SPOILERS FOR AGE OF ULTRON FOLLOW
I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron opening night, and overall thought it was a fun movie and above average for the MCU. The action sequences are great. I’ve found myself getting bored in action movies for the last few years, but the one held my attention across a runtime that felt far shorter than the clocks tell me it must have been. Sure, there were a few scenes I had to shake off, but I can’t name a movie I’d call perfect.
It’s no Winter Soldier, but what is?
But, the next morning, when I went to tell twitter about it, what came out of my fingers was this:
Between calling Gamora a whore and Natasha's claim to be a monster, not sure I want a female lead in a Marvel movie.
— Dawn Sabados (@DawnSabados) May 1, 2015
Because as much as I enjoyed this fun action flick, there were a few moments that gave me pause. And apparently not just me. That io9 post covers a heck of a lot of ground and I will attempt to retread as little as possible. I don’t agree with every specific of their analysis. I find myself agreeing far more with this interpretation of that scene. In a movie with otherwise snappy and clear dialog, the lines in that scene seem surprisingly ill-considered and poorly worded. She isn’t a monster because she can’t have kids. That is the physical signifier of the process of turning her into a monster, and a part of that legacy that cannot be undone. How poorly can that be worded?
But looking at even this generous interpretation of that scene, the rest of the movie clearly casts Natasha as Avenger Mom. Not that she might have wanted children, but that her role on a team of peers is that of mother. Her desire for human connections is essential to her “dream” and the form those connections take is repeatedly shown to be maternal. It posits her life choices as between surrogate mother of her constructed family or childless monster assassin.
Mother or Monster.
No other options.
What a limited set of possible outcomes for us women. Also a real stereotype that affects working women every day. We’re expected to be maternal. We’re told there is something wrong with us if we don’t want children. Of course, if we do have children, we are further devalued. It’s a no win situation faced by actual women, and this movie constructs it as the dream life of the only woman on the team. The problem isn’t that Natasha makes the decisions she has, it’s that the only representation we have reinforces a damaging stereotype.
And, frankly, there wouldn’t be an issue if there were another female Avenger who had different options and made different choices. Not just another woman in the cast, but a peer. Scarlet Witch isn’t a peer in this film. She’s an enemy and then she’s a risk, but only in the final seconds of the film is she presented as anything approaching a peer. We shall see if Civil War manages to present us with additional options for representation.
So, that briefly covers the context of that scene within the movie, but what about the context of the movie within our culture? This movie co-stars a man who is unrepentant in his slut shaming. This movie is produced by a studio whose owners aren’t interested in making super hero toys featuring girls because they already have the princess market. This movie is the product of a studio whose CEO isn’t interested in making movies with female superheroes. This movie has a director who is so feminist that he answers the question:
“Did you worry that you were taking away something inherently female about the one woman Avenger (up until Scarlet Witch) on the team?”
“No, I never thought about that, because I don’t think it makes her a man. She still resembles Scarlet (sic) Johansson …. It’s very unlikely that there’s going to be a huge action sequence that revolves around her giving birth in one of these movies.”
A flawed question that assumes women are defined solely by a biological function many can’t or elect not to perform. A flawed answer that takes this flawed premise and runs right to a male default.
So, really, I don’t think we can look forward to a second woman in the Avengers actually improving representation of women. There is an entire system working against women, populated mostly by men. A system that undervalues us and views us in rather limited terms.
One that drops a prima nocta joke without anyone on screen batting an eye.
There’s another scene in Age of Ultron that provides a perfect metaphor with the real problem here. The one at the party where Tony and Thor get into a dick measuring competition over which of their significant others is more awesome in front of Agent Hill, and she rolls her eyes and talks about testosterone? Men talking about women instead of women telling our own stories. Men telling each other what is important about women instead of conversing with us.
Adding one new face to the Avengers doesn’t solve that. Adding more women at all levels in the industry is the only way to really change the kind of representations of women we get. Not just screenwriters, though that’s certainly a step in the right direction.