Black Widow and Power
I’ve been thinking more about Avengers, particularly about Black Widow. I liked her character, but something wasn’t sitting quite right. It wasn’t until I read cleolinda’s post on LJ that things started to click into place for me.
There be minor spoilers ahead…
When we first see Black Widow’s character, she’s captured, tied up, and being interrogated by nameless Russians. We see the Standard Villain Torture Kit waiting on a nearby tray. But when SHIELD calls, Black Widow goes from helpless prisoner to fully in control in an eyeblink. By allowing her captors to see her as weak and vulnerable, she got them to tell her what she needed to know. It’s set up as a reversal of expectations: the men expect the woman to be powerless, and she does a masterful job of turning that against them. She was in control the whole time, and you know it.
So far, so good. I liked the scene. I also liked the way it set up Black Widow’s later confrontation with Loki on the Helicarrier. Once again, Black Widow allows a man to play on her apparent vulnerabilities and weakness, and in doing so, tricks him into admitting his plan.
But this time, as she turns away, you realize the vulnerability wasn’t faked. She wasn’t in control the same way she was in that earlier scene. Loki got to her. You see it in her expression, and you see it again later.
Some of what bugs me is the intersection of Black Widow being both the only female Avenger and the only one to use her vulnerability as a weapon like that. In a way, it feels like a subversion of sexism, since she’s using her targets’ expectations against them. But it also feels seductive in a way that disturbs me — in the case of Loki, “I’m going to let you paw all over my very real pain so I can get the answers I need.”
And look at the way Loki treats her. He rips into her more viciously than he does anyone else in the film, including his own brother. That level of scorn and loathing is reserved for Black Widow alone — for the woman who dares to be as powerful as the men. He also — and I missed this in the theater — calls her a “mewling quim.”
I wasn’t familiar with that particular verbal assault. I believe the modern U.S. equivalent would be “whining c**t,” making it the most hateful and sexist insult in the entire film.
All right, so Loki is an asshole. But then I thought back to when Black Widow went to recruit Bruce Banner. Banner was calm and cool, except for one moment when he slammed the table and shouted something like, “Stop lying!”
Black Widow jumped back, visibly shaken. Banner immediately calmed down, saying it was just a test to see how she’d respond. He was fully in control, of himself, and of the situation. He learned she didn’t come alone, and that he’s completely surrounded by SHIELD agents. I.e., he learned what he wanted to know.
Yet the way he did it resonates with Loki’s treatment of Black Widow later on. He lashed out in a way we never see directed at men, and in that moment, everyone knew exactly who had the power and who didn’t.
I’m certain some people will read this and say I’m overthinking, or that I’m reading too much into it. To be clear, I loved this movie. And I liked Black Widow’s character a lot. She’s capable, competent, and kicks plenty of bad guy ass. However…
- The only female Avenger is sent in to use her vulnerability as a weapon of interrogation.
- There are at least two scenes that feel like she’s being “put in her place” by a more powerful man.
- The phase “mewling quim” was utterly unnecessary and not at all in keeping with the rest of the dialogue, so why it used?
I find this problematic.
Comments and discussion are welcome, as always.
May 8, 2012 @ 9:59 am
I’m not sure BW was ‘sent’ to Loki. I felt it was something she wanted to do because of her connection with HE? Wasn’t Fury having a ‘what are you prepared to do’ conversation with Thor around the same time as though unaware she was going to go see Loki?
Shakespearean Insult Generators have been around for a while and can produce some pretty strong stuff without it sounding too bad. I think there is an element of that sort of style of language about the Asgardians generally (look who played Odin :D). Add to that Loki’s well documented disdain (or worse) of ‘humans’ (let alone differentiating between sexes) and it’s not a huge reach to suppose how he might consider women. Ultimately, BW makes a personal sacrifice (as does IM with the nuke and BB by deliberately hulking out) to help someone she cares about. She uses someone’s assumptions about her as an advantage (weapon if you like) but then most hero films have some sort of example of the arrogant villain underestimating the hero don’t they?
Put in place?
I think this may be a blue car issue (you see something more because you are looking for it). CA spends a lot of time putting IM in his place for being a care free egoist (as he, CA, sees it) doesn’t he? There are power plays between a lot of the male characters as I recall (Thor – IM, CA – IM, Hulk – Thor, Fury – Various!)
