Joss Whedon is coming under heavy criticism for Avengers: Age of Ultron, with claims it’s seriously misognystic.  But is this fair criticism, or are the problems exaggerated?

The first Avengers film received praise not only because of how amazing it was, but because it was strongly feminist in its portrayal of badass agent Black Widow.  The second film, though, has come in for heavy criticism – with Joss Whedon getting such a response on Twitter that he chose to leave it.  Hate? Yes, hate seems like the proper word for this entire situation. And the hate stems from the fact that the film is being seen as not only sexist but blatantly misogynistic. Even though Whedon has stated that he didn’t leave twitter due to these claims, I still think it is important that we look exactly at what the film has been attacked for as well as the context of the writer and films in general.

“You Either Believe Women are People or You Don’t”

That is a a quote from Joss Whedon when he spoke at the Equality Now Conference in 2012 about whether or not the word feminist is a still a productive term for society. That is an interesting and important debate that can only occur if someone is aware of the importance and implications of female representation. He is also the creator of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer in case you didn’t know and has given speeches in which he critiques that fact that people ask him why he writes strong female characters. He’s informed about women (although I would argue that his depictions and understanding of race leave a lot to be desired. That’s another post that needs attention as well).

Buffy

In addition, when it came to The Avengers Whedon did an amazing with job with Natasha Romanoff, constantly working to empower her through her femininity and badassery. She took advantage of anyone who underestimated her due to her gender, while also using her vulnerability as an asset. Basically, she was complex and awesome. He did such an amazing job that Marvel asked him to direct the next film, and gave him a hefty pay increase as well. However, the pay increase did not necessarily translate to complete control, which is why Joss Whedon has been going around town giving interviews about how the higher-ups at Marvel were continually fighting with him about certain story elements. 

Keeping all of this information in mind lets look at positives and the negatives of five main female characters presented in Avengers: Age of Ultron: Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Maria Hill, Dr. Helen Cho, and Laura Barton. (Spoiler alert for the plot of Avengers: Age of Ultron by the way!)

Black Widow

Black Widow Age of Ultron

Black Widow is integral to the plot from the first second. She is a part of the siege on Strucker’s Hydra outpost and has established a system with Dr. Bruce Banner to put him to sleep after each mission. Natasha mingles with the gang and reveals that she has feelings for Banner. As the plot thickens, she endures nightmares that force her to revisits her traumatic past being trained for the KGB. She recovers from this long enough to confide her desire to run in Dr. Banner and reveal that she was sterilized within the program. The next battle commences and while she is able to secure the package, which contains the Vision, she is captured by Ultron and taunted by him. Banner saves her. They kiss, and she forces him to become the Hulk so that they can finish the battle. Everyone comes together to fight valiantly, and the world is saved.

Positives:

First of all, Natasha began in Iron Man 2 as a fairly flat character. She kicked ass, but she didn’t have any depth to her. She was hot, and she could punch. That’s about all we saw of her. As we have gone on, she has only gotten more complex. She has become more real. Ultimately, she has become more vulnerable. That is what happens when any character begins to mature. Look at Iron Man 3. You could argue that entire film is simply a movie about relationship drama and post-traumatic stress disorder. The development given to male characters if similar to the treatment of Natasha here. The dark past that has been teased for so long throughout the last four films is brought to the visual forefront. We see her being forced to kill. We see her being terrorized. We see her being changed forever.

On the subject of character depth, let’s look at the love plot between Bruce and Natasha.

Marvel's Avengers: Age of Ultron - Trailer 3 -  Bruce Banner and Black Widow almost kiss  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JAUoeqvedMo

I will admit that I can totally see the point of view, which says that the only female member of the group having a romantic relationship is a red flag. If all you can think of to do with your female character is have her hook up with a male character, then you do have a problem. However, everything in Black Widow’s story has led her to this romance and in my opinion moment of growth.

