Much Widow About Nothing

My capsule review of Age of Ultron will appear, as normal, on Sunday. This article discusses one particular element and will contain spoilers. Duly warned.
So you may have seen the furor on social media about the Black Widow's portryal in Avengers: Age of Ultron apparently failing the feminist litmus test so badly, Joss Whedon was branded a misogynist in a complete reversal of everything he's ever publicly stood for. Though a lot of the commentary on this has been shaped as abusive Twitterings, some have at least tried to get an intelligent and reasoned discussion going, like this article that focuses on the Widow calling herself a monster because she can't have kids, and turning the Hulk into her surrogate baby, which is somehow anti-feminist (all women want is to be mothers, etc.). While the film has its weaknesses (which I'll get to next Sunday), I don't think misogyny is one of them.

Now, I don't mind criticizing a film for its sociopolitical agenda. It's a valid reading. HOWEVER, one must take the film as a WHOLE because it is meant to be SEEN as a whole. We can't simply take scenes, characters or lines out of context. We also can't blame a film maker for things that are happening outside the film. That the promotional toys failed to include female action figures is a major lapse in judgment, the cast interviews that slut-shamed the Widow were tasteless (and took implied relationships for granted, I'm sorry Hawkeye, but she never slept with you), and indeed, there is a systemic problem in both superhero films and their source comics with female representation, none of this really has anything to do with Age of Ultron directly.

Guardians of the Galaxy, to use another example, completely fails the feminist litmus test, I would agree. Gamora, despite all the hype, is never allowed to win a fight, needs the boys to rescue her consistently, etc. FAIL! Taken as a whole, Guardians is deplorably sexist. You don't need to isolate moments to see that. Avengers 2, though? Let's look at the various criticisms:

The Widow as damsel in distress
If the Widow gets chumped in the movie, so does every other Avenger. She's no damsel in distress. She still gets as many badass moments and successes as the rest do. Her capture by Ultron near the end doesn't change that; had Captain America been the one to slip off a flying vehicle while doing a super badass thing, then he'd have been in the dungeon.
The Widow as love interest
I love Mark Ruffalo's reaction to this criticism on Twitter, that it's funny because he thought BANNER had been turned into a love interest. And he's absolutely right. She's the aggressor, she initiates it, and while she's also been a femme fatale who uses her looks as a weapon - and is EXPECTED to be flirting and leading the audience to at least believe she's running a romance subplot - Banner is an unlikely suspect. The Widow makes her own choices and isn't being forced into anything, nor does she need a man to define her. Banner is the damsel in distress here, a man who keeps talking about running away, and she's the one who believes in duty and pulls him back in (or pushes him into the Hulk role). The Black Widow is a spy, so she's "running her asset", whether that's Banner or the Hulk. It looks like it started out as a manipulation, but something real grew from it.

The Widow as sterilized monster
The point of the sterilization isn't to be the be-all and end-all of her, but symbolically, an attempt by her Russian masters to control her (couched in the language of the abortion debate), and remove her empathic side. A killer can't have a mothering instinct, can't feel for other people's kids or parents. And foo on them, she's great with kids, she's turned things around. What she admits to in that scene is to have been violated and mutilated; it's a secret shame she would only share in the strictest intimacy, which speaks to the Widow/Banner relationship.

I was surprised they threw these two together, quite frankly, but in retrospect, it makes sense. Both are (or were) unthinking weapons "aimed" by third parties. Being a "monster", while coming on the heels of the sterilization reveal, is also part of an overall discussion on her being an assassin, and relates to the Marvel universe as a whole. The MU proper started with monster tales, and Stan Lee put a lot of monsters in the original stories. What if the monsters fought their monstrous impulses and worked on the side of good? The Thing. Hulk. Creepy Spider-Man. Iron Man's original look. Four Avengers seen in this movie started out as criminals in the comics, and the Vision was designed as one. Monsters fighting the monstrous impulse is in fact one of the film's themes. Are the metahumans monsters? Look at the destruction they cause?

