Black Widow Controversy Highlights Marvel’s Problem with Women

Marvel has a problem with women. The company that’s delivered characters like Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk to the big screen needs to shape up, and now.

We’ve been pretty patient as viewers, but the approach taken to Black Widow in their most recent Avengers: Age of Ultron has undermined the only female lead in the franchise. Yes, supporting franchise roles include Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy and Scarlet Witch in Ultron, but Black Widow’s the only female lead and the only hero to appear in multiple films.

When 52% of the moviegoing public is represented by just one character, expectations that might be spread across multiple characters are condensed into her. It’s not rocket science why Black Widow is so important, and it’s not wrong that she is.

Avengers: Age of Ultron writer-director Joss Whedon has long been a leader in feminism in TV and movies, most notably with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He was criticized on Twitter pretty harshly for how Black Widow was treated in the latest Avengers. He later left the social media platform. It wasn’t because of “militant feminists” as certain media outlets were quick to claim, but – as he told Buzzfeed – a writer needs some quiet to write. Why certain outlets would be so quick to create a feminist vs. feminist narrative that never even existed is worthy of its own analysis, but that’s not the focus of this article.

There are very minor spoilers from this point forward.

In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) reveals that she cannot have children. We know she used to be a Russian assassin. Apparently, sterilization is part of the training process. After revealing this, she tells Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) that he’s not the only monster in their ensemble.

Fellow critic Chris Braak at Threat Quality Press puts it best in an article I highly recommend – Bruce Banner is a monster because he literally turns into a murderous rage beast, threatens innocent lives, and there’s nowhere he can go to be safe. Black Widow is a monster because she can’t have babies.

Banner could tell her that being sterile isn’t equivalent to murdering thousands in blind rage and that the comparison is ridiculous on its face. Instead, he nods dumbly in agreement.

Aside from being disingenuous to the characters, this is a dangerous message to send. According to the National Institute of Health, 15-20% of women will suffer a miscarriage in their lives. This means purely biological, natural miscarriages, there are no abortions or induced miscarriages are included in that statistic. There’s such a stigma surrounding this information that expecting parents often don’t share news of a pregnancy until it’s far enough along. Women who do suffer miscarriages are expected to cope with them in private, making them think something is wrong with them. Why do we enforce social rules that make mothers feel ashamed for something that 1 in every 5 of them will undergo?

Avengers: Age of Ultron could address the issue, but it doesn’t. It raises it, calls it monstrous, a superhero agrees that it’s monstrous, and then it’s never brought up again. Hammering the point home, Black Widow is at the home of Hawkeye’s pregnant wife.

As Meredith Woerner and Katharine Trendacosta discuss on io9, Black Widow’s romantic relationship with Banner essentially turns him into an oversized surrogate son – she calms him when he’s angry with something the rest of the group refer to as “a lullaby.” Hulk is her displaced phantom baby, but in relationship form! She also follows up heroic actions with lines like, “I’m always picking up after you boys.” You know, just in case you saw her do something impressive and momentarily forgot to define her as the group mother now.

This is what I refer to as “James Cameron Syndrome.” Leading women are presented as badasses in films like Aliens and Terminator 2, but only when exercising their heroism as a component of being a mother. This isn’t a negative portrayal; it’s a very positive one. It is not a complete portrayal, however. When your franchise features an endless supply of leading men named Chris and exactly one leading woman across a dozen movies, then it’s not unfair for a female audience member to read that single character as representative of her entire gender in that franchise.

Black Widow’s role is no longer “saving the world,” it’s mothering those who do. It’s “picking up after” the boys and caretaking for Hulk. Her special power is “a lullaby.” You’ve taken the sole representative of an entire gender in one of the biggest franchises in the world, a woman who’s led the charge in saving the world twice now, and you’ve given her the role of making sure the boys don’t skin their knees.

Okay, what about the only other woman hero, Scarlet Witch? She’s a tough-as-nails psychic with incredible telekinetic powers. She’s fueled by rage and goes toe-to-toe against the Avengers early in the film, schooling the entire team pretty much single-handedly. Yet she cowers later on and needs to be reassured by a man that it’s okay to be brave. Really? Because I’m pretty sure she was being pretty brave when she wiped the floor with your entire team earlier in the film. Now that there’s a man in the picture, Scarlet Witch is a wilting flower. How is that consistent?

The truth is that the problem extends past the screen. A count of IMDB credits reveals that by the end of Marvel’s Phase Three – covering the 22 films that will be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe through 2019 – only three of 42 screenwriting credits in the franchise will belong to women. These are Nicole Perlman for Guardians of the Galaxy, once again for Captain Marvel, and Meg LeFauve for Captain Marvel.

Zero of the 21 directing credits assigned thus far belong to women.

In the treasure trove that is Sony’s collection of leaked e-mails from its The Interview fiasco is a nugget that Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter wrote Sony executive Michael Lynton. Perlmutter cited three films that proved women could never lead a superhero film on their own – Elektra, Catwoman, and Supergirl. Of course, one of these came out in 1984 and neither of the others were made after the superhero movie revolution sparked by 2008’s Iron Man. One could also cherry-pick superhero films with male leads to support the same theory – Green Lantern, Jonah Hex, and The Spirit are a much more recent. According to Perlmutter’s logic, we shouldn’t be making superhero movies about men either. Trees and raccoons only then?

He also ignores successful franchises led by women that are effectively similar: The Hunger Games and Twilight are both Marvel’s equals at the box office despite being only a third the cost, and Divergent does pretty well for itself on a quarter of Avengers’ budget.

The Marvel/Disney alliance also refuses to make action figures and T-shirts featuring its female characters – almost no Black Widows or Scarlet Witches are to be found. Why? As a former Marvel employee revealed, Disney figures it has marketing to women on lockdown through its princess brands. This assumes that girls wouldn’t want to play with action figures (cause I guess we’re still in the 1950s) and that boys are content playing with only part of the Avengers team (I don’t know about you, but I was a perfectionist about completing my toy sets when I was a kid). More damningly, it sends the message that women should idolize being a beautiful princesses while young men should idolize being buff, violent heroes.

I’m going to shamelessly pull a line from my Furious 7 review. Despite liking the movie, I mentioned this: “Women are celebrated for sex. Men are celebrated for hitting things. That’s the message kids (and adults) take home with them. It puts pressure on both genders to inhabit those roles. Then we’re surprised when so many men hit women for not giving them sex.”

The icing on the cake is Hawkeye actor Jeremy Renner calling Black Widow a “slut” in interviews and late night shows. That’s not really Marvel’s fault, per se, but it is representative of the attitude all of this engenders.

I love these films, I really do, but Marvel has got to fix its dangerous and harmful attitudes about women.


Why are so many fans upset about changes to Black Widow in Avengers: Age of Ultron? How have Marvel and Disney made the issue even worse?




Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel is a movie critic who's been a campaign manager in Oregon, an investigative reporter in Texas, and a film producer in Massachusetts. His writing was named best North American criticism of 2014 by the Local Media Association. He's assembled a band of writers who focus on social issues in film. They have a home base.