The Erasure of Black Widow: Do We Need to Write Female Characters Differently?

Age of Ultron Black WidowI saw the movie Avengers: Age of Ultron last week. I had been looking forward to watching this movie for a long time, so I did my utmost to avoid encountering any spoilers. I enjoyed it, though I felt that parts of it were uneven and that it didn’t come together as well as the first Avengers movie.

Once I’d seen the movie, I checked out what other people had thought of it. That’s when I discovered the complaints about the character development of Black Widow.

I realized that the movie I saw was not the same movie that others had seen.

*character spoilers ahead*

What Some People Saw

A betrayal of Black Widow’s character through

– making her “the girlfriend”

– making her a damsel in distress

– making her a mother figure

– making her feel monstrous for not being able to have children.

What I Saw

An evolution of Black Widow’s character, as shown through

– her attempt to develop a romantic relationship

– her demonstrated ability to protect her other team members and fulfill critical missions (without super powers)

– her yearning for family and connections

– her acknowledgement that she feels monstrous due to her training as an assassin.

 

What happened here? How could these interpretations be so different?

I certainly don’t think that the portrayal of Black Widow’s character was perfect. I’ve complained before about the lack of strong female characters in action movies, and this movie doesn’t break any new ground on this issue. Outside of the movie itself, Marvel is not impressing me with their failure to produce Black Widow action figures. They have even erased her from her own key movie scene.

But still. I didn’t pick up on all the negative nuances that others found in this movie.

This leads me to the question of how to treat female characters in a male-dominated genre. Should writers be treating female characters differently from male ones? And how should gender issues be addressed?

Female Characters as Human Beings

I’d like to think that all characters are simply human beings. When Black Widow needed to be rescued in the film, I didn’t see her as a damsel in distress that needed to be saved by a boyfriend. I saw her as a valuable team member that needed to be rescued by another member of the team, just as the Avengers would do for any team member. The fact that she was female and in a relationship just didn’t make any difference to me.

But I can see why others found this disturbing. We’re constantly surrounded by stories that portray women as the girlfriend, the damsel in distress, the mother figure…so we understandably get twitchy when we keep running into these tropes.

In reading up on this issue, I came across a fantastic article by Kate Elliott (one of my favourite fantasy authors) called Writing Women Characters as Human Beings. She shares three key pieces of advice, which I am paraphrasing here.

1. Have enough women in the story that they can talk to each other.

In this respect, Age of Ultron fails the grade. Although there are multiple female characters, they don’t have meaningful moments with each other. I can’t even remember if Scarlet Witch and Black Widow ever talked to each other.

2. Pay attention to how you are assigning minor roles.

In many stories, the tertiary-level characters are played by men. Age of Ultron does include several female characters in minor roles, including Dr. Cho, Laura, and Madame B.

3. Your female characters should exist for themselves, and have their own agency in the plot of the story.

I would say that Scarlet Witch is the female character that has the most agency in this movie. Her decisions and actions drive many of the key plot points. Black Widow has less agency in the plot, but I would argue that she does have her own dreams and desires that she acts upon in the movie. It’s just that those desires do not line up with the idea of a “kick butt” female action hero. Is that wrong? Maybe not. But in the context of male-dominated superhero action movies, it clearly doesn’t work for a large segment of the audience.

***

Have you seen Age of Ultron? How did you feel female characters were portrayed in the movie? Do you think female characters need to be treated any differently than male ones?

 

© Sue Archer and Doorway Between Worlds, 2015

Advertisements

42 thoughts on “The Erasure of Black Widow: Do We Need to Write Female Characters Differently?

  1. Initially, I didn’t pick up on the ways the female characters were treated. Upon hearing people’s complaints, I saw it — it wasn’t just Natasha, either. Pepper and Jane, for example, although simply mentioned in the movie, they’re being pitted against each other of ‘who’s accomplished more/who’s better’ than recognised as strong, independent women who shouldn’t be in a competition with each other.

    What I found with Natasha, though — and there’s many different interpretations — my own was although she IS capable of having a romantic relationship, this one in AOU hardly made sense; one, in the Avengers, Natasha feared The Hulk/Bruce, and for me, she wouldn’t have trusted him enough to have a relationship with him; two, there were clear indications that she and Clint could’ve potentially grown into something more, with again, their connection seen in the first film, and Natasha wearing the arrow necklace in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

    The ‘damsel in distress’ I do agree with, if I’m being honest, in that she just doesn’t seem the type to wait to be rescued. This is woman who got shot in the shoulder, yet managed to continue with her job the next day, or after being put through hell when running away from The Hulk, in shock, terrified and in a state, she volunteers to tend to a brainwashed Clint. Waiting around in a cell that would be a walk in the park for her — with the ability to make a device to send morse code, but not a weapon of some sort — for Bruce to come and save her, wasn’t exactly believable or considerate towards her characters. She fights, wherever she is, how hard it can be.

