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

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?

“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: