May 5, 2015

Getting Feminism Wrong? (Spoilers for Age of Ultron)

My wife and I saw Age of Ultron at the weekend, in a rare cinema trip treat. We were, frankly, monstrously pleased with the movie. Action (gorgeous, gorgeous action), snappy dialogue, nice quiet scenes, and a roaring musical score. I couldn't ask for more from a superhero movie.

Now, not everyone feels the same, and as with any blockbuster movie, there are people voicing their varying opinions, and that's cool. Tastes differ. It's impossible to make any book or movie that will please everybody, especially with a property like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

But one thing caught my attention. 

Superheroes and female representation are pretty much THE hot topic right now. Anyone with any love for the MCU is crying out for a Black Widow movie, and we're hyped up about Captain Marvel. So it's probably not suprising to see some backlash against Josh Whedon for some of the creative decisions on Age of Ultron,

Spoilers follow.

There was some backlash, most notably on Twitter, about how Black Widow is represented, and this open letter also brings up Hawkeye's wife and the role played by former SHIELD agent Maria Hill.

To sum-up, the issues are as follows:
  1. Black Widow stands behind the bar making a drink (this has been read to mean she was tending bar while the boys partied)
  2. Black Widow wants a normal family life
  3. Black Widow feels that she is a monster because she can't have children
  4. Black Widow gets damselled
  5. Black Widow is only complete because she is becoming involved with Bruce Banner
  6. Black Widow does not want to be a superhero anymore
  7. Maria Hill wears tight black pants
  8. Maria Hill spends the movie doing administrative work for the Avengers
  9. Hawkeye's wife is pregnant
  10. Hawkeye's wife spends most of her time in the kitchen and managing his family while he's off saving the world
Okay, I'm going to address these, because I disagree with pretty much all of them. I also have a couple of thoughts to add that show Age of Ultron in a more positive light, as regards female representation and roles in movies.
  1. We see Black Widow make at most two drinks at the party (one for herself, and possibly one for Bruce, I can't exactly recall if he already had a drink in his hand when he approached her). They were flirting, essentially having a bit of fun as they teased around the idea that they might want to start a relationship. That's hardly a regression of gender roles, especially when it's Widow who takes the lead in all their romantic moments.
  2. This is never even alluded to. She likes seeing Hawkeye's kids (because she's a good friend of the family) and they were going to name their youngest after her before they found out it was a boy (because she's a good friend of the family). That someone is a close family friend (Auntie Nat) does not suggest in any way that she longs for the same.
  3. A misinterpretation of the scene. Widow tells Bruce that she, and all the agents she grew up with, were sterilised before going into active duty, as a precaution by their superiors. The rationale being that it removes the possibility of them caring about something more than the mission, and makes them better killers. As we know from Avengers, Widow is haunted by the lives she has taken and is on a mission of redemption. That's why she says to Bruce "You thought you were the only monster on the team?" because the people who trained her wanted her to be a perfect killing machine, and she served them obediently for years. Does she wish she could have children? Yes, possibly. But that's okay. Just as there's nothing wrong with a woman not wanting children, there's nothing at all anti-feminist about a woman who wishes she could have them. Even so, that wasn't the point of what she said. It's because she has genuine feelings for Bruce and wants to be with him, and she wants him to understand that she's on board for whatever that means, and whatever life they can have.
  4. This one I'll agree on. There isn't a massive amount of plot importance to Widow being captured by Ultron. The reveal of his new, vibranium-reinforced body, could have been done without an audience, and Vision, having part of Ultron's programming inside him, could have given the Avengers the location of Ultron's plan. It did give the opportunity for Bruce and Widow's "We could just disappear" scene, but while it's a nice scene, and gives a cool moment I'll talk about later, it's nothing we didn't already get from their scene at Hawkeye's home.
  5. Nope. Not even a little. She's still awesome. Still a badass, getting some of the best action scenes in the movie. She just finds herself attracted to a man. That is not a crime against feminism.
  6. I'm just going to come right out here. Bullshit. Bullshit, bullshit, and more bullshit. Ahem. Black Widow is one of only two original Avengers to stick around with the new team at the end of the movie. It's Bruce, not Widow, who wants to disappear and leave it all behind. Black Widow is the one who pulls him back in, to do the right thing.
  7. Have we still not moved past criticising women for their choice in office wear?
  8. Yes she does. Because that's where her experience lies. In Avengers, she got caught up in one action sequence, but that was an unexpected situation and she responded as any trained agent would. But Hill works in operations. She's not a field agent. Her best skills relate to coordinating troops and resources. It makes sense that the Avengers would employ her in that role. Feminism does not mean that all women have to have kickass fight scenes.
  9. See above. A woman wanting to have a family does not make her anti-feminist.
  10. This is not surprising. Hawkeye's background is military, special forces. Would we expect his family to all be superheroes? His wife has two children and a third on the way. Let me tell you from experience, when you've got a lot of children, you tend to stay where you can get to all the things you need with a minimum of effort. Being a busy mother is not anti-feminist.
And now my additional notes on why I think Age of Ultron has some really, really good wins for female representation.
  1. Hawkeye and his wife are solid. His family is never shown to be resentful at his absences. They miss him, of course, but they understand he does important work and they support that. How many superheroes can you think of who have happy home lives? Typically, we see the (usually male) hero have to live a solitary life because their (usually female) love interest just can't cope with the strain of what they do, and represents a choice between selfishness (having a happy relationship) and their Heroic Duty. This has been going on since Dido and Aeneas, guys. It is amazing to see a superhero story where a hero's romantic partner is there as a believable, grounded part of their life, not as yet another antagonistic force.
  2. Black Widow makes Bruce Banner cowboy up. He is the one who wants to leave thousands of innocent people to their fate, but Widow knows they need the Hulk on this, and as much as she loves Bruce, she knows he's wrong about the only choice being Lone Heroes or a Happy Couple. This is a corollary to the above point. Typically, it's the female love interest imploring the male hero to stay with them, give up the Epic Quest. It's refreshing to see that here, Black Widow is all on board with both staying to fight, and making things work with Bruce.
  3. The big one for me is that Age of Ultron establishes that there was never anything romantic going on between Hawkeye and Black Widow. All the time they were having their emotional scenes during Avengers, Hawkeye had his family at home. They are friends. She calls him her best friend, thanking Bruce for saving his life. We almost never see a relationship between a man and a woman that is purely platonic, from the get-go, without any sense of "it just wouldn't have worked" or "would they get together if not for X"? And we certainly never see it in action movies. The idea that heteronormative men and women can simply be friends, and not want anything more, and further, that this is a desirable and fulfilling relationship to have, is downright revolutionary in Hollywood, and Age of Ultron just snuck it right in. Brilliant.
So, anyone have any thoughts? 


