Spoilers abound. Obviously.
I, along with half of the known universe, went to see Avengers; Age of Ultron this weekend. I went with two other gal buds and one dude. Afterwards we went for a drink (or nine) and gushed about the movie. The romance between Black Widow and Bruce Banner barely came up as we all sat around talking about the awesome action sequences, the hilarious Whedon-esque one liners, and the long-awaited character development for the human members of the team.
It wasn’t until I searched for reviews the next day that it occurred to me that anything about the movie could be seen as sexist.
It seems pertinent at this juncture to point out that I am a proud, card-holding, flag-flying member of Feminists-United. (That’s not a thing… I’m a feminist, is what I’m saying). I’m constantly putting movies to the Bechdel test, or rolling my eyes at unnecessary damsel-situations or absurd love triangles. Women are constantly being represented in a condescending way that furthers horrifying gender stereotypes, and it has to stop.
I just don’t believe that Black Widow, or any of the other female characters in Age of Ultron, are a victims of this.
Firstly, lets put Age of Ultron through the Bechdel test, shall we?
Does the movie have two or more female characters with actual names and lines?
HECK YES. Maria Hill, Scarlet Witch, Black Widow, Laura Barton, Dr. Cho… heck, even our beloved Peggy makes a (heart breaking) cameo.
Do these female characters interact?
Are their conversations about something other than a man?
Yup. Nat and Laura have a cute conversation about the baby, and there are other conversations at the party, and within the context of Black Widow’s past (her “graduation” from the Red Room with Madam B).
Okay, great, the movie passes the test. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s feminist-friendly, so let’s dive into some complaints floating around the internet.
Firstly, (SPOILER) the romance between Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner. In the article The Avengers’ Black Widow Problem: How Marvel Slut-Shamed Their Most Badass Superheroine by Jen Yamato, she posits that Black Widow is simply a plot device to service the male heroes. She argues Black Widow has been used as a sexual device, and “shipped around” to most of her Avengers team-mates. While I agree with a lot of what Yamato states in this article (the lack of female representation in Marvel toys and products is appalling, and we absolutely DO need more female-led superhero movies, STAT), I have to disagree with her her main point about Black Widow.
In general, women in superhero films are simply there to be the love interest of the hero. Jane Foster, while a hella-smart scientist, is reduced to the girlfriend of Thor. Pepper Potts, Betty Ross, Gwen Stacy, Mary-Jane Watson, all love interests for a hero. These women could be swapped out with any other female character and the result would be the same.
The fact is, Black Widow is different. She’s a kick-ass spy with a dark past and a heart of gold. Yes, female audiences deserve a heroine who stands on her own and isn’t bogged down in romantic drama. But at the same time, Black Widow is a human being, with human emotions and desires. She DID go three movies without a love interest. In terms of Hollywood today, I’d say that’s pretty darn remarkable. Yamato argues that she was sexualized by Tony Stark (who wasn’t?), then paired with Hawkeye in the first Avengers, then kissed Captain America in The Winter Soldier.
Let’s evaluate these moments, shall we? Tony Stark ogling women is nothing new. He was not a love interest, he was simply being true to his (then) womanizing character. As for the first Avengers, what evidence did the movie give that Black Widow was romantically involved with Hawkeye? She put effort into saving him from the mind-control of Loki, then they had a chat about it. Sure, the chat was tender in a way we hadn’t seen Black Widow be before, but as we’ve now learned, that tenderness was born from friendship. If your friend’s mind was taken over by a charming, handsome, yet obviously evil meta-God, wouldn’t you be concerned?
As an audience we are so conditioned to see romance at every turn, that we made up this romantic moment in our heads (with the assistance of the comic books, of course). We now know that Hawkeye was married with children, and Natasha knew, to the point of being “Auntie Nat.”
Thirdly, the famous kiss in Winter Soldier. Throughout the movie, Natasha was continually trying to set Steve up with “that nurse”. The movie went above and beyond to show that these two were friends, at least, as much as one can be the friend of a super-spy. So at the point when the fan-baiting kiss happened to elude Hydra, we the audience knew there was nothing romantic to it. Was it cheesy? Yes. Was it an example of how Black Widow is being “slut shamed” in the Marvel Movie Universe? I’m not so sure.
Strong women can also be vulnerable. In fact, there’s a strength in vulnerability. We need to allow our kick-ass heroines to also be human, otherwise they’re not relatable. Am I saying all female heroines need love interests to be relatble? Of course not. But they shouldn’t be condemned for having human wants and needs. A big complaint among reviews is that Black Widow was ‘reduced’ to a love interest for Bruce Banner. One could easily argue that it’s the other way around. They are equal characters in this franchise. A romance between them in no way hurt either of their development.
