Our Standards: The Good and The Bad in Black Widow's Arc In Age of Ultron, and Why Feminist Criticism Needs to Reform

By Alex Wolf on November 10, 2015

Feminists, we really need to discuss the idea that a female character thinking of her own happiness somehow indicates she is weak.

Remember the interview scene in the Incredibles when Mr. Incredible talks about his desire to settle down and have a family, and Elsatigirl immediately counters with her fierce determination to be as fierce as possible. “Girls come on, leave the saving the world to the men? I don’t think so!”

Photo Credit: pinterest.com

Now, this was meant to be empowering to girls. I’m not saying it isn’t. But isn’t it also a pretty good representation of what we expect of our female characters vs. our male characters?

To many women, the idea of a strong female character is a woman who is smart, tough, skilled, but most of all tireless. She never stops fighting. She never tires out. She is completely selfless, and she is far outside the realm of what many of us consider traditional feminine stereotypes. Why do we hold these characters to such high standards? Because that’s the only way they can be recognized on the same pedestal as the men.

God forbid if a female character shows any trace of what we consider weakness, if she shows any sort of selfishness, if she says she’s tired, or if she even hints at some yearning for anything we might consider feminine domesticity, we pounce, calling her poorly written, a Mary Sue, a plot device.

I think as feminists we’re taught to fear and avoid any affiliation with the traditional stereotype of the stay-at-home-woman like a plague, because it represents what the 2nd and 3rd wave feminists of the 60s and 70s fought so hard to escape. Their ideal was simple: Women can be whoever and whatever they want to be. I’ll repeat that: Women can be whoever and whatever they want to be. That includes being a mother, being a stay-at-home mom, or simply not wanting to climb the corporate ladder in preparation for starting a family. Not all women choose to be mothers or CEO’s, but some do. And that’s their choice. To tell a woman she can’t be a feminist or a strong woman because she fits into what we would call a typical women’s role is pretty much going against feminism itself.

Which is why I’m horrified at the feminist community’s reaction to Natasha Romanoff’s desire to run away in Age of Ultron.

Photo Credit: http://www.themarysue.com/i-have-black-widow-feelings/

A little background: Natasha Romanoff, AKA Black Widow, is basically Marvel’s most popular leading lady. A former Russian spy, trained from a young age in a government program called the Red Room, she then defects from Russia and joins SHIELD, working to make up for all the awful things she did as a spy.

Many people were angry about how her character was treated in Age of Ultron, the sequel to The Avengers. Besides giving her an uninteresting romantic subplot with Bruce Banner, the Hulk, it’s revealed that her final test as part of her graduation from the Red Room was her being forcibly sterilized, the program claiming their female agents would be more effective at killing if they were cut off from any sort of chance of having a family or personal connections of their own. It’s also revealed that Natasha has a desire to run away with Bruce and start some sort of normal life with him.

Photo Credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ja_t5NQ86vE

And so the internet went wild. Feminists were complaining, calling Natasha’s subplot disastrous, inexusable, and a complete insult to her character. Insults were being tweeted. The director and writer, Joss Whedon, was forced to quit twitter, although he claims it was for personal reasons.

Let’s get something clear here: I’m no fan of Joss Whedon, or Natasha’s romance with Banner. Natasha’s sterilization was handled terribly, with her claiming to Bruce the fact that she was sterilized to improve her effectiveness at killing made her a “monster” on par with the Hulk, a statement Bruce didn’t even attempt to contradict. Her chemistry with Bruce was also nonexistent; you know you’ve written a bad romance if two wonderful actors like Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson can’t achieve chemistry. But Natasha’s desire to leave the fight and start anew, well, that I can understand completely.

Natasha is an incredibly damaged character. She was twisted and warped into a killer by the Red Room, taught that love was for children, to never feel anything for anyone. She’s learned to hide her emotions and her true self from everyone, so as not to get hurt. She want’s redemption, to do the right thing, but is left in a permanent state of self-loathing because of it.

During the events of her previous film, Captain America The Winter Soldier, SHIELD has revealed itself to be the neo-Nazi organization HYDRA, making all of Natasha’s heroics while in their command seem like it was nothing, just doing more dirty work for a corrupt agency. “I thought I knew who’s lies I was telling, but I guess I can’t tell the difference anymore” she laments to Steve Rogers after this revelation. At the beginning of Age of Ultron, she’s learning to trust her teammates. She begins to strike up a tentative flirtation with Bruce, enjoying her newfound liberation, wondering if there could me more out there for her than just the spy game. Then she gets a horrifying flashback induced by Scarlet Witch, making her relive her Red Room training and sterilization, and Natasha begins to question every choice, everything done to her by others, and she realizes she’s never made genuine choice for herself. That’s what makes her decide to run away, not because she’s so in love with Bruce, but because she wants to make her own choices and be happy. Choice has always been a huge part of Natasha’s history: it goes back to when she first defected from Russia in the comics in the late sixties. For the first time, we see Natasha actively wanting a hand in her own destiny. And think about what happens when Bruce leaves her, taking away her dreams of running away. She doesn’t mope around. She has a silent moment of sorrow, and then she picks herself up and gets back to work, joining Captain America to co-lead the new team of Avengers.

Could this have been better written? Could it have come across more clearly? Yes, absolutely, but we as feminists have to remember that a female character making a choice for her own happiness, even if it goes against our perceived definition of a strong character, isn’t weak. I think we’d have a wider range of female characters we love and respect if we defer from this strict guideline for feminist criticism.

At the end of Age of Ultron, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark discuss the possibility of Steve hanging up his shield and starting anew. “Family, stability. The guy who wanted all that went in the ice seventy-five years ago,” Steve says calmly. Had he said that he did yearn for a family and to be away from all the fighting, many fans would have approved, saying that Steve was damaged, that he deserved a peaceful life, a chance to recover from his trauma and find happiness. No one would ever question how strong of a character he is. Why can’t we give Natasha the same grace?

Photo Credit: http://bbuchanann.tumblr.com/post/106633189374/new-promo-art-of-natasha-romanoff-in-avengers-age

Information gathered from: http://www.rawstory.com/2015/05/in-defense-of-black-widow-in-age-of-ultron/, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/may/08/black-widow-romance-hulk-avengers-age-of-ultron, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1843866/, and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2395427/

By Alex Wolf

Uloop Writer
Aspiring writer, liberal and feminist. Passionate about comics, movies, and female characters. Currently a Sophomore at Gettysburg College.

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