    With the ‘monster’ scene, I personally didn’t understand what she was referring to, and so with that unclear writing, it could’ve meant many things. What Whedon was trying to get across, I’ve no idea.

    I agree that having a female character that isn’t a badass hero isn’t so bad; all different kinds of women exist in this world, and they all need to be written/portrayed. It’s just with Black Widow, a very complex character, felt reduced to the stereotypical kind of woman, which although is not a terrible thing for other characters, for her, it felt very out-of-character.

    Great post — love hearing different opinions on this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Kat. Welcome to my blog! Thanks very much for your thoughtful response to my post. You’ve made a lot of great points.

      I agree that the one-upmanship of Pepper vs. Jane wasn’t a great approach, for the reasons you have mentioned.

      I honestly didn’t see any romantic signals with Clint in the previous movies. Instead, I saw them as having an unusually close relationship because they had experienced combat together many times. But I do see how their relationship could be viewed romantically.

      That’s a good point about Bruce not being an obvious partner for her, but I did feel it worked (maybe because I didn’t see relationships elsewhere). I know she had been scared of the Hulk, but I also felt like she had reconciled herself to the fear before the end of the first Avengers movie. I suspect this would have worked better all around if there had been more of an opportunity for a lead-in rather than skipping time to go straight into “the Avengers have been working as a team for a while. Oh, and look! Hulk and Black Widow have a close relationship!”

      And yes, the rescue scene felt more like a plot-driven convenience rather than something that was absolutely necessary. It would have been fun to see her rescue herself. That monster scene also clearly needed some editing because it seems to have gotten everyone confused.

      I really appreciate your comment! Thanks for the food for thought. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey, I’m glad you wrote about this.

    I recently saw Age of Ultron, and I plan on writing something about this, but I’m glad that your take on Natasha wanting human connection and her regrets of being weaponized at an early age, match my own.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great article. I really enjoyed the critical analysis and the reference you used to highlight your point. I absolutely love Natasha; she’s one of my favourites. I saw her as you saw her, but, if I’m completely honest, I could also see the other side. Perhaps it’s the way certain scenes were written, or came together – the timing perhaps. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie (I’ve seen it three times) so thanks for sharing your point of view 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Melissa, thanks for commenting! I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Natasha is one of my favourites, too. I love that scene in the first Avengers when she’s tied to the chair. Awesome stuff. 🙂

      I can see the other side on some of these points, too – and I think you’re right, a lot of it has to do with the way the movie was written. I kept getting the feeling that more time was needed in editing to clean up the rough edges. I think I need to see it again, too, and hopefully pick up on more that I didn’t catch the first time. I’m encouraged that you’ve seen it three times and still love it. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m with you on this. I didn’t consider it at all, but now that I’ve read about it I can see why some would think that. I think a lot is about the way we interpret things. We could also consider the opposite that maybe her character is deeper for having those emotional turmoils. Perhaps we need more male characters with emotional depth, or maybe it’s just repeated use of the same tropes that’s bothering a lot of people (myself included admittedly.) I prefer all of my characters to have some level of depth to them, otherwise they’re just too perfect and that makes them uninteresting. Some good points made in this post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, wallcat! I like my characters to have emotional depth to them, too. And for Natasha, I felt it was even more significant, since she had been living in a world where emotional attachments were actively discouraged. Maybe that’s why she didn’t feel like just a trope to me.

      I’d love to see more emotional depth in male characters. It’s one of the things I liked about the Thor movies – where family relationships led to clearly expressed emotional issues between fathers and brothers.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. You and I are on the same brain waves this week. My post yesterday was on a similar theme (the Bechdel Test).

    I saw Age of Ultron, and while I didn’t like it as much as the first movie (no Loki 😦 ), I didn’t really get the backlash against Black Widow’s character. Like you, I saw her transformation more as a character arc. I suppose that’s the writer in me. Plus, she didn’t disappear to be with the Hulk when he asked her to, she stayed and fought with the others. But I guess I could see why others might be disappointed. But as far as female characters go, the movies could do a lot worse. (And they have. Many times over.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great minds clearly thinking alike this week. 😉 Will be off soon to check out that post, Carrie!

      That’s a good point about the writer viewpoint on character arcs. I live for good character arcs, but other viewers might prefer characters to be more consistent.

