Opinion Piece

Is Avengers: Age Of Ultron Sexist? Let’s Talk About Black Widow

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“Why do you continue to write strong female characters?” “Because you’re still asking me that question.” – Joss Whedon

Prominent fighter for female rights Joss Whedon – the man behind two Avengers movies, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and much more – has come under fire from people claiming that this his portrayal of Black Widow in Age of Ultron is sexist. So bad has the hate been that it was assumed to be the reason for Whedon quitting Twitter altogether, although this was revealed by Whedon himself to be untrue.

So, is there any credibility to these claims? Has Joss Whedon, a man notably celebrated for writing brilliant characters, both male and female and supporting female rights, somehow done an injustice to Black Widow? The short answer is no, and it seems abundantly clear that the people busy arguing that he has haven’t actually seen the film, as they take things out of context that have seemingly been repeated by other people.

The first issue stems from Ultron, the film’s Big Bad (kudos if you get that reference), kidnapping Black Widow. This is claimed to make Black Widow a standard damsel in distress awaiting rescue from the burly men, so let’s stop and consider a few things. Firstly, during the kidnapping, a scene in keeping with Ultron’s personality for showboating, it’s Black Widow who ultimately manages to save the cradle containing what will be Vision. More importantly claiming that she’s a damsel in distress blatantly ignores her contributions throughout the rest of the film. Let’s not forget that it’s Black Widow who can calm the raging Hulk, that it was Black Widow who rode a motorcycle out of a moving plane to land on the road, drove at high-speed through busy traffic, grabbed Captain America’s shield, slid under a fucking moving truck and then threw Cap’s shield up to him, thereby saving his ass from Ultron. Are we just choosing to ignore that she stood side-by-side with her team-mates as equals to defend the key component to saving the world, knowing it would likely be the last thing she ever did? Are we just ignoring how much ass she kicked?

Going back to the kidnapping, let’s stop and really think about it. You see, Widow not only delivered the would-be Vision to Hawkeye, but also then led her entire team to the bad guy’s old-school fortress of doom so that the final battle could take place. People tend to focus on Captain America battling Ultron as the key moment of Act 2, except when you think about it Black Widow is the one it’s actually build around. Her specific skillset is used; it’s her skills as a spy the delivers Vision, and her skills as a spy that lets her contact Hawkeye after cobbling together a transmitter and get the team focused on target. This all leads to a moment with the Hulk, too, another pivotal scene in which she literally pushes Banner off a cliff to bring out the Hulk. Widow’s actual kidnapping is relatively short, and while they could have perhaps completely restructured the sequence to fit another character, why should they? Black Widow saves Cap’s rear end as he fights Ultron, delivers the cradle, helps her team get to the right location, gets the Hulk into the battle and then goes on to kick ass herself. I’m sorry, what’s the actual problem here? That she got kidnapped? So what? Why is that a problem? Just because she’s a woman? Because that’s some bullshit right there.

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It also ignores the whole team thing. At one point Black Widow saves Hawkeye’s butt, and in another Scarlet Witch saves Hawkeye’s butt and then in another Quicksilver saves Hawkeye’s butt…actually, wait, Hawkeye needs a lot of saving. Damn it. But then we also see Quicksilver saving his sister several times, and Vision coming to the aid of Thor. These people are a team who help each other out, and throughout the course of the movie we see men helping men, women helping men, men helping women and women helping women, and if we’re going to scream sexism every time it happens to be a woman getting saved them we really need to go look up what equality actually means. We can’t spend the next ten or twenty years just having males saved by females all the time to somehow make up for the past however long it has been, because it’d be fucking stupid.

The other issue is far more grievous because of how people have so blatantly taken something out of context so they could twist the meaning, then watch as their waffle is spouted by other people merely jumping on the fucking social media bandwagon so that they seem cool. I speak of the nonsense that is Joss Whedon apparently claiming that sterile women are monsters, because Widow referred to herself as such. Except it’s utter bollox. I’ve watched the film three times now. I know that scene, because it’s a good one, so let’s talk about what actually happened in it, eh?

