Lately much rage has been spewed across the interwebs castigating Disney/Marvel in general and Joss Whedon in particular for the portrayal of Black Widow in their film media (and merchandising tie-ins). Some elements of that argument actually hold water— neglecting to offer Black Widow character merchandise in their large-production toy line, for instance, because “those toys are aimed primarily at boys,” is an indefensible load of crap. Back in the day Mego offered a decent selection of superhero ladies in their 8 inch figure line, even some of the less-popular of that era— Invisible Woman and Wonder Girl, for instance. And I collected all of them (and being 9 years old, played with all of them) whether they were girl figures or not. So, dumb move, Disney/Marvel. You’re alienating your fan base and wasting a great opportunity to make money by giving end users— of both sexes— what we want.
The same can be said of sexist movie posters and the like— not Whedon’s fault. The film marketing process and advertising industry has had over a century to fill their agency playbooks with time-proven formulae, so unimaginative executives could crank out the right sort of advertising to hit the right market in precisely the right way and lure butts into movie seats. The entire Hollywood system is rife with that kind of rote proceduralism, and it’s slow to change. Innovation always frightens the ensconced, who aren’t usually too keen on changing the rules until they must.
Again, Joss Whedon doesn’t have anything to do with those issues. All he did was what he has ALWAYS done: proudly announce to the world that he was a dedicated feminist, and then do everything in his power to ensure that female characters get their props in his projects.
And— just as happened when he created Buffy the Vampire Slayer— by trying to do that he opened himself up to accusations that somehow he hasn’t done ENOUGH. As if, though continually pushing against the cultural barriers that have long kept female characters in the back seat in adventure films, he can now somehow be blamed for not instantly annihilating ALL such barriers and knocking down all the walls at once.
That’s okay. It happens. History shows us it’s the fate of every cultural trailblazer to suffer the stings and arrows of those who demand that they haven’t done enough, that their contributions haven’t really been all that important in hindsight, or they have achieved their accomplishments “the wrong way.”
Back in 1992, Whedon created the character of Buffy Summers specifically to turn one of the most deeply-entrenched stereotypes in cultural media— the blond cheerleader/helpless victim— on its head. He continued his cliché-busting campaign when BtVS went to series, setting up expected stereotypes (the helpless nerd, the mild librarian, the invincible hero) one by one and knocking them down, exposing them as meaningless labels foiled by the infinite complexity of real people with actual thoughts and feelings. He even endured significant industry backlash in support of the LGBT community, pushing the censors by creating an actual functional homosexual relationship between two beloved characters in 2000, back before most network TV dared explore the topic without sensationalizing or trivializing it. On his show, those homosexual characters lived, loved, and suffered no differently from the perils of vampire slaying than any other character on that show.
So when Whedon filmed a storyline in which one of those LGBT characters was senselessly murdered (as was a fairly commonplace occurrence on that often bloody show— vampire slaying, etc.), the revenge exacted by her heartbroken lover was truly epic. No different than had the relationship been between two characters of opposite sex. It was a real love, and its destruction carried powerful consequences, as it must. This moment was intended by Joss Whedon to represent a shining moment in equality, one presumes. Or rather, it might have been, had it been received differently.
Some viewed it in that light. But the public backlash from a particularly vocal dissatisfied element of LGBT fandom was horrific. Entire websites were created dedicated to reviling Whedon and everyone involved with his projects as the lowliest and most perfidious of betrayers. Thousands of fan-fics flooded the internet whereby angry LGBT fans attempted to rewrite Whedon’s scripts after the fact, specifically to retcon his plotline so it ended in (one supposes) a more “satisfactory” manner in the eyes of that portion of the fandom.
And there were millions of words of denunciatory invective piled upon fanboards and internet hubs by the hundreds. And death threats. Lots and lots and LOTS of death threats.
Joss Whedon had publicly avowed that he was dedicated to doing something to extend the presence, and advance the portrayal of, LGBT characters on network television, and he had done so. Just not enough. Or not in the specific way that made certain LGBT fans personally happy. So they burned him in effigy.
I remember watching all that play out online, back in the day, thinking “Wow, how terrible for Joss Whedon. Who would want to risk his career sticking his neck out pushing that agenda on the network execs, boldly applying the exact same rules to his LGBT characters as he does to all his other characters, elevate it all to the level of Shakespearian tragedy, and then get death threats from people claiming he purposely resorted to some ‘Dead Lesbian Cliche’ in order to dash their hopes. That seriously sucks.”
