Age of Ultron: The Problem With Black Widow


Apparently in response to a ton of backlash for his portrayal of Black Widow in this weekend’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” director Joss Whedon has disabled his twitter account. Having just finished seeing the film this afternoon, I was slightly perplexed by the massive negative response to a character that I felt was given an immense amount of screen time, insanely cool action sequences, and even a touching romance with Bruce Banner: a relationship that I felt was done very well and made sense given the respective histories of the two characters. Then, after reading some of the criticisms made by fans everywhere, both female and male alike, I began to give Black Widow’s portrayal some more thought.

I think the primary issue that many have with Whedon’s interpretation of the character centers on the history of her “creation.” As a highly trained super-assassin, Widow was subject to some cruel and unusual treatment during her childhood in a secret Soviet Russian training facility. During her graduation from the program, Widow, along with the rest of her facility classmates, were sterilized in order to completely devoid them of any possible distractions from their primary objective: assassinating high profile enemies. Yet, when Widow explains to Banner that she and him are both “monsters,” something very dubious sneaks its way into the portrayal of the character. Due to the proximity of this statement to her self-procolomation as a monster, it seems that Whedon has inadvertently deemed infertile women as sub-human. Although I do not think this was his intention, I can see how this plot point can stir up some significant controversy around the character.

A collection of the backlash from some fans towards Whedon

Similarly, although Whedon includes Widow in a lot of the major moments throughout the film, a few of the humorous moments between her and some of the male members of The Avengers — specifically Tony Stark — caused me to scratch my head on further reflection. Known for his cutting wit, Whedon really lets his comedic chops shine in his newest film. Yet, when it comes to handling Widow’s funny moments, Whedon turns to largely sexual jokes (at one point in the film, Stark wonders where Widow has gone and jokingly hopes that she isn’t playing “hide the zucchini” with Banner somewhere).  Although highly sexual jokes with Widow are few and far between, it’s moments like these that work to weaken an otherwise powerful female character, one that can hang tough with a God, a genetically enhanced super soldier, and a hulking rage monster. Again, I think that Whedon wished to tap into Stark’s personality as an egotistical, misogynistic sociopath during his quips towards Widow, but I can definitely understand the underlying issue with his remarks.

I honestly feel sorry for Whedon at this point. As we know, twitter is a dangerous forum for productive discussion with any polarizing issues and seeing thousands of fans peg a man as a “master of misogyny” is a sad sight to behold. I thought Black Widow was done justice in many respects that echo her badassery in the comic book canon, allowing her to kick henchmen ass from start to finish. If anyone else has seen the film, let me know what you think of Black Widow in the comments!

8 thoughts on “Age of Ultron: The Problem With Black Widow

  1. Great points, thanks for sharing.

    I think regardless of Whedon’s intentions when writing for Black Widow, the fallibility of the character needs to play a role in our critique, and the knee-jerk nature of “the offended” on Twitter often fails to think about it beyond the way that makes them offended. I would argue that Whedon’s opinion (and even our own) concerning the monstrosity of an infertile woman is not implicated in the fact that he wrote Black Widow to have that thought about herself. Much like Toni Morrison can write for a young black girl who thinks beauty is whiteness (not true), or Nabokov can write for a pedophile who tries to justify his crimes (not cool), we should allow Whedon the creative license to write for woman who has a self-hatred of her own. The question: “Is Black Widow a monster for being infertile?” is almost impossible to answer in any objective way, but her expression rings true if we come to realize that she may truly believe to be one because of it. Self-hatred is not uncommon for even “normal” people, and can be easier explained by the myriad of other reasons that she may feel monstrous, including being a murderer. A similar thing can be said about Stark, who even manages to sneak a rape joke into the movie’s best scene! Writers are allowed to write asshole characters without being guilty of their crimes, no matter how offended we are at their actions. So the real question that I would ask is not, “Does Whedon think she’s a monster?” but rather, “Does Black Widow think she’s a monster?” If that’s the case, she can be wrong about herself in our eyes, without making Whedon deserving of any of this harassment over it.