Here’s the foundations: Bruce Banner, A.K.A. the Hulk, and Natasha Romanoff, A.K.A. Black Widow, are in a relationship, kind of. They aren’t quite at the stage where we could see they are together, but they both have feelings for each other and potentially want to do something about. It’s a relationship which I found surprisingly endearing in my own review of the movie. On a side-note I found it interesting that in the film it was commented upon how Widow had flirted with other members of the team. Again, some people have taken offense at this, but really it seemed to be a simple reflection of her training and personality and nothing more. As Captain America says, he has seen her flirt up close, and what she is doing to Banner isn’t that. Now, as for people just generally against the pairing of Banner and Romanoff, I can get that. For me it works because Widow’s character arc since Iron Man 2 has let her open up as a person, coming down off her pedestal as nothing more than a pretty looking killer. I like how the relationship with Banner began with her having to recruit him and being genuinely afraid of what the Hulk is capable of, to being the only one who can calm the green behemoth down. A lot of time seems to have passed in Age of Ultron, so the fact that these two characters might develop feelings, and that Romanoff managed to discover something far less scary behind the green skin, is an intriguing one.

Anyway, back on topic. During a quiet moment Banner reveals that he is terrified of himself, believing his green alter ego too dangerous to be around people, and thereby making him a monster. This has been set in motion by the all-powerful Scarlet Witch who sent him on a rampage that was only stopped by Iron Man going toe-to-toe with the raging Hulk.  Furthermore he’s scared of entering a relationship, and believes that his condition would mean he could never have children in case his genetics somehow passed on to them. Worse, he’s worried that he could physically hurt them in a fit of rage. It’s a good moment for Banner’s character, revealing his own mistrust of himself and his loneliness in the world.

It’s not just Banner baring his soul, though, as we get an intriguing and immensely saddening look at Natasha’s past. Through flashbacks it is revealed that Natasha went through a brutal childhood at the hands of a mysterious group whose only goal was to turn her, and other young girls, into perfect killing machines, able to use their sexuality, deadly agility, martial skills and sharp minds to manipulate, fight and kill in thousands of different ways. They succeeded, too. As mentioned and hinted at several times, especially within the Loki scene in the first Avengers, Black Widow has red in her ledger. She became that the group wanted to create, the ultimate assassin, her good work as one of the Avengers always tainted by darker days in the KGB. It’s ironic that those very skills are what make her such a powerful force for good, and such a fascinating character who wants to do right, but it also able to straddle the moral line and understand a much darker world. It’s why her pairing with Captain America was so effective in The Winter Soldier, tne niave do-gooder teaming up with a character who is intimately familiar with the far seedier modern world.

“Natasha Romanoff: It’s really not that complicated. I’ve got red in my ledger, I’d like to wipe it out.

Loki: Can you? Can you wipe out that much red? Dreykov’s daughter, Sao Paulo, the hospital fire? Barton told me everything. Your ledger is dripping, it’s GUSHING red, and you think saving a man no more virtuous than yourself will change anything? This is the basest sentimentality. This is a child at prayer… PATHETIC! You lie and kill in the service of liars and killers. You pretend to be separate, to have your own code. Something that makes up for the horrors. But they are a part of you, and they will never go away!”

