Black Widow, Scarce Resources And High-Stakes Stories
[This post about the plot and characters in Avengers: Age Of Ultron discusses the plot and characters in Avengers: Age Of Ultron.]
We were never going to avoid gender politics with a character named "Black Widow."
The entire concept – arachnoid but especially pop-cultural – of the Black Widow is centered on sex and violence; it's fundamentally relational, meaningless without a husband to outlive — a man to have sex with, marry and kill. So maybe it's predictable that the Marvel superhero Black Widow, also known as Natasha Romanoff in the Avengers movies, has been such a vexing presence up through Avengers: Age Of Ultron (a movie I will say out of the gate that I like a lot). Marvel has come under fire for the lack of Black Widow merchandise (even from Mark Ruffalo, who plays the Hulk), and in an open letter to writer-director Joss Whedon on the blog Women And Hollywood, Sara Stewart expressed frustration with the portrayal of Black Widow in the movie, as well as with the other women, primarily Hawkeye's wife, played by Linda Cardellini, and the Scarlet Witch, played by Elizabeth Olsen.
Stewart's argument is worth reading, along with another in The Daily Beast, and crystallizes one of the toughest things about working through portrayals of gender (and race, and any other kind of difference) in fiction: how impossible it is for the content of any one portrayal to be so tremendous that it cleans up the mess created by scarcity of representation.
Stewart argues, for instance, that it's obnoxious that in the film – in which all the Avengers have neuroses and traumas and fears brought to the surface – Natasha reveals that as part of the program that turned her into a trained assassin, she was forcibly sterilized to avoid any possibility that she'd develop a priority above the mission. Stewart asks: "Haven't we gotten to a point where the one lonely female superhero in our current landscape can just pursue the business of avenging without having to bemoan not being a mother?"
Well, yes ... and no. Against a landscape in which female superheroes are vanishingly rare – in other words, accounting for the context in which the character exists, within and beyond this film and franchise – it's disappointing that Natasha's conflict ultimately comes down to motherhood, and to the loneliness of the childless career woman. That is, to be sure, an overripe cliché as a cause of moping in the seemingly bad-ass woman with a heart full of pain.
But! But standing alone, this is (1) a story about a woman subjected to institutional interference with her fertility and (2) a story about a woman who was told they didn't trust her to take on an important job because they believed she secretly would always care about babies more. Neither one of those two things, historically, has happened only in fiction. Those themes are well worth exploring. They resonate at least as fully as Hawkeye's desire to get home to his family, Bruce Banner's isolation over becoming a giant green monster, and Tony Stark's daddy issues. There is heft in that story, and there's nothing shameful or diminishing about telling it just because it's a story that's specific to childbearing or not.
The same is true of Stewart's frustration that Cardellini's character, Laura, is "a housewife." In fact, what Laura seems to represent, as far as the patriotic iconography Whedon has been playing with both ironically and earnestly as long as this franchise has been his, is not the housewife but the military wife. (Stewart obliquely acknowledges as much by referring to her role as "literally keeping the home fires burning.") There's nothing inherently uninteresting or gender-regressive in being a military spouse, or a housewife, or a single parent, or a person who lives with the pain of sending her (or his) husband (or wife) to do any dangerous job for the protection of others.
It's true that Cardellini isn't playing a superhero, but her role wouldn't necessarily be any more developed or worthwhile if, rather than taking care of children and cooking in a kitchen, she were seen rushing into a New York apartment with a briefcase and a bag of takeout. She represents home in the story – she represents both what is owed to people outside the job and what can be gotten only from people outside the job. Those are fair things to write stories about.
