The Black Widow Conundrum and Joss Whedon
Warning: Here there be Spoilers
The twitterverse exploded this week with @josswhedon being flooded with accusations of misogyny, a bizarre situation considering he’s famous for strong female characters. He did give us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, after all, featuring TVs strong female lead since the 1970s Wonder Woman. When someone asked, “So, why do you write these strong female characters?” his now-famous response was, “Because you’re still asking me that question.”
So…Whedon a misogynist? How did that happen?
Black Widow’s Romantic Interest
The first issue concerns the relationship between Widow and Bruce Banner, aka the Hulk, in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. She clearly has feelings for him, although he’s not sure what to do about it. After all, being a guy who turns into a ten-foot beast that knocks down buildings when suitably pissed off does not scream stable relationship partner.
The complaint is that she’s reduced to being someone else’s romantic interest.
First off all, what we see never gets beyond the potential for romance. What the two primarily have is a complex and layered friendship which allows her to sooth the Hulk back into being Banner. “Reduced” to such a role? It’s a damn powerful role. None of the others have any hope of putting down the Hulk other than through brute force. Is it really such an insult to have a female character be able to accomplish something without beating the crap out of it?
And it wasn’t like she was the only one who had a relationship-related sub-plot. We meet Hawkeye’s wife and children, for crying out loud. But is anyone complaining that depicted him as overly soft? We have Steve Rogers reminiscing about how he lost his chance with love-of-his-life Peggy Carter. And we have passing mentions of Tony Stark’s Pepper Pots and Thor’s Jane Foster. But no one is suggesting this makes them weak. Only when it involves Black Widow is emotion considered a weakness.
Insisting women can only be emotional creatures is certainly sexist. But insisting that a strong character can’t show strong emotion is just as absurd.
The “Monster” Reference
What’s really got the Internet’s panties in a bunch is a discussion between Widow and Banner concerning her childhood in which she was brainwashed, trained to be an assassin, and sterilized. Banner describes himself as a monster, and she confesses her background makes her one as well.
“You know what my final test was in the Red Room? They sterilized me, said it was one less thing to worry about. You think you’re the only monster on the team?”
The phrasing has led many to think it is only her sterility that makes her a monster. Considering the other parts of her background are about killing as a mindless assassin, it seems reasonable to me to assume her monster quip was about the entire package.
But let’s presume the monster description really does only apply to her sterility. Yes, it’s a big deal today to get past the idea that women are inherently meant to be mothers. There’s plenty of women who don’t want them and are tired are presumptions to the contrary. That doesn’t negate the fact that sterility is a psychological burden on many women. An integral part of them is gone. A choice has been stolen from them. So why is it weakness when Widow expresses a sentiment many other women have?
Widow’s upbringing has left her hollow both emotionally and physically, struggling to connect with other people on the level she does with Banner. The whole point is she’s attempting to move past it and hoped to help Banner with his own demons.
The Damsel in Distress
Black Widow is also briefly captured by Ultron, mostly so he can gloat and explain what is going on to the audience. She’s thrown behind bars and briefly trapped until rescued by one of the male heroes.
This one got to me just a bit. Did they really need that scene? Couldn’t they use some other contrivance? But I’d hardly call it misogynist. Just an overused trope.
As for her being rescued by a man, she’s the only woman on an otherwise all male team. Of course she was rescued by a man. It was the only option.
And then there’s the problem of superpowers or, more specifically, Widow’s lack of them. No matter how much of a bad-ass she can be, she can’t tear open metal doors, unlike every other Avenger with the exception of Hawkeye. From a statistical standpoint, if that scene was going to happen, there’s a roughly 50% chance the victim would be Widow.
It did still annoy me. They could have found some other way. But it wasn’t misogyny.
The only way some people will accept a female character as being strong is if she acts like a stereotypical guy: emotionally limited, competitive, and ass-kicking. That’s not even a great template for a male character. But fall outside those bounds as a woman, and suddenly you’re weak and feeble, and your writer is a misogynist.
What we need are more dynamic characters in general, as well as more female characters. There’s a lot of problems with Widow trying to be part of the old boys club that is the Avengers. Adding the Scarlet Witch will hopefully help, but only if they write her as a fully developed character rather than just as a woman with powers.