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So I have now seen Avengers, Age of Ultron, and oh, androgyne! will this post contain spoilers!
Though I’ve only just seen the movie days ago, it’s been weeks since I became aware that there were quite a number of significant debates focussed on sexism and Age of Ultron. Any number of articles could be referenced, but I’m going to draw exclusively from io9’s Meredith Woerner and Katharine Trendacosta and Salon’s Marcotte, because they take on a particularly interesting and revealing moment in Age of Ultron, but seem to miss enough that there’s room for me to add.
Starting out, I have to say that Woerner and Trendacosta on io9 were absolutely wrong in their criticism of Black Widow’s characterization.*1 Amanda Marcotte published a rebuttal 6 days later which, we all hoped, would give us the one true interpretation that ends all debate so we can talk about men again. And at this point I have to say that Marcotte was absolutely wrong in her rebuttal.
Black Widow/Natalia “Natasha” Romanova (AKA Romanoff) kicks ass. We all know it. She’s a normal who keeps up with supers. She has to kick ass. But neither Woerner nor Trendacosta nor Marcotte at all consider what it means to be a normal that keeps up with supers. To be a super is to make incredible things easy. To be a normal isn’t to make incredible things impossible. They are incredibly difficult. As bad ass as Romanova is physically, she must of necessity be even more bad ass mentally. She has to be: the mind’s determination long preceded the body’s abilities.
It is, in fact, her mental toughness that makes it possible for her to be an Avenger. Banner gets to be an Avenger and be mentally weak – as demonstrated by his cowardly flight at the end of the movie. He gets to do this because he doesn’t have to be mentally tough to win battles. He wins them with the brute force of a super-body. He doesn’t have to be mentally tough to survive the downtime between battles. He goes and gets a beer and a shawarma.
Romanova doesn’t have the liberty of being surrounded by enemies wielding stone-shattering weapons and smiling with the confidence of inevitable victory. She’s not so filled with ragey-battle-joy that she ignores the machine gun fire hitting her back. Nor is she so tough that being hit with a few hundreds of high caliber bullets doesn’t matter. She has to manage her fear, plan her defenses and attacks, maintain situational awareness, AND kick ass physically – all at the same time. Between battles she’s weightlifting while her broken bones are still healing to make sure that she’s ready for the next big thing. Shawarma is, to put it mildly, secondary. If she thinks of them as anything other than delivery vehicles for the aminos she needs to rebuild muscle and minerals she needs for re-skeletonization, we as the audience should be seriously surprised.
And it is neglecting just these differences, the mental differences, the personality differences that should be the first level of analysis that causes Woerner, Trendacosta, and Marcotte to get their analysis so wrong in their analysis of Romanova and especially the crucial Romanova/Banner scene.
Woerner & Trendacosta give us the necessary background. Before the movie there is the hype that we will learn interesting new things about Romanova, including some backstory. They quote Joss Whedon saying on MTV:
Natasha is a huge part of the sequel because you do want to concentrate on the people who don’t have their own franchises. Although she in ‘Cap 2,’ [and] she’s great. She was the most fun for me because she’s not a hero, you know, and it’s something that I read—and I feel bad that I can’t remember who wrote the book—but it’s in one of the books explaining, ‘These guys are heroes, you are a spy. It’s a different thing—it’s a different skill set—and you don’t have their moral high ground or any of that good stuff.’ And that just makes her so interesting to me. So yeah, the stuff I’ve got going on with her in the second one is killer.
Note for the future that he doesn’t actually say anything specifically about what we’ll learn about Romanova or what is it, exactly, that constitutes the “stuff” she’s got “going on”. Woerner & Trendacosta then look at the scene between Romanova and Banner in which there is a “big reveal”. What is this reveal? Well, W&T are clear that it isn’t about the staggeringly interesting “red in [her] ledger” Romanova cryptically mentions in the first Avengers movie. And are W&T ever disappointed about that! No, they describe the big reveal, and their disappointment, this way:
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.
Instead of an assassin constantly struggling with finding moral lines she didn’t know existed, we got a woman who feels incomplete because she cannot have babies:
ROMANOVA: You know what my final test was in the Red Room? They sterilized me, said it was one less thing to worry about. You think you’re the only monster on the team?
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.
Don’t forget how W&T describe the context of this “reveal”*2: “a quieter character reveal moment.”
Marcotte criticizes the W&T take on Romanova in Age of Ultron. She characterizes their take as being disappointed Romanova’s horrid past [sterilization] isn’t horrid enough [dozens of serial, premeditated murders] to be a feminist motivation. Marcotte interprets the implications of the Romanova sterilization statement very differently, and objects in particular to the coercive, captive training Romanova endured being portrayed by W&T as “leaning in” – a metaphor for choosing involvement in a life-dominating activity, in this case “super-heroing”.
