The Avengers: Age of Persistent Patriarchy

Ah, superhero culture…

It appears we’re still stuck in the elaborate trappings of patriarchal codes. This article, however, steers our popular culture discourse in a positive direction. The norm is to perch ourselves above these pitiful individuals who transgress the hegemonic communication protocol known as political correctness and to adopt a rigid holier-than-thou, finger-wagging posture that does all of us a disservice. By pitting us against individuals and dwelling on their personal failures, we ignore the poisoned system that’s predisposing us to such failures.

In this case, it would be customary to rip into Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans for their casual characterization of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow as a slut and a whore. It’s easier for us to get all up in arms about their offensive behavior and to make it seem exclusive to their character. This exonerates our potential complicity in a more systemic problem. With them as scapegoats, we have the chance to feel good about ourselves. We excuse our culture’s widespread participation in and perpetuation of a fundamentally imbalanced gendered social world. Not only do we liberate our culture, more importantly, we free ourselves. If we don’t feel responsible for the culture that generates the easy “humor” unwittingly channeled by Renner and Evans, not consciously created by them, then we don’t have to do the hard work of looking more closely at that culture. We avoid the confrontation with the very heavy reality that we are swimming in unmistakably sexist water; there is an obvious, albeit willfully veiled, patriarchal foundation that persists through our present social order.

Man remains central and normal and powerful; woman is at and, biblically speaking, of his side, only significant in marginal relation to man.

Superhero culture (as we conceive it now) exists within the gross petri dish of American culture, and so it’s subject to the same deformity and disease, the same adaptation and evolution. Within that dish is a mythology that grants men higher status and power. It’s easy to forget that cultures construct their own mythologies to serve the powerful at the expense of the weak, who only become weak because the powerful categorize them as such, using physical and eventually psychological means to secure this mythological structure. Of course, there’s something misleading and conveniently nebulous in this description. To say that “cultures” construct this social order…what the hell does that mean?

I wish I had an answer. I’m almost certain (aka I hope) that it’s not some nefarious group of human beings in a dark room somewhere running the whole show with sadistic glee. Let’s suppose instead that it’s simply an idea that takes reified hold and continues in some weird mimetic fashion. There was never a real “Big Brother,” right? It was the internalized idea that he might be real that was sufficient to build and protect an enduring social hierarchy.

What we can be certain of is that Renner and Evans are not the creators. Regardless of the origin story, they do serve as carriers. We all do, in fact. This means we stand to be part of the solution, not the source of the problem. So is it possible that we might create and carry forward a new cultural legacy? A new mythology? Is there any mythology that can persist without privileged roles? Is there a fair, just way to accord privilege to individuals and groups? Privilege that isn’t grounded in socially constructed categories that operate on extensive exclusivity? On an even more abstract level, is a just society possible?

Even if we can’t conceive of the ideal, or answer the question absolutely, we can agree that our current society is far from just. In starting the conversation there, in reckoning with our flawed foundations and oppressive systems, in not pointing the finger at individuals for their personal -isms and instead accepting collective blame for our societal flaws, we have the chance to build a civilization worthy of the name. One where we don’t need superheroes to swoop in and absolve us of existential responsibility.

Perhaps it’s time that we avenge our own wrongdoings instead of outsourcing this pivotal project.

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