With Black Widow, Joss Whedon Throws Women a Bone. And Fails.

BY ELISABETH SHERMAN

The Avengers franchise is just another in a long line of what the entertainment industry calls comic book movies but are essentially two-hour long marketing schemes produced to make a lot of money. I know this. But when I went to go see it on the day it was released, that wasn’t important to me. What was important to me were the superheroes I was about to see flash across the screen; the personification of ultimate good, justice-seekers, fighters, and even conflicted, tortured souls, living a world where there is a clear sense of good and evil—a comfortable respite from reality, where such lines are not so clearly drawn.

Joss Whedon and Scarlett Johansson (Source:  Collider)

Joss Whedon and Scarlett Johansson (Source:  Collider)

So it felt symbolic to me that Hollywood was acknowledging at least one female presence in the world of superheroes: Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson), Russian assassin. The door was opening—we were getting a peek outside of the bedroom, where the wives of great men are sequestered. She's a retired cold-blooded killer, reformed now as part of the Avengers.  Now, she fights bad guys instead of being one of them. Her character potentially has some of the most complex moral dilemmas to explore.


When the end of the movie came, I settled into dumbfounded anger.


Early on in the film, romantic tension blossoms between Black Widow and the Hulk, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). Shy, mysterious science nerd hooks up with queen of the spies? I was willing to give this storyline a chance. But after their initial scene together—she flirts seductively while pouring him a cocktail—my excitement over their love connection faded into disappointment. When the end of the movie came, I settled into dumbfounded anger.

In one of the final frames of the film, we see her staring at the wall, pouting over the fact that Hulk abandoned her to go have his own adventures. Another woman left behind. It doesn't matter that she saved the world from a menacing robot who wanted to cleanse the planet of humanity. If it wasn't for her, Captain America, our central hero, would probably have perished at the hands of said robot, but that’s easily dismissed, too. What really matters to this female character is how she regards her life and her actions, in relation to a man. Natasha is robbed of exploring the tension between her past as a villain the Avengers probably would have hunted down, and her present as a part of that team—because what people want to see, what people pay to see, is women reduced to their emotional lives. Moviegoers need to have it confirmed on screen that all women want, no matter their accomplishments, triumphs in the battlefield, and failures in the past, is someone to love them.


The best-case scenario for a female protagonist is that she can end up heartbroken over a boy or Captain America's sidekick.  And what, we should be thanking Joss Whedon and Marvel for throwing us a bone? We should be grateful that one woman got even a little screen time?


Tony Stark is a billionaire genius, Thor is a Norse God, Captain America is a genetically modified super-soldier—none of these characters created in relation to their gender, because for men, gender is secondary. They can already be anything they want. But women have to overcome the expectations of their gender before they can take on any other role, and in this case, Natasha couldn't move beyond already exhausted stereotypes.

So yes, I was angry. I finally got to go see a woman fight and struggle, and got to see her take on the role of hero (whether she accepts that title or not). At the same time, I was also reminded that I can overcome a horrific childhood (as a teenager Natasha underwent a forced sterilization—another issue entirely, covered here), change my own destiny and save the planet, but society wouldn’t let me be proud of that—not when I have a man to think about. 

The best-case scenario for a female protagonist is that she can end up heartbroken over a boy or Captain America's sidekick.  And what, we should be thanking Joss Whedon and Marvel for throwing us a bone? We should be grateful that one woman got even a little screen time?


But the fantasy has to get women off, too, not just aim to please those people who would prefer to see women erased from stories rather than be central to them.


Imagine women watching with smaller (but no less important) dreams: to start their own business, maybe, or to write a book, travel the world, or go to college. What we tell women when we create fictional characters whose accomplishments we dismiss is that goals aren't desirable or even necessary for women. The message here is, “Go back to what you’re good at, girls”—fawning over a man who will eventually leave you because embarking on his own adventures is essentially more important than you. Movies like this reinforce the idea that a woman’s complexities, opinions, and desires could never be as interesting or as human as those of a man. The door slams shut, we're back in bedroom.

By May 4, just three days after it was released, Avengers 2 had grossed 631 million dollars worldwide, which means that as a society, we decided this is how we want our fantasies to look. And doesn't it matter how women are represented in our fantasies? The fantasy world of the movies is fake, fabricated, fictional—I get that. But the fantasy has to get women off, too, not just aim to please those people who would prefer to see women erased from stories rather than be central to them. Outside of the movie theatre, women have made so many great strides toward equality, and we should proud of ourselves. What I look for now is some acknowledgement of our potential from the entertainment industry, which shapes and influences so much of our culture.