      And yes, I have seen much worse done with female characters…sigh. Black Widow has been a real breath of fresh air. I am looking forward to seeing what happens with Scarlet Witch in future movies, because I think she has a lot of potential, too.

      (And who wouldn’t love more Loki?) 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree – it can be really tough to write a likeable antagonist. I remember reading Parke Godwin’s books about Robin Hood and being impressed that both Robin and the Sherrif of Nottingham were both relatable, instead of the typical evil villain fare we usually get.

        I just love how Tom Hiddleston has given Loki such depth as a character – it’s fantastic. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  6. What has been irking me when people complain about Natasha saying she’s a monster after revealing she can’t have kids is that moment before, Bruce said basically the same thing. She’s trying show him that they are the same. With her training she is on par with him as a monster, even more so because she doesn’t change into a big green person who is uncontrollable. She honestly is the worst monster because she looked like everyone else and those can be the most dangerous people.

    I think she is a great character and this movie tried to show her as more than just the assassin. She’s trying to be more than that. She’s trying to be a person, not a killer. (or a hero and not a killer.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Patricia, you’ve articulated this a lot better than I did. Fantastic points! I like that concept that she is the worst monster, even though she doesn’t look like one. I loved seeing her try to move beyond that in this movie. It’s too bad that this aspect was overshadowed by the association of monsterhood with that line about not having kids.

      Like

  7. I haven’t seen the movie, but it seems like female characters get so much more scrutiny than male characters. It almost feels like the idea of a “strong female character” is becoming a trope in and of itself. Don’t get me wrong, I love strong characters, and females especially, but above all I like believable characters that act like human beings I can relate to. Not to mention that strength, in my opinion, comes in many different forms, not all of which are the ass-kicking variety.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely. I do feel we are getting oversaturated at times with “strong” female characters, when really it would be great to have more depth and variety.

      That’s an interesting point about male characters having less scrutiny. I’m trying to think of examples where the male protagonist is not “strong” in some way – I wonder if a “weak” male character would have difficulties in being accepted? And what would a “weak” character mean?

      Like

  8. I read the many comments after seeing the movie; I could see where the commenters got most of their points, and as Wallcat commented, a lot can be attributed to interpretation. But for me, I thought a lot of the comments were simply nitpicking Widow in particular.

    This was a vital member of the Avengers team who could give a smart whooping, provide support and strategy, and assist other members of the team in doing their jobs. She was fully capable, and 100% confident, but she was also human (when she referred to being a monster, it had nothing to do with being sterile, and everything to do with being a cold and efficient Master Assassin) and could relate to her teammates. Some of her comments (“I’m always picking up after you boys”) is the kind of meaningless banter that a polished teammate would make, and does exactly as much to shame her “careless” teammates as Tony’s (very Tony-like) jibe about her “playing hide the pee-pee” during battle.

    So I attribute most of the anti-Widow comments as pretty meaningless in the overall scheme of things, as well as reminding everyone concerned that this is a comic book movie… what, you were expecting War and Peace?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Steven! Thanks for commenting. That’s a great angle about Widow now being an integral part of a team – the team dynamic would definitely be changing now that they’ve all had a chance to work together.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I really liked Age of Ultron overall. I thought that they did a good job with Black Widow, other than the scene where she tells the Hulk about her training and how she was sterilised. That really bugged me, because the implication seemed to be that all the learning to kill etc wasn’t what made her a monster, but rather it was the fact that she couldn’t have children. I didn’t like that angle at all.

    That said I thought the Hulk – Black Widow relationship was well managed, especially because they didn’t just disappear into the night to live happily ever after. And also I liked that Black Widow does her duty and stays to fight with the others (although it seems like the next Avengers film might feature a slightly different cast), that was a nice development for the character.

    And lastly, I thought they did a nice job with the blokes too – I like how they poked fun at them, such as when Thor and Ironman argue about whose girlfriend is more powerful or the banter about Thor’s hammer.

    My take is that it’s far from perfect as far as female characters go, but it’s a hell of an improvement from the usual Hollywood action film. Baby steps and all that 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it is much better than your typical Hollywood action film for female characters. When I think about some of the ones I have seen…[shudder].

      I think they really messed up with the dialogue around that sterilization thing. If the timing had been different (having her feeling sad about it at some point, but not having it next to that monster comment), I think it could have worked fine.

