On the Black Widow Controversy

I should probably keep my big mouth shut, but I feel like I have to wade into the controversy that’s erupted over the way Black Widow is portrayed in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

But before I do, I have to break out the sign:

spoiler warningIf you haven’t seen the movie yet, well, stop reading right now, because I’ll be dropping some major spoilers from the midpoint of the movie. If you don’t care, keep reading. If you do, then go see the movie and come back. I’m willing to wait.

The Bones of Contention

black widow hulkSo we knew going into the movie that Black Widow and Bruce Banner had some sort of romance brewing. And I was okay with that news. I actually wondered if there might be a little something in the works in the first movie, when Black Widow and Bruce fell into the lower reaches of the helicarrier during Hawkeye’s attack. And when I saw comments from Joss Whedon about how it was a romance between a person who is in complete control and someone who has to be in complete control, I liked it even better.

So it was fun for me to see the “lullaby” play out. I liked the banter at Tony’s party, plus Bruce’s jealousy over the fact that Cap had seen Black Widow’s flirtation up close. I really appreciated the quiet moment Bruce and Natasha had at the farm, and I even liked the way that Black Widow brought out “the other guy” for the final battle.

But apparently not everyone was thrilled with what they saw, especially what we learned about Black Widow’s past when she got whammied by Scarlet Witch.

Marvel's Avengers: Age of Ultron - Trailer 3 - Scarlet Witch appears to be mind controlling the Black Widow  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JAUoeqvedMoJust to refresh our collective memories: Natasha had flashbacks to her time in the Black Widow training program (something a lot of us Marvel fans got to know thanks to Agent Carter). We saw that she was taken from/given away by her parents at some point to the program, where she was taught ballet (either literally or as a symbol for something else), was forced to kill people, and eventually undergo an unspecified medical procedure. Then, later in the movie, while having her heart-to-heart with Bruce, she reveals what that medical procedure was: she was sterilized so she’s unable to have children. This makes her, in her own words, “a monster.”

Now to me, this was a vulnerable moment for Natasha, a revelation of her inner demons and some of her deepest desires. But apparently not everyone was as satisfied as I was.

Certain corners of the Internet have exploded with anger and rage over Joss Whedon’s apparently sexist attitude toward Natasha Romanov’s past. Here’s just a little sample (with this caveat: be prepared for a lot of wrathful foul language). I read one article (which I can’t find now) that basically says that Black Widow wants to be a mommy, and Joss gives her a baby Hulk to take care of, along with the rest of her male counterparts (think of the line she utters when Cap loses his shield: “I’m always picking up after you boys”). To some, this desire to be a mother, this forced sterilization, weakens Black Widow as a hero and makes her less than she should be.

Some of this frustration also seems to stem from the fact that we didn’t get more information about Black Widow’s sordid past. This article on io9, for example, reminds us of how, in the first Avengers movie, Black Widow revealed that she had a lot of red in her ledger, and she’s trying to take care of that. Loki dropped some hints about her troubles as well. Maybe it would have been fun to learn more about what she did between her graduation from the Black Widow program and her recruitment by Hawkeye to be an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.  And that would be fun, but in my not-so-humble-opinion, that kind of exploration of her backstory would work better in a stand-alone Black Widow movie (HINT HINT, Marvel!), not as part of an ensemble piece like this.

AllStarComics13Now on some levels, I understand the backlash. Let’s face it, superhero movies have largely been a boys-only club with very few exceptions, and unfortunately, that isn’t going to change anytime soon. Just looking at the line-up of both the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes shows a preponderance of Y chromosomes. And this isn’t a new problem, either. Let’s not forget that, back when she first joined the Justice Society of America, Wonder Woman was their secretary. Having one of the only big screen female superheroes fall back into what seems like a ’50s trope might seem like a betrayal, especially since Black Widow is so strong and independent.

But if I may, I want to argue why this actually makes sense to me and why, I think, this revelation that Natasha Romanov views the loss of potential motherhood is a good thing for her character.

The Grass Is Always Greener

One of the biggest surprises in Avengers: Age of Ultron is the big reveal in the middle of the movie that Hawkeye is a family man. He has a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, along with the traditional nuclear family, what with a wife and 2.5 kids. We also learn that Aunt Natasha is well-known to Hawkeye’s family. She’s been there. She’s hung out. And I think that’s the root of her frustration.

