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Avengers actor doubles down on slut-shaming Black Widow, and it's not just a joke

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Avengers star Jeremy Renner appeared on Conan last night to discuss his recent "off-color" comments made about Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson in Marvel's wildly successful films.

The joke? That Black Widow is a slut for sleeping around with different members of the Avengers.

"I got in a lot of internet trouble," Renner said. "I guess that's a thing now you can get in."

Renner, who admits to being "unapologetic about a lot of things," went on to echo his recent comments about the character being a fictional one. Fictional, and therefore not to be taken seriously.

As a cultural icon, along with Hawkeye, Captain America and Iron Man, Black Widow already faces an uphill battle. Despite her appearance in four of the current Marvel Cinematic Universe films (as opposed to Hawkeye's three), we won't be getting a spinoff Black Widow movie anytime soonBlack Widow merchandise is hard to come by, even for the stars of the film. Despite Scarlett Johansson's kickass portrayal of one of Marvel's coolest on-screen women, Black Widow is shuffled to the femme fatale sidelines.

Renner's attitude toward the whole kerfuffle isn't just disappointing. It's damaging to the culture surrounding not only the Marvel fandom, but one of today's biggest pop-culture successes.

When our heroes disappoint

Renner's initial comments, made along with co-star Chris Evans, could be seen as a noted but relatable faux pas. It comes across as a spur-of-the-moment joke made in poor taste. Beneath their banter and smiles, both actors seemed fatigued by the Avengers: Age of Ultron press tour — and who could blame them? Press tours are full of repeated questions, some of which are highly personal or ridiculous in nature. The question itself is on the silly side; neither actor has any say in whom Black Widow dates, or who dates Black Widow. Neither actor is aiming the comment at their co-star Johansson.

But while Evans owned up to his comment as being juvenile and offensive, Renner thumbed his nose at this so-called internet rage. On Conan, he took those comments one step further.

"If you slept with four of the six Avengers, no matter how much fun you had, you'd be a slut," Renner joked. "Just saying. I'd be a slut."

Contrast this with a character like Tony Stark

Wading past the overwhelmingly sex-negative attitude Renner is displaying here, it's important to note that on-screen, Black Widow has hardly shown herself to be anything but focused on the job at hand and rarely interested in romance.

She's often defaulted in our minds to a potential love interest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe by virtue of being one of the few major woman characters around. On-screen, we've seen her smooch Captain America (in the name of providing cover) and most recently, flirt with Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner. But that relationship in Age of Ultron is one of longing, and is surprisingly chaste for a movie of this kind. Black Widow may use her perceived "weakness" as a woman to get stuff done in the first Avengers movie, but so far, canonically, she hasn't slept with anyone.

Contrast this with a character like Tony Stark — the beloved "genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist" of the group — who was introduced to us in the very first Iron Man as a man who seduces a young journalist with his wit and a flash of his pearly whites. His conquests are shown on screen multiple times, and he describes himself as someone who sleeps around. It's part of his "charm."

Even extending out of the immediate Avengers family, we have another beloved character in the Marvel universe to observe: last summer's breakout hero, Star-Lord, played by Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy. Star-Lord is meant to be endeared to us through his roguish behavior — demonstrated by his ability to bed women and then forget about them, and his own racy joke that, when broken down, implies that he sleeps around so much that walls of his ship are covered with semen. Saying someone is wrong to enjoy sex is a crappy attitude in general, but if you're going to use the word, then let's just admit that the men of Marvel are canonical "sluts."

But while Stark's and Star-Lord's promiscuous behavior is overlooked — even celebrated — and used as a way to demonstrate character growth, Black Widow's perceived romances with Hawkeye and Captain America (and even Tony Stark, if you count him eagerly ogling her upon her first Iron Man appearance) are used to slam her character. To be a "slut" these days, by Renner's reasoning, all you need is a close relationship with men; and when the team itself is composed entirely of Black Widow plus burly dudes, that definition becomes a trap. Black Widow is punished for her friendships and their intimacy, real or perceived. Meanwhile, Star-Lord and Stark enjoy casual sex openly, and nobody bats an eye.

The Avengers currently have the attention of eyes around the world

Renner is quick to dismiss these insults simply based on the subject in question and the internet rage machine. But it matters. This is just one more piece of evidence that women in films have to play by very different rules.

Scarlett Johansson may bring Black Widow to life on-screen, yet she remains forever a fictional character. No one is disputing that. But to deny the cultural significance of the Avengers is irresponsible. Avengers: Age of Ultron alone has already pulled in more than $631 million internationally. This is a multibillion-dollar movie franchise, not an indie flick that will surface only in small theaters around the U.S.

The Avengers, and by association, Renner, currently have the attention of eyes around the world. When Hawkeye gets on TV and says it's OK to make slut jokes — even about fictional characters — he's continuing to cultivate a culture that hurts everyone. Men are allowed to enjoy sex in movies, and it makes their character richer. Women, meanwhile, are punished for even the idea that they might enjoy the same freedom.

This isn't the rage machine at work. This is very real frustration at a vicious double standard.

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