Throughout these films Natasha has been struggling with her vulnerability and her past. She has “red in ledger,” and she wants to fix it. Similarly, Bruce has regrets. Much like Natasha he is aware of the fact that he has killed innocents. In addition, to this challenge he is also a monster. A monster who cannot have children, as made clear in the Edward Norton film. Therefore, Natasha’s revelation about her sterilization makes them equals. When it comes to a connection, these two are the only ones who truly understand each other. They have similar fears, and ultimately they want similar things, an escape. Teasing out the connection between these two characters doesn’t simply occur because she is a woman, but because it just makes sense. When it comes to sexist love connections, the only moment that has ever raised any sexist red flags for me was the possibility of a love connection between Captain American and Black Widow Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Negatives:

I have to admit that despite the few things I discussed above there was a lot that bothered me about her depiction as well. Let’s begin with the first awkward moment that occurs in the plot. Natasha’s usage of the lullaby to subdue the Hulk. At first, this scene played for me as tender, but also incredibly strong. The Hulk is a force to be reckoned with, and Natasha seems to be the only one with the capability to do it. She uses trust and vulnerability as strength. That’s a feminist message right there. Until, later on in the film we are introduced to the masculine method for subduing the Hulk by Iron Man. It is an amazing fight sequence. It is funny. It is satisfying, and it also completely undermines the strong vulnerable message that came before it. In addition, in the climax of the film, Black Widow’s attempt to use the lullaby is thwarted by an act of male aggression. So basically, feminine vulnerability as strength comes out as zero, while humorous male punching comes out on top.

Black Widow Hulk

The second issue in this film is the large amount of times that Black Widow gets carried. Mostly because, trust me, she doesn’t need to be carried, because her resourcefulness goes unparalleled. The first scene to come to mind is during the battle of New York in the first film when she hitches a ride on the back of a Chitauri. Just put her down.

And finally, the worst moment of this film was when she was captured and placed behind bars by Ultron. She is trapped, and she is forced to endure Ultron’s taunting, which naturally terrifies her. And then she is saved by the love of her life Dr. Bruce Banner. Now, this is an instance where the love plot is a detriment because this is the biggest stereotype in the book and absolutely no attention is called to it. Furthermore, it is not necessary to the plot. As Ultron says once he captures her, he took her because he doesn’t have anyone to talk to. Meaning, he doesn’t have anyone to justify speaking to so the audience cannot hear more about his evil plan. Of all of the offences listed above this is by far the worst, and by far the least important. Mostly because this problematic scene could have been removed if you just had Ultron talk to the other versions of Ultron that exist around him. Very fixable, and very out of character for Joss Whedon.

The Verdict:

This is the hardest one to call, but I think I’m going to come out of the side of the positives. As our main female character Black Widow here feels like one of the realest characters in the film. She is not only complex, but she changes throughout the film. She has desires and acts on them. She is moved, and even though her ability to control the Hulk is undermined by Iron Man’s she is true to character. Especially in relationship to the love plot. It is not there because she is a woman. It there because it feels right. Much like Black Widow, this depiction is on the side of justice.

Scarlet Witch

Scarlet Witch first breaks into the plot by giving Tony Stark the nightmare that will lead him to misguidedly creating the villain Ultron. They decide to join him because they hate Tony for producing the weapons that killed their family. In a mid-film battle Scarlet Witch induces terrible nightmares in everyone but Hawkeye. He knocks her down, and her brother carries her away. Upon realizing that Ultron wants to destroy the world, they decide to team up with the Avengers in order to defeat him. They both come to accept their role within the team. (Major Spoiler Alert!) After Ultron kills her brother, Scarlet Witch leaves her post guarding the button Ultron must not touch to torture and murder the villain allowing him to touch the device, which will hurl the piece of rock back towards the earth. However, Tony Stark finds a way to detonate the land before impact saving the world.

Positives:

Let’s begin by looking at the fact that everything begins with Scarlet Witch. Without her the plot in question wouldn’t exist, and we would not get one of the most emotionally resonate scenes in the film (As well as what I would argue is the best intro to a superhero movie we have encountered since the original Iron Man).

In addition to using her powers to control Tony Stark, she also uses them to control pretty much all of the avengers. I am not one to avoid a pun, and she literally has their emotions and ability in the palm of her hands.

Scarlet Witch and Black Widow

I also have to say as far as feminism goes, the Scarlet Witch costumes in the comics don’t rank as number one…

Scarlet Witch Gypsy

Whedon changed that lovely little number into this:

Scarlet Witch poster

And I have to say that was an amazing decision. Speaking as a woman, I would love to wear that outfit. It’s got red. It’s got black (easy to clean), and it looks damn good. All of the women of the world are going to want to save the world in that outfit.