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To help support Banner and make him feel less lonely she reveals this prior life and that she believes herself to be a monster because of her upbringing, a violent, dangerous person with an unknown bodycount to her name. It’s a gripping piece of insight into her mind. Of all the Avengers Natasha Romanoff is the one with the bloodiest past. Banner is afraid of becoming a monster, but Natasha believes she already is one. IN further support of Banner she then also quietly announces the group also made her sterile in order to ensure that children may never be produced of the meaningless sex she would use in her work, and to ensure that children would never become a potential obstruction for her due to the power of love. In short, she was sterilised in order to make her a more effective killer. It’s a genuinely harrowing,  uncomfortable revelation, which is why it works for the character, and why I was genuinely impressed with a summer blockbuster even attempting to tackle such an issue. As the audience we begin to further appreciate that out of all the Avengers, Romanoff is perhaps the scariest and the most sympathetic. At no point does she equate being sterile to being a monster,  though, and indeed she only reveals this information to help Banner, to let him understand that for them children would not be a concern, that the only people who could be hurt would be Banner and Natasha, a chance they should be willing to take in pursuit of happiness. She isn’t saying she’s a monster because of sterilisation, she says she’s a monster because of what they created her to be. She isn’t a monster because she can’t become pregnant and therefore, as some have argued, can’t a complete woman who can lead a happy life, she views herself as a monster because of the reason for that sterilisation; to become a better killer.

Think of it this way, what makes more sense: that she thinks she is a monster because she can’t have kids, or does she think she is a monster because she was psychologically stripped down and rebuilt from the ground up to kill without mercy, to be a monster? If you answer the first one, go and have a careful think about your life. More importantly the sterilisation line was used to demonstrate just how evil the group that “raised” Black Widow were.

It becomes even dafter when you consider that her admission to believing herself to be a monster was kept entirely separate from the sterilisation line by an entire chunk of dialogue talking about her bloody past, making it even more obvious that she wasn’t calling herself a monster because she couldn’t have kids, bur because she is in fact a monster. And yes, let’s not beat about the bushes here; the implication is that she has killed a lot of people, just because she was told to. That’s a monster by definition.

The myriad of complaints also entirely miss an important theme during the sequence; Banner is the one in need of saving, not Natasha. He’s the damsel in distress, here. Natasha opens up about her past not as a crowning moment in her own backstory but to help him try to find some semblance of piece and consider the possibility that the two could have a life together, away from the Avengers. While she is naturally upset to bring these memories to the fore, she is also resolutely accepting of it. What we see isn’t a man comforting the woman, as is so traditional, but quite the reverse – it’s Natasha comforting Banner and trying to get him to live for the now.  This theme continues to the end, where it’s Bruce Banner in his Hulk form that makes the decision to leave because of his own self belief that he’ll ultimately harm people, while Black Widow stays in order to continue trying to do good with a new team of Avengers. Some have argued that this is just another case of the man abandoning the woman, but really it’s the man running away. Once again, it’s Banner that really needs the saving. He’s struggling to come to terms with his alter ego, while Black Widow has accepted her own devastating past and is trying to balance the scales, even though she knows that they never can be. That’s not a damsel in distress.

The misunderstanding isn’t helped by another few sequences in the film. Firstly Hawkeye’s wife is pregnant, and Widow is seen with a somewhat wistful look on face when looking at her. Later Hawkeye’s wife texts Natasha a picture of the new-born baby, and we again see the longing in Natasha’s eyes. Combined with the serialisation sequence people have taken this to be a further slap in the face for women. But it isn’t, I think. That baby is a symbol of everything the group did to Natasha. It’s a symbol of everything they took from her. When you get right down to it was not the sterilisation itself, but rather the fact the choice was taken away from her,  hence my believe that the whole “longing for a kid” isn’t really longing for a child, but longing for the choice, the choice to lead a “normal” life, with or without children. Natasha can accept the training and the blood and the violence, but the lack of choice is the final thing she cannot fully accept. And it’s never even hinted at that Natasha even wants children at any point in this film or the previous ones. Indeed, if she did one kids we can probably assume adoption would of come up, but it didn’t. And even if we assume for a moment that Natasha feels she can’t be complete without having children, what the hell is wrong with that? It makes her own arc sadder and more powerful, if it is indeed even true.  For many, many women having children is a life goal, and there’s nothing wrong with that, so sod off. The door swings both ways, and whether you want kids or not is entirely your choice. As a strong woman, Natasha can go either way. This is about what she the character believes is needed to make herself complete, not you the viewer.

