Is Black Widow Still a Hero? Dissecting the Misogynistic Outrage Against the Avengers

by Evan Sawdey

6 May 2015

Black Widow may very well be the pinnacle of the modern action heroine, so why is there so much backlash about her role in the new Avengers film?
 
cover art

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Paul Bettany

US theatrical: 1 May 2015

“I hope Satan eats your asshole.”
“Catch my hands right now turn on your fucking location you neck beard bitch.”
“You ugly ass big bird looking bitch, stop ruining everything you touch.”

This is just a very small sampling of tweets that were directed at Joss Whedon over the past few days since the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the year’s most anticipated Hollywood film next to Star Wars Episode VII. For a man who has created numerous TV shows centered around strong female characters, it was a bit of a shock when, on 5 May 2015, Whedon abruptly shut down his popular and humorous Twitter account following the heated backlash he received over the treatment of the Avengers’ main female protagonist, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson).
  
In previous Marvel films, Black Widow is a smart, likable, no-nonsense badass who doesn’t take “no” for an answer, even though she has no actual superpowers. In Age of Ultron, some critics felt that she had been demoted from “strong female antagonist” to mere “damsel in distress”, and all of this is compounded by a searing monologue at the film’s midpoint. This is when she tells of her training as a young girl, which was capped off by her being “sterilized”, so she wouldn’t produce any “distractions” in the field. She turns to Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and says “You’re not the only monster on the team.”

The scene is written with the purpose of helping to humanize a character who was already beloved by fans, with the popular interpretation being that she calls herself a monster not because she is sterile, but because of what she had to endure to become who she is today. Equating her training and forced surgery ordeal with that of a man who can transform into an invincible green monster would be an absolutely absurd and frighteningly sexist comparison, but as it stands, this is exactly how some people saw it. (Also worth noting: that specific term “monster” is used by virtually every single character in the film at one point or another in describing themselves, the crux of the whole story being that everyone confronts the darker aspects of themselves.)

Thus, in an article for The Daily Beast titled “Avengers: Age of Ultron‘s Black Widow Disgrace”, Marlow Stern says that following her confession to Banner, Black Widow’s infertility “becomes the main focus” of the movie, going on to say that “Because she’s a woman, saving the world isn’t enough for her. She’s always got that cursed void to fill. After all, it’s what makes her, as she says, a ‘monster.’”

Stern goes on to note how she has effectively served as a half-hearted “cog” of vague romantic interest for at least four of the male Avengers, even noting that during her introduction to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in Iron Man 2, the first words “yelled at her” are “What’s your name, lady?” (Stern does fail to note that she was under disguise for this scene, specifically brought in as a piece of eye candy in order to get a job at the company, highlighting Stark’s sexism before she takes control of some of his situations as the now-revealed Black Widow.)

Yet even out in the real world, the character still gets pulled into standard sexist rhetoric, Stern citing Renner and Chris Evans’ very casual jokes about her being “a slut” and a “complete whore” during the AOU press tour being indicative of some more bone-headed reactions to Widow’s role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Thus, some long-standing fans of Whedon’s have been quick to come to his defense. Comedian Patton Oswalt, for example, himself in a recurring role on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., gave the standard liberal “clean slate” approach to the issue, blaming it all on one subset of people while deflecting any chance for legitimate criticism:


Others, like Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, have taken a more mannered approach, taking to his Facebook pages to support Whedon, as well:

“Imagine being a guy, like Joss Whedon, who has committed his life to fandom and to creating the best characters he possibly can, characters he loves, and has spent two years of his life working on a movie, and then has to wake up to this shit on Twitter. Yes, I know—Age of Ultron has an ‘A’ Cinemascore, and far and away most people loved it. But the angry contingent of fandom is getting more aggressive all the time, and it’s difficult to block out as a person in the public eye.”

