Jeremy Renner Will Not Stop Slut-Shaming Black Widow

The word “slut” has already been reclaimed, repurposed, turned inside out, and analyzed ad nauseam since the ’90s. In the past few decades we’ve encountered Kathleen Hanna’s stomach “slut” scrawl, were Slutwalks, The Unslut Project, Slut! The Play, as well an entirely new term for an old concept: “slut-shaming,” a phrase that has become increasingly common shorthand for something that shouldn’t be done but is done so often that it leads to bullying and worse. Even Monica Lewinsky is fighting back against slut-shaming, while discussions about race, gender identity, and slut-shaming flourish on the Internet.

And then there’s Marvel superhero slut-shaming.

Yes, I’m sure I’m not the only person today who wishes we didn’t have to think, talk, or write about Jeremy Renner’s evidently unrepentant use of the word “slut” to describe Marvel character Black Widow (played onscreen by Scarlett Johansson) because of her romantic attachment to multiple male characters in the comic book universe. To Renner, the word is definitional and mathematic: “Mind you, I was talking about a fictional character and fictional behavior. But, Conan, if you slept with four of the six Avengers, no matter how much fun you had, you’d be a slut… I’d be a slut.”

Everyone say it with me, now: no, neither of you would be sluts, because you’re dudes. The word “slut” is gendered — incredibly gendered. Action franchise characters like Tony Stark and Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy are portrayed as players, girls tumbling out of their beds the accessories that give them a roguish charm. And that’s only in the Marvel universe. Now, I enjoy this trope as much as the next fangirl, but it’s not fair to refuse to apply the standards equally. And it’s certainly unfair to completely rob the entire notion of agency, context, and fairness from a woman’s sexuality, which is what Renner is doing to this fictional character.

All this flurry comes as Johansson’s sultry, dangerous Black Widow character has come under a flurry of feminist scrutiny, ranging from an embarrassing leak from the Sony emails that show Marvel’s cluelessness on gender to a spot-on SNL parody. Yet the questions critics are asking sound eerily familiar: Is her portrayal too feminine? Not feminine enough? Should she even have a love interest? And, of course, why is it wrong to call her a slut? The reality is, marketing “constraints” and popular stereotypes alike strangle the portrayal of powerful women, just as concepts of “slut” and “prude” strangle all of us.

Leora Tannenbaum, author of multiple books on slut-shaming explains how women are caught between a rock and a hard place — or should we say, an invisible place and a slutty place:

I have been tracking slut-shaming for two decades. Repeatedly, girls and young women across North America tell me that they are encouraged, even expected, to present themselves as sexually knowing and sophisticated, both online and offline. Being “hot” or sexy is part of the recipe of heterosexual femininity. But with one false step, it’s easy to cross the invisible and ever-shifting boundary between “sexy” and “slutty.” …

In other words, if you are a heterosexual girl or young woman, you are damned if you don’t and damned if you do. If you refrain from any expression of sexiness, you may be written off as irrelevant and unfeminine. But if you follow the guidelines, you run the risk of being judged, shamed and policed.

Jeremy Renner was likely fuming about his inability to make an off-color joke among friends. I get it, I really do. But here’s the thing: Until we start casually calling male superheroes sluts and whores, there will be an aspect of this kind of repartee that just isn’t that funny.