The other and even more important theme is parenthood. It's everywhere. Tony Stark creates Ultron, a child with a rather mean Oedipal complex, who in turns also creates an unruly child in the Vision. Hawkeye has a secret family, something to fight for. The Maximoff twins have lost their parents and are bent on revenge. One team of Avengers begets another, with Cap and Widow in parental roles. There's even the obligatory scene where a child must be rescued and brought back to his mother. This is all contrast to the Widow and Hulk's situations (and to some degree, Cap's) since they cannot have children. Banner even doubts he can have a sexual relationship. The idea that the Widow was sterilized in order to graduate from assassin school is false. It is merely the graduation ceremony. Killing a man in cold blood, as per the flashbacks, is what showed she was ready. The point of the sterilization is that choice is taken away from her, and the tragedy is that, for all the red in her ledger, she probably would have made a good mother had she chosen to be, and settles for being the cool aunt to Hawkeye's kids, and babysitter to the child-like Hulk. She is incomplete because she doesn't have the full range of choices open to her, nor does Banner, and if she describes her existence as a monstrous one (and we just saw violent flashbacks to that effect), it's to get closer to Banner who most definitely considers himself a choiceless monster.

In a reversal - Whedon's bread and butter - the first time Banner makes a choice, the Widow takes it away from him, forcing him to be the Hulk. The second time, when he chooses to run away and ignore her lullaby, he takes a choice away from her. If there's a love story here, it's a tragic one, not a romcom where the Widow is forced to race to the airport because she can't live without her man. Life goes on, Avenging does too. It is, I think, a misread to equate sterility with monstrosity, and any choice other than motherhood as an aberration. That's not the context of the scene.
What about the other characters?
I'm surprised people aren't making more of the scene where Hawkeye gives Scarlet Witch a pep talk. Isn't the scared little girl hero having to be told to buck up a more annoying feminine portrayal? But I'm not sure it should be. If every female character showed the exact same kind of weakness consistently throughout the film, it would be a problem.  but can't a female hero fail or express doubt? So does Hawkeye, after all. All he's doing is giving her the benefit of his experience, and then letting her decide if she wants to be an Avenger. He doesn't stick around to protect her. She's left on her own and she makes the choice. That specific character has her own arc, which doubt was a part of (just as it was for Banner). And doubt isn't a bad thing necessarily. At the other end of the spectrum is Iron Man, whose LACK of doubt becomes dangerous hubris.

Another objectionable bit was Stark's glib comment about wanting to sleep with Asgardian girls. Again, it's a matter of character. Wouldn't a sexist macho jerk like Tony Stark make such comments? The film doesn't hide the fact that the Avengers are very much a boy's club, and the women who work with them openly mock their testosterone levels. Just because a character says something doesn't mean the writer AGREES with such sentiments, nor that he or she believes any given character speaks for their entire gender or ethnicity. And it doesn't even mean the CHARACTER means what he's saying. A few moments earlier, Stark and Thor were arguing about whose girlfriend was the more accomplished woman! We may not think the boys' banter is appropriate, but does it feel true to life given their various backgrounds?

So in short (yeah, I know, this has been anything but), I think it's important to ask QUESTIONS about gender and ethnic representation, and require our media makers to do better. But it's just as important to accept the natural answers that follow those questions. Just because we ask if a film is sexist doesn't mean it IS, but it's important to have that dialog so that we develop a language and criteria by which to actually judge such things and improve on them, something more than how high one's knee might have jerked.

But I'm open to other interpretations if you have them...


Jayunderscorezero said...

What's the name of that thing where people are *much* more critical of people within their group than outside of it? I feel like a large part of the reason there's such a desire to put this film through a feminist fine tooth comb is *because* Joss Whedon identifies as a feminist, whereas James Gunn or Zack Snyder wouldn't get the same level of backlash (a tutting at their excesses, but not the level of vitriol Whedon has received).

