Structuring a Superheroine: Feminist Film Criticism and the Black Widow Controversy

MV5BMzE2MjQ1NzE5Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTg3MjQ0NDE@._V1__SX1303_SY601_[This post contains spoilers for The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier ]

“That is horseshit.”

That rather blunt one-liner was Joss Whedon’s reaction to reports that his decision to leave Twitter shortly after the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron was motivated by the flood of angry tweets over the writer-director’s treatment of the titular team’s single female member – Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow.

Natasha has long been a target for feminist critique, due not only to her depiction across the Marvel franchises in which she has appeared, but also to the studio’s failure to produce a stand-alone movie focusing on the character. The continued absence of a Black Widow movie in the Marvel film canon has been a persistent point of contention with Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige, to the point that, as Jen Yamato argues, the executive’s “evasiveness on the glaring lack of Marvel stand-alone superheroine vehicles has its own narrative” of repeated promises and assurances that have yet to materialize.

While the progressive or regressive status of her depiction is by no means a matter of agreement amongst commentators and fans alike, for many the presence of a female character in what is typically conceived of as a male driven genre at least gave Marvel the chance of offering something, as Sara Steward argues, that “was kind of new and exciting in a landscape that had been uniformly male for forever.”

Natasha’s treatment in Ultron, however, led only to disappointment for commentators like Stewart, who felt Marvel was drifting from the hints at some progress away from that gender uniformity, bringing accusations of sexism to a head and suggestions that the particular brand of militant feminism behind some of those accusations had chased Whedon away from social media.

While there is a big difference between the type of Twitter-bashing that was directed at Whedon and feminist film criticism (the one is righteous indignation turned reprehensible bullying while the other is a thoughtful consideration of the relationship between culture and art), they do often share a tendency toward provocation.

Now, don’t get me wrong.

When I say provocation I don’t mean to connote some sort of unreasoned exaggeration yelled at the top of one’s lungs. I mean precisely to provoke, to trigger discussion and debate, the attempt to bring an issue to the fore so that it can be thought about and discussed. If your goal is to interrogate deeply rooted and long-standing cultural forces in the hopes of instigating change, then provoking someone to think differently is a valuable tactic.

Ultron is the biggest movie in the world. Drawing some of the attention that gets heaped on this type of blockbuster away from mindless promotion and onto a critique of gender representation is a fairly good way to provoke a wider discussion about gender in Hollywood and beyond.

The feminist film theory that most students are introduced to in cinema studies was similarly intended to provoke. For many students that introduction comes in the form of Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema,” which employs psychoanalytic theories of desire to link gender with how the act of looking is treated in popular American cinema. For Mulvey, Hollywood cinema perpetuates patriarchal gender roles by defining the male as an active subject through his ability to look, and the female as a passive object to be looked at.

While the importance of her argument to feminist film criticism makes its inclusion in undergraduate programs inevitable, it is not an easy thing to teach. Because of the difficulty of the terminology Mulvey uses, there is a tendency, as Ann Kaplan argues, “to reduce the theories to manageable concepts.” Breaking down Mulvey’s argument makes it more teachable, but it also erases the larger context in which it was written. Her essay arose out of a still developing attempt to understand gender and film, and was, as Kaplan argues, intentionally polemic in the hopes of “structuring an arena for discussion and debate.”

Yet, while successfully provoking that crucial discussion, this attempt to structure debate led to bad film criticism. Assuming a basic theory about the relationship between how our psyches work and patriarchy, Mulvey tends to treat only those aspects of the films she examines that support her case, while still implying that her theory entirely explains what’s going on in those films. My relationship with Mulvey has therefore always been “ok, that may be true, but…”

While Mulvey’s argument has been debated and nuanced as part of a diverse series of approaches to gender in film, that problem remains. In focusing on developing a way of understanding how film is involved in the persistence of sexist cultures it tends to place cinema under broader theories of how those cultures operate, which can obscure what actual films are actually doing.

I do not deny that films are shaped by the cultural and social contexts that surround them, or that an artwork produced within a deeply misogynist culture will likely bear traces of that misogyny. That such misogynist cultures persist makes the continued interrogation of cinema’s gender politics an important aspect of a larger project aimed at demolishing the vast disparities between men and women. But because large-scale cultural forces like misogyny are, by definition, wide-ranging, they can’t answer some of the questions we might ask about cinema, and starting with gender can push to the wayside other questions that might offer different insights.