Granted, this is a lot of conjecture on my part, but I think before she joined S.H.I.E.L.D., Natasha Romanov saw no way out of her life. She was stuck as an assassin, drowning in the red of her ledger. But then Hawkeye came along and helped her escape that life. He showed her there was a way for her to use her considerable skills for the greater good. She’s able to start making up for the wrongs of her past. She has the potential to have a bright future.

But as she gets to know Clint Barton’s family, she realizes that there’s one future that’s been closed off to her. That possibility was taken from her against her consent.

Maybe she didn’t mind that when she first joined S.H.I.E.L.D. One less thing to worry about, right? But then, as she got to know the Bartons, as she started to develop feelings for a certain scientist, she started to ask herself “What if?” And that question, one that she can never answer, started to dig at her.

The revelation that Natasha Romanov, suave and flirtatious assassin, founding member of the MCU Avengers, might harbor desires of motherhood, reveals that she’s actually a complex individual. Without that knowledge, she’s two dimensional at the most, nothing more than a femme fatale to the extreme. But now, she has vulnerabilities. She has dreams that can never be realized. Besides, it’s not even that she necessarily wants to buy her own farm and pop out rugrats. But I think she’d just like the option to be able to do that someday.

A person’s character is revealed in their paradoxes. That’s something we’ve seen already in the other Avengers: Tony Stark is a billionaire who made his fortune inventing weapons suddenly wants to get rid of them all. Thor is destined for a throne and glory, but he gives them up for a woman well below his station. Captain America was a 98 pound weakling thrust into the body of a titan, but in some ways, he remains the same insecure boy he always was. That Natasha Romanov contains similar paradoxes within her personality is a good thing.

Now if all the women of the MCU harbored secret desires to be Suzy Homemaker, then there’d be a definite problem. Obviously not all women want to be mothers. But then, some women do. The fact that Black Widow wants that isn’t a betrayal. If anything, it highlights the real problem:

Where Are the Women?

In a recent Reddit AMA, Mark Ruffalo weighed in on the whole controversy and he had something revealing to say:

I think that what people might really be upset about is the fact that we need more superhuman women. The guys can do anything, they can have love affairs, they can be weak or strong and nobody raises an eyebrow. But when we do that with a woman, because there are so few storylines for women, we become hyper-critical of every single move that we make because there’s not much else to compare it to.

And that right there is the problem. There has been a noticeable lack in what you might call “heroic women” in the MCU. Think about the movies that led up the first Avengers:

  • Pepper Potts is Tony’s glorified personal assistant (even when she’s in charge of Stark Industries). She sheds that role only in the final moments of Iron Man 3.
  • Jane Foster is a strong woman, brave and very intelligent. But she is, in every way, a normal person until she accidentally comes in contact with the aether.
  • Lady Sif is heroic and a very capable warrior, but let’s be honest, she’s more a tag-along to the Warriors Three and a spurned love interest of Thor’s.
  • Peggy Carter is another strong woman, extremely capable and daring. But in many ways, she’s just the romantic foil for Cap.

Aside from Lady Sif and, to a lesser extent, Peggy Carter, the women of the MCU haven’t been superheroes. Now this has started to change. We had Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy. Skye on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. recently became an Inhuman with a handy set of powers. And now Scarlet Witch is a member of the Avengers. But they’re still in the minority.

Because of this lack of women heroes, I think everyone is trying to cram their expectations of what a heroic woman should be like into one character, namely Black Widow.

Consider it this way: the male heroes of the MCU have varied personalities. Tony Stark is a hedonistic party-boy reformed arms dealer. Captain America is a wholesome, down-home kind of guy (“Language!”). Thor is a boisterous warrior who just wants to snuggle. The Hulk is a loner forced to socialize when he doesn’t necessarily want to. Hawkeye is a 9-to-5 family guy type. Star Lord is man-child. Drax is on the autism spectrum. It doesn’t matter who the fan is, they’re going to find someone in the MCU they can relate to.

Unless you’re a woman. Then your choice, for a long time, was between Black Widow and…well, no one. So it’s understandable that people would be upset and disappointed if the expectations they had in the character were thwarted or up-ended.

