By: Amanda Wallace. Here there be spoilers, you are warned.
With the weekend release of Avengers: Age of Ultron still fresh, a lot of commentary has come out about Marvel’s principal female character: the Black Widow, Natasha Romanov. Most of that attention has been focused on male actors from the franchise calling the character “a slut”(some apologizing, and others doubling down), the series decision to pair her off romantically with Bruce Banner, or her momentary puzzling damseling near the end of the film.
Arguably one of the most important and oddest scenes, however, is halfway through the movie. The Avengers have been bested and must pull back to regroup, hiding away at Clint’s family farm. We’re given idyllic, pastoral life while Hawkeye talks home improvement and Steve Rogers chops wood.
Natasha and Bruce are sequestered in an upstairs bedroom feeling their odd romantic tension when Bruce expresses that he can’t enter a romantic relationship with Natasha because “this life,” (the white picket fence) is impossible for him. Now whether he means because he’s a green rage monster who can demolish a city like a natural disaster or because having sex raises his heart rate to a level where he Hulks out is not entirely clear. What is problematic is Natasha’s response to Bruce declaring his monstrousness:
“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?”
For those that need catching up, the Red Room is the creepy ballet/murder school that Natasha was trained in. The one where she was indoctrinated and handcuffed to beds, the kind of place where the phrase “mass killings” is used as a descriptor.
It’s difficult to shoehorn 10 characters subplots into a 2.5-hour movie, but this kind of subplot needs more than two minutes and at the very least a delicate touch. It could’ve sounded human and intensely powerful. Having children is a uniquely feminine experience, one of the few that is tied to our sex, and it’s rare that it’s discussed in an action film. It could’ve been great character building — a woman whose whole life has been altered irrevocably by the brainwashing and indoctrination she went through, who has been altered mentally as well as physically into a killing machine. Instead, it sounded a bit like “Oh, I get it. I can’t have babies and you just accidentally demolished an African city and probably murdered a bunch of civilians as collateral damage. We’re like totes the same.” It’s uncomfortable.
It also plays into a common and negative trope that childless women are somehow less compassionate than their childbearing counterparts. Natasha says that it made everything easier, “even killing,” as if having a hysterectomy made her a sociopath. The inability to create does not pave the way towards destruction. Sterilization removed her uterus, not her empathy.
As the writers of this great piece on io9 point out, this situation is made even weirder by the infantilizing of the Hulk. In order to make him “de-Hulk,” Black Widow has to give him a lullaby, a form of conditioning utilizing trigger words and gestures. It’s a plot point that she, the only woman on the team, is the only person who does this.Not only is this potentially creepy (conditioning is what made Natasha Romanov a killer), it’s also actually called a lullaby. On its own that isn’t strange, but paired with a character who is later revealed to be deeply affected by her own infertility, it gets kinda weird. Especially since they are later tied romantically and neither seems to be into age-play. Don’t worry Black Widow, you might not be able to have a real baby, but you can instead have a baby Hulk.
It’s canon that Black Widow is infertile, except in the comics it’s balanced out by her not aging and having been given the equivalent of the Soviet-Captain America Super Soldier serum.
It’s so rarely mentioned in the comics that I can only find references to it on Wikipedia pages rather than screen-grabs of the individual comics online. Some sources even claim that it’s no longer the case in the current run of Black Widow, a facet of her nature that has been retconned out of existence. Despite this, the writers for Age of Ultron seem to have brought it back as cheap character development. It stinks of the rape as backstory trope, that a female character must be violated in order to be “interesting.”
Black Widow has expressed that she feels kind of unsalvageable and maybe even a bit monstrous before, but never in terms of her ability to make children: “How many more jobs… How long will it take… I don’t know if I can do it… Even if I could forgive myself… This is what I am now. And you’ll never know who I was before. (source)” In Marvel’s first Avengers foray, Natasha says she wants to wipe the red off her ledger — the killings she’s participated in, the hold the Red Room still has on her. It’s even touched on in the conversation with Bruce where she explains how she can’t be an Avenger because she’s not a good person (a fact later solidified when she forces him to Hulk out for the good of the mission).
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a frankly problematic relationship with women, despite 40% of their audience being comprised of women. In an interview last year at the Guardians of the Galaxy premiere, Whedon said there were going to be four women prominently featured in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but barely delivered on that (I had to wrack my brain to remember that Maria Hill was in this movie). It’s going to be 2018 – and after another Spider Man reboot – before we get our first woman-led big-budget film in the form of Captain Marvel. Women are on the small screen, featuring prominently in Agents of SHIELD as well as leading Agent Carter and AKA Jessica Jones, but it still seems like an afterthought. Not to mention the fact that there are still almost no Black Widow toys, or that Disney (the now parent company for Marvel) won’t market towards girls because they’ve already got that market on lock.
Women, both in and out of the MCU, are not worth Marvel’s time.
Amanda Wallace is an amazing associate editor for Gameskinny.com, and runs two websites, Storycade and Wasabi Crunk, that look at niche aspects of the gaming world (interactive fiction and indie games respectively). The best way to follow her work is via twitter, @barelyconcealed, where you’ll find great articles and witty banter.