My relationship with feminist theory has been a rocky one, partially because it doesn’t ask the questions I’m interested in answering. My first instinct isn’t to ask if a storyline or scene in Ultron contributes to a politically regressive depiction of women in film, but to ask why that storyline or scene is there in the first place. What role does it play in the narrative? How does it relate to the film’s narrative and thematic structures or to larger genre conventions? If I can’t answer those questions, or if the answers aren’t enough to explain what’s going on, then I might turn to gender to broaden my understanding.

So, when I began reading about the controversy surrounding Natasha’s depiction in the film, I asked these questions first. To not do so is skipping a step. Whedon suggested something of the problem when he described the perils of openly claiming a political standpoint. Declaring his dedication to a feminist point of view, however nominal, pushed the politics of gender to the forefront as an evaluative criteria for his films – it becomes the “litmus test for everything you do,” he argues. Starting with gender can skew the discussion. So while it’s perfectly reasonable and important to have a discussion about gender in Ultron, it’s also important to start with the film and not with gender. Otherwise I’m going to have to keep saying, “Ok. I see what you mean, but…”

Black Widow and HulkTo take a simple example first, some fans and commentators objected to the decision to romantically link Natasha with Bruce Banner, turning her into nothing more than a love interest for the “green rage monster.” Yamato argues that the partnership is indicative of the basic misogyny behind past treatments of the character, of the fact that Marvel’s “most badass female characters keep getting exploited – and utterly wasted – just to prop up the men around them.” While Deidre Kaye links this “unnecessary romance” to Marvel’s failure to understand its female audience, arguing that “Disney/Marvel clearly don’t know their audience and have, once again, underestimated their female fans” if they believe romance is the key to appeasing them. “Was the Hulk/Black Widow relationship really necessary?” she asks.

There’s certainly an argument to be made against how the relationship is introduced. In a movie that has to balance the stories of more than half a dozen principle characters, Natasha and Bruce’s relationship isn’t given enough room to breathe, and therefore can seem a little arbitrary. But Kaye’s question can’t be fully answered by relying on the explanation that the romance was designed only to appeal to a certain audience demographic.

The inclusion of a love story as the second half of a dual plot structure is a longstanding characteristic of Hollywood cinema, and most movies have one. Even buddy cop films that have no romantic pairings in sight have one, because that love story need not be a story about two people falling in love. It can be about the love between brothers, between parents and children, or between friends.

The love story in the first Avengers Clint and Natrevolves around Natasha and her relationship with Clint Barton/Hawkeye. It’s clear that the film is hinting at something more than professional comradery between the two agents. When Natasha interrogates Loki in an attempt to get the Asgardian to reveal his plans by focusing the conversation on Clint, Loki jumps to the obvious conclusion, asking, “Is this love Agent Romanoff?” Natasha’s cool response that “love is for children. I owe him a debt,” may have left room for her to simply be in denial, but Ultron reveals that despite being logical, Loki’s conclusion is the wrong one. Clint and Natasha are trusted friends, a trust born out of the moment when she incurred that debt.

Cap and BuckyDespite the kiss between Cap and Natasha, Steven and Bucky are at the centre of the love story in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. As much as that film is about the corruption at the heart of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the limits to the measures governments can go to in order to keep people safe before defence turns into tyranny, it is also about the love between friends who have become brothers, and what happens when those brothers find themselves on opposite sides of a fight. In many ways it’s Natasha and Clint’s storyline in Avengers writ large: What happens when the person you’ve trusted the most for years is turned into your enemy against their will?

Nat's VisionWhile it is a point of contention for some, most of the controversy surrounding Natasha’s depiction in Ultron doesn’t centre on the simple fact of her relationship with Bruce, but on the scene in which she attempts to convince him to disappear with her, leaving the Avengers and the fight behind. Troubled by the hallucination inflicted on her by Scarlet Witch in which she is forced to relive memories of her childhood training, she confesses that it is her time with the team that seems like a dream to her, and that it has done nothing to change the reality that she is nothing but the assassin she was trained to be. She fears that she can never escape the monster her training created, a monster just as dangerous as the one lurking inside Bruce.

Structurally speaking the scene occurs just after the film’s midpoint, in a story beat screenwriter and author Blake Snyder calls “The Dark Night of the Soul,” that moment after the hero or heroes have faced a defeat so terrible it seems like all is lost. It’s the pause before the climax, in which the hero(es) have to make a choice about how to go forward. It’s also often the moment when the film’s theme gets restated.

Avengers Dark Night of the SoulIn The Avengers it’s the moment after Coulson’s death, after Loki has nearly destroyed the team, when it seems like the dream behind “The Avengers Initiative” will never be realized. And Director Fury obligingly reminds us of the thematic stakes: that while it may be an “old fashioned notion,” heroes do exist and something remarkable can happen when they come together.

