Avengers: Age of Ultron is about a lot of things. The film is a conversation about monsters, gods, what is right, what is wrong. Ultron is a monster, by our standards, but he thinks of himself as a god. Is Tony a monster for creating him? Will Steve ever be able to leave the war behind? Will Hawkeye ever finish the dining room?
The biggest question that my friends and I have been discussing, however, is what we’ve all already started calling “The Black Widow Monster Scene.” There are several ways to interpret the exchange between Natasha and Bruce, all of which seem valid, in my opinion. But I specifically want to examine how this scene functions in the context of Joss Whedon’s overall work, and the popular perception of Whedon as a feminist writer. Simply put: let’s look at how often Whedon has relied on this trope of a woman’s power or uniqueness or, yes, monstrosity, being inseparable from her gender and sexuality—why, in Whedon’s stories of women’s power, does their strength and talent always need to be bound to their bodies and biology?
To begin at the beginning, in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, Buffy’s role as the Slayer is immediately sexualized, as Merrick explains that her terrible menstrual cramps are an early warning system that vampires are nearby. (And this is why Slayers have to be female.) Whedon’s film script was heavily rewritten, so it’s entirely possible that this was not one of his original plans for the character, but since it flows so well with the rest of the Buffyverse wrestling with sex and death, I’ve always felt it was probably one of his ideas. This concept was mostly dropped in the show, but the connection was reflected and echoed in other moments: it’s Buffy’s loss of virginity that triggers the return of Angelus; Willow explicitly compares her PMS to Oz’s monthly lycanthropy in “Phases”; and Faith tends to celebrate a successful slaying session with random, somewhat violent hookups—which later causes some emotional fallout with Xander.
Given that Buffy was more about high school, college, growing up, and coming of age, the sexual nature of this stuff was often necessary and very metaphorical. As Whedon moved to the more adult, male-centered Angel, we also got a severe downshift in sexuality: there is a constant undercurrent that Angel has to be a vampiric monk, because he believes that any form of physical intimacy would take his soul. The tone of the show matched with the main character’s struggle, showcasing the entire team without overtly sexualizing any of their jobs, and as I watched my way through most of the Whedon oeuvre, I assumed that he’d left the conflation of power with sexuality back in high school with Buffy.
But then I watched Firefly. While Inara’s status as a Companion becomes increasingly complicated over the course of the series, her job doesn’t have much to do with her own personal sexuality; meanwhile, Zoe seems to be a happily married woman who’s attracted to her husband, and River seems to be too young and loopy to think about that sort of stuff yet. But what the hell is the deal with Kaylee? She’s a supercompetent mechanic in a future society that seems way less sexually uptight than our current Earth-based one. She’s good at her job, loves it, seems a bit naive at first. She jokes about vibrators, which, good. Sexually active girl. But then—we learn that she’s turned on by engines. In the (amazing) episode “Out of Gas,” we learn that she only got the job on Serenity because Mal caught her fucking his old mechanic in the engine room. Her skill with engines is inextricably tied to the fact that she’s sexually aroused by them, and specifically requested that Bester take her to the engine room. (She’s actually referred to as an “engineering groupie” on the Firefly wiki…).
Wash isn’t turned on by flying, Zoe isn’t turned on by fighting, Simon isn’t turned on by practicing medicine, Jayne isn’t turned on by… whatever his particular skill is. (Actually, he and Simon both seemed to mostly be turned on by Kaylee?) Hell, Inara isn’t turned on by being a Companion. It’s her job, she sees it as a service, that’s really it, and we never get the sense that she’s particularly attracted to the people who visit her. Mal talks about loving Serenity… but that seems to be more of a spiritual thing than a sexual one. (If anything, he resembles the monkish Angel here.)
But then, because no sexual relationship can remain happy and healthy in the Whedonverse, Kaylee’s engine room is taken away from her. During the episode “Objects in Space,” bounty hunter Jubal Early shows up, looking for River. He finds Kaylee in the engine room, working, and threatens her, asking if she’s ever been raped, and making it clear that he’s prepared to hurt her to learn what he needs to know.
She’s terrified. She thought she was alone with her engine, working in silence after the rest of the crew went to bed. This is her safe space, the part of the ship that she understands even better than Mal does, the part of the ship that is most hers. So even though he doesn’t actually go through with his threat, her space has been violated. It’s safe to assume that she won’t be able to be in that room again without thinking about this incident….was this why she took Simon to the engine room, specifically, at the end of Serenity? To reclaim it for herself? Again, as storytelling, this is incredibly compelling, but as this particularly sexualized violence is only directed at one, young, female, incredibly vulnerable crew member, it overshadows everything else in the episode. Once again, a woman’s particular talent and career has been tied to her biology in a way that was wholly unnecessary to the plot, and which makes her own competency stand apart from the rest of her team.
