There is a strange moment during the climactic battle in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the latest Marvel movie to make a stab at saving the summer box office, if not the universe, which opened this weekend. Drax (Dave Bautista), an overly literal alien with a highly developed sense of honor, is explaining to his new friends (who include a half-human man, a sentient tree with a limited vocabulary and a talking raccoon) that he feels privileged to be fighting with them. His compliments have a way of sounding more like insults.
And this is particularly true when he calls Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the one female member of the oddball crew brought together by circumstances, a “green whore.”
Many things are possible in the Marvel movie universe: Billionaires build flying suits and invest in renewable energy, World War II heroes wake up after decades in deep-freeze and manage to hold onto the values of a previous era, and aliens invade New York. But as much as the fantastical in these movies distracts us from the mundane, it apparently does not change everything.
Over and over, Marvel reminds us that no matter how powerful a woman gets or how far she travels, she cannot escape the slings of sexism. And she has no choice but to respond much in the same way as the rest of us.
Like everyone else in the group that will eventually become known as “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Gamora has an idiosyncratic route to heroism.
She is the adopted daughter of the extremely powerful alien Thanos (Josh Brolin), a status that mostly meant Thanos tortured her, trained her for war and shipped her off on murderous assignments. Her decision to try to get out from under his influence entails great risk, but for the victims of Thanos’s conquests, Gamora’s courage does not absolve her of her past crimes. When she is incarcerated in a space-based jail, other prisoners who lost family to Thanos’s depredations call her a whore. No matter how far away the galaxy is, it still seems that the worst thing you can say to a woman is to insult her chastity.
It does not matter that Gamora seems rather restrained in matters of sexuality — she is suspicious when she believes that fellow Guardian Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is trying to bewitch her with his “pelvic sorcery.” It does not matter that Peter himself brags of his conquests and that no one would think to call him a slut for it, no matter how much his spaceship might need a vigorous scrub to rid it of body fluids.
The one thing that is different about the world that Gamora operates in is that when Drax insults her out of ignorance, it does not appear to affect anyone else’s perception of her.
The other Guardians are taken aback by the slur that he has lobbed at her. Drax’s enraged response to Gamora’s sister, who insults Gamora shortly thereafter, shows how little he understood what he has said. The sexist remark reinforces our sense that Drax is out of step, not Gamora. And Drax’s accidental insult does not stop her from raising holy hell in the conflict that follows. When Peter gets into desperate trouble, Gamora is the first one he turns to.
Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), the human intelligence operative who works back on earth with the other members of another superhero team, the Avengers, is subject to more persistent sexism than Gamora. She turns that constant onslaught into an ongoing strength.
Sometimes, Black Widow is just underestimated, whether by thugs who see her prettiness as fragility and a means to threaten her, or by an arrogant intelligence chief who sees her as an attractive pawn. In “The Avengers,” she delivers a savage beating to the former group when they take her prisoner. In “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” she sacrifices herself to foil the plans of an arrogant bureaucrat who wants to preemptively kill anyone who might pose a threat to the United States.
And when the sexism Black Widow faces is even more explicit, she reaps even greater rewards. In “The Avengers,” Loki (Tom Hiddleston), an Asgardian god with an inferiority complex, rants at Black Widow while he is in captivity, reaching back into linguistic history to call her a “mewling quim.”
Once again, the insult proves to be Loki’s problem, not Black Widow’s. In the course of working up to what he thought was a devastating rhetorical blow, Loki made a classic supervillain mistake. He launched into a monologue that gave Black Widow enough clues to figure out what his secret evil plan was, and ultimately, to defeat him.
Sexism may still exist in Marvel’s fictional universe, but it is a defunct idea. The men who give in to it are mesmerized by its sparkle, its potential to give them power over women. But again and again, it proves to be their downfall. A female scientist who is stereotyped as emotional ends up discovering another world. A superhero’s kidnapped girlfriend gets thrown into a suit of armor for her own protection and ends up playing a decisive role in a final battle, a hostage turned heroine.
It is a modest dream, the idea that sexism might boomerang back on the people who try to exploit it to make women feel bad and weak. In our world, though, the ability to do that would genuinely feel like a superpower.