I 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.
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