Speakers in Art
Avengers 2 has a rape joke. There is a scene where all the Avengers are trying and failing to lift Thor’s hammer. Iron Man/Tony Stark cracks a joke that if he lifts Thor’s Hammer, he is going to bring back the Prima Nocta. The Prima Nocta was allegedly the right of Feudal Lords to deflower any women domiciled in his domain before her wedding night. There is no evidence that this was actually a thing in Europe. Prima Nocta did play a large role in fiction though. The Marriage of Figaro’s plot revolves around trying to thwart a Count’s attempts at claiming the right to deflower a woman. The Internet was not pleased with the Prima Nocta Joke.
How a person takes the joke seems to turn on who a person thinks is telling the joke? Is Joss Whedon telling the joke? Is Tony Stark telling the joke? Is Iron Man telling the joke?
Joss Whedon wrote and directed the Avengers and Avengers 2 (but is bowing out because of fights with Marvel seemingly) and he is known for his strong stance on feminist and women’s issues. He earned lots of love when a fan asked him “Why do you write these strong female characters?” and his response was “Because you’re still asking that question.” If a person thinks that the Prima Nocta joke comes from the mouth and mind of Joss Whedon, it can seem like a being stabbed in the back by a long-time friend and ally. Joss Whedon just revealed that he is no better than any other brodude who loves total frat moves.
The joke makes much more sense if you imagine that it comes from Tony Stark/Iron Man. Tony Stark is a good guy who wants to save the world. He is also a billionaire playboy with daddy issues and can be kind of a bragging dick. He is absolutely charming but he is still a bit of a sleaze. The Prima Nocta joke makes perfect sense when the speaker is a billionaire playboy who feels entitled and doesn’t understand humility but is kind of aware that he is a billionaire playboy who feels entitled and doesn’t understand humility. The issue here is that we have seen Tony Stark make improvements since the first Iron Man movie so this feels like a slide back into old form like seeing a friend who has been sober for decades go on a bender during a time of high stress. But this is something that people do all the time because we are flawed and commit many errors. Augustine famously prayed for God to give him chastity but also famously added “but not yet” because he wasn’t through sewing his wild oats despite his regrets and shame and desire for peace and calm.
I can tell you from my theatre days that a lot of audience members and readers often have a hard time separating the authors from the characters and also the actors from the characters. One of the acting professors at my undergrad told a story about how after he played a rather vile character, audience members would come up to him and say “I hate you.” He would reply “you mean you hated the character I played.” They would always respond back “No, I hate you.” Such is the strength of a great performance.
I am not completely unsympathetic to confusion about whether the author is speaking or the character is speaking for a variety of reasons.
The first is that there are plenty of times when members of the audience willfully misinterpret the author. Gordon Gekko in Wall Street is probably one of the more famous examples of this. He is named after a reptile and the “greed is good” speech is nor supposed to be morally exemplary. Oliver Stone is not shy in showing this. Yet there seem to be lots of young men who turned Gordon Gekko into a figure of admiration. They seemingly saw is lifestyle and power and said “I want this.” For some reason, men always seem to be the ones who willfully misinterpret messages like this. A lot of men also seem to miss the cautionary aspects of Brian De Palma’s Scarface and go immediately for the wealth and power that Scarface gets from drug dealing and violence. This makes me sympathetic to the idea that some numbskull guys can be out there and think Prima Nocta is an awesome idea.
The other issue is that sometimes artists use irony and aesthetics to fool audiences. The Charless Krafft saga is the key example here. Charles Krafft was famous for a long time in the Seattle and later national art scenes. In the 1990s, he started doing a series of pieces called diasterware. This involved making AK-47s, Grenades, and other weapons in the style of Delftware. Some of his pieces incorporated nazi imagery like the Hitler Teapot. The Art World (which tends to swing left) thought that Krafft was being ironic and commenting on the connection between totalitarianism and kitsch. The Stranger discovered that Krafft was really a Holocaust-denying white supremacist and the left felt burned and fooled.
All of this creates a world of bad faith and as someone who is generally sympathetic to artists and wants artists to feel safe and free to do things that are kind of odd and potentially questionable this disturbs me. One of my favorite definitions of theatre comes from John Patrick Shanley. He described theatre as a “Safe Place to Do Dangerous Things.” We seem to be in an era when artists can just get a huge backlash if they fall of the line by a slight millimeter.