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

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Female Superhero Movie Franchises: What Would Ellen Ripley Say?

For those of you who enjoy my posts on movies and superheroes, I have a guest post on Andrew Knighton Writes today that you may wish to check out. Thanks for hosting me, Andrew!

Andrew Knighton writes

A special treat today – I have a guest post from Sue of the Doorway Between Worlds blog. I’m a fan of the way Sue uses science fiction and fantasy to explore topics around communication, and it’s a pleasure to host her opinions on another topic here today, one that I’ve touched on in the past. So without further ado…

Female Superhero Movie Franchises: What Would Ellen Ripley Say?

When I was eight years old, my parents gave me a copy of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. I devoured the story, identifying with the plucky character of Lucy. I then went on to read A Wrinkle in Time, and got drawn in to the world of Meg Murray, who was geeky (like me) and who saved her brother from evil. And I knew: science fiction and fantasy were written for me. This was a genre…

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Which Avenger will you be today?

With Captain America: The Winter Soldier out in theatres, I have Marvel superheroes on the brain. And I’ve realized that Marvel’s The Avengers is not just a story about a superhero team—it’s a story about communication.

Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury spends the first half of the Avengers movie gathering the team and trying to get them to work together. This is an uphill battle, largely because of the team members’ different communication styles. They may be talking to each other, but they are not communicating. It’s only when they learn to adjust their styles that they become an effective fighting force.

If you want to work well with your own team, you may need to adjust your communication style. Ask yourself: Which Avenger should I be today?

Let’s take a look at some of your options.

Iron Man

“The Avengers. It’s what we call ourselves, sort of like a team. ‘Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’ type of thing.”

Iron Man (Tony Stark)

Communication Style: Informal

Iron Man is the life of the party. He’s the casual genius who talks a lot and makes people laugh. It’s time to be Iron Man when you are hanging out with good friends and colleagues or writing a friendly note to someone you know well. Just be careful you don’t let your words run away from you—sometimes Iron Man can talk too much and annoy supervillains. Bad idea.

Thor from the Avengers

“So you take the world I love as recompense for your imagined slights?”

Thor

Communication Style: Formal

Thor is a Norse god, so he uses formal language and makes solemn pronouncements. You may need to channel Thor when you are speaking with strangers, apologizing to unhappy customers, or writing up a business proposal. Just don’t come across as too formal—otherwise you’ll be known as the unfriendly person with the scary hammer.

Captain America

“I went under, the world was at war, I wake up, they say we won. They didn’t say what we lost.”

Captain America (Steve Rogers)

Communication Style: Direct

Captain America is honest and straightforward. He comes from a military background, so he’s used to getting to the point. Be Captain America with managers and executives—they love quick messages that tell it like it is (otherwise known as executive summaries). You may need to tweak this style when you feel the need to be tactful. Otherwise, it’s good to be the Cap.

Hulk

“Hulk smash!”

Hulk (NOT Bruce Banner)

Communication Style: Authoritative

When all else fails, it’s time to be the Hulk. Get your green on when you need to let people know it’s your way or the highway. You may want to use more words than the Hulk, though. And possibly not smash as many things. Especially if you want people to ever talk to you again.

So, there you have it. Different communication styles work well for different situations. What are you going to face today? Who are you going to need to be? Maybe you should try a new style on for size. Then you, too, can be part of a mighty team.

Which Avenger will you be today? Inquiring minds want to know…