I’m massively late to the party in commenting on Avengers: Age of Ultron. Oh, well. I am busy. I’m also tired of all the open tabs in my browser and the only way to get rid of some of them is to put them here, where I’ve been meaning to. So, I’m not sure anyone cares that much anymore, but, Topic Number One from this movie (obviously, SPOILERS if you haven’t seen it):
Black Widow and Gender Issues in A2 and Beyond
First off, for context, I wouldn’t particularly call myself a feminist, at least not in the stereotypical or militant sense. So that’s not the position I approach this from. I approach it simply as a fan who happens to be a woman, and who does admire strong women characters, but who doesn’t need (or want) them to prove their “strongness” by being anti-man (see the laughable head Valkyrie in the otherwise pretty good animated Thor: Tales of Asgard, for whom apparently the word “male” is the worst insult you can throw at someone) or by being so very strong that she lacks any weakness or forms of emotional vulnerability — that would make her inhuman. One of the moments with Natasha I particularly liked in Avengers (1) was her moment of fear, hiding and sort of gathering her wits when the Hulk was set loose. Yeah, she’s scared! But she pulls it together and does what needs doing.
So, I don’t need to say it, you already know what this post is about. The (unfortunately) famous line when Natasha seems to say “I can’t have babies and therefore I’m a monster.”
Personally, I never interpreted it that way. Seriously. That did not occur to me, in my own (first..or second, in a row) viewing. I suppose in part because it’s such an absurd notion. But I soon realized lots of people did, and it’s certainly not an unreasonable takeaway. I think the whole sequence could have been edited better.
Let’s look at the actual dialogue:
They sterilize you. It’s efficient. One less thing to worry about, the one thing that might matter more than a mission. It makes everything easier, even killing. You still think you’re the only monster on the team?
It comes down to what you think she’s saying makes her think Bruce should think she’s a monster. The fact that she was sterilized? Or the fact that she was meant to become — and did become — such an efficient killer, that killing became easy. I interpreted it as the latter. They removed her ability to (accidentally at least — she could still adopt, though, you know, not while being a Bad Guy assassin I suspect) have the greatest love and bond of all, that of mother and child, “the one thing that might matter more than a mission.” (I can imagine other loves that might also matter more, but they can’t prevent her from falling in love with a man via a “simple” surgery.) And to me, the flashbacks clearly indicated that there was a heavy symbolism attached to the sterilization as well — sterilization meant your training was complete. Part of completing your training was committing a straight-up cold-blooded murder. Sterilization cemented who you were — a heartless murderer…a monster. However, and possibly due to trying to keep things kid-friendly (?) we get really just one image of Natasha shooting at not targets but a terrified and restrained human being…and we get lots of images of her being wheeled into the room for the surgery. There’s where, to me, the editing mistake came. Because it lends greater gravity to the sterilization itself than what the sterilization signified. The dialogue, I suppose, could have made that clearer, too.
I don’t think Natasha “meant” to make this whole scene, and her whole life, about her inability to have kids. (We never see her obsessing even a bit over kids, and she seems to have a healthy relationship with Clint and Laura and their kids.) And I don’t think Joss Whedon meant to make this about that either, certainly not tying it to her being a monster. In Avengers, we saw that Natasha feels guilt over the “red in [her] ledger.” Here she’s clearly motivated by trying to wipe out, or balance out, some of that red. (Not by any issues with her inability to reproduce.) This, in my opinion, makes for great material for writing (and portraying) a character. And, I guess it’s a good societal discussion to have and all…but honestly it really saddens me that so much talk about this movie comes down to gnashing of teeth over this scene, and a picking apart of Joss Whedon and his feminist “bone fides” (oh, sigh, really, do women have to kick butt to be strong, and for their creator to be “feminist”? the tone of most of those online articles just irks me). Personally, I thought it was a fairly beautiful scene, a moment of extreme emotional vulnerability on both of Natasha’s and Bruce’s parts. They kind of lay the cards on the table here, and it’s fairly realistic I think, in that there’s no quick fix, no brushing the problems under the rug. Natasha considers running away with Bruce; it’s rather shocking! Bruce doesn’t feel like he can give this kind of happiness, a romantic relationship, even a try. This is great grist for fan discussion.
Anyway, out of many annoying online discussions of this scene, I found this one to be pretty un-annoying: balanced and thoughtful and interesting — worth a read if the topic interests you.
The above article also looks back at Buffy the Vampire Slayer a bit, and the larger Marvel universe…where yes, there’s a “woman” problem. The simple fact that no one’s considering a Black Widow movie when Black Widow is such a popular character and her portrayer has proven that she can carry an action film (Lucy — a problematic movie but Scarlett Johansson wasn’t the problem; and the film grossed over $450 MILLION).
Did you somehow miss out on all the Black Widow hoopla? Here are a couple of other related issues, with recommended articles you should check out to bridge the gap.
(1) Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye) called Natasha a “slut,” adding that she had slept with four out of six Avengers. Obviously he was just joking. Was a bigger deal made out of this than it should be? Maybe. I mean, here’s what he’s joking about: in Iron Man 2 she does a lot of flirting with Tony (flirting I never really understood the reason for, BTW), in Avengers there was an obvious closeness between her and Clint which many fans took for a probable romantic closeness, in Cap 2 she flirts with Steve and some fans wondered if there was something there, and then in A2 she’s romantically interested in Bruce. Yep, that’s four. Now, as far as we know, she hasn’t even come close to sleeping with any of them, so clearly this was a joke. And Jeremy Renner is a human being, not the Goodwill Ambassador to Women’s Issues. But I understand the other side. Who’s more of a “slut” in the Marvel universe? Pretty sure Tony wins that award. But he doesn’t get called that…because he’s a guy? On the other other hand, Tony actually has slept with a harem full of women, so maybe it’s just not as much of a “joke” in that case. what do you think? As for me, honestly, at the end of the day, I just say I’m grateful there’s no international press examining and parsing every single word that comes out of my mouth… Here’s an article that summarizes the incident and the aftermath.
(2) Of all the Black-Widow-broo-haha, this is the only one that truly bothers me — badly. #whereisblackwidow was the question on Twitter and elsewhere (minus the hashtag and plus proper writing) when Black Widow merchandise of all sorts seemed to be missing. Girls could find Disney princess gear galore (nothing wrong with that of course) but not Black Widow gear. You can read here about this issue and Mark Ruffalo even speaking out on it (politely); the article includes some of the author’s research into just how hard it is to find Black Widow merchandise.