Yet some responses were more nuanced. Take for example Alyssa Rosenberg’s article for The Washington Post, which takes a much more in-depth look at Black Widow’s relationship to Hawkeye/Clint Barton. It begins with the first Avengers film, wherein Rosenberg notes how “When she went to visit Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in an attempt to figure out what he’d done to the brainwashed Barton, the Asgardian trickster jumped to the logical conclusion: ‘Is this love, Agent Romanoff?’ ‘Love is for children,’ Natasha told him coldly. ‘I owe him a debt.’” Rosenberg writes:

It was a response that left room for her to be in denial, but Avengers: Age of Ultron revealed something rather more subversive, at least by the standards of contemporary filmmaking: Natasha and Clint are what they say they are, not soulmates in denial but the best of friends. And Natasha’s close to Clint’s wife, Laura (Linda Cardellini), too: ‘How’s little Natasha?’ she asks Laura when they arrive at Clint’s house. ‘Actually, he’s Nathaniel,’ Laura confesses. ‘Traitor,’ Natasha whispers to the baby. In a few efficient lines, Whedon’s sketched in a warmer side of Natasha’s personality. It’s not that it didn’t exist before; it’s just that, until the trip to the Bartons’ farm, she wasn’t around the people who deserved to see it.

Later, as she and Clint weave through the ruins of Sokovia, they diffuse their nerves by talking about Clint’s latest idea for a home renovation, a plan to turn his dining room into a workspace for Laura.

‘You guys always eat in the kitchen anyway,’ Natasha tells him, cool as the world is falling away beneath them. There’s a subtle but profound intimacy to the exchange: it’s proof of how well they know each other, how much comfort they take from each other, how well Natasha is integrated into Clint and Laura’s lives.”

While Rosenberg acknowledges the line of criticism that exists about treating “Black Widow like nothing more than a cheap temptress,” she herself says that that misses the mark, and she instead gets right to the meat about the whole sterilization business in the context of the film:

The tragedy of Natasha’s character isn’t that she’s been felled from her mission by her love for babies. It’s that her mentor (Julie Delpy) took something away from Natasha that didn’t have to be removed for her to be a hero. She could have been a lover and mother and friend and fighter all at once. That Natasha’s male compatriots aren’t asked to reconcile supposedly disparate parts of their personalities is their good fortune. That Natasha works so hard to do so is the measure of her heroism.

As if all of the arguments over the character weren’t enough, Black Widow’s place in the entire movie industry has also become a recent point of debate in the last few days, perhaps, oddly, summed up best by a Saturday Night Live spoof during Johansson’s recent hosting gig:

Indeed, the fact that there hasn’t been the need to create a standalone Black Widow movie in Kevin Feige’s elaborately-planned Marvel Comic Universe designs is a bit of a headscratcher, but according to to an email dug up by Indiewire’s Women and Hollywood section, this is due to some inherent sexism built within the industry. In the exchange, Sony CEO Michael Lyton receives a response from Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter about “Female Movies”, wherein Perlmutter cites only three female superhero movies as to the reason why another one wouldn’t work: 2005’s Elektra, 2004’s Catwoman and, in an astoundingly dated example, 1984’s Supergirl.

Regardless of what one thinks of Black Widow’s treatment in Avengers: Age of Ultron, the fact that she has yet to receive a standalone movie is almost unbelievable, doubled by the fact that as recently as 2014, Johansson herself starred in Luc Besson’s superhuman sci-fi Lucy, which went on to do $126M domestic with a worldwide haul of just under half-a-billion (which is to say nothing of the continued success of the Hunger Games or Divergent franchises or Angelina Jolie’s 2010 film Salt or Angelina Jolie’s 2008 film Wanted or, in a dated example that Perlmutter would appreciate, Angelina Jolie’s 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider). Plus, for every standalone Wolverine film that makes there bank, there’s also a Jonah Hex or Punisher reboot that fails to connect with audiences en masse, effectively eradicating the long-held notion that young men and young men alone are the driving force behind action box office victories.

Yet even with the changing demographic of mainstream filmgoing audiences, people everywhere will still be looking to Black Widow as the most definitive heroine this side of District 12, and standalone film or no, such a striking figure will continue to dominate the cultural conversation for some time to come, both on social media and, in Joss Whedon’s case, off it.

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