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…
Later, Marcotte discusses the fact that giving only the one woman character a relationship-focussed subplot would be sexist, but that multiple characters are dealing with this. She describes Cap, Stark, and Romanova’s different choices and how this is part of a rich portrayal of super-heroes’ approaches in interacting with the world and love and sex in different ways (though she somehow misses Banner’s choices in this list).
Looking at those choices, Marcotte concludes:
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.
In other words, isn’t it feminist to portray one of the common concerns of far too many women that would not exist save for oppression? Well, yes, Marcotte. That is feminist.
I appreciate Woerner & Trendacosta, as well as Marcotte, for bringing all this out into the light of day, cogently and without the vitriol that apparently gripped the twitterverse’s engagement of Romanova’s backstory. But as I’ve said, I don’t think they’ve gotten the scene or its implications or even the “reveal” right.*3
Marcotte notes, appropriately, that Romanova is too bad-ass to be brought down by love or sex.
Natasha is a survivor. Just because she fell in love with a man …[who leaves]… 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. [emphasis added]
Unfortunately, Marcotte doesn’t think this through quite far enough. Romanova is not hidebound by social expectations, so why should being sterilized, voluntarily or involuntarily, cripple her? Or even serve as a major motivator? Logically, it shouldn’t. Romanova won’t be able to give birth, but she could be a mother if she wanted.*4 Marcotte’s observation brings us very close to what we need to know to understand Romanova and the sterilization reveal, but ultimately falls short.
So does that mean W&T are closer to the truth? Not at all. They, too, have their own so-close-and-yet-so-far statement contained in their essay. Discussing the sterilization, they follow a description of flashbacks we see in the film that visually (but hauntingly with little or no audio) portray Romanova’s training. That portrayal culminates with her pointing a gun at a hooded innocent she is obviously expected to kill, but about the sterilization, we learn from W&T that our source is quite different:
We know this because that’s what she tells Hulk during a quieter character reveal moment for Black Widow.
We know this because that’s what she tells the Hulk.*5 There is no flashback of a surgery. No flashbacks of crying while holding a doll to her abdomen. The flashbacks portray a focused girl who excels in an environment where her successes reduce others’ curved grades, and the failures face a horrifying but uncertain fate for disappointing their masters.
After these scenes we expect that Romanova will, in fact, write the first red into her ledger on graduation day. We flinch at the imminent gunshot, our fear, our sudden movement betraying just how much we believe this is a girl who will kill.
Victimization, of course, is not “red in one’s ledger”. Whedon was in charge of the first movie. That line is not merely consistent with the comics, but embraced by Whedon as central to the cinematic Black Widow. So whether Romanova actually killed that one particular target or not is irrelevant. We know she had not merely the training, but the willingness to see other people as tools, as objects, as things to be manipulated to achieve her goals. She had these in sufficient measure to function psychologically as an assassin.
An assassin. Who sees other people as tools, as objects, as things to be manipulated to get what she wants.
There is no question that Romanova is choosing to be better now than in her past. We see her as a hero; she is portrayed as a hero. But she is far from the flawless Wonder Woman or Superman of white bread DC comics days. Woerner and Trendacosta miss this terribly, ironically despite a long examination of the Romanova/Loki scene from the first Avengers movie. That scene is considered by W&T to be revealing because of what Loki says about Romanova, his elaboration on her casual “red in my ledger” remark. But crucially, they miss the even-more-revealing actions of Romanova. In that scene, Romanova engages in perhaps the most difficult act of deception one can imagine: lying to a trickster god.
Lying to a trickster god.
Think about that for a moment.
Think about everything we know about the character from her appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but especially the two Avengers movies. We have a character who endured brutal, years-long psychological conditioning. She developed the callousness of an assassin, the willingness to engage in what anyone else would call the most gross violations of ethics and morality. She killed. She killed people that she now realizes did not deserve death, but she did it and at the time had literally no remorse.
Now she has a cause, but that doesn’t stop her from exercising her lethal skills any more than it stops her from lying to Loki to get what she wants. She is a character who has her lying-chops so finely honed as to successfully trick a trickster god. That’s not some remote backstory. Her lying chops are still well-developed in the current moment, not merely in her distant spy-past.
And yet for both W&T and for Marcotte we can gain great insight into exactly what motivates Romanova, into the psychological centrality of her forced sterilization, despite the fact that by W&T’s own admission we only know about that forced sterilization because that’s what she said out loud. To someone from whom she wanted something.