Oh and while I remember – most of the team look to be in need of some new underwear around Banner from time to time – Fury, CA are the ones that spring to mind immediately. The potential of the Hulk is enough to put most people on that team on their guard isn’t it?
Just my 2p’s worth 😉
May 8, 2012 @ 10:00 am
She’s also the one chased around the ship by Hulk. She didn’t really trigger him, but he keeps chasing her for an unnecessarily long time instead of him lashing out at random other things/people. She also gets to cower in fear in various tight corners. She’s the only character we really see showing significant amounts of fear. That was the part that twigged my sense of something not being quite right.
May 8, 2012 @ 10:04 am
I don’t think it’s really fair to use the scene with Banner as an example of this; he would have done that to anyone. That scene wasn’t about Black Widow. It was completely about Banner and his tenuous grip on “the other guy” and the power he draws from that, whether he generally wishes to or not. He needed people to know the real threat they faced by working with him and that it isn’t just a game.
As for the Loki scene, I thought it worked because even though she succeeded again at her reverse interrogation style, we do see that she’s not completely invulnerable. I liked that. If they had made her an Ass-kicking Fembot Automaton through and through, I would have found it more sexist, not less.
As for “mewling quim” . . . eh. He’s a villain. Villains say shitty things and kick puppies and take away freedoms. It isn’t the cleverest way to establish characterization, but it’s stock.
Jim C. Hines
May 8, 2012 @ 10:09 am
It’s possible, but I can’t see the scene with Banner playing out the same way with any of the male characters. Can you see Stark or Captain America or Thor or even Hawkeye jumping back and visibly showing that anxiety/fear the way Black Widow did?
May 8, 2012 @ 10:38 am
I think part of the issue may be that BW is not just the only woman, but she’s also primarily a spy rather than a superhero. Or did I misunderstand the conversation between her and HE when he asked her why she wanted to go to Manhattan?
Each of the men either have a genuine reason not to fear (BB and Thor seem pretty invulnerable) or have some ego involved in not letting the other superheroes think less of you.
It’s okay if BB or Thor think of BW as physically vulnerable – she *is*, and uses that fact in her spying in much the way they use their invulnerability in their fighting.
As for the bit where the Hulk focuses on her exclusively and chases her through the ship – I got the impression she *did* trigger him. The first time he freaked out on her, back during their first conversation, was about her lying to him. And here they are, pinned, he’s having trouble controlling the Hulk – and she lies again. She meant well, but just as he was at a vulnerable point, she lied – and he (and the Hulk) got angry at her about it.
It could be interesting if future movies follow up on this – I could see Banner trying to tell her “you know better than to lie to me”, while she’s saying “but I’m a SPY, it’s what I DO”…
May 8, 2012 @ 11:01 am
I was more impressed with the treatment of all three women in the film. Granted, there were only three with anything close to a “role” in the film, and that was a problem, but I didn’t see this as a problem.
I had forgotten the exact meaning of ‘quim’ when I heard it, but I knew it was bad.
For me, Black Widow worked because she was a strong woman. I liked the emotional judo she played with her opponents. I liked the fact that she clearly had an emotional attachment to Hawkeye without being gaga over him. She fought to save him based not on a stupid teenage-girl crush that the movies would have us belief affects all women of all ages, but because she cared for him. And that made her stronger.
Maria Hill had a moment when she was down, and almost looked like she was going to cry, then Fury said something about “get to work” and she did. She was a minor character, but she still had the strength to do what she needed to do. She even stood up to Fury’s lies.
Pepper was very minor. I think the fact that she was barefoot in both scenes had less to do with sexism and more to do with the fact that Gwyneth Paltrow is just as tall as Robert Downey Jr.
May 8, 2012 @ 11:15 am
I see what you’re saying – and as my g/f noted, Avengers doesn’t even pass the Bechtel (sp?) test either. That said, I read many of these bits differently:
* I agree that any sane person would have that same reaction to Banner… and took the lack of reaction from the others as signs of their instability.
* The part that seemed to bother/touch BW with Loki’s interrogation was him bringing up the nasty crap she’d done in the past. (Exception: HE, mentioned separately.) It’s factual, not judgement based. Her changing of motives (and the transition to being more of a hero) seemed based in her not being able to ignore that nasty stuff any more. It’s these items that provide the visual shakenness (and the more trustworthy change in character later), not Loki being an ass. HE could have had the same effect – but wouldn’t have done so.
* When BW turns away from Loki, I read this as “Holy crap, I’m about to start laughing at him…he’s falling for it.”
* Loki is the one who actually loses control. I think the descent into outright name-calling is actually indicative of how much control he’s lost. Loki wants to be the guy with class. BW is the only one who actually (sucessfully) manipulates him or gets past his mental defenses.
* The whole interrogation of Loki is a critique of Silence of the Lambs. Clarice Starling was also praised as a strong female protagonist.
So: Clarice and BW are “sent” (and yet… not really sent in quite the way they went) to go deal with a batcrap nuts super-smart bad guy. The bad guy feels out a mental weak point (real, in both cases – note how BW reacts to hearing HE was compromised) and tries to use that to shatter the interrogator and control the situation.
Yet in this case, BW clearly comes out on top. Starling only gets Buffalo Bill (a man who transforms!) because Lecter wants her to, on his terms. Lecter never loses control. Never, ever. Loki, on the other hand, totally loses his merde because he can’t control himself… and finds his plans unraveled as a result. Silence of the Lambs is the beginning of Clarice’s fall from grace, but BW faced the abyss, vulnerable, and came back more determined to kick it’s ass.
… er. Yeah, I was an English major once. Anyway, interested if you see the parallels with SotL as well…
May 8, 2012 @ 11:24 am
The thing is, Black Widow and Hawkeye are the most vulnerable Avengers because they’re human and that’s it. And they’re both obviously very aware of this, which I don’t think is a bad thing. Honestly, when you’re next to the Hulk or Thor, the smart option probably is being scared. I think it makes Black Widow a much more powerful character because we get to see her being human and vulnerable and scared, and then she still gets it back together and gets the job done. Which is ultimately all you can ask of us mere mortals, and something most of us wouldn’t ever be able to manage.
I would have had a lot less respect for the character if she hadn’t shown the brains to know that she should be scared.
If Loki got to her (which I don’t necessarily think that he did) the reason behind it seems to be that Hawkeye told him everything about her, which is pretty rough. Loki goes after her differently than he does anyone else who confronts him, but she also confronts him very differently – and the thing to keep in mind is that he’s supposed to be very good at manipulating people as well. He probably thinks that’s the best way to push her buttons.
And the mewling quim thing? Very in keeping with how the Asgardians are supposed to talk. It would have sounded a lot stranger to hear him use modern slang when he was insulting her.
May 8, 2012 @ 11:29 am
Just one note, and pardon the language, but when you are discussing swearing, it’s hard to do without, um, swearing.
“Quim” has the same literal meaning as “cunt”, but that means it also has the same literal meaning as “pussy”, which is bandied about much more casually in American vernacaular, and while “quim” is somewhat archaic, I (as a Brit) have never actually heard it used as an insult (most uses of it in my experience have been for comedic purposes). So while Loki may well use it with disdain, to immediately equate it with what remains (for peculiar reasons) the least acceptable/most insulting swear word in the American language may be reading more into it than was intended by the scriptwriter. If you wanted, you could read it as him calling her a “whining pussy” – though I do accept that, again for peculiar reasons, I accept we do react differently when hearing even that milder term applied to a woman rather than a man.
Final note: I have not seen the film yet (planning to go Thursday).
May 8, 2012 @ 11:29 am
When BW turns away from Loki, I read this as “Holy crap, I’m about to start laughing at him…he’s falling for it.” <- Me too.
I don’t necessarily agree that him insulting her like that is him losing control – I think he’s doing it because he’s trying to push her in the direction he wants. (I mean, he’s got the whole situation so insanely planned out.) But at the same time, it’s also obvious he thinks he’s gotten to her, and is surprised when he hasn’t.
Well, and I think he’s also developed a real cruel streak since Thor because, well, he’s gone utterly crazypants.
May 8, 2012 @ 11:33 am
The writer used her the same way she used herself, in a meta way. He needed to show how terrifying the Hulk was, and how even without his magic staff, Loki could still get inside someone’s head in a sticky way. He chose to do this with somebody whose MO was using her weakness as a weapon. Is it troubling that this character is a woman? Sort of? But the tradeoff was that she was in a very crowded movie a lot more. I think without Maria Hill, it might have bothered me more, although it might not have. I felt repeatedly pleased by her.
The ‘death by intimacy’ threat bothered me much more than the Hulk scenes. So did Pepper’s outfit, even though I know the sorts of things /I/ wore during late nights in a hot office.
May 8, 2012 @ 11:34 am
To be fair, Josh, it is sexism that influences our culture in a way that we have movies where women are barefoot simply so they are not taller than the man they’re next to.
May 8, 2012 @ 11:47 am
I missed the barefoot part. They were at home, after all – was he barefoot, too?
May 8, 2012 @ 11:52 am
But wasn’t Pepper at home?
May 8, 2012 @ 12:15 pm
I think the whole teary-eyed “you are a monster” was fake. She wasn’t really affected by him, she was just pretending. After all, it’s Loki. He was obviously going to pull something like that.
Jim C. Hines
May 8, 2012 @ 12:17 pm
What evidence are you seeing that it was all an act, and she wasn’t affected by his taunts and threats?
May 8, 2012 @ 12:27 pm
He’d just gotten home, so he wasn’t.
I would have thought it was pretty damn weird if she’d been all dressed up and in heels. But I would love to see women in movies get to wear comfortable shoes more often too.
May 8, 2012 @ 12:28 pm
Disagree on this specific point. I believe the character was acting as much as the actress who played her.
Does “You’re a monster” really sound like dialogue that matches her for the rest of the movie?
When she turned away, I would suspect that she was supposed to be smiling.
We saw her shocked and horrified face when she faced the Hulk, as you pointed out. That did not seem to be the same reaction.
As for that specific scene, even if sent by Fury, his instructions were probably only “Find out what he wants.”
Her techniques were clearly established early on.
May 8, 2012 @ 12:40 pm
I was okay with Black Widow’s characterization, and her use of weakness as strength. What got me was the phrase ‘mewling quim.’ No one else got called anything on that level.
May 8, 2012 @ 1:19 pm
The guys would have reacted to Banner’s anger outburst the same way Black Widow did, yes. They are all very nervous about the Hulk, although Tony, with his scientist interests, wants to provoke, test and develop the Hulkness, which wins out over any fear he has. Black Widow is unnerved by the Hulk because she can’t reason or manipulate or effectively tackle him, but that’s not simply a female feeling, it’s a spy fear. Fury has the same unease about it. Even so, she would not allow the other Shield personnel to help her get free and deal with Banner. She waved them away and tried to help him get control to save the other personnel. The Hulk chases her because the BW is his jailer, essentially, who came and got him, and because he’s pissed off about the cage that they had built for him. It’s unlikely he would have actually killed her, however. Later, when Banner makes the commitment to helping, gives up control instead of just losing control, the Hulk concentrates on the aliens. This is very much in keeping with the comics, the Avengers ones particularly.
Black Widow goes on her own to Loki, because she owes Hawkeye. Her ability, like Fury’s, is to read people to try to see what will trigger them. She correctly identifies that if she acts vulnerable with Loki, he will attempt to hurt her emotionally and she is then able to figure out some of his plan. It is true that this would not have worked quite as well if one of the guys had done it, but that’s why she does it. And this is part of Black Widow’s character from Marvel. (Whedon stayed very true to all of the comics lore. In the comics, Black Widow tried to seduce Tony, did seduce Hawkeye when he was a criminal and had a relationship with Daredevil.) Loki is the trickster god of Asgard. He will say whatever vile thing he thinks is most effective. Since he was dealing with a woman, he said what he thought was most effective. The comeuppance is that it had no real effect on her at all — that she is perceived as vulnerable because she is female, but she’s not. This is first established in the scene with the Russians. The “red in her ledger” — the debt she owes to Hawkeye — is what is driving her. Having seen the scene with the Russians previously, you know that Black Widow is not really crying. The joke is that Loki tries to put her in her place, but has no ability to do so. (And yeah, I suspect there was a poke at Silence of the Lambs in there.)
And in the final battle, as a Shield agent, she could have stayed on the ship. But since she is part of the Avenger Initiative, (she is an Avenger in the comics,) she fights and is as critical as any of the others in the battle. So yes