Note: adult language ahead, including a discussion about sex and gendered insults. Just a heads-up.

Last night, my husband and I watched a showing of “Guardians of the Galaxy”, the latest movie to cash in on expand the Marvel universe. It was good, dumb fun – lots of explosions, pretty colours, bog-standard intergalactic villains, crazy hairdos, and great music. The script, while generally lumpy and clunky, had surprising moments of warmth and levity.

Except for one scene. Except for one word.

And if you’ve already seen the movie, you probably know which one I’m talking about, especially if you pay attention to the same spec-fic and pop feminism sites like I do.

Let’s do some scene-setting.

Setting the scene

It’s late in the movie, right as the intrepid quintet of the title are about to infiltrate the lair of Ronan, the movie’s generic baddie. There’s Peter Quill, the smart-ass, Han-Solo-like main character. There’s Gamora, the master assassin who’s gone rogue against both her adopted father and Ronan, with whom he had made an alliance. There’s Rocket, a walking, talking, genetically-enhanced raccoon. There’s Groot, a walking, talking tree with a limited vocabulary. And finally, there’s Drax, a warrior looking for vengeance after Ronan slaughtered his family.

When the five characters first meet, there’s mutual antagonism, especially on the part of Drax, who believes that Gamora should pay for being Ronan’s (unwilling) accomplice, thus being implicit in the death of his wife and child. Considering that Gamora is the adopted daughter of Thanos, who literally wants to kill every living thing in the universe to gain the love of Death herself, the idea that Gamora’s killed lots of people is probably true. Drax has a literal mindset, and is not a character who sees nuance in things. When he first sees Gamora, he pretty much slots her into the “enemy” column.

As the movie progresses and they save each other from various tight scrapes, the five forge a bond and team up to save the galaxy from the Glowy Purple McGuffin of Doom. They hatch a daring plan set to the strains of “Cherry Bomb” by the Runaways. And then they enter Ronan’s lair.

OK, so we’re all caught up, yes? Gamora’s a murderer, Drax wants revenge, he’s a literal-thinking guy, and they used to be enemies but now they’re friends.

Now we get to the moment in question

The five of them walk in line through a darkened corridor. Drax starts waxing rhapsodic about how good it is to have friends, and how good it will be to avenge his family. He refers to each person around him in turn, talking about how the human, the tree, and the raccoon are his friends. Then, when he gets to Gamora…

He calls her a green whore.

Literally.

He calls her a whore.

Right after he utters the word, Gamora turns around and manages to get a few sounds of protest in edgewise, but then they’re suddenly attacked. Their attacker specifically singles out Gamora for being a murderer, calling her such, lambasting her for the blood on her hands.

Drax then attacks the new attacker, kills him, and then says something to the effect of “Nobody talks that way about my friends.”

What’s wrong with this picture?

Throughout the movie, we see everyone, not just Gamora, shooting, punching, kicking, and stabbing people right and left. Know what we don’t see? We don’t see anyone having sex – much less the movie’s most important female character exchanging sex for money.

So let me get this straight. It’s totally okay to call a woman a whore, even though she isn’t, but not okay to call her a murderer, even though she is – and then get offended when someone else cuts in on your opportunity to cut your supposed “friend” down to size?

Not only is this incredibly offensive – especially in the wake of all of the eyebrows that were raised over the phrase “mewling quim” in “The Avengers” – but it’s also completely out of character.

Remember that I said Drax was literal-minded. We’re talking literal to the extent that he doesn’t understand that running your finger against your throat is a symbolic gesture that represents killing someone. Calling her a “whore” is a leap of semantics that he technically shouldn’t be able to do, since he has no evidence for this assumption, and neither do viewers.

So either we have an instance of a script not staying true to a character’s nature – which is bad – or we have the deliberate use of a gendered insult just for kicks, and see the woman who is the target of that insult exercising only the barest form of agency before a man intervenes and saves her from a threat  – which is worse.

You know what’s even worse than that, though?

The fact that when I talked about “Guardians of the Galaxy” to others, I didn’t call this bullshit out. When someone asked on Twitter whether the movie was okay for a 6-year-old to see, I mentioned the violence and swearing, but I didn’t mention the use of this incredibly hurtful word.

(Ladies and gentlemen, this is rape culture at work.)

But what about context?

When I brought this issue up with my husband, he had a few questions that made me upset. So I’m going to answer them here because I’m pretty sure others will ask the same things. Credit to him in that he stressed he wasn’t trying to condone the word usage, but anyways:

Would it have been better if he called her a whore when they first met in prison instead, when he still distrusted her? No. Know why? Because, as I mentioned above, she’s not a whore. There’s literally no evidence for him to assume that, and remember, this guy takes words literally. Also, Gamora’s presence in the prison is already highly charged as she appears to be one of the only women in there and she’s threatened by several men at night with knives. Gamora should technically be able to wipe the floor with these guys, but I guess fictional prisons aren’t really fictional prisons unless a frisson of rape threats is sprinkled on top, so of course the soon-to-be love interest has to step in and save her.

But what about Rocket? So what about the instances in the movie when Rocket is treated to speciesist insults like “rodent” and “vermin”? Yeah, that’s pretty unpleasant, but I still don’t think it’s equivalent. For one thing, unlike Gamora, Rocket actually gets a chance to rebut those insults and talk about how hurtful they are. Gamora is almost immediately interrupted. For another, get back to me when men call other men “vermin” with the same frequency and bile with which they call women “whores” – then there might be something to discuss.

Edit: I originally said that Gamora was the only woman in the movie’s prison, but there is at least one other moment shown momentarily sitting at a table. The relevant sentence has been updated to reflect this.