In Dollhouse, some of the Dolls’ assignments include a fair amount of sex work, and we see Echo imprinted with the personalities of everything from a dearly departed housewife to a dominatrix. However, Dolls can be any gender, and their functions in the field are not inherently sexual. And considering that their minds are “wiped” in-between each engagement, it’s clear that they don’t get off on what they do, and while the clients might, this is not central to the Dolls’ view of themselves. The point is that the Dolls have no view of themselves until Echo begins to break down. Dollhouse explores the extremes of identity—the dolls form perspectives on themselves without tying those core identities explicitly to their sexual being—while their clients actively pay for the privilege of seeing their sexual and personal preferences embodied in someone else. Dollhouse’s focus on identity includes, among other things, exploration of the notion of biological destiny. From there, Whedon leaves his own creations and begins working in the Marvel Universe.
Let me begin by saying that there is a difference between objectification and sexualization. Yes, the Chrises are all objectified in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—this time out, they even find an excuse to throw Hemsworth in a pool so he can whip his hair around like he’s in a shampoo ad. However, none of the guys are sexualized. None of them are defined by their sexual relationships.
And Widow, contrary to the actors’ jokes about sluttiness, is not actually sexualized in the films until we get to Age of Ultron. (Actually, if you want to talk about the biggest slut in the Marvelverse? It’s Matt Murdock, by a hurt/comfort landslide.) Playboy’s article about this is completely on-point. She works in espionage, she is ridiculously good-looking, and, presumably, she’s used her looks to infiltrate certain areas. She has probably used her body in slightly more direct sexual ways to get people to give up secrets. She’s also used her body to beat the truth out of enemies.
Black Widow has used her brain, her wit, her charm, her sense of humor, her apparently horrifying Soviet spy training, and her hopefully less-horrifying S.H.I.E.L.D. training, all to do a very specific job. However, at least in the context of the MCU, she’s never played the femme fatale. She’s never used sex to manipulate any of the men or women on screen with her. She gets a job as Pepper’s assistant in Iron Man 2 because she’s qualified for the gig. Tony’s the one who makes lewd jokes, and looks at her modeling shots, and doesn’t see the super-assassin standing right next to him.
Where Widow uses her body and sexuality as a tool, Tony thinks that she can be defined by her sexuality, presumably in the same way he’s defined other young women during his pre-Pepper philandering. This causes him to completely overlook her actual skills and job qualifications until he learns that she’s working with Fury, and to be continually amazed at how she works directly with Pepper to keep Stark Industries afloat after he goes rogue. Later, Widow works alongside the other Avengers to fight the Chitauri invasion; some time after that, she goes on the lam with Cap in The Winter Soldier and spends most of the time either fighting or hacking. She does kiss Steve once to hide their faces, but it’s a pretty platonic kiss, and she’s only doing it to protect them. In fact, the running gag of the film is her badgering him about his love life, because they’re buddies, and that’s the kind of stuff buddies talk about together.
So after several films of watching Natasha do her job without any attachments of any kind, we get the Banner/Romanoff romance. And it’s exactly that: romance. Furtive glances with occasional gazing, flirtation over cocktails, banter that makes me want the two of them in their own ’40s throwback spinoff movie RIGHT NOW. (Scarlett Johansson wasn’t as into it, but I think it’s sweet and awesome.) But then… Banner thinks that he’s a monster because the Other Guy occasionally gets out and literally kills people and destroys buildings. The film leaves us no doubt that he’s incredibly dangerous and nearly unstoppable. So when he opens up to Natasha about leaving the team, hiding out where he can’t hurt anyone, she reciprocates by telling him how she, too, is a monster. And this is where the film veers straight into a wall.
Earlier, we see flashes of Widow’s time in her Russian spy school. She returns to the school during a Scarlet Witch-induced vision because it’s her worst memory, the trauma that she can’t let go of even after all that’s happened to her and all she’s done. The Red Room is where and when young Natalia was “unmade” and then reconstructed as a Black Widow. Her stern headmistress has a disjointed voiceover about her graduation ceremony, and we see a man in a chair with a bag over his head—is her graduation ceremony killing him? Interrogating him? Torturing him for secrets he doesn’t even have?
Her graduation ceremony comes after all of the training, when she’s wheeled into a makeshift hospital room and sterilized.
This makes sense. It’s part of Widow’s backstory in the comics, and it seems like a very practical decision for a spy to make. But it becomes clear in the flashbacks that Natasha had changed her mind, and the headmistress even claims that she’s sabotaging her own graduation to try to get out of it. More than learning how to lie and kill, this is the part of the experience she regrets the most.
“Still think you’re the only monster on the team?” she asks Banner.