The next point I must disagree with Yamato on, is the way Black Widow’s backstory was presented. “The result is an overdue character exploration for Black Widow that still manages to reduce the baddest bitch in the MCU to a shell of a superheroine who’s sad she can never be a complete woman.”
Natasha’s monologue about her inability to have children wasn’t about not being a ‘complete woman’. It was about her lack of control over her own life, and yes, her own body. This choice was taken away from her, along with most choices that people get to make every day. The monologue focused on what made her a ‘monster’ in her eyes; she was a killer. The Red Room took away her choices, her power, and her innocence. I believe that’s what she was lamenting.
Of course, Jen Yamato was not the only reviewer bringing up these issues. Sara Stewartwrote An Open Letter to Joss Whedon from a Disappointed Feminist Fan After Watching ‘Age of Ultron’, where she states that the women in the film were not kick-ass enough. Maria Hill just carried a clipboard, Scarlet Witch doesn’t joke around enough, Dr. Cho gets beat up, Laura Barton is ‘reduced’ to being a housewife, and Black Widow dares to be sad about not being able to have children. Stewart accented her point by quoting Caitlin Moran:
“I have a rule of thumb that allows me to judge, when time is pressing and one needs to make a snap judgment, whether or not some sexist bullshit is afoot. Obviously, it’s not 100% infallible but by and large it definitely points you in the right direction and it’s asking this question; are the men doing it? Are the men worrying about this as well? Is this taking up the men’s time?”
Firstly, this is an amazing quote. Secondly, as it relates to Age of Ultron – yes! Of course, yes! The only reason the topic of kids came up is because Bruce lamented the fact that he could never have what Hawkeye has. The theme of family vs. Superheroing is not new. It has been a trope since Stan Lee first thought, “hey, why don’t we create some people with powers who go around saving people for a living?” Captain America spent a large portion of his screentime wondering where he fit in into the world, and if love, family and a normal life was ever in the cards for him.
Having Natasha’s backstory include the fact that the choice was taken away from her sat perfectly well with me. Moving on.
Let’s address my biggest peeve with Stewart’s article: “You got Linda Cardellini — Lindsay goddamn Weir! — in your movie, and you made her a housewife. As Hawkeye’s secret spouse (he’s kept his family in some sort of superhero protection program, apparently), she is literally pregnant and in the kitchen for most of her screen time. Sure, she dispenses some womanly words of wisdom and lets the Avengers crash in their Pottery Barn-tastic farmhouse, but seriously? That is some reductive gender shit right there.”
This statement is more condescending to women than anything in the movie. I don’t want to throw around accusations, but what exactly is Stewart saying here? We have women represented from all angles in this movie. We have superheroes, secret agents, scientists, ass-kicking spies, and yes, a housewife. Is Stewart saying that Laura Barton is any less of a strong woman, any less of a valuable character, because she’s a housewife? Feminism is about equality. It’s about respecting a woman’s choice to be whatever the hell she wants to be. If Laura Barton chooses to focus on raising her family, then all the power to her. How dare you reduce the role that so many women choose to make into some sort of anti-feminist ‘gender shit’. I saw nothing wrong with Laura Barton’s character. She is simply another example of a strong woman, doing what strong women do.
As for the rest of Stewart’s concerns: Maria Hill is a badass agent who stands on her own, has strong opinions, isn’t tangled romantically to any man and can go toe-to-toe with Nick Fury. I see no problem here. Scarlet Witch is an intrinsically dark character with scary powers who doesn’t need Whedon-esque quips to be wicked- awesome. And as for Dr. Cho, she’s a brainy bilingual badass who can science the shit out of anything. Not all characters are going to be able to kick literal ass. Of course she got beat up by Ultron. She stood up to an evil robot, despite obvious personal risk.
Do we need more superheroine representation? You bet your bippy! More Peggy Carter! Let’s give Black Widow her own movie, and Wasp and Scarlet Witch and Spiderwoman. Let’s include Hellcat, Moondragon and Fire Bird. And more Peggy Carter! Have I mentioned I’d like to see a season 2 of Peggy Carter? Because I would, please and thankyou. Peggy Carter!
Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and like I said, I do agree with some of the issues covered in the articles I mentioned. Women deserve representation in TV, movies, comics and toys. We deserve a strong female character to look up to and emulate. We deserve to have our heroes respected.
I think Joss Whedon is doing that. Or at least, he’s trying.
Age of Ultron boasts more empowered female characters than most of the action movies seen in the last ten years. Is it enough? No. Is it a step? Yes.
I look forward to the next step.
Like some more Peggy Carter???????