Isn’t it odd that in filming psychologically important moments of Romanova’s training we see into a ballet class, but never into this all-important operating theater? What if that isn’t odd at all? When Romanova sees her past, she sees herself undergoing rigorous training. She sees herself preparing to kill. She doesn’t notice being sterilized. There is plenty in what we do see for us to sympathize with any monstrous feelings Romanova may have, but if there is a source for those feelings other than that she regrets being a person willing to kill, we don’t “see” that.
Crucially unmentioned by W&T in setting the stage for Romanova’s “reveal,” Banner is the one to open the conversation about being a monster, and he doesn’t do it because of what he sees in her past, but because of what he sees in his present. Banner isn’t looking at Romanova and seeing the ballet class where Romanova’s successes necessarily inflict unknown punishments on her lesser rivals. Banner isn’t seeing her hold a pistol to a masked, helpless captive. Banner, the man that Romanova wants to want her, sees only what this woman skilled enough in lying, in adopting and shifting and discarding entire cover identities, wants him to see.
And in the moment when Banner says that he can’t be with Romanova because his monstrosity separates him from normal human beings, Romanova suddenly, conveniently has access to just the kind of monstrous past that would appeal to this gentle, egalitarian man. She doesn’t describe herself as a monster for killing innocents, though we know she has. No, she provides the tale of a woman outcast from womanhood, doomed to be monstrous not for her sins, but for her helpless victimization, her literally maimed sex. Conveniently, this not only suddenly shifts her into the circle of monstrosity with Banner so that he might accept her company, it also removes from him any guilt at denying her motherhood, something this sensitive man revealed only moments before.
Oh, joy! The only woman that Banner could ever allow close is exactly and conveniently the supreme deception artist who wants in his pants. The sheer luck that this secret of the Red Room, so unspeakable, so hidden [despite being mundane and routine in the US for any woman with a disability, or any woman too poor, for literally decades] is exactly the secret Romanova needs it to be at exactly the moment she chooses to break this heretofore unbreakable silence!
The sheer luck.
I have no doubt that in the Marvel Cinematic Universe Romanova loves Banner as best as she knows how. But for feminists to be outraged on the basis of a single line spoken in an all-to-convenient moment, that happens to be just the story needed to achieve the goals of the most talented liar Marvel Comics has ever known, well, that’s just a little bit silly, don’t you think? W&T’s “reveal,” when considered in light of what we actually know, of what Romanova actually wants, isn’t revealing sterilization: it’s revealing that her brainwashed past is not entirely gone, and that when what-Romanova-wants happens to dovetail with what-Romanova-thinks-is-good-for-someone-else, that powerful combination is enough bring out the less-than-ethical Romanova who still keeps her lying skills up to date.
Woerner & Trendacosta are disappointed in the portrayal of Romanova because the story of sterilization is too cliche. But if, in fact, Romanova is telling the lie she thinks Banner needs to hear, then the story has to be cliche. It has to be something that explains feelings of monstrosity while evoking compassion in a man sympathetic to women but living in a society still dominated by the perspectives of men. An educated man with multiple doctorates, Banner would be familiar with the atrocious history of forced sterilization, but removed enough from it that it remains shocking in a way it may not to a woman who lived in Oregon’s state hospitals in the 70s and 80s.
This is the type of writing, exploiting a cliche in a way that is revealing of both the woman speaking it and the man hearing it, that should be applauded for revealing the power of sterilization while simultaneously reinforcing a woman’s agency. Romanova may or may not be sterile, but it was her choice to use the history of forced sterilization for her own ends. If Romanova is in fact not sterile or sterile by nature or her own choice, it’s not merely the right lie at the right moment to get what she wants, but it’s also an example of the appropriation of others’ experiences that we might expect to see embedded in the psyche of a colonial superpower’s greatest spy.*6 Undesirable? Hell yes. Unethical? Sure, though far less unethical than assassination. But giving Romanova a colonialist side is both consistent with her past and opens the possibility for even more moral struggle and growth in the future in a cinematic universe that has been horrifically disappointing in embracing a vision that makes it more normal for a character to have green skin than black.*7
Romanova with her complex faults is, in fact, a far better hero than either Woerner or Trendacosta or Marcotte ever credit, and a far more feminist one at that. She isn’t a hero-mother as portrayed by W&T. Nor is she the hero-survivor of Marcotte. She is the hero who balances her present desires, the certain knowledge she must have that she could manipulate anyone to do almost anything, should she but choose, against an ethical future self she hopes to achieve. She is the classic (not to say Platonic) Aristotelian virtue ethicist, consciously choosing to be good every moment she can in the desperate hope that eventually she will simply be good.
She is a hero every bit as impossible as the Hulk, and yet she is also able to serve as an every day inspiration in a way that the “maybe someday I’ll turn green and 9’ tall” Hulk never can: she can make herself better, more heroic, a little bit at a time. She’s given up assassination, though she hasn’t given up killing soldiers (particularly alien ones). She doesn’t appear to gratuitously lie, though we know she’ll lie her pants off if she has the right motivation.