      That banter around Thor’s hammer was a lot of fun. It’s one of my favourite scenes in the movie. And then to have it act as a lead-in for that later hammer scene! Priceless. 🙂

      Like

      1. Yes that’s exactly right, different timing and that sterilisation comment would have worked much better. (Maybe we should offer to be consultants for future avenger movies 😉 )
        I loved the moment right at the end where Ironman (I think) suggests that if the hammer is in an elevator and the elevator goes up, then that means it’s worthy 😉 Haha.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You know, I think we should be consultants. Let’s get on the phone with Marvel! 🙂

        And that was a funny moment. It’s one of the things I liked about the first Avengers movie, too – the moments of humour that were thrown in with the action. DC is so different because they seem to go grim and dark all the time.

        Like

  10. I actually haven’t seen this movie, yet, so I don’t really have much I can add in detail other than I don’t think the story itself is what people are finding problematic.

    The problem comes in when the only narrative portrayed around female action heroes centers around inner (or outer) conflict that revolves around their femaleness. Men get stories that revolve around their maleness at times, but most of the time, they get to be people doing things with other motivations. Women, though, are often put into this box of having their motivations and conflict revolve around their “femaleness” rather than people being people.

    So the problem isn’t so much the narrative, but what happens when it becomes the only narrative.

    Since I haven’t seen this movie, yet, I can’t say whether or not I find the way her character was handled problematic–but either way, we need more stories with women, so we can get a variety of narratives that explore what it means to be a woman from multiple angles.

    I haven’t read the criticism in detail b/c I’m looking forward to seeing the movie myself, but the criticism can be good at pointing out, “Hey, Hollywood! Can we get some more stories over here!”

    More stories! I think that’s what needs to be the solution.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, IC! Yes, we definitely need more stories about women. Imagine if we had a variety of female characters in action movies, rather than the typical token female in the lineup that we often get. The more characters we have, the more angles we get to explore.

      I hope you enjoy the movie – I certainly did, despite all the commentary around it. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I appreciate your very balanced and reasonable tone while calling out potential problems in Black Widow’s characterization. I think it says a lot about this post that it’s inspired so many great comments, and all of them equally balanced and reasonable. Hooray for civil discourse! 🙂 And well-done, Sue!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Brenna! I’m pleased by the many thoughtful comments this post has received. Including yours, of course! 🙂 So nice to have meaningful discussion around these topics.

      Like

  12. I haven’t seen the movie (and likely never will) but I think it’s extremely important to pay attention to the number of women & the quality of their characters. Representation is such a huge issue.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it is! I am looking forward to a day when we no longer have to notice whether women are being represented, because they will be everywhere. 🙂 That would be fantastic. Until then, it’s going to remain an important discussion. Thanks so much for your comment, Sabina!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I once attended a lecture given by a surgeon who was doing his level best to present some fairly uncomfortable information to a group of women on the topic of gender equality. One of his main points was that women are not just tiny men–they are a completely unique species.

    He set off a series of rippling murmurs by talking to the subject of women in combat and how no matter how much women wanted to make it so, we are built differently and comparing our capability and strengths is a pointless exercise. He wasn’t saying that women shouldn’t be in combat, but that the tired phrase of ‘A woman can do anything a man can’ is wholly inaccurate from his perspective. It was more or less a lecture of Apples and Oranges if that makes any sense.

    It did leave me thinking a lot about my own female characters and how I wanted to display physical strength.

    I’m looking forward to seeing the film, simply because I’ve heard and read so many arguments about how Black Widow was portrayed.
    Great post, Sue!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sounds like a great lecture, Shelley. Good for him tackling that topic – it sounds like he presented it in a thought-provoking fashion, which is just how it should be. I like to have some realism with female characters, and I can see his point for sure. I’d be interested to hear what you think about Black Widow after you see the film. 🙂

      (By the way, I love your new avatar – not that I didn’t like your old one, but it’s great to see you!)

      Like

  14. I haven’t seen the movie, yet, but I would err on the side of what you put forward. Relationships don’t automatically mean a female character is being marginalized (it takes two to tango!) I think in the comics, Marvel’s women have incredible agency. Jean Grey, Rogue, Storm, Psylocke, Jubilee, Mystique, etc are often leaders in their own right, and save men just as much as men save them. It’s what you said: they’re team members, not a gender.

    I was more upset by the actors’s responses to the questions about Black Widow’s development.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love Mystique! I agree that there are many Marvel women characters that are leaders, and would love to see more of them portrayed on film.

      And yes, the actors’ responses in some of those interviews were upsetting. Especially Renner’s follow-up responses with his Conan appearance. Just unbelievable. It makes you wonder what women on the set typically have to put up with behind the scenes.

      Liked by 1 person

Please join the conversation...I'd love to hear from you!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s