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I’d also put forward that Black Widow’s brief sting of being Aunt Nat at Hawkeye’s film was also incredibly endearing. Considering the obvious love she has for them it doesn’t show a broken woman pining for children, just one who enjoys being an Aunt to her best friends kids. I bloody adore my little niece, but boy am I glad when she heads home to, too. One can like hanging around with kids without wanting them oneself, after all.

Natasha’s story also further ties in with Banner’s via the theme of choice. Due to her upbringing and “graduation ceremony” Natasha never had the choice to lead any other kind of life, and it’s only through Banner that she’s actually beginning to think that she could just leave it all behind. Meanwhile Banner is also struggling with having the choice taken away from him. He didn’t decide to become the Hulk, it was an accident that robbed him of ever leading what would traditionally be viewed as a normal life. Even he doesn’t actually say that he wants kids, just that he could never have them. They are once again just a symbol of what society deems to be a regular life, one that Banner cannot have. The rest of the Avenger’s all chose to be heroes: Captain America chose to take the serum; Tony Stark chose to don the armor and become Iron Man; Thor chose to wield Mjolnir; Hawkeye, at least to the best of our knowledge, chose to become a spy. Hulk and Black Widow are the only two characters who had choice stripped away from them. And then, at the end, they both got to make a choice. Banner left, and Romanoff stayed.

There are a few genuine problems, but they aren’t with the film. in Iron Man 2 Black Widow was a character with little personality, presented merely as a beautiful woman in skin-tight leather, albeit a bloody dangerous woman. It’s to Whedon’s credit that she was rebuilt as a far more impressive, interesting person for the first Avenger’s film. Criticism could be levelled at the marketing teams for prominently featuring Black Widow’s butt in her promotional posters, although one could also argue that using her innate sexuality in such a fashion also fits with the character. The fact that there’s very little Black Widow merchandise seems downright bloody stupid to me. The argument that she deserves a solo film doesn’t hold so much  industry weight because Hawkeye ain’t getting one, either, presumably because Marvel already have a big slate and it makes far more sense to focus on the bigger heroes. Having said that, I’d be up for seeing a Hawkeye/Black Widow flick chronicling some of their missions, or even a TV mini-series. And yes, I’d like a Black Widow solo film, too, detailing her early days and switch over to the good guys.

The Marvel universe hasn’t handled women as well as it should, absolutely, and that’s coming from someone who believes the entire sexist debate has lost its way entirely and has become little more than a mockery of itself that consistently gets in the way of actual progress. But some of the complaints here are idiotic. I’ve even seen some people trying to berate Whedon for the scene in which Scarlet Witch needs a pep talk to kick some ass, saying it makes absolutely no sense, and that it should have been Quicksilver in her place. In a way I agree that Quicksilver needing a pep talk would probably have made his death more important, but here’s a better question; why can’t it be Scarlet Witch? Because she’s a woman? That’s dumb. It should be whomever the writer thinks will work best. It wasn’t Quicksilver because he was shown consistently to be impulsive and always up for a fight, and somewhat arrogant due to his speed. Scarlet Witch, though, was portrayed as more mentally unstable, making her need for encouragement make complete sense. She then moves on to take a place in a new Avengers team.

Another complaint was how an asian woman is seen cowering from Ultron, with detractor’s attempting to say that this is clearly an allegory for an Asian woman acting subservient to a male, apparently ignoring the fact that Ultron isn’t a male and cowering in fear from a giant robot on a rampage is a pretty typical reaction. Another moment has Romanoff behind a bar, making a drink for Banner, and according to the detractors this is a clear case of the woman serving the man. It’s bloody stupid, is what it is. Imagine for a moment that the roles were reversed, that Banner was serving Romanoff a drink – I’m pretty damn sure those same people would claim that this was a prime example of the man wooing the lady in an old-fashioned, sexist way. The thing is when we go deliberately looking for issues, be they racism, sexism or any other is, we tend to reconstruct things to suit our search. When we go deliberately looking with the intent of discovery, we’ll inevitably find what we’re searching for, not because it exists but because we’ve willed it be so.

