by Doctor Science
In my previous post about reviews of "The Avengers", I said Black Widow seemed to be "The Superhero Men Don't See". I've now done some more research and am pretty sure the cognitive problem isn't with men, it's with mundanes -- non-fans or Muggles, that is. It's an instance of the Invisible Gorilla problem; sexism comes in only as the easiest way for the reviewer's brain to patch the hole in hir perceptions.
I was already thinking about the Invisible Gorilla when Porlock Junior brought it up in the comments to the previous post, because I had just finished reading Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, which is about all sorts of cognitive biases or illusions.
The Invisible Gorilla Experiment is one of the best-known such illusions. The subjects were told to count the number of times the basketball is passed between black-shirted players in the following video:
A truly astounding number of the subjects never noticed the guy in the gorilla suit, because they were concentrating so hard on the basketball.
I'm cutting for length, and because I'm going to be spoiling the heck out of "The Avengers".
In googling about, looking for more information on this experiment, I ran across The effects of eye movements, age, and expertise on inattentional blindness, by Daniel Memmert. Memmert re-ran the experiment to include some subjects (children, teens, and adults) who are on basketball teams, and so can be said to have "expertise" at watching basketball.
While only 40% of adult non-players noticed the gorilla, over 60% of adult basketball players did. Experts don't have to concentrate as hard on the main task, so they're better able to notice the unusual, intrusive event.
Now, this is rather strange, because I used reviews from RottenTomatoes.com's "Top Critics" to construct my first table. These people all see hundreds of movies a year, so they certainly should qualify as "expert" movie-watchers -- far more than I. Yet maybe a third of them made basic, did-not-see-what-was-onscreen mistakes.
I wondered if perhaps there is a special expertise needed to watch *this* movie. I collected a list of "geek" reviewers by googling "Avengers movie review" plus various geek-specific terms ("comics", "fandom", "boingboing", "reddit", and "metafilter") and taking reviews that turned up on the first 2-3 pages of hits. When I collated the results, I found that:
- The geek reviews aren't, in general, as well-written from the wordsmith POV as the Top Critics' reviews. Few of them are witty or have any well-turned phrases, many have fundamentally clunky sentences.
- A substantial fraction didn't mention Scarlett Johansson or Natasha/Black Widow because they didn't mention any specific actor or character. Instead, they talked about the movie's overall structure and significance in the Marvel movieverse, the special effects, the writing and plotting in general. None of the Top Critics failed to discuss particular actors, Robert Downey Jr. at least.
- Many of the geeks talked about Natasha but never mentioned Scarlett Johansson. Usually, they called her "Natasha" instead of "Black Widow" -- just as they talked about Tony, Steve, and Clint instead of Iron Man, Captain America, and Hawkeye. Geeks are on a first-name basis with these characters.
- There were no 420s, my abbreviation for dude, what are you smoking? The geeks, male and female, saw what was onscreen.
My theory, then, is that "The Avengers" was a much more difficult movie than the Top Critics were expecting. Like all sf-action-adventure movies, what is onscreen is as visually and aurally distracting as possible: it is loud and full of exciting or startling images, while including many unfamiliar details (in the setting, costumes, weaponry, and species). This is the sort of complex environment that makes even more people fail to see the gorilla, because you have to concentrate so hard on the assigned task.
All sf-action movies are distracting; what makes "The Avengers" different is that it includes a very large number of major characters, but introduces very few of them. There are at least *9* characters with significant parts (six Avengers, Loki, Nick Fury, and Coulson), which is an enormous number for an action movie, where so many screen minutes will have to be dialogue-free to accommodate the fights and explosions.
The only way most action movies can give the audience a hope of keeping the characters straight is to make them stock figures, who can be easily stored in memory. Just imagine how hard it would be to remember which of 9 characters had a particular personality trait if you could only learn about them in the non-action parts of a 2 1/2 hour action movie.
What Joss Whedon realized was that he didn't have to do that: he could rely on almost all of the audience remembering the basic personalities, abilities, and appearance for at least three of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and The Hulk, and a considerable number would know enough to identify even Maria Hill or Agent Coulson when they showed up.
In other words, enough of the audience would be fans that Whedon didn't have to make everyone a stock character if he didn't want to. And when it came to Natasha, he clearly *really* didn't want to: he wanted to make another in his continuing series of "women who surprise people by kicking ass and taking names".
But I think this is where a number of the Top Critics fell into trouble. I'm sure they'd all seen the earlier Marvel movies, but they can't afford to remember details about every movie they see, their brains would explode. Unless they already cared -- that is, unless they were fans -- they came into "The Avengers" remembering a bit about "Iron Man", knowing Robert Downey, Jr., had top billing, and expecting (because that's their experience with sf-action movies) his character and maybe few others to be the only non-stock ones around.
And in particular, it's usually a safe bet that if there's only one woman with a major role in a male-focused action movie, she'll be the stock sex symbol. So I think the Top Critics saw Scarlett Johansson as Natasha, tagged her as "the girl who's pretty but doesn't do much, you know, like Megan Fox", and then felt free to ignore her as they tried to keep track of what was going on (the basketball game, as it were) in a maximally distracting environment. When it came time to write their review, they looked at the list of actors, said, "hmm, what did Scarlett Johansson do?" and all that came back was the tag -- they never realized her character was the gorilla.
It's possible, in fact, that the Top Critics even worse than normal at watching "The Avengers". They see so very many movies, most of which are bad (per Sturgeon's Law), that they may have come to rely on the expectation that action-movie characters will be stock. We could maybe test that, if we could come up with a way to collect Avengers reviews by people (a) who don't watch a great many movies and (b) aren't fans. Unfortunately, such people don't write many movie reviews, either.
If Top Critics (and others) don't want to be fooled by their brains like this, the easiest thing to do is to go into the movie intending to pay attention to female characters. Just as we can no longer watch the invisible-gorilla experiment and *not* notice the gorilla, once you think "I wonder how the female characters will be treated?" you can't *not* notice what happens with them.
Top Critics -- and anyone else with influence in Hollywood -- can also start talking about how the Smurfette Principle [warning! TVTropes link!] isn't really a good way to think about movies, or the world.