So I finally saw Avengers: Age of Ultron over the weekend. I knew, vaguely, that there was some feminist kerfuffle over how Black Widow is handled in the movie, but I didn’t want any spoilers, so I avoided reading any details. I expected, due to the level of fury and hand-wringing, that it was probably some shitshow of having her menaced with rape in a cheap plot device-y way, or something like that. I walked out of the movie, which I enjoyed a lot, wondering what the hell it could be. Seriously, nothing in the movie struck me as particularly sexist—besides that dumb joke about how she’s always cleaning up after “you boys”, which could also be read as a dig at the studio for limiting Joss Whedon to one female Avenger, which he has griped about—there was nothing. On the contrary, Black Widow was the most fleshed out character in the film, making it seem like it was a movie about Black Widow and her bro-y companions. I was totally baffled.
SPOILERS, it should go without saying.
So I looked it up when I came home and was stunned to discover the complaint is that her backstory trauma of being forcibly sterilized wasn’t horrible enough. Meredith Woerner and Katharine Trendacosta at io9 explain:
For months we scanned trailers picking out promises of a Black Widow’s soon to be revealed backstory. So imagine our disappointment, when Black Widow’s secret backstory, about training as a cold blooded spy, was boiled down to a forced sterilization. A horrifying reveal, but not really the “red ledger” reveal we’d been promised. Julie Delpy appears in a forced Black Widow flashback, showing her young spy training culminating in one horrifying gesture. Would Black Widow have to kill her parents? Her friends? Her puppy, Kingsman-style? No her “graduation ceremony” would be that she would be sterilized. Foisting a frustrated desire for motherhood and self loathing onto this character. It makes her feel permanently alone. We know this because that’s what she tells Hulk during a quieter character reveal moment for Black Widow….
That’s what the Red Room did to her. It’s not the loss of innocence through killing or being forced to live a life of betraying people. The greatest loss is motherhood. That’s why she’s a monster like the Hulk. Poor Black Widow. She leaned in, and where did it get her? She’s a lonely, incomplete, monster.
Look, I am deliberately childless and so I get it, the over-the-top romanticization of motherhood in movies is a particular irritation of mine. But reducing forced sterilization to that is, I’d argue, missing the point entirely. I thought it was Feminism 101 to see forced sterilization as part and parcel of the larger tapestry of ways that women’s control over their own reproduction is taken from them in order to dehumanize and oppress them. Forced sterilization, like abortion bans or restricting contraception access, is a way of telling women “your body is not your own”. I took her story to mean that she had basically been enslaved and while she had managed to free herself mostly, there was one part of her that would always be permanently marked by her captivity. It’s perverse to describe any part of her training as “leaning in”. The Avengers is her leaning in. That’s her choice, and it’s one she explicitly links to the idea that she now is free to consider love and family. But I’ll get back to that.
Now, if Natasha had been the only character in the movie struggling with balancing love/family issues with her work, then okay, that’s sexist. But she was one of three characters—the other two being Steve and Clint—facing the same dilemma. Storytelling 101: There’s three characters, all facing the same dilemma, and so, you guessed it, we are going to be treated to three different ways of approaching the problem.
1) Can’t “have it all”: Decide to forgo these kind of intimate attachments, and choose instead to be a loner. This is the cliche that pops up tediously, over and over again, in these stories. I swear, like 75% of superhero-type stories involve our hero solemnly telling a love interest that while he loves he, he can’t both be the hero and be with her. Barf. Steve Rogers gets this particular storyline, though blessedly without the mansplaining, but in a more subtle, he’s just deciding for himself kind of way.
2) Leaning out: Give up superheroing. This is Clint’s storyline, and I found it to be just fine. Jeremy Renner is a boring actor, but they pulled this off as well as they could anyway. I was slightly touched, even, when he returned to his family, the implication being that it’s forever.
3) Leaning in: Accept that you’ll never have a “normal” life, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have some sort of love life, for fuck’s sake. This is Natasha’s entire argument to Bruce. The sterilization story is part of this. Yes, she was forcibly sterilized and yes, she knows that picket fences and kids aren’t in her future. But so the fuck what? You can still bone Mark Ruffalo! Natasha rejects the extreme views of Steve and Roger, instead believing that it’s possible to have a life that both has Avenger work and love in it.
And the movie is 100% on her side. They aren’t even subtle about it. Literally right before Natasha hits on Bruce the first time, viewers are reminded that both Thor and Tony have happy relationships outside of the Avenging work. This primes you to side with her when she suggests to Bruce that such a thing is totally doable, particularly since they hang out together all the time anyway. Natasha, in other words, is the most emotionally healthy and rational person in the entire movie, except for maybe Thor. So what if she feels insecure and monstrous sometimes? The world does tell women who want an independent existence that they’re monsters. One is bound to absorb that message and feel insecure sometimes.
All of which is why you’re screaming at Bruce that he’s a super dick for ditching her. But just because you’re right doesn’t mean people have to listen to you. But Natasha is a survivor. Just because she fell in love with a man who has to do the overdramatic “I’m not good enough for you!” act when he’s presented with a chance at actual happiness doesn’t mean she’s going to fall apart. She’ll suck it up and get back to work. Maybe he’ll get over himself and come home. Maybe she’ll meet someone new. But I felt that she was going to be alright, because she’s not hidebound by social expectations of what the good life should look like. And that struck me as pretty feminist.
That said, the biggest problem with these movies is there are so few female characters. When there’s only one female lead, she ends up being the stand-in for all women, which creates pressure to turn her into a bland Strong Female Character, instead of a multi-dimensional human character. When Tony Stark is a dick, no one takes that mean that all men are dicks, because there are other, non-dick men (Steve!) nearby to contrast him with. If Clint is a devoted father, that isn’t taken to mean all men want to be fathers, because there are others (Tony!) nearby who don’t. But Natasha is in this unfortunate situation of having to be all things to all people. But to that, I blame the studio, for clearly being afraid of having more women in big roles out of a misplaced fear of running off male audience members. Joss Whedon decided to write Black Widow as a specific individual instead of a generic Strong Woman, and I think the movie was more fun for that. But it would have played better if there had been more women in lead roles.
Updated to add: For those who saw Game of Thrones last night, I will point that an identical storyline is happening for a male character on that show. Grey Worm is Unsullied, raised to be a ruthless and emotionless warrior and deprived not just of his fertility, but his sexual organs. Because of this, he is conflicted about what kind of person he is and what his identity is all about. So this is clearly not a female-specific storyline, not that being female-specific makes something sexist.