Tony Stark tries to lift Thor's hammer in Avengers: Age of Ultron

Let’s talk about Age of Ultron‘s rape joke

Avengers: Age of Ultron opens today in the US; it’s already been released in a number of other countries. The movie’s posed to smash a ton of box office records – it’s going to be seen by an absurd number of people, more than your typical Big Pop Culture Thing. So as feminists we should probably talk about the movie’s rape joke.

The throwaway joke comes during a party early on in the movie when members of the Avengers try to lift Thor’s hammer (a longstanding theme in the comics). The scene’s obviously all about proving “manliness” – it’s not exactly subtle.

Captain Hammer from Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog: The Hammer is my penis.

Subtext, as explained by Captain Hammer in Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog.

A version of this scene was released back in October in which Tony Stark says that, if he successfully lifts Thor’s hammer and therefore becomes the rightful ruler of Asgard, “I will be fair but firmly cruel.” Last week, a clip of the scene as it appears in the final movie was released. In this version, when Tony tries to lift the hammer he instead says that if he gains control of Asgard, “I will be reinstituting Prima Nocta.” Prima Nocta being the ancient (and possibly mostly mythical) right of noblemen to take the virginity of a peasant woman before she was married.

The scene in question has already stirred up some controversy when it was released as a clip. It’s mostly been included as an additional point in articles about an interview in which Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans joked that Black Widow was a “slut” and a “whore.” This interview was bad, but it went viral specifically because it was offensive. So it’s being seen in the context of being critiqued, or in discussion of Evans’ apology and Renner’s non-apology. I think the Prima Nocta joke deserves consideration as its own issue, particularly because it will be seen by many more people than the interview, and without the critical context.

Here at Feministing writers have pointed out a number of times that humor actually can be used well to target rape culture. We’ve highlighted rape jokes by comedians like Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, Adrienne Truscott, and Jamie Kilstein that punch up at things like victim blaming instead of setting up survivors as the target of the joke. I also understand that tragedy plus time equals comedy, as David Mitchell explains in this video about how the term “rape and pillage” can be thrown around without people thinking about actual raping and pillaging (your results may vary).

Prima Nocta is historically dated, and may not have been much of a real official thing. And the joke does come during a scene poking fun at the fragile masculinity of superheroes. But it’s also Tony Stark, a modern day nobleman, joking about having a right to rape less economically privileged women. And we live in a world in which real rich men, like Dominique Strauss-Kahn, think and act like just such a right is in place (and far too often get away with it). “Prima Nocta” may be a funny sounding Latin term, but men with excessive amounts of privilege thinking they have a right to the bodies of marginalized women is all too real.

My big question with this joke is: why? Age of Ultron is a very funny movie full of great lines, and this isn’t one of them. When I saw it last night (because big movies released on Friday actually come out on Thursday evening sometimes. Hollywood logic!) the audience was laughing a ton, including during this same scene when Bruce Banner tries to lift the hammer and pretends to Hulk out. Cause that’s funny, in a fun, self-deprecating way. There was little or no laughter for the Prima Nocta line. You could argue this is because it went over the audience’s heads, but since they whole theater cracked up at a T.S. Eliot reference I don’t think that’s the case.

Poster that reads: KEEP CALM AND KNEEL, YOU MEWLING QUIMAge of Ultron‘s writer/director Joss Whedon, a self-identified feminist whose work I love, and who’s done a great job targeting sexism before, seems to have a thing for old timey misogynist language. When Loki called Black Widow a “mewling quim” in the first Avengers movie, I understood why: the line is delivered by an established villain who’s supposed to be bad and wrong about things, and is part of a scene where Loki thinks he’s crushing Black Widow with his sharp whit, when she’s actually got the upper hand in an interrogation he hardly realizes is happening. Who delivers the line and the instant reversal of the scene gives it context that made sense to me. But I started thinking about the ethics of including a line like this in a major blockbuster when I saw the line explode into a meme, spreading all over the internet (as in the image at right) and becoming a popular thing to say. Basically, Joss Whedon reintroduced an outdated way to call a woman a cunt into regular use.

Which brings up another issue with the Prima Nocta joke. Because even if audiences miss the line’s point at first, they’ll look it up, as they did with “mewling quim.” My only hope that we won’t see prima nocta memes everywhere is that, while Loki’s line in the first movie was shocking and attention grabbing, Tony Stark’s is a throwaway joke that isn’t funny. I’m certainly glad I didn’t see the movie with a kid, though. While I think these are important topics for caregivers to discuss with children, “What’s Prima Nocta?” is not a conversation I personally want to have when I’m leaving the theater after a movie about robots and people in spandex punching each other.

Readers who’ve seen Age of Ultron or the clip in question, or who just have thoughts about rape jokes, what’s your take? Is it just a nothing moment most people will miss anyway, or an example of dangerous sexism and the perpetuation of rape culture by the self-identified feminist director of what will almost certainly be one of the most successful movies ever?

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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