It only stands to reason she’s a character with the ability and willingness to lie Banner’s pants off as well.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe there simply is no other character who can show us the kind of moral development Romanova displays. W&T earlier lamented
Instead of an assassin constantly struggling with finding moral lines she didn’t know existed, we got a woman who feels incomplete because she cannot have babies
But what did they expect an assassin constantly struggling with moral lines to look like? One who always tells the truth? In fact, we got exactly the fierce warrior trying to overcome past indifference to suffering and morality that W&T wanted, they simply could not recognize her.*8 They saw this fierce warrior and, eager to learn her story, heard a single line about sterilization and thought that was enough to lay low this legendary human who fights side-by-side with the Hulk. But no one who gives serious thought to what it would take to survive psychologically as a legendary warrior/assassin can see the same.
Romanova’s fierceness of mind is to be admired. It is far too much to be devastated by one act of sterilization, but we can well imagine that even her fierceness of mind might take more than 2 hours to win a battle against as many demons as she encountered over a decade of relentless brainwashing.
I, for one, hope to see the continuation of this fight in future movies.
*1 Though of course I don’t challenge at all their critique of marketing and studio decisions (or of the “backlash”). That shit’s appalling. I had been disappointed that Joss didn’t bring in more than one woman Avenger, especially when Captain Marvel is so bad ass and getting such a good look int he comics themselves lately. Imagine my, um, joy when I found out that the studio had laid down the law with him: one woman Avenger only. Yeah, it means that Joss isn’t responsible, but I don’t really care *who* is responsible. More importantly it’s not some artistic decision that could change at any time depending on who tosses an interesting story-line idea to him. It’s a studio policy, considered by multiple people and enforced by those who hold the tens of millions necessary to make the movie at all. In other words: that shit ain’t changing.
*2 Yes, the quotes serve a purpose: they’re setting up my big reveal.
*3 While the possibility exists that my own interpretation of that scene might be counter-evidenced by some yet-unseen tweet by some player in Age of Ultron’s production, I’m using only the movie as the source for understanding the movie. I think this is consistent with a general approach of art criticism that suggests the work should stand on its own. Most people will experience the movie without reading every bit of trivia available on how the script and characters developed. The movie as a whole, as a work of art and without incorporation of the opinions or motivations or private thoughts of scriptwriters, actors, Whedon, or anyone else, supports neither the W&T nor the Marcotte takes on Romanova. And, frankly, unless there was general consensus of the creative team that I’m wrong, I would argue that the fact that one person thought of the scene in a particular way does not indicate that that is even the definitive take on what the scene intended to portray …much less what the scene actually successfully portrays in the context of the movie.
*4 Another point to be made that Woerner, Trendacosta, and Marcotte all missed is that being a mother is not synonymous with giving birth. All 3 describe Romanova as being unable to be a mother as a result of one sterilization procedure. This is wrong on all sorts of levels.
*5 Really, it’s what she tells Banner, not the Hulk, but that’s something else again.
*6 Determining whether this was ethically justifiable as a necessary artistic starting point or merely another example of unquestioned colonialism/appropriation will, of course, have to wait for further developments. But that’s okay. We can wait for colonialism and appropriation to end. We can wait at least as long as it takes to finish reading this sentence.
*7 Note that while we do have 1 green hero and 1 black hero, the Falcon has received considerably less screen time and attention than the Hulk, and heroes of other racialized groups are non-existent.
CORRECTION/ETA: BobApril and ck both have appropriately chastised me for failing to mention James Rhodes/War Machine. ck adds Nick Fury. While Fury is an important character, he’s not a “superhero” or at least isn’t portrayed as one. Both those characters are also Black, leaving other racialized groups still non-existent among superheroes. Finally, the point I originally made in note 7 about “screen time and attention” I think stands if you include War Machine, though possibly not if you include Fury, hard to say. Since I think Fury isn’t portrayed as a superhero, I’m not worried about this point, though it obviously did need some qualification and explanation in light of BobApril’s and ck.’s observations. Thanks to both of you for pointing out two characters I neglected.
*8 Though not thinking seriously about this psychology is totally forgivable. Few of us even want to think about how we would need to think of others and ourselves to commit dozens of premeditated, carefully planned murders over a decade or more. Fewer have the skills accurately perceive it. I certainly don’t think that *I* could accurately perceive it, though I can guess enough, and am given enough clues in Age of Ultron, that I’m confident my perception of her psychology is at least a little bit closer to the truth than that of Woerner, Trendacosta, or Marcotte.