There's nothing wrong with stories about women who are housewives or stories about women who struggle because they were forcibly prevented from having kids as a condition of whatever mission they chose to undertake. The problem is that with so few women in superhero movies, each of these portrayals stands not only for the choices Whedon made, but for all the choices he and many others didn't and don't make. The portrayals of Natasha and Laura rankle at some level, for me, not because they are stories about a woman traumatized by not having children and a woman waiting for her husband to come home, but because it's another story about those two women rather than any of the other bazillion women who could exist in this universe and don't. If you had five butt-kicking women in this movie, it would seem perfectly logical that one of them might have a story related to getting pregnant or not. Why wouldn't she?
These, for me, are scarcity problems. They are problems because there are so few opportunities to show women in action blockbusters that I tend to crave something very much capable of moving discussions of what those portrayals can be like forward.
Comparing portrayals of women in film to portrayals of men is sort of like comparing football games to baseball games in a season. Baseball games are so abundant that rarely does any one game carry all that much weight (at least until very late in the season). What you look for is the overall record. It's assumed that there will be slumps and streaks, good stretches and bad stretches. Baseball games are more fungible – you think of them in quantity rather than as individual specimens.
There are only about a tenth as many football games in a season. You lose one, you're unhappy. You lose two straight, and you're in big trouble. The stakes feel far higher, as if something has to be proved every time you go out on the field, that day, that time. I've seen stories of women waiting to greet men in dangerous jobs before. I've seen women lament that they can't have kids before. So where I relate to Stewart's complaints (and those of the many people, both male and female, who agree with her) is in that with the opportunities so limited, I would rather see the many other women's stories I haven't seen and don't expect to see.
Perhaps the trickiest aspect of the scarcity problem is that it enormously complicates the issue of whether you want a portrayal of a female character to specifically engage her being a woman or not. Do you want Black Widow to be exactly like the other Avengers and incidentally a woman? Because there's an argument that parity calls for that. Or do you want the story to be about the fact that she's a woman, as in fact it is here, and to deal with that fact and make it part of the story of her life? There's an argument that parity calls for that, too.
The answer, of course, is yes, to both. I want there to be stories about women that aren't specific to the fact that they're women, and I want stories about women that acknowledge that fact and build it into the story. This is how it is with men: every story you've ever heard of a man who learns years later that he has a child he didn't know about is specific to his role in baby-having, just as much as Natasha's story is specific to hers. Those stories should be told; it's rich subject matter. It's not sexist to tell that story. But most stories about men in movies are just about them doing stuff, and there should be stories about women just doing stuff, too.
The problem with trying to look at a film outside of the context in which it exists – a context of massive underrepresentation behind and in front of the camera – is that it's entirely theoretical. You can't remove a film from its cultural context; that's part of what makes movies interesting. There's no such thing as analyzing a Hollywood movie as something separate from what Hollywood unceasingly is; it's like analyzing wine without having ever heard of grapes.
To be honest, I can't think of another Avenger whose story Natasha could have swapped with who wouldn't, in some way, raise questions of whether the story was influenced by gender stereotypes. If she had Tony's story, she'd be the one who messed up and wouldn't listen, who created the need for a rescue. If she had Cap's story, she'd be the one who tries to keep everyone from being vulgar – the behavior cop. If she had the Hulk's story, she'd be the one whose superpower is being carried away by her uncontrollable emotions. If she had Thor's story, she'd be the one who doesn't have very much to do and is omitted from a large stretch of the movie. If she had Hawkeye's story, she'd be the one who just wanted to go home and be with the kids.
Any of these things could look like a stereotype. This is a very, very hard piece of ground to walk without tripping over something: Whedon fans tend to be disappointed because they had their expectations set by Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but it is the rankest of cultural amnesia to forget how frequently people took issue with elements of that show's treatment of issues around sexual violence and sexuality.
There's no answer to what to do about a specific portrait of the lone female Avenger that isn't more satisfying, more meaningful, more helpful alongside an argument for slowly, surely, gradually insisting upon having more female Avengers. More of everybody doing everything. A season with more games in it.
Scarcity will always drive us back to these same conversations about how every woman carries the obligation to represent What This Director Thinks Women Are For, and absolutely no answer to that question will ever be a good answer.