The Black Widow Problem

**Disclaimer – this post contains mild spoilers for the new Avengers movie**

Like many people, especially people like me with a house full of young sons like myself, I went out this weekend and saw the new Avengers Age of Ultron movie. My kids enjoyed the heck out of it, especially the part where Iron Man fights the Hulk. I enjoyed most of this big superhero extravaganza, especially since Marvel movies do include quite a lot of humor with all the explosions and fighting. What I didn’t love about this movie was an amplified version of what I’ve disliked about all the superhero movies. The women have small roles and mainly serve to prop up the male characters or to fall in love with the male characters.

Black Widow seemed to be a bit of an exception to the rule since she got to kick a lot of a** and be one of the Avengers (except when it comes to merchandising and toys versus the other male Avengers). Even Hawkeye, who I think barely counts as an Avenger (sorry Hawkeye fans) gets included in toys before Black Widow does! But in this movie (spoiler alert) guess what happens, she’s now romantically linked with one of the Avengers.  Really? We can’t keep her as just her own character without turning her into a way to develop the male Avenger character? They have hinted at relationships with her before, both with Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and Chris Evan’s Captain America. She’s been sexy and flirty with both of them, but she’s also in on the fighting in a big way.  Maybe I didn’t love how they play up her sex appeal, but that wasn’t what defined her. In this movie, what defined her was this spark between her and (spoiler alert) Bruce Banner aka the Hulk. She has a nurturing and calming effect on the Hulk and has an attraction to Banner.

This development opened up a can of worms for the Black Widow character. I think it takes away from the potential of a stronger storyline for her character. Joss Whedon, who has written some cool female characters before, seems to have really fallen down with this one. Beyond adding the romantic storyline with fellow Avenger, Black Widow’s other main conflict in this movie is something that is revealed about her that makes her see herself as a monster like Hulk, not as a “real woman”. It’s not a well developed piece of the story or that strong a character development. It ultimately serves to weaken her rather than strengthen her. Very disappointing.

Outside of the movie, in a nightmare of a PR moment, Renner and Evans “jokingly” call Black Widow out for having flirted with both of them by calling her a slut and a whore.  Wow! Seriously guys?  As offensive as their jokes were, it’s sad that the story Black Widow gets to have is not what cool new thing she said or did in the story, but something that sexualizes and ultimately demeans her.

Chuck Wendig writes a great post on his Terrible Minds blog (contains NSFW language) about the role of strong female characters, challenging the false definition of a strong female character as just being one that can kick a lot of a**.  He points out that instead, a strong female character should have agency, that is, she should be one that affects the outcome of the story. Black Widow had very little agency to begin with but now seems to have taken a step back with this film.

While I understand that the superhero genre is different in a lot of ways from the novels and short stories we read and write, the problem of Black Widow doesn’t seem that uncommon.  The women, sometimes the women we would even like to call strong female characters, get lost in a romantic subplot and lose the power to control the story. Or maybe they never have any power to control the story at all. They stay on the periphery looking pretty but offering not a lot.

I’ve seen it said that we don’t necessarily need to write “strong female characters”, we need to just write interesting female characters. Let’s write characters that move the story, that determine the story, or that simply are the story. The women don’t have to be what may conventionally be considered strong in a male world.  The women can be like Steel Magnolias, strong on a whole different level. The women can be like Hermione, who wasn’t the center of the Harry Potter series, but who you can bet your sorting hat affected the outcome of the story.  The women can be like Scout Finch who learns a lot as the story progresses and grows as a result. All of these examples have important male characters and relationships in the stories, but the women have their own important role in the story.  That is what I would like to see more of, and that is what I’d like for my boys to see and read as they grow up.

What do you think? What makes a strong female character? Did what happens with Black Widow in this movie bother you? Or who cares, a character is a character regardless of gender, get over it?  Please feel free to leave us a comment.


5 responses to “The Black Widow Problem

  1. I agree so much with what you have said here CJ. Even though I haven’t seen the movie, I see so much of this in our media and attitude toward women today. I was blessed to have parents who taught me to value myself, but so many don’t. I would like to see women overcome adversity and draw out or teach others to do the same. Why do these characters have to just fight, and blow up everything. Why do the men solve everything this way? Regardless of gender, character strength can so be shown with gentleness, protection, giving off yourself to make others stronger or better. I could say so much, but will stop here. But I so agree with you.

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  3. I completely agree with you, CJ. I was terribly disappointed the way Joss took Black Widow’s character. She’s a strong character and has SUCH potential for a female superhero without having had ANYTHING to make her super other than training.
    There were a lot of points in the movie I felt could have been stronger, and her storyline was one of them. I’m seriously tired of all the ‘hinting’ at relationships with one of the Avengers, and now to make Hulk the love interest? I can see WHY that would work. But, there was no need to develop a romantic interest on her part. There are other ways to keep her balanced between strong and ‘feminine.” And isn’t that the problem? We need to redefine “feminine.” It isn’t a bad word, and I’m tired of it being shoved down my throat that that word means I’m a simpering, love-struck, weak person. Being feminine isn’t what defines me. I am proud to be a girl. But I can kick butt when I want to, and I am strong. I’m the one who chooses what defines me. Hollywood needs to get with the program.

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