I Was Spectacularly Wrong About Jeremy Renner Slut-Shaming Black Widow

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Mea culpa time.

A couple of weeks ago, Avengers stars Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans were the topic of that day’s social media outrage. Renner had jokingly called Black Widow, a character played by Scarlett Johansson, a “slut”, in response to a reporter asking about Black Widow hooking up with the Hulk when fans had previously ‘shipped her with Renner’s Hawkeye and Evans’ Captain America. Chris Evans laughed and replied that she was “a complete whore.”

I publicly rolled my eyes at the social media outrage on Twitter, and asked everyone to stop playing to ugly and untrue stereotypes about feminists being humorless.

In my own defense, if you watch the interview, it seems, in context, that the joke is ironic. Natalia Romanova, alias Black Widow, has not actually slept with any of these characters, and the question was about fan fantasies. Evans and Renner seemed to be laughing at the absurdity of the question. It read, to me, like laughingly calling Scarlett Johansson “ugly” — the point of the joke is that it’s ridiculous that anyone would think such a thing. To me, it seemed they were laughing because it’s silly, in 2015, to call anyone a “slut.” I even had a little hope that the word is becoming as outdated as calling someone a “trollop” or being offended that they showed some ankle.

Well, I still hold out hope that was why Chris Evans was laughing, but unfortunately Jeremy Renner has revealed that no, he really does think that “slut” is a word that still has salience in 2015. Renner went on Conan and said, “Mind you, we are talking about a fictional character and fictional behavior, Conan, but if you slept with four of the six Avengers, no matter how much fun you had, you’d be a slut. Just saying. I’d be a slut. Just saying.”

Now, Renner is trying to be silly here, so perhaps his biggest victim is himself, in demonstrating that his sense of humor is decidedly pedestrian. Should Black Widow bag four out of six Avengers, the world that comes to mind is not “slut,” but hero. Perhaps superhero. Just getting Steve Rogers alone should at least get you a gold medal.

Or perhaps not. Romanova is a character that exists in a world that seems, after all, to have gender ratios that are quite unlike the real world. We live in a world with a roughly 1-1 male-female ratio, but the Marvel cinematic universe seems to produce 5 men for every woman. Maybe all the Avengers are taking a crack at Black Widow in our hypothetical scenario not because she’s a slut so much as because their options, dating-wise, are limited to her and a few periphery S.H.I.E.L.D. agents typing something in the background.

Not to get too think-piece-y here, but I can’t help but be dazzled by the bizarre combination of cowardice and courage in Renner’s Conan comments. On one hand, he did that cowardly move, where you defend calling a woman a “slut” by saying you’d totally say the same thing about a man in her situation. No you wouldn’t, or you would have done it already. Calling men “sluts” isn’t a thing. The only time it ever comes up is when someone wants to rationalize labeling women with that word. Stop pretending otherwise.

On the other hand, Renner did, at least, commit to a number, in this case four. That takes ovaries, sir. Most fans of the word “slut”, when you ask them how many partners a woman gets to have before drifting into the S-word danger zone, refuse to answer. It’s understandable why: They selfishly want to keep their own options open while reserving the right to judge others—always women, mind you—for the same behavior.

But Renner bucked this tradition and settled on a number, which is four. Which is, depending on who you ask, is the average or half the average number of sex partners over a lifetime of the average American woman. Of course, the reality is that four almost surely falls well below the average, because the power of the word “slut” is such that women lie and downplay their actual histories, even to strangers doing sexual health research. So setting the slut bar at four seems awfully low, but hey, maybe that’s a good thing! If we’re all sluts, then none of us are, and we can finally start moving past that stupid, sex-negative word.

Of course, Renner did caveat it by saying four Avengers. Which is a technically impossible feat for any real world woman, unless you count those who have a fetish for trawling cosplayers at sci-fi conventions. In which case, the word is so narrow as to have no meaning at all.

Either way, can we just stop debating whether anyone is a “slut”? It’s clearly a word that exists to defy hard definitions. That’s the beauty, for sexists, of the word “slut.” Believers in the concept of “slut” want it to be an all-purpose word for shaming and controlling women. They want the term to be vague and malleable, so that any woman, at any time, can be called “slut” and she has no grounds to defend herself. Since the point of the word is to be unfair to women, it’s long time we put that word to rest.

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