I'm also just disappointed that I'm seeing self-proclaimed feminists behave, frankly, like gamergaters (don't like a piece of nerd pop culture? Harrass one of the people involved until they don't feel safe on the internet!). Any valid criticisms of the film aside, using those criticisms to justify a harrassment campaign *screams* fan-entitlement rage and the most toxic elements of nerd culture and internet pile-on culture. I guess I've learned that anti-feminist men don't have the monopoly on behaving in such a way.

Siskoid said...

Whedon at least set the record straight that he didn't leave Twitter because of the tweet-rage, but that it had been his plan all along to go into writing mode. He's got to come up with an original project now, after all.

But yes, I think you're right. We're more critical of those we believe should know better. It's no surprise when it comes from expected quarters (oh the director of Sucker Punch is a raging sexist? Wouldn't be much of a surprise), but in this case I genuinely think it's a case of using a "formula" as a litmus test. Does the woman get captured? FAIL. Does the woman have or want a romance? FAIL. The article I linked to, which is at least a reasoned response (as opposed to 140-character bait tweets), seems to be motivated by expectations (the enemy of the right-minded critic, in my view). The writer wanted and expected the "red ledger" reference from Avengers 1 to be fully explored in 2. It wasn't, and I for one don't need everything about an enigmatic character explained, as it diminishes their appeal (see Wolverine). It just wasn't the story the post writer wanted told, and that disappointment may have led to picking apart the Widow's actual storyline with a negative bias.

I'm not in anyone's head here, but that's how it reads.

Jayunderscorezero said...

I've not read that article yet, but that does sound like setting the film up to fail.

Sea-of-Green said...

Seems more like this is a matter of one group trying to prove that they're more feminist than another group, and the new Avengers movie is being used as the launching pad for that argument. They can split hairs over the movie forever without one side emerging as the "winner."

I personally didn't have any problem with the way the movie's characters were presented. I just enjoyed the characters as their individual selves, with their individual quirks. I was too busy geeking out over seeing Ultron and the Vision to worry about anything else!

LondonKdS said...

I had problems with the idea of Natasha as the one person who could calm Bruce down because there were other characters who seemed far more logical: Tony is the one who in previous films has seemed to get on best with Bruce on a personal level, Thor is a fantasy Norse warrior and hence presumably has personal experience and cultural knowledge about how to deal with people who go berserk, and Steve is just a generally trustworthy and reassuring person. It did seem to me as if the idea came from sexist assumptions that the female character obviously has to be "nurturing".

And it's not just about Age of Ultron - a lot of people have been getting increasingly pissed off for years that Whedon still self-congratulates himself and is fawned on by the press about being the MOST FEMINIST MAN IN HOLLYWOOD on the strength of one show that ended over a decade ago, when his other works all have some serious problems in their depiction of women and he's done some seriously dodgy real-life things.

JohnF said...

When Natasha was describing herself as a "monster" it had everything to do with her feelings of remorse over the people she'd killed in the past (repeated flashback to the bound and hooded person who was part of the graduation process) and nothing to do with feeling like she was less of a woman because of the sterilization. Yes, she undoubtedly felt mutilated by the process; I doubt the guys in the Red Room were particularly empathetic or gentle for this process, after all.
But Nat doesn't even seem to care that much that she can't have kids. She even uses this fact to reassure Bruce when he says that he'll never be able to have kids.
People see what they want to see, but it's disappointing how so many people suddenly don't get Joss Whedon at all. How could anyone possibly think he was implying that a mature, savvy woman like Natasha would have a hysterical bout of self-loathing because she can't have kids? This isn't 1950.

Andrew said...

Add me to the list of people who saw Widow's description of herself as a monster as referring to being turned into a cold-blooded killer against her will. Pretty sure Winter Soldier's going to go through the same sort of thing when/if he gets all his memories back.

Romance when she hadn't demonstrated any interests in that direction? Sure, unless that running gag of her trying to set Cap up with someone was a way of trying to live vicariously through someone else.

As for Tony's little comment before failing to lift the hammer, Whedon seems to love getting sex jokes past the censors and much of the audience. About half the songs in the musical episode of Buffy qualify, as does a particular insult Loki tossed out in the first Avengers. And then there's Doctor Horrible, where he didn't have to worry about the censors.


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