationland episode. “It’s all real,” Kyle says. “Think about it. Haven’t Luke Skywalker and Santa Claus affected your lives more than most real people in this room?… And the same could be said of Bugs Bunny and Superman and Harry Potter. They’ve changed my life, changed the way I act on the Earth. Doesn’t that make them kind of ‘real.’ They might be imaginary, but they’re more important than most of us here. And they’re all gonna be around long after we’re dead. So in a way, those things are more realer than any of us.”
I think “South Park” is quite right about this. Fictional characters Captain America and Hawkeye are certainly more real than Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner, as far as these things go. If it weren’t for their fictional characters, we’d have no idea who either of them was. What jokes they made or laughed at wouldn’t count for anything at all.