But, out of all of these moments the most important one comes when she emerges from cover after receiving a speech about what it means to be an Avenger from Hawkeye. Centred in the middle of the screen as both door open and she without a care in the world send her red power out to the left and kills robots. That is a powerful icon. That was a moment, and it was one of my favorite moments of the entire film. Furthermore, she had one of the strongest emotional moments in the film whenever her brother died. Sending out an emotional strong red pulse that kills everyone around before she goes to tortuously and ferociously murder, and murder is definitely the right word here, Ultron.

Negatives:

Much like Black Widow, Scarlet Witch gets carried during this film, and it is just ridiculous. I understand that she needs to be removed quickly from the action, but there were many times when the Hulk was in a place of vulnerability after turning back into Bruce Banner, and he was not treated as such. It’s just a problematic damsel-in-distress treatment of a strong character who, as demonstrate above, is more than capable of taking care of herself.

Verdict:

Totally feminist and awesome portrayal. The carrying aside, Scarlet Witch is a stand out as an Avenger and as a representation of a complexly drawn character that was just introduced in this film.

Maria Hill

Maria Hill

Maria Hill is introduced here as someone who works for Stark Industries (her title is not named but I’m going to say she’s an upper level executive because she has way too much experience to simply be an executive assistant). She informs the Avengers about the two new characters they are up against, and makes fun of Tony and Thor for their testosterone-fuelled battle over which one of their girlfriends is more accomplished in their jobs (such a Joss Whedon moment). She later informs them that they should lay low after causing a violent display. At the eleventh hour, She and Nick Fury arrive in the helicarrier and help the Avengers get all of the civilians left in the crossfire to safety. After the battle she is a part of the team at the new headquarters that is going to train the new Avengers.

Positives

When I mentioned her line about testosterone filling the room I have to admit that what her joke was in reference to was the best part about the situation. I loved that Tony and Thor would be competing over which of their love interests was smarter, but I loved more that her comment pointed out that they were basically just arguing over who was more well endowed. Excellent moment for a character that is a total hard ass.

Negatives

That being said the amount of ass she didn’t kick in this movie was astounding. I don’t know if anyone remembers the role she played in the first film, but she was pretty much the only soldier on the ground fighting off Hawkeye and Loki in the introductory scene, and she fought them again when they attacked the helicarrier. All I got to see Maria Hill work in this film was a nice pant suit. She looked good, but it was extremely disappointing to watch such a fighter get turned into an unnamed executive in Stark Industries.

Verdict:

This one is pretty split down the middle, but I have to say that I am okay with her getting pulled out of the action because Nick Fury was pulled out of it too. They work together as a unit and because of that it didn’t feel like as big a loss. SHIELD is broken, and the removal of her and Fury really emphasized this.

Dr. Helen Cho

Dr Cho

Dr. Helen Cho is called in to help repair Clint Barton with her invention the cradle after he sustains an injury in the film’s initial siege. Once Ultron is created he captures her in order to help her create the body that will eventually become the Vision. In order to achieve this he hypnotizes her. After Scarlet Witch learns, however, that Ultron is going to destroy the world she removes the hypnosis placed on Dr. Hill. Ultron discovers this and shoots her. Later on, Dr. Cho is seen working at the new facility for the Avengers. Thankfully, she lived.

Positives

Dr. Cho is a force to be reckoned with within the scientific community. She has created a device which can create human flesh, and later on in the film she creates a human person. She is a god in that sense. In addition, there is no discussion of surprise that a female could be such an impressive doctor or the fact that she isn’t a nurse. Thankfully, these stereotypes are avoided.

She is also notable for being a redesign of Amadeus Cho in the comics, who is a genius teenager.  This reinvention fulfils a non-traditional female role because, let’s face it, much like men, women live all different lives.