In Ultron the team’s defeat comes at the hands of Scarlet Witch, who similarly brings them to the edge of destruction by inflicting visions of their worst fears on every member save Clint. Natasha’s vision of her training is what precipitates her desire to disappear with Bruce. It also triggers her revelation that her education culminated in a forced sterilization, so that, like Bruce, she can never have children, or the version of normality that’s enacted around them by Clint’s family.

It’s this revelation that seemed to inspire the most condemnation. Voicing the objection that the scene suggests motherhood is, if not a sufficient condition for being a woman, than at least a necessary one, Sara Stewart asks, “Did we really need Natasha to have a mini-breakdown over the fact that she can’t have children? 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?” For Yamato, while the scene finally realizes an “overdue character exploration for Black Widow,” that exploration “manages to reduce the baddest bitch in the MCU to a shell of a superheroine who’s sad she can never be a complete woman.”

But the revelation is less of a statement about the nature of womanhood (if it’s a statement at all) than part of the type of restatement of a film’s thematics that tends to occur at this point in the narrative. Ultron continuously plays on the idea ultronof monstrosity. The titular robot’s interpretation of his mission to ensure “peace in our time” addresses the common sci-fi quandary of whether or not humanity is the real monster, and if the world wouldn’t be better off without us. The twist Whedon introduces is that the heroes who tend to try and stop those who would answer those questions with a resounding “yes” may be monsters too, and most of that thematic work is done in the scene between Natasha and Bruce.

Bruce is less disturbed by the vision Scarlet Witch inflicted on him than by its consequences – that the Hulk was released and could have killed innocent people. Whedon doesn’t show us Bruce’s vision, partially because we don’t need to see it – the “Other Guy” plays it out for us. Despite any of the good he does with the team, Bruce knows there will always be a monster inside waiting to get out and he fears that monster is “the real Hulk.” Natasha fears very much the same thing – that there is a monster inside her that has been hidden by her work with the Avengers but not destroyed.

She is in many ways the inverse of Captain America. Both were created to serve an essentially nationalist military purpose. But whereas Cap was designed to do good, chosen for the super-soldier experiment because he had a good heart, a moral code it was hoped he would retain despite being granted enormous physical power, Natasha was designed to be a ruthless assassin with no code other than that completing a mission is paramount. Nat and LokiHer confession to Loki that before S.H.I.E.L.D. recruited her she didn’t care who she used the “specific skill set” she derived from her training “for or on” suggests that even in the absence of her original commanders she was left with the same drive to complete a mission no matter its moral bent. Loki’s taunt that Natasha will never be able to wipe out the amount of red in her ledger those missions left behind suggests that they were less than morally irreprehensible.

Winter Soldier NatThe same thing is hinted at in The Winter Soldier when, as Natasha is about to put all of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secrets on the internet for everyone to see, Pierce (a senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official loyal to Hydra) tries to dissuade her by pointing out that those secrets include her own past, asking, “Are you sure you’re ready for the world to see you as you really are?” The real Natasha may be just as much a monster as the real Hulk.

The scene between Natasha and Bruce doesn’t imply that the fact she can’t have children makes her monstrous. The “graduation ceremony” is an inescapable physical reminder of her past, of the fact that she was designed to be a weapon. All the other Avengers are physically marked by the fact of their being superheroes: Tony has the arc reactor in the middle of his chest, Steve undergoes a complete physical transformation when he becomes Captain America, Bruce has to suffer that transformation repeatedly when he turns into the Hulk, and Thor looks like Thor, making inconspicuousness difficult, as Dr. Selvig teasingly points out. Superheroes often try to hide their identities, but there’s often something physically inescapable about being a hero.

Clint is the only exception. When he is Hawkeyethreatened with a physical mark it’s immediately erased – that shot to the side should have left a nasty scar, but Dr. Cho easily rebuilds his skin, so that only Clint’s wife can tell the difference. There’s a reason that part of the story needs to take place at Clint’s home beyond the fact that the farm is safely off all official records. In an inversion of the typical superhero trajectory, Clint’s secret isn’t that he’s super at all, but that he’s normal. (Granted it’s a white, middle class, distinctly Western version of normality). The scenes that demonstrate that normality serve to underline the problem facing the other Avengers: If Natasha and Bruce fear they can’t have a normal life because of what they were made to be, then so does Cap. His vision shows him a peace-time in which he can no longer have a place. The “man that came out of the ice” isn’t the same man who went in, and he can now only feel at home on a military base.