I get the frustration. But I’m also disappointed in the way that a lot of people expressed themselves. If you followed the link I shared earlier, you saw the sheer vitriol and toxicity of some of the fans who felt betrayed by Joss Whedon. I get that some of those tweets were jokes, but not all of them were. It’s one thing to disagree with the way someone has portrayed a fictional character. It’s quite another to threaten that someone with physical harm or even death.

So what do you think? Am I simply mansplaining this? Or do you think I’m on the right track? Or have I missed something entirely here? Let me know what you think.

3 Comments:

  1. I actually think you are right on the mark. Even though I have always admired women who were everyday heroines, seeing Black Widow in the movies was a joy. My husband and I saw the possibilities earlier on as well with Banner. Finding out Natasha’s physical predicament, though hard for some women to accept or even understand, is actually good in understanding the paradox of her character and the romance with Banner not being as hard as it would be if she were able to bear children. All solutions can come with a downside – Cap taking the plane down to avoid the bomb exploding in NY and being frozen for 70 years stopped his romance with Peggy but allowed him to be there at the right time for the Avengers. Give and take. Good and bad. That is life, even for a superhero. But hey, who am I writing to? FAILSTATE is one of my all-time favorite series in this genre because Rob hit me emotionally in the heart. This truth of Romanov did me too. My husband and I decided not to have kids before we got married due to his diabetes, my allergies, and our many nieces/nephews we could be there for instead. I didn’t give up on the idea “maybe things will change and we can” or “maybe I’ll get with child even on birth control” or, or, or. I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2012 after two Grand Mal seizures caused by the immune system attacking my brain cells. I am happy to say, “NO new damage or seizures for 3 years as of 05/06/15”, but when my book comes out and you meet my character Thalia, you will find that same longing in her POV during a scene where she is doing exactly what seems to be in Natasha’s mind too. I put it in my character to speak to the women that deal with the same heartbreak for whatever reason every time they see a child and know they can never have one. I commend Whedon on his bravery in bringing that to Avengers. It touched me, and it makes me want to see the movie more than once just to prove my support with this heroic stance and strong emotional link that makes me love Agent Romanov more than ever before. Thank you for sharing this and thank you for creating superheroes that will live on in my heart through FAILSTATE even though I’ve been creating my own in Eirinth for over six years. My characters are still just waiting to be birthed literarily, but they live in me for now… my children that nothing will ever keep me from having in this world when time!

    THANK YOU & GOD BLESS!
    Tonja Klein – TK ^___~ http://www.eirinth.com

  2. The problem is we’re not watching a documentary. Black Widow’s “journey” was created. And instead of giving her a backstory dealing with the “red in her ledger”, she is reduced to Woman=Mother. And if you can’t be a mother, then you’re not a real woman.

    Like it or not, agree with it or not, that is a real, pervasive message sent to women (especially in the church). The Banner/Romanov romance would’ve worked just as well if she was trying to atone for her red. When he said he can’t have kids, she could’ve easily said, “I don’t want kids. No problem.”

    Anytime a storyteller is reducing the lone female character to a mother role, red flags should be going off all over the place. Frankly, I thought Joss Whedon was a bit more savvy than that. I don’t hate him – I still think he’s a great storyteller, and I enjoyed Age of Ultron quite a bit. But that doesn’t make what he did with Widow (or MARVEL’s larger female problem) okay.

    • JR, you do have a valid point about the whole “If you can’t be a mother, then you’re not a real woman.” When Black Widow called herself a “monster,” I winced, because I’ve known a lot of women who would be monsters thanks to that definition.

      At the same time, though, I think we saw her reject that whole narrative after Banner charged in to rescue her. He’s ready to sweep her away to a place of safety, where they can be together. And maybe they won’t have the kids, but they’ll be safe and happy together. Rather than take him up on the offer (although she sure seemed tempted), she gives him a little shove because she needs the “Other Guy.” She’s going to step beyond that traditional role (of damsel in distress or Suzy Homemaker) and step up into being a hero. My two cents.

      And I also think that Marvel has a great opportunity to do something cool here. It would be awesome to explore Natasha’s backstory and see what kind of red is in her ledger. Maybe they can dredge up an ’80s or ’90s hero to pit against her in a stand-alone movie, as a foil for her “villainous” backstory. They could even have the death of that hero be the final dab or red in her ledger that pushes her over the edge so she takes up Hawkeye’s offer to join S.H.I.E.L.D.

      I wonder if Marvel would accept a spec script…

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