In Defense of Black Widow and Joss Whedon

Black Widow
Image from Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki

A couple of weeks ago, the internet was freaking out over how director Joss Whedon quit Twitter, allegedly due to the backlash from how he portrayed Black Widow (a.k.a. Natasha Romanoff) in the recently released Avengers: Age of Ultron. For those of you not already familiar with the situation: many feminists felt that Black Widow was disgraced. Her portrayal was a “hatchet job,” and Joss Whedon had turned the Avengers’ most badass female character into a damsel in distressThe situation escalated when Whedon temporarily suspend his Twitter account, and the people who weren’t already outraged blamed the big, bad straw feminists for making a fuss. While the actual reason why Mr. Whedon suspended his Twitter account is debatable, one thing is clear: there are people out there on the internet who are pissed.

So without having any specific prior knowledge of what to expect, I set out to determine if these rumors I’d heard about Black Widow turning into a damsel in distress were true or not. While watching the film, I paid extra-special attention to all of Black Widow’s scenes and asked myself, is she vulnerable or in distress? Is she singled out among her teammates in this regard? What I sussed out were a small number of scenes where she might have been perceived as weak or (God forbid) womanly, and frankly, I thought calling her a damsel in distress in any of them was a stretch.

WARNING: THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR AGE OF ULTRON

The first instance I took note of was when the team was infiltrating Ulysses Klaue‘s ship, and Black Widow fell victim to Wanda Maximoff’s psychically induced illusion, which essentially incapacitated her. While she did have to be rescued by Hawkeye, so did Captain America and Thor, both of whom were also rendered helpless by Wanda. Rule of thumb: it’s not sexist if everyone is treated the same.

Next was when the Avengers were lying low at Hawkeye’s house, and Bruce Banner shares a moment with Natasha, in which she confesses that upon graduating from assassin school, she was forced to undergo an effective, in her words, sterilization process. Interestingly enough, this was the point most articles critical of Black Widow’s portrayal latched on to. Oh no! She pressed the mommy button! For many, it seems, this focus on motherhood has simply ruined Black Widow’s character. The general assumption that was all the secretive foreshadowing hinted at in The Avengers was that she thinks of herself as a monster because she is incapable of having babies and totally hung up over the whole issue. io9’s article Black Widow: This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things went so far as to postulate that her relationship with the Hulk had become that of a surrogate mother.

The Hulk and Black Widow
Image from Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki

Personally, I take issue with that last one. If Black Widow is Hulk’s surrogate mother, that give’s Bruce and Natasha’s relationship a whole new Oedipal layer to it, which is just messed up. My take away from that scene is that yes, Natasha has regrets about her past and what was done to her, but I’d like to point out that it was Bruce who brought up the whole “can’t have a family” thing in the first place. With that in mind, Natasha’s confession can be viewed more as an act of solidarity. You can’t have kids, Bruce? Well, guess what, neither can I. The unsaid message there being: don’t be such a whiner, Bruce, and take a chance on our relationship. And as for her being a monster, if you strip her forced sterilization down to a basic level, not counting the connotations of motherhood, it’s still a very disturbing prospect. When she was young, a piece of her body was destroyed and can never be repaired. There’s also the implication behind why she was sterilized. She was sterilized so she could go about her spy business without worrying about getting pregnant. That means that they expected her, a young girl at the time, to be in sexual situations as part of her job. If that’s not monstrous, I don’t know what is.

I also want to address the issue that this line of thinking draws the conclusion that “feminism” means a woman shouldn’t be interested in being a mother. This is an issue I’ve been mentally wrestling with for a long time now. On the one hand, I want to be an empowered woman with a career and not be bogged down with traditional gender roles. Gender normatives are bullshit, it’s true, but on the other hand, there are many women out there who want to be girly, have babies, and be a homemaker. And if that’s something they want (not because it’s what they should do as a woman, but because it’s what they desire as a person) then they should not be shamed for it. As musician and performer Amanda Palmer puts it: being a powerful feminist is doing what you want to do, regardless of what that may be. So really, if Black Widow wants to be sad because she can’t have babies someday, that shouldn’t be something we all should get mad about and resent Joss Whedon over. (Even if I don’t think that was what the movie was going for in the first place.)

Captain America, Black Widow, and Bruce Banner
Image from Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki

The last instance is definitely the most like a “damsel in distress” situation. At one point in the film, Black Widow is kidnapped and taken prisoner by Ultron. None of the male Avengers are kidnapped, just Black Widow, and she is eventually rescued by Bruce Banner. Here’s why I don’t think this makes Black Widow a damsel in distress: she is captured for a whole of maybe five minutes (after being yanked out of a plane in mid-air–something a person who can’t fly couldn’t escape and survive), during which she gets lectured a bit by Ultron and jury rigs a telegraph out of junk that was laying in her cell. A damsel in distress would not be taking action to facilitate her escape. There is nothing wrong for calling for help when you need it (and let your team know where the enemy hideout is in the process), and I think it’s a testament to Natasha’s faith in her friends’ ability to receive her message and come to get her. A damsel in distress would have also taken up Bruce’s proposition to run away together and forget the fight. Instead, Black Widow gives him a smooch for being adorable, then forces him to bring out the Hulk, because they’re Avengers, and they have a job to do.

So who is Black Widow? She’s a competent, confident female superhero with some regrets about her past (which is almost a standard in any superhero, really), and she is willing to sacrifice her own personal happiness in order to do her job and save the world. Is she the biggest, baddest, strongest Avenger out there? No, but neither is Hawkeye. She sounds pretty feminist to me….