Whether or not its structural or thematic importance suggests a different way of looking at the scene, the attempt to give Natasha a backstory beyond the vague hints that she is a bad spy turned good makes the writing of a stand-alone Black Widow film simpler. As Darren Franich points out, “every superhero in movies now has an origin story, and every superhero in movies has personal demons that they have to triumph over.” It’s become a fundamental thematic and narrative characteristic of the genre.

Her appearance in previous films made it seem as if Natasha was largely devoid of Stand-alone Black Widowthose demons. There are suggestions that there is something dark in her past, like Pierce’s warning about the reactions that might greet a revelation of her true self, but it offered something more akin to a professional challenge than a motivating set of personal demons. Her storyline in Ultron takes those suggestions and attempts to genrify them, to turn them into something that could support the narrative structure typical of superhero films.

If Ultron reveals that Natasha fears the consequences of her training, the fact that she was designed to be a killer and nothing more, then it also suggests a fairly clear narrative direction for a stand-alone film, in the form of a spy thriller not too dissimilar from the generic formula used in The Winter Soldier, in which those fears are realised. And because Clint was the one who was able to see something beyond that killer, motivating him to make a “different call” when he was sent by S.H.I.E.L.D. to kill her, make those consequences of her training about his survival: Clint’s life is put in jeopardy and in order to save him Natasha has to cross the moral line he pulled her back from when he chose not to complete his mission as ordered and recruit her instead of killing her.

Going back to Natasha’s origin story seems both untimely – since we already know her and therefore don’t need the introductions origin stories are usually concerned with – and redundant, since we have been offered a condensed version of one in her vision in Ultron and in her conversation with Loki in The Avengers. So, replay the choice that both Natasha and Clint had to make at the heart of her conversion from assassin to agent. Intercut that with flashbacks to their first meeting if you really want to hammer home the point.

(See, now I’ve got an opening sequence in my head which cross-cuts back and forth between Clint and Natasha, seemingly chasing down the same dangerous fugitive only to reveal they’re after each other. Maybe they catch sight of each other in the scopes of their guns and get ready to take the shot just as we realize they’re on opposite sides. Cut to titles.)

As Franich argues, giving Natasha those structuring personal demons would be something of a change in direction, because while “there’s a central idea overriding all the Marvel movies that these characters are somehow damaged,” Black Widow was the “precise opposite,” with her shows of fragility most often being nothing more than show. Her superpower was that she was essentially a cipher, “that she was never who you thought she was.” The backstory Whedon gives her in Ultron lays out a possible narrative trajectory for a Black Widow stand-alone, but while it may not be a good movie, it would be a superhero movie.

Some people might accuse this type of story-centric analysis of Natasha’s depiction of naiveté, that I’m neglecting the real cultural implications of that depiction in favour of looking at how her character fits into larger narrative, thematic, and generic patterns. I’m not suggesting that an argument for the misogyny of that depiction can’t be made, or that I find that argument entirely unreasonable. But for me, if that argument is going to go beyond Twitter harassment and accusations that Marvel is only concerned with “shipping her all the way around the Avengers block,” then this type of analysis has to come first, or we’ll be left with only provocation. Provocation can be good politics, but it’s bad film criticism.


References:

E. Ann Kaplan, “Global Feminism and the State of Feminist Film Theory,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 30, no. 1 (2004): 1236-1248.

Darren Franich, “The Black Widow Conundrum,” Entertainment Weekly, May 1, 2015, http://www.ew.com/article/2015/04/29/entertainment-geekly-black-widow-conundrum

Deidre Kaye, “Dear Marvel: Ladies don’t need romance to love Avengerssheknows, May 4, 2015, http://www.sheknows.com/entertainment/articles/1082844/avengers-age-of-ultron-black-widow-hulk-romance

Blake Snyder, Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2005).

Sara Stewart, “An Open Letter To Joss Whedon from a Disappointed Feminist fan After Watching ‘Age of Ultron’,” Women in Hollywood, April 30, 2015, http://blogs.indiewire.com/womenandhollywood/an-open-letter-to-joss-whedon-after-watching-age-of-ultron-from-a-disappointed-feminist-fan-20150430

Adam B. Vary, “Joss Whedon Calls ‘Horsesh*t’ on Reports He Left Twitter Because of Militant Feminists,” BuzzFeed News, May 6, 2015, http://www.buzzfeed.com/adambvary/joss-whedon-on-leaving-twitter#.qiMOD4XKO

Jen Yamato, “The Avengers’ Black Widow Problem: How Marvel Slut-Shamed their Most Badass Superheroine,” The Daily Beast, April 28, 2015, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/04/28/the-avengers-black-widow-problem-how-marvel-slut-shamed-their-most-badass-superheroine.html

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