Black Widow, ‘Avengers,’ and Marvel’s problem with women
Marvel’s got a problem: women. The company that’s delivered Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Hulk to the big screen needs to shape up, and now.
We’ve been pretty patient as viewers, but the approach taken to Black Widow in their most recent “Avengers: Age of Ultron” has undermined the only female lead in the franchise. Yes, supporting franchise roles include Gamora in “Guardians of the Galaxy” and Scarlet Witch in “Ultron,” but Black Widow’s the only lead and the only to appear in multiple films. Besides, even Gamora’s outnumbered 4-to-1 in her own ensemble. Heck, she’s outnumbered 2-to-1 by animals and plants you find in your backyard at midnight.
When 52 percent of the moviegoing public is represented by just one character, expectations that might be spread across multiple characters are condensed into one. It’s not rocket science why Black Widow is so important, and it’s not wrong that she is.
“Ultron” writer-director Joss Whedon has long been a leader in feminism in TV and movies, most notably with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” He was criticized on Twitter pretty harshly for “Ultron,” and he ended up leaving. It wasn’t because of “militant feminists” as mainstream media was quick to claim, but -- as he told Hollywood Reporter -- a writer needs some quiet to write. Why mainstream media would be so quick to create a feminist vs. feminist narrative that never even existed is worth its own analysis, but that’s not the focus of this article.
There are very minor spoilers from this point forward. In “Ultron,” Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) reveals that she cannot have children. We know she used to be a Russian assassin. Apparently, sterilization is part of the training process. After revealing this, she tells Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) that he’s not the only monster in their ensemble.
Fellow critic Chris Braak at Threat Quality Press puts it best -- Bruce Banner struggles with being a monster because he literally turns into a murderous rage beast, kills people, and there’s nowhere he can go to be safe. Black Widow is a monster because she can’t have babies. Banner could tell her that being sterile isn’t equivalent to murdering thousands in blind rage. Instead, he nods dumbly.
Aside from being disingenuous to the characters, this is a dangerous message to send. According to the National Institute of Health, 15-25 percent of women will suffer miscarriage in their lives. This means purely biological, natural miscarriages -- no abortions or induced miscarriages are included in that statistic. There’s such a stigma surrounding this information that expecting parents often don’t share news of a pregnancy until it’s far enough along. Women who do suffer miscarriages are expected to cope with them in private, making them think something is wrong with them. Why do we enforce social rules that make mothers feel ashamed for something that one in every five of them will undergo?
“Ultron” could address the issue, but it doesn’t. It raises it, calls it monstrous, a superhero agrees that it’s monstrous, and then it’s never brought up again.
Hammering the point home, Black Widow is at the home of Hawkeye’s pregnant wife. Her romantic relationship with Banner essentially turns him into a surrogate son -- she calms him when angry with something the rest of the group refer to as “a lullaby.” She’s also spouting off lines like, “I’m always picking up after you boys.” Black Widow is now the group mother.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but when the sole representative of an entire gender in what’s now a dozen-film franchise undercuts her portrayal of an independent and capable hero by reframing her as the caretaker of the real heroes, you can see how it’s irksome. Black Widow’s role is no longer one of “saving the world.” Her role is mothering the men who do.
What about the only other woman hero, Scarlet Witch? She’s a tough-as-nails psychic with incredible telekinetic powers. She goes toe-to-toe against the Avengers early in the film, yet cowers later on and needs to be reassured by a man that it’s OK to be brave. Really? Because I’m pretty sure she was wiping the floor with everybody else early in the film. Now that there’s a man in the picture, she’s a wilting flower. How is that consistent?
The truth is that the problem extends past the screen. By the end of Marvel’s Phase Three -- covering the 22 films that will be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe through 2019 -- only three of 42 screenwriting credits in the franchise will belong to women. Zero of the 21 directing credits assigned thus far belong to women.
Add to this Marvel Disney releasing only male action figures and T-shirts -- no Black Widows or Scarlet Witches are to be found. Add to that Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter’s leaked emails railing against female superheroes and refusing to make films about them. Add to this Hawkeye actor Jeremy Renner’s weird obsession with calling Black Widow unprintable epithets for “prostitute” in interviews and on late night shows. All that added together is a big problem. I love these films, I really do, but Marvel has got to fix its dangerous attitude on women.
Gabe Valdez grew up in Chicago, went to college in Massachusetts, is a former news reporter in Floresville, Texas, and worked in politics in Oregon. He writes and directs films when he can find the time. Reviews, views, photos and more can be found at http://basilmarinerchase.wordpress.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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