  2. I agree with Doc_V, I don’t view Black Widow’s infertility as being a monster. I think that making her infertile was a way of showing her rough upbringing as an assassin and yet still display vulnerability. There’s a sense of powerlessness that even though she might want to settle down and raise a family, she can’t because she’s infertile and its completely out of her control. Instead of being this badass female fatale character, we see a character who has self-esteem issues. Her vulnerability also helps spur the romantic plot between her and Bruce Banner.

    I also feel that her inability to raise a family due to her infertility and psychological barriers was used as a contrast to show more of Hawkeye’s humanity. We get to see his family and his home and even the newly born baby is named after Natasha (Nathaniel).

    On another note, like most superhero females, I feel like her appearance can be impractical for the movie. For instance, her low leather neck line top, maybe she’s hot, but if I’m in a war zone, I would want to cover up. Also, when I watched Captain America Winter Soldier and saw Black Widow in a war zone, I was wondering why Black Widow looked so clean with make up on and all the other characters looked dirty and beat up.

  3. While I agree with Doc_V’s point about creators being free to create “bad” characters, I disagree that they should do so without reflection. Frequently, “bad” characters are allowed to get away with things (or are only passingly held accountable to their actions) that they shouldn’t be; there’s a huge difference between a character who says something jerk-ish and is told off and a character that does the same and isn’t. That difference is the message: the audience is given the implied message that it’s okay for the latter character to act that way.

    On Black Widow specifically, it’s an interesting thing to handle. I’ve always had my doubts on the validity of Whedon’s claims of feminism (his feminism seems to be at best base-level, and non-intersectional in the slightest), but the treatment of Black Widow is rather problematic.

    As one brief example, in Avengers, Loki calls her a “mewling quim” (an archaic term for the vagina) and, while he’s immediately shown up (by her masterful manipulation of him), he’s never called out on that. And Whedon has stated that his “greatest achievement” of the movie was getting that line to “the masses”. Yes, it could be flippant, and it has been argued that the moment //was// about proving Loki wrong, but it is never explicitly stated that Loki should not have said it, just that he shouldn’t have tried to go against her.

    Black Widow //is// an amazing character. And so is Pepper Potts and Maria Hill and Jane Foster and Darcy Lewis. But her characterization is weird (she was a world-class assassin, brainwashed and used, and she considers herself a monster because she can’t bear children? Not because of the countless innocents she was forced to slaughter?) and the romance with Bruce Banner prevented the opportunity to bring in his actual “love interest” (Betty Ross, a scientist and super neat character! and bring the (cis)gender balance of MCU a half-step closer to equal. And, because that balance isn’t right, any mistreatment of Black Widow is magnified; she’s forced to represent an entire sex’s life. I don’t like seeing “my” character experiencing “my” harassment at all, but especially not by the //good guys//.

    I’ll refrain from mentioning the total lack of Black Widow merch. But as great of a character Black Widow is, she can only be as good as she is treated on screen.

  4. I’m selecting this as one of my favorite posts from the semester. It engaged with both a piece of primary media and the controversy surrounding it with the thoughtful and openminded approach we’ve been cultivating through the semester. This post also did an excellent job of contextualizing the film within the broader cinematic sphere, and in a way that was engaging for fans of the film and newcomers to the Marvel universe alike.

  5. I am also selecting this as one of my favorites. Having just watched the movie last night I actually did notice how strange it was that Natasha referred to herself as a monster because of her infertility. However, I quickly realized that it wasn’t so much the infertility as it was the reasoning behind it. She has labeled herself as a monster because she was forced to give up her ability to create life to improve her ability to destroy it. I liked your post because it avoided jumping to negative conclusions about the director and instead just put the issue in the air.

  6. This was also one of my favorite posts. I never knew there was such controversy over Black Widow’s infertility and the post was very informative in a non judgmental manner. The post also connects and comments on the reaction from social media and the movie itself.

  7. I have also selected this as one of my favorite posts of the semester! I was shocked when the scene came and I discovered this horrific fact about Black Widow and even more shocked that she considered herself a monster for it. This post argues against that point articulately and I agree with it completely.

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