This week, Avengers stars Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans came under fire for off-color remarks about their co-star Scarlett Johansson’s character, Black Widow. When the interviewer asked the duo to comment on fans’ dashed hopes of a romance between Black Widow and their own respective characters, Renner, who plays Hawkeye in the movies, impassively replied, “She’s a slut.” Evans—who has the role of Captain America—added, through a hearty laugh, “I was going to say something along that line. Just a complete whore.”
Both actors have since issued public apologies (via representatives), USA Today reports. From Renner:
I am sorry that this tasteless joke about a fictional character offended anyone. It was not meant to be serious in any way. Just poking fun during an exhausting and tedious press tour.
Yesterday we were asked about the rumors that Black Widow wanted to be in a relationship with both Hawkeye and Captain America. We answered in a juvenile and offensive way that rightfully angered some fans. I regret it and sincerely apologize.
But are the superheroes sincere?
Probably not, according to at least one expert. “What people need to do in an apology is be very specific about how they’re apologizing, not make excuses, and name the thing that they did wrong,” says Edwin Battistella, a linguistics professor at Southern Oregon University and public apology connoisseur. “They seem to be failing at all of those.”
"What people need to do in an apology is be very specific about how they’re apologizing, not make excuses, and name the thing that they did wrong."
Take Renner’s statement. Setting aside the fact that, grammatically at least, he hasn’t actually apologized, it doesn’t feel at all like he’s taken responsibility for angering his fans. “I am sorry that this tasteless joke about a fictional character offended anyone.” See what he did there? Renner is sorry anyone was offended by the tasteless joke; he doesn’t say he’s sorry for making it. This shifts the blame from himself to those who were offended. “That’s a kind of verbal jiu jitsu” Battistella says.
Renner uses the fact that Black Widow is not a real person as an excuse. “They’re trying to make this less serious by making it a tasteless joke about a fictional character,” Battistella says. “They’re implying it’s not a real offense.” Calling a fictional female character a slut for having romantic relationships with multiple men is not slut-shaming, the actors' defenders argue. Oh wait—yes it is.
Evans’ apology is slightly better: He actually explains what he and Renner did wrong, but he still doesn’t indicate that the pair have any understanding of why their words were offensive—a key component of successful apologies, according to Battistella. What does a genuine apology sound like? One of the best examples Battistella can summon is the case of Jonah Hill, who took some heat last year when he lashed out at a photographer with an anti-gay slur. “You could tell [his apology] was sincere,” Battistella says, pausing momentarily to tap "Jonah Hill homophobic slur apology" into Google. “He really managed to engage with what he had done wrong in a way that I don’t hear these two doing.”
Hill doesn’t make excuses, he is specific in his language choices, and he actually explores the morality of his error. Those variables are all lacking in Renner and Evans’ apologies.
Will the Marvel heroes' words be enough to soothe fans? “It depends on whether we want to forgive them or not,” Battistella says. In 2007, when Joe Biden made distasteful comments about (not yet) President Obama, he quickly followed up with an apology that was not so different from Renner’s (read: not great). Still, Obama accepted the apology.
“The whole thing sort of went away because neither of them really wanted to explore it any further. They had a good relationship and were ready to move on,” Battistella says. “We take a bad apology more seriously when we’re not ready to forgive the person. If we are, we can accept a weak apology and move on.”
So it's on us to decide whether or not to forgive the megastars. Personally, I wouldn't let them off the hook so easily.