I’ve commented elsewhere at length (circa 2002 or so) about my own opinions on Whedon’s minor missteps in support of feminism, notably his insertion of strong female characters into traditionally-male-aimed situations and genres by supernaturally appointing them with heightened physical powers that made them male surrogates or male equivalents without exploring how feminine power, itself, might have a different definition and exist apart from traditionally patriarchal measurements of strength (Short version: supernaturally making a female character “strong” according to some male-invented, violence-based “strength scale” and setting them up to demonstrate their “strength” by beating on people the same way men traditionally beat on one another).
Sure, it’s based in wish fulfillment, but what does it say about “female strength” when such “strength” can only be attained by women supernaturally, and is only useful in violently harming others? I personally think actual “female strength” has many more permutations and layers, and comprises much more than that.
But we must never forget the genres and media in which Whedon works. Despite different settings and styles, what Whedon usually makes is superhero media, and he is obviously enamored of it. His TV series Firefly and Doll House continued to push unspoken boundaries and redefine what constitutes true female strength and self-ownership in our society, as well as what powers actively trade in it, who trespasses against it, and wherefore.
Bringing female characters out of the comic book world and translating them into live film projects for a mass audience presents many difficulties. He must walk the tightrope between the overt sexuality present in many female comic character depictions, versus the widely-expanded (and accepted) role played by female superheroes in the comics world. That dichotemy is a tough nut to crack: in the comics, female superheroes are hugely important, helm their own books and series, and routinely perform feats of strength and daring that have only recently become acceptable in film and television. But somewhat paradoxically, many female superheroes do so while wearing costumes and exhibiting behavior that is highly (even ridiculously) sexually charged. Vampirella has been the star of her own comic series since the 1960’s, kicking considerable ass in every depiction and remaining in complete control of her fate and environment the entire time. That might be viewed as a feminist milestone, except one look at that string bikini she calls a costume completely dispels any notion that her decades of popularity owe nothing to male sexism.
So let us now look at the comic book superhero Natalia Romanova, code name: Black Widow.
Her character first appeared in 1964 as an enemy spy femme fatale (cold war comics were full of them) and the antagonist of Iron Man. For forty years she jumped from series to series without ever getting a full title book of her own. From the point of view of character continuity, her choice as the primary female superhero in the Marvel films is perfect: her film appearances closely mirror her comic book history, including her relationships and interaction with Iron Man, Hawkeye, Captain America, and The Avengers. Her crossing over from movie to movie is similar to the way the character moved through multiple comic books during her early history. Meanwhile, forty years of such appearances seemed to cement the opinion at Marvel that Black Widow wasn’t a popular-enough character to helm her own book (she only officially earned her own comic book title in 2010) and that belief is probably the reason she hasn’t been given her own film in the series.
Black Widow is a great character, and Scarlet Johannsen does a great job portraying her. She’s been in more of the recent Marvel superhero films than anyone except Robert Downey Jr., and to good effect. There’s little reason to believe the character is getting shorted in screen time or importance in the Marvel film universe; she’s right there at the top of her game, functioning exactly the same as she does in the Marvel comics universe.
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Of course, Whedon loves to work overtime establishing enough heartfelt backstory to humanize the often one-dimensional “superheroes” in his character bullpen, so in Avengers: Age of Ultron it should be expected he would give us a few new glimpses into Natalia’s history and mindset, which he did. Some offense has been specifically taken at Black Widow’s use of the term “monster” in relation to that character’s forced sterilization at the hands of her trainers; but if one examines the context of the scene and what else is being said at the time, it seems obvious Natalia doesn’t mean that losing the ability to procreate lessens a woman or makes her monstrous; rather, her final surrender of that ability (one of many inborn measures of one’s inherent humanity), atop everything else that was taken from her so she could become a more efficient killer, ultimately contributed to her becoming the “monster” who remorselessly murdered so many victims. It’s a fine point, but it’s there in the sub-text if one pays attention.
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Also, it bears saying that just because a character in a film directed by Joss Whedon says something, that might NOT necessarily mean that the character in question is speaking on behalf of Joss Whedon and expressing his personal views. Sometimes dialogue is just dialogue, and exists to further the story; just as sometimes the death of a beloved character might occur to further the plot and story, and isn’t a purposely cruel assassination.
After studying his work for the past 25 years I continue to be impressed by Whedon’s stalwart dedication to using his craft to defend the oppressed and shine a light on the many faces of heroism however it manifests itself, no matter the source. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
For some people, what he does will never be enough. But I sincerely hope he keeps right on pushing us all in the right direction.