Negatives

There is a problem here: she is brainwashed and captured. Until Black Widow will take her place later on, Dr. Cho is our victim. Furthermore, her free will is stolen from her by her captor. Another violation that echoes all too well traditional narratives of villains stealing helpless female victims who are saved by their heroic counter parts, in this case Captain America. In addition, the gun wound she sustains is done simply to raise the stakes and hit us emotionally. I have to admit I am extremely happy to see that a female person of color was not killed in order to raise the stakes, but then again the fact that I am happy about this at all is commentary enough in itself.

Bonus: The Costume

I am a little conflicted on this costume because I think it is a really pretty design. I also don’t think it is objectifying to her in any way, but at the same time she is a doctor. Shouldn’t she just be wearing scrubs? Why does a doctor care to wear a dress tunic thing? (Hint: I think the answer here is “Because she is a woman.”)

Verdict:

This one is pretty close so I’ll call it a draw. Her introduction into this world as world-renowned scientist is a good call for the universe, even if she does get captured half way through.

Laura Barton

Laura Barton is introduced halfway through the narrative as Barton’s wife, which only Natasha Romanoff and Nick Fury knew about. She houses the Avengers after they have been terrorized by the nightmares of Scarlett Witch, and when speaking to her husband, Clint, he informs her that hopefully this will be his last mission. She stays home with the family, until Clint returns home after the battle.

Positives

If you don’t think Laura Barton is a strong female character that I wasn’t to inform you currently that you are the problem. She has basically raised three children on her own while her husband saves the world, and she is completely okay with that. She is not a nagger. Furthermore, she houses the Avengers. They’re not the easiest people to live with, and she trusts them fully. She trusts a Hulk in her home with a woman that he is sexually attracted to. That is called courage.

Secondly, this is the third female character that we are introduced to in this narrative and the first one to be not only a mother, but a pregnant mother. That’s called a diversity of female characters, and that is a huge step forward. Women as unstable and complex superheroes. Women as intelligent doctors. And with Laura were are given a strong, basically single mother.

Thirdly, this could have gone terribly wrong. As I was walking out of the theatre I was telling my friend how happy I was that Larua and the children were not killed. Just as I said this I heard two women behind me having the exact same conversation. This fact was so important to us because of the phenomenon referred to as “Women in Refrigerators.”  As the video argues, and honestly you should really watch that video because it is essential viewing for any comic book enthusiast, the killing off of women characters just to further the development of a male character is not a good thing. It implies that women simply exist to further male stories, with no regard for their lives on importance. And in the comic books the Barton family is slaughtered. Now I’m not saying that this could not happen later on, but the fact that it was avoided here (and hopefully forever) is a big plus. But then again…

Negatives

Laura and the children are only introduced her to give Hawkeye a backstory. They are introduced to give him a personality, and to raise his own personal stakes. Joss Whedon has stated that he was unable to fit in any development for Hawkeye in the first film because he simply ran out of time. Here he is making a conscious effort to compensate for it, but he stops short of forming Laura as her own complex character, and we instead end up with a flat symbol of family life: Laura and the kids.

Verdict:

I think this one comes out on the side of good for me. The more females the better, and I believe that this character will only grow with time. New characters don’t always appear fully formed, but her appearance allows her to be revisited within the universe, and the more females the merrier.

The Diagnosis:

Let’s look back over the results: Black Widow (mostly positive), Scarlet Witch (overwhelmingly positive), Maria Hill (slightly positive), Dr. Helen Cho (draw), and Laura Barton (mostly positive). Yay! We are on the side of positive, but there is a problem. Except for Scarlett Witch all of these calls were pretty close to the line. That’s not a good thing. I am happy that there is good here obviously, but if four out of five of the calls is on the line or a judgement call that is not a victory. That is a concession.

3 Comments

  1. Edd

    May 2, 2016 at 4:02 pm

    You are really optimistic on the Black Widow thing… She connects with Banner because can’t have kids? Great. But that makes her believe that she’s a monster? No way that’s positive. Just no way. She was brainwashed to kill “innocent” or whoever. She’s trying to do the right thing now. No way she should consider herself a monster. It was a strecht, and a really ugly one…

    Reply

  2. Nathan Borgman

    May 10, 2015 at 12:05 am

    it bummed me out that the witch character didnt really talk while her brother gave their entire backstory

    Reply

    • Edd

      May 2, 2016 at 3:58 pm

      That was fine. She was way stronger, smarter, and in charge

      Reply

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