Let’s Talk About That Whole Black Widow Thing

People are mad on the internet. As usual. The hubbub recently, though, is about choices made regarding Black Widow in Age of Ultron. Now, I’m a big fan of Black Widow. I’d really like her to get her own movie and Nathan Edmonson’s run on the comics has been fantastic (issue #13 is framed on my wall). And I’ll be the first to admit that a character beat in Age of Ultron did throw me off for a bit. But I didn’t realize the furor until I started reading up on it.

Mild spoilers for the film from here on out.

Most all of it seems to boil down to one particular piece of characterization: In a quiet moment, Natasha reveals to Bruce —who she’s debating entering into a relationship with — that she was forcibly sterilized and she laments being unable to have a normal life. It’s clear what there is to take issue with: The one female Avenger is preoccupied with romance, babies and the lack thereof. It doesn’t matter how badass Black Widow is, Natasha’s life is still incomplete without a man and children. Hence the death threats against writer/director Joss Whedon.

The beat did get a knee jerk reaction from me, but it made sense enough given her characterization. Natasha’s something of a reformed assassin and her past missions haunt her (as we see in her interactions with Loki in Avengers). Along with that,  she’s never had a proper childhood, let alone any semblance of a normal life. We also see that she’s good with Clint’s kids and close enough to the family for the kids to call her aunt. Her attraction to Bruce makes sense, then: Both are damaged people who are trying to atone for their own inner monster. We can also see in it her desire for normalcy (and with it, motherhood). This all makes Natasha a very complex character. She’s torn between the normal life she could never have and atoning as an Avenger. There’s tragedy there too; while Thor enjoys the thrill of the fight, Natasha’s ultimate fantasy is a normal life. She’s forced to make a choice by the end of the movie: continue fighting or run off to find a sort of normal life.

It’s a shame that all of that gets forgotten in light of her grief about being unable to have kids. I’ve seen some people defend the scene by saying that what really was affecting her was that she was denied the choice of being able to have kids — she was denied her agency. Whether or not that’s the case, I don’t think her wanting kids necessarily diminishes her character. If anything, it added the depth detailed in the prior paragraph. There’s a beautiful dichotomy to the cold-blooded assassin wishing she could have a family.

So why the controversy? Are strong female characters not allowed to want families too? It seems male characters are — no one’s complaining about Clint Barton having a wife and kids (except those of us who wanted a Hawkeye Netflix series about him in Bed-Stuy like in Matt Fraction’s comics). Even though his personal life could easily be described as traditionally masculine — what with the farm, wife and kids and, always fixing stuff around the house — he doesn’t get any flak for it.

Ultimately, the issue is that it’s the one female Avenger. Since she’s the only one, she’s going to come under closer scrutiny. There are a host of narratives for the male Avengers, meaning that Clint could have his farm and Bruce be hesitant towards action without undercutting The Manliness as we had characters like Thor and Steve (that and, y’know, 70% of movie characters being men). Criticism is inevitable no matter how unfounded if the only female Avenger’s narrative contains shades patriarchal femininity. We need more good stories about strong women so we can have different sorts of strong women. Give us moms, scientists, and fighter pilots saving the world. Black Widow can’t be the only female superhero.

Which is why we need Captain Marvel next year and not in 2018.

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