It’s things like this that make me question if these people even watched the damn film, and aren’t just hopping on a bandwagon because that’s what social media demands. More frustratingly even if Age of Ultron does have some issues, and it very well may because I’m hardly infallible, then they aren’t exactly huge, and at least Whedon was damn well trying. Meanwhile crap like Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight and the Transformer movies all seem to get free passes, despite how they treat female characters AND males.

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2 replies »

  1. I had my problems with “AGE OF ULTRON”. But Natasha’s characterization was not one of them. Even I understood why she would hint that the group that trained and sterilized her (probably Leviathan) had made her a monster. I understood the reasoning behind the sterilization. It seemed a pity that a lot of people failed to understand.

  2. I know I’m way late coming to this discussion, but you are totally right about the sexism-that-isn’t. I do think AoU has issues, but this isn’t one of them. I’m not even convinced about the relationship between Bruce and Natasha, and it did feel a bit clunky and forced… But it’s not sexist to have feelings for a person. That she’s been unapologetically called a slut and a whore by male cast members (as well as members of the public) for flirting (while Tony is seemingly given a pass for actively sleeping around) is far more sexist. I have even seen her labeled the town bicycle for daring to have feelings for a co-worker… That she has been ignored in merchandise. That’s sexist. That there is a drastic shortage of good female heroes, that’s also an issue. There’s plenty of sexism already to fight in the MCU, in comic books as a whole, in Sony… There’s no need to make these scenes into more.

    As someone who has also had their fertility taken away, I totally agree that even if you logically have decided not to have kids (as Bruce has) when that choice us taken from you, you STILL grieve that loss of choice. Of course, you don’t HAVE to have a child to be a proper woman. You don’t have to be fertile, or even have female reproductive organs. And I’ve seen that scene several times since. In no way does it insinuate that infertility = monster. She clearly is equating that the sterilisation was a last step in the process of making her a monster, but in no way suggested that it did on it’s own.

    To be honest, some of the attitudes I’ve seen towards people who choose not to have children are as bad as, or worse than, being called monsters – that they’re selfish wastes of oxygen, that they should just die as there is no point to their lives, that they can’t possibly know fulfillment/happiness/love yet at the same time, can’t possibly understand exhaustion, etc. These attitudes hurt – even if it’s not through choice. As does the assumption that if you are infertile, you’re giving up if you don’t do all the fertility treatments, if you do/don’t get a surrogate or if you do/don’t adopt. These days, it seems like women can’t win. If the don’t want kids, they’re monsters. If they do just want kids and a family, they are internalising misogyny.

    And sometimes being infertile feels like being a monster, deep in your grief and self loathing for your body failing you. Especially if you have any kind of role in make the choice that ends your chances.

    I did, when I made the decision to have a hysterectomy. I tried to end my suffering and potentially life threatening damage from endometriosis – which in itself causes infertility in many sufferers. It wasn’t just the horrible 24/7 pain that narcotics didn’t even help, but the fact that I’d lost hunks of bowel and been hospitalised who knows how often with bowel obstructions as a result. Unfortunately, it hasn’t really worked – I still have pain and bowel issues, as well as terrible menopause symptoms aged 34. But hopefully it won’t worsen and I’m less likely to die. But you know what?

    I feel like a failure. I’d already ruled kids out because of passing on health issues, because I could barely care for myself. All signs were that my insides were too scarred and tangled to even get pregnant. But having to make that choice made me go through the same grieving process all over again. Only, this time, there was no tiny flare of hope that I didn’t even realise had existed the first time round, the infinitesimal chance that somehow I might get well enough to change my mind, and that my body would play ball too.

    And so here I am, still sick, still damaged, still dealing with past issues that – while not KGB brainwashing and murder – still combine with my infertility to make me feel subhuman, worthless. A monster.

    Since when has it become wrong to want a child?

    Sorry for the long rant, but thank you for writing and clarifying how I feel about the controversy associated with this.

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