  1. Only even writing this because I respect you a lot Paul, just making that clear. Also, it's a bit rushed cause I wrote it over the day at lunches and breaks etc... but I did promise. I don't know if this discussion can go anywhere really, I never intended on critically analysing this particular movie untill I read your blog post, but hopefully it will help find a common ground to understanding why it's been so volatile.

    1. I haven't come accross this as an issue till now, and didn't find it problematic before, but it is one more thing that seems weirdly out of place when I look back on it. Like... why? Just a way of staging them away from the others to flirt? If the man was mixing the drinks, would that change the scene? That would probably be worse... meh.

    2. She likes Bruce because he's not a typical hero, he doesn't like to fight. It's established that she likes the kids, grand. Then she gets really choked up admitting to her infirtility. When he wants to run away, she thinks they could run away (from super hero skulduggery?) together. She's telling him here what she wants and it sounds a lot like family, kids or no. Now you can interpret all of this in a different way, but are you seriously telling me that there isn't enough there to make a fair text analisys that she wants what Hawkeye has?

    3. I have a lot of issues about this scene, starting with, why is it even here? Why is Bruce presuming she wants children so bad that it's very very clearly a deal breaker on having a relationship for him? Who even brings that up at the flirting stage? Why is it okay to throw a HUGE bugbear of an issue like infirtility into a scene and then just leave it hanging without dealing with it? Is it just a simple device to make it edgy? That's not okay, it's lazy and disrespectful. Then there's this implied correlation with monstrousness, but that's okay, because bad guys said that? "One less thing to care about..." right.

    4. Hifive! Yep, this is pointless, though I imagine I have a more visceral reaction of WTF WHYYYY WOULD YOU EVEN...?!? UGH! This alone could explain why people are angry about Widow's treatment in the movie to me, because it royally pisses me the hell off and I'm not even much of a fan.

    5. I don't think Black Widow was paired with Bruce to complete her, but I wouldn't dismis the feeling entirely. It's narratively tricky because she could be out in the cold while all the men can be super heroes AND have relationships. There's too few women to represent a wide range like with the men, so it's bunk because of a prerequisit. The question is, does it feel true to her character? I'll leave that to actual Black Widow fans.

  2. 6. What she wants, and what she does are two separate issues. She is a responsible adult and forces Bruce to take responsibility too when push comes to *ahem* shove. "So we just disappear?" I deffinitely got the impression that she wanted to run away with him and I'm clearly not alone in my reading. Doesn't mean she's irresponsible enough to do it.

    7. She didn't actually dress herself. Remember this ? Not a personal issue for me anyways.

    8. Feminism doesn't mean ALL women need to be in the action, but I think we've established that there needs to be more women in the action. She would fit there. It's a shame she wasn't used more. That's all. Part of the broader "where are all the women" oh they're off screen doing cool things and um... being awesome... and uh... yeah, somewhere else. AKA the "we swear we're not sexist" scene...

    9. I don't have an issue with Hawkeye's wife, but I do have a huge issue with the overall tone of how family is handled in the movie. I understand why having a beautiful little country home with super normal nuclear family presented in the heart of the movie like a little slice of paradise would irk a few people. Especially in the context of the infirtility debacle and the "where are all the women" scene. It was cringy. Not deffinitely bad, but... complicated.

    10. I guess I don't care that she's a housewife, what's wrong with that? But there's this thing where men get to do whatever they like and still have a family, where as women sacrifice part of their femininity in order to succeed. Black Widow is even sterile, which is a woman with a mission trope. So I guess that's where the anger comes from. It's a sad reflection of real life, but not an issue unless you look at it as part of how the family theme is handled overall and then also within the context of real life lack of equality in the home. If Black Widows and Hawkeyes relationship status' were reversed, it would have been a lot more interesting.

  3. To be clear I mostly like your positive points too. Particularly number 1.

  4. Ugh, I wrote a really long detailed reply, and then Blogger ate it.... *grumble*

  5. Okay, so first up, I really appreciate you taking the time to comment.

    I did have more said on this, but thinking back over it, the key point I'm taking from what you've said is something that I didn't fully consider before.

    Taken as a whole, the movie presents a theme of "Must femininity be sacrificed in order to be a hero?" Comparing Black Widow to Hawkeye's wife Laura (who is undeniably the most traditionally feminine character in the movie), they are at polar opposites. One is a warrior, a hero, and can never have a traditional family. The other represents shelter and safety, and lives in a Norman Rockwell painting, but never becomes involved in the action. She's literally prevented from doing so by the very traditional family that Black Widow can't have.

    Problematic? Yes. But not irredeemably so. And it opens up other themes for discussion, such as whether or not femininity is necessarily tied to the ability to have children, the nature of non-traditional families seen in how Black Widow regards the Avengers are her family (which is likely to be explored in later movies, as in the comics Scarlet Witch and Vision have one of the most successful romantic relationships of all the Avengers).

    The theme of the movie is family. It practically drips from every scene. Most notably with regard to Tony, Ultron, and Vision, but it's present with Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Banner, too. Not to mention the Maximof twins. Families stick together, they help one another. When Tony asks how they're going to beat threats like alien invasions in the future, Cap answers the way the head of any family would, "Together."

    By the end of the movie, you could make the case that she and Captain America have become mother and father to the new Avengers, most of whom have lost, or could never have, the traditional family that Hawkeye returns to. Cap himself even says "I'm home" when Tony leaves him at the new facility. This is a family.

    So yes, it's a problematic theme, but I do think it can be read several ways as part of the overall theme of the movie.

    1. Of course it can be read several ways, that's the point. What really shocked me about your article is that you suddenly think it's okay to tell feminists that they're doing feminism wrong because they analyzed a text in a less favorable way to you. Or because they're negative reaction to what you see as minor infringements are too strong. That is definitely not okay and upset me a great deal.

    2. Theiyr're* why can't I edit :(

    3. So was it the content of the post or the title of it that upset you? I meant the title more as a question of whether or not the creative decisions in Age of Ultron were anti-feminist.

  6. I write posts on this thing, and then I press the publish button, and then it does something stupid and my post goes the way of the dodo and I never feel like rewriting it. Now I am sad. I had pretty much given up any desire to see Ultron anyway.