Paved with Good Intentions: A Defense of Joss Whedon’s Feminism

by N B on May 6, 2015

in Marvel, Movies

There’s a saying that ninety percent of being a good parent is showing up. It’s a saying meant to counter the hypercritical, hyper-reactionary culture that new parents face. You’re a monster if you use spankings, if you don’t breastfeed, if you let your children watch television or let them eat gluten- whatever it is that the pearl clutchers are up in arms about this week. But at the heart of childrearing, a good parent is just the one that tries. They may not show up to band practice on time, they may not show up with organic apple juice, but they show up.

Sometimes trying to be a feminist is a lot like trying to be a parent. No matter what philosophy you espouse, you’re going be met with heavy criticism. The only failsafe way to avoid the criticism is to avoid the issue altogether.

And that’s the frustrating thing right now about the reactionary responses to Joss Whedon: they are much harder on him for trying and failing than on those that don’t try at all. At least fifty high-grossing movies came out in the last year with white male leads and poorly constructed female love interests. The Oscar nominees in 2015 were almost exclusively intimate portraits of men. Yes, there was a very general outrage, but certainly not the volatile social media thrashing that Joss Whedon received this week. When you create a system that punishes you more for failing than for not even trying, you incentivize not trying.

And Joss Whedon, unlike many of the other directors that are household names right now, is one of the few directors/writers with a long history of filling his work with fully-formed female characters. Buffy, while controversial as a feminist icon, is a complicated female character surrounded by many other dynamic female characters. Of the five shows that Joss Whedon has put his name on, three had female leads and all of them had well-balanced casts.

Yet, despite a venerated history of promoting the image of powerful women, Whedon was excoriated this past week for his depiction of Black Widow in the mega-blockbuster Age of Ultron. The criticisms were generally that her love story and the sterilization backstory served to weaken what was a strong character, and portrayed her as just a woman sad that she cannot be a “mommy”. In my opinion, both aspects of Black Widow’s story were intended to highlight her strength of character.

It is true that Whedon chose to entangle Romanoff with a love interest, not unlike Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man before her. How successfully those two characters worked as love interests is a matter of debate, but nothing in her conduct with Bruce Banner made her seem “weak”. She doesn’t swoon; she doesn’t meekly bat her eyes and wait for him to come for her;  she confidently expresses her feelings to him. He is the one that spends the next scene blushing and gossiping to Captain America.

She then gets trapped in a hallucination of her past by Scarlet Witch. Arguably, the only person that gets a jump on Romanoff the entire film is another powerful woman. In this hallucination Romanoff relives a time when she was brainwashed and mutilated by organizations within her own country. Critics of this scene seem to claim that the fact of her sterilization means her entire arc is now about not getting to be a mother. They further claim that this interpretation is supported by her “mothering” The Hulk throughout the film. I think this is a gross oversimplification of the story.

All the characters except Hawkeye are vulnerable after Scarlet Witch’s attack. They’re all groping for comfort and for some shared experience. Romanoff, still reeling from her flashback to the KGB, approaches Bruce Banner as he also bemoans his own existence, his hands still metaphorically dripping in the blood of a ravaged city, not to coddle but to empathize with his pain. She’s not trying to be his mother, she’s talking with the guilt and self-loathing of her own memories. When she says “you are not the only monster on the team” she’s saying “you’re not the only one whose power was shaped by an unnatural force that changed and mutilated you beyond recognition.”

And this is where I truly get angry at the criticisms of the Black Widow character. I am angry that people seem to argue that she is “weaker” because she’s still hurt by the memory of the violence inflicted on her, and because she mourns the loss of something taken from her when she was too little to know to fight back. A government stole her autonomy, warped her mind, and violated her body. Whether or not she wants to be a mother, she’s allowed to be pissed.

Thousands of women across the world and in the United States are victims of various forms of sexual violence. Women every day have their bodies mutilated by backwards regimes. The sterilization detail may not be necessary for Black Widow’s character, but it may also be an attempt to acknowledge the violence against women and to explore the way it resonates with the victims. By taking an established strong female character and revealing that she was once a victim of sexual violence, Whedon is trying to show that being victimized does not have to become a defining trait. Whedon’s Black Widow is meant to show that a woman is not weak because she was a victim, she is strong because she became something more than a victim. Even though Black Widow falters and mourns, she’s strong enough to rise above her violent origin- not proud of what she became, but not cowering in the great darkness of her past.

And that’s the beautiful juxtaposition of the Banner/Romanoff story. In that much maligned couple, she is strong and he is weak. He is weak not because he the Hulk is a big baby, but because Bruce Banner is unable to reconcile with the reality of his darker nature and is therefore relegated to hiding quietly in the shadows. Romanoff, in contrast, grapples with her past, but has repurposed her darker nature to strive to make amends.

No scene illustrates this better than when the couple is offered the opportunity to leave the fray for a quieter safer future. It’s Black Widow–not Banner–that turns back to the fight. And, after the battle, while a slouching Hulk lets a jet take him into obscurity so that he can continue to wallow alone in self pity and guilt, Black Widow ends the film standing erect before the future of the Avengers.

Black Widow’s “weaknesses” came from what already existed in her backstory. The first Avengers movie established that she was essentially brainwashed by the KGB. Both The Avengers and The Winter Soldier demonstrated that she is wracked with guilt for the years that she indiscriminately took lives. Whedon’s flashback for her arose organically from the established material. If he had not delved into the trauma of her past, the criticism would be that she alone was underdeveloped.

And, to play devil’s advocate, let’s say that Black Widow’s conflict is also her desire to be a mother. Joss Whedon’s female characters are often exploring what it means to be a woman and how they can be different and still fit into womanhood. This means that many of his women with nontraditional characteristics still long for what is considered “traditional”. Characters like Buffy and Kaylee wanted to dress pretty, to go to parties, to have boyfriends and to live “normal” female lives. In exploring how strong women handle both their desire for and revulsion to traditional gender roles, Joss Whedon is exploring one of the deepest and most central dilemmas of being a woman in modern times.

Black Widow isn’t the first female character written by Joss Whedon to come under fire for not fitting into the prevailing feminist ideals. Right now there are Gender Studies majors writing thesis papers on whether or not Buffy and her compatriots have set a good example for the world of women. But without Buffy Summers, Willow Rosenburg, Winifred Burkle, River Tam, Zoe Washburne, Inara Serra, Kaylee Frye, Cordelia Chase, Echo, Sierra, Faith, Anya, and now Black Widow, the pantheon of female characters in television would be a lot less diverse and a lot less rich.

Joss Whedon’s feminism isn’t perfect, but he strives to conceive women characters that are fully-formed and human. His works are less focused on creating women that embody some ideal of strength and more on creating many kinds of women with many diverse ideas about strength. He is the type of feminist that shows up.
Nicole Bloom spends most of her time writing on issues far less exciting than superheros.  She quit Twitter just like Joss Whedon, but it was mostly because she thinks it’s dumb rather than because of any grand moral principle.

Kevin Hellions May 7, 2015 at 9:07 am

OMG Yes! This, this is wonderful. I, as a white male, didn’t feel right responding to the Joss attacks but thank you so much. Excellent points, excellent examples. Just wonderful.

Stacey Rader May 7, 2015 at 1:03 pm

So well said! The backlash was troubling, especially since Joss didn’t fail in his feminist view of Widow. I’m so glad to see a chorus of voices pointing out everything that was right about AOU, especially in Widow’s arc.

Previous post:

Next post: