Friday, May 8, 2015

The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Black Widow and Sexism

The new Avengers movie is out, and people are angry about stuff again – more specifically the character Black Widow, and whether or not her portrayal is sexist in the movie. So, is it? Well, let's talk about that.


For those of you not in the know, I'll try and sum up peoples' problems – basically, in the movie, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) have struck up a romance between films. The first thing we really see Black Widow do is touch the Hulk's hand and help him turn back into Banner. A lot of her role in this movie is interacting with Banner. There's one scene where the two have a conversation about how they can't have a normal life together, because they can't have kids.

Now, I'm not one to try and presume anything about people with such vastly different life experiences than me. If you thought this was a sexist portrayal and they could have done it differently, I'm fine with that. I just didn't see it that way.

The thing nobody is saying about this is that Black Widow before this was a pretty generic character – she was the stoic badass tough chick with very little else to her. I know Joss Whedon wrote some great tough chicks in Buffy, but they were full, three dimensional characters, with worries, fears, individual thoughts and realistic personalities. To me it always seemed like Black Widow was just a cardboard cutout of a character, although Johansson did a good job portraying her especially in the second Captain America flick.

Now, in this new one, she does kinda have a character – she's in love with Bruce Banner. And no, a woman character being in love with a guy is not the only way to show character. But the way she acts in this movie is refreshingly honest and down to Earth for a Marvel flick. You can believe her character and you feel sympathy for her, as cheesy and simple as the romance is – it works. I can see why people think it's sexist for a female character to be based solely around being in love with a man, but frankly, Bruce Banner doesn't have any other plot in The Avengers 2 besides being in love with her, either. It goes both ways.

If it were a much older movie and Banner was portrayed as the uncaring, stoic, manly-man character who was complex and full-bodied, while Black Widow was portrayed as a wishy-washy emotional female, then I'd probably be on the other side of the argument. But as is, it's just a fairly decent portrayal of two people caring about each other.

The one scene people are complaining the most about is when Banner says he can never have a normal life, have kids, etc. She matches him and says she can't have kids because she was a trained assassin and they sterilized her. The line is “you still think you're the only monster on this team?” It comes off to me as two people trying to relate to one another and connect – it was fine. Some people, I guess, thought that scene suggested Black Widow's character was only wanting kids, etc – stereotypical, cliche woman stuff, which seemed sexist and outdated to them.

What people overlook in all of this is that being in love and wanting kids and everything IS realistic, and it can make for a good, interesting story. It brings out the softer sides of characters – in a superhero flick, that's pretty important. While some writers can certainly come off as sexist by not fleshing out their women characters enough, I think Whedon did it fine within the constraints of Marvel Studios' ridiculously anal-retentive control game over their movies.

So what exactly is the root of the problem here? I just think sometimes people can take their eye off the ball – they make it more about politics than about character, and their sight can be a bit too narrow. A lady can certainly have a love interest and her character can be sad when the guy is in trouble or whatever else – that's a human emotion and it adds depth. Trying to make it so women can only be tough, bad ass, stand-alone sirens of war who don't need men is just tipping the scale too far in the other direction from the old cliché of the weak-willed, subservient women characters of the 60s and 70s. You've got to have a medium. At some point, you just have to quit worrying about it and write the best character you can.

There's also the Internet mentality of “well, if you're not X, you must be Y” - like, if Whedon didn't write the most complex, individual, independent and unique woman in a movie ever (every time he does something, too), he's a misogynist – like it can only be one or the other. There's just no grey area with the Internet, and in everything in real life, there's tons of grey area. People aren't just one thing or the other. Not everything has to advance the same single agenda or else it's the opposite of that agenda. That's kind of a childish way to look at the world.

If you're only writing one type of character, chances are, you're a bad writer. Women, like men, can be sensitive, they can be tough, they can be easy to anger or they can be chill and relaxed – they're human beings, and a good writer pays more attention to the human emotion of a character rather than trying to fill a quota by making X number of characters whatever personality type.

And it's a tough thing to really balance out and measure – how do you balance out the expectations of an audience that wants equality, but with so many different ideas of how to do it? You also have to take into account that, with a movie like this, where a lot of kids are watching - some of them young girls - you need to have a good role model type of character. It's a sensitive issue, and I can see why people want to talk about it and debate it.

There's obviously a problem in Hollywood with having good, well written ladies in the movies. There are some, especially when you get down to more independent films – it's not an epidemic or a total void of quality. But in terms of real mainstream, well done female heroines, we could definitely always do better. So if that's your argument, well, I don't have a problem with that – just put away the torches and the pitchforks on Whedon. I mean, damn, he isn't that bad. 

And listen - everyone, and I mean everyone, is allowed to have some opinion on this. Our personal experiences shape our viewpoints on everything, social issues, politics, etc. Some people, women or men, may see the movie as sexist or whatever else, and maybe they're not entirely wrong. But do you have to shut people out who disagree with you? Feminists telling a bunch of straight white dudes to shut up are just as wrong as misogynistic assholes telling women their problems aren't big deals - they're all wrong. Just, fuck, don't be a dick about it. You don't have to have a final, line-in-the-sand answer to every question. Sometimes viewpoints are still evolving and you don't have to be sure of everything.

With that said, though; yeah, we really do need a Black Widow stand alone movie. Get on that, Marvel, you bastards.

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