I think Whedon was trying to say that it was her choice to become a killer that is the monstrosity here, and that she’s trying to empathize with Banner on that point, but the beats of his script work so that the conversation ends on the regret that she’ll never be a (biological) mother. (And in the interest of full disclosure: I don’t intend to have children, and this line felt like a gutpunch to me. I can only imagine that it was worse for people who do want kids, but can’t have them…) While Banner’s belief in himself as a monster stems from the Hulk’s destructive powers, the movie claims that Natasha’s sense of herself as Other is seated in her decision to give up the ability to bear children… a decision that seems to have been partially forced on her anyway. And really, why did the film even need to go there? We have more than enough angst between Natasha’s status as a murderer and Banner’s status as a green rage monster for them to grapple over whether they even deserve happiness together, let alone whether it’s possible for them to pursue it… but instead Whedon had to delve into biology and sexuality in a way that completely muddled the conversation, and completely changed Natasha’s character arc.
Obviously, this scene is off-putting enough, but when you compare it with the other female characters in the film, it becomes even more glaring.
At this point Widow is the only female Avenger, and her power, her espionage skills and all that training, have now been defined in sexual terms. Actually, not even just sexual terms—her skills are a repudiation of fertility itself. She is the negative to Clint’s secret pregnant wife Laura, who stays at home taking care of the kids, managing a bucolic farm house, able to make a giant dinner for a completely unexpected team of superheroes on very short notice, discreetly not mentioning that Nick Fury’s already out in the barn so that he can get his surprise entrance when Tony most needs a pep talk… basically, she’s a caretaker for a bunch of people she doesn’t even know.
Her very existence tells us something else about this universe: Clint Barton is able to be a full-time Avenger, with much of the same training as Natasha, just as much red in his ledger, and at the end of the mission he gets to go back to a loving home and family. Natasha doesn’t get to have any of that. There is no “end of the mission” for her. What there might be is literally running away with the Hulk, which would come at the sacrifice of her entire life and her work with the Avengers. (Apparently female superheroes still can’t have it all?) With Laura a homemaker who is defined by her role as Clint’s wife, Scarlet Witch a young girl who is effectively infantilized by Clint during the pep talk on the floating island, and Friday, Dr. Cho, and Maria Hill each having very small roles, Natasha is the only woman who seem to be on an equal level with the guys. The film makes this explicit when she steps up to train the Avengers 2.0 with Steve—they’re both career soldiers who have no life off the battlefield. But unlike Steve, and unlike all of the other Avengers, the capabilities that elevate her over normal people have now been identified as a side effect of her sexual choices.
Now I want to re-state: I love a lot of Joss Whedon’s writing. And obviously, many humans, both real and fictional, find their lives shaped by their sexual choices. But it still seems noteworthy that so many women written by Whedon end up being completely defined by those choices (or the loss or absence of those choices, in some cases). And it’s interesting to me that the go-to feminist writer of nerd culture seems to use this trope almost as often as he kills people for dramatic effect.
Why, in the midst of stories about women’s power, does he need to tie that power to uncontrollable bodily functions? Why are men like Mal and Angel able to be defined by their missions, while their female counterparts are still defined largely by their sexuality? Why is a character who is mostly non-sexual onscreen called a slut, while a certain genius billionaire playboy philanthropist enthusiastically lives up to the “playboy” part of his rep and never gets any flack for it? By the end of Ultron, Natasha seems to be compared most strongly with Steve: they made analogous decisions to sacrifice their personal lives for their countries, to undergo medical alteration to become soldiers, and I don’t think it’s an accident that Natasha holds the mighty shield almost as often as Cap does. So why is Natasha’s decision to become a killer for her country any more repulsive than Steve’s? I think Whedon was trying to examine some huge concepts in Age of Ultron, and I think many of the questions he raises are fascinating, and handled brilliantly. I just wish he’d also asked a few of these equally important questions of himself along the way.
Now, in a truly hilarious twist, Joss Whedon’s decision to leave Twitter to pursue personal time to write has become the latest part in the conversation about his feminism. Since people have been vocal about their issues with Black Widow’s arc, and since Whedon didn’t explicitly state that he was taking time off for personal reasons, his narrative was hijacked and turned into an excuse to accuse “angry feminists” of driving him off the platform. There are articles all over the internet, and the news trended on Twitter with the vast majority of tweets complaining about the women who hounded him. So then Whedon himself had to come back onto social media—you know, the place he was trying to leave—to explain that he just wanted to get away from the constant barrage of information.
The fact that people who purport to be Whedon fans would trumpet the idea that “radical feminists” were hurting their hero is terribly disheartening to me. The fact the last year has been filled with vitriol and threats against women who dare to critique geek culture is particularly upsetting. And most of all the fact that one of our most public male feminists can’t just give us an interesting, complicated, compelling character without having to tie both her greatest strengths and her greatest flaws to her sexuality? That’s just exhausting.
I’m doing my best not to lay another narrative on top of this, but instead to look at the work itself and ask why Black Widow can’t just be an Avenger, judged on her skills and capabilities the same way Steve, Tony, and Clint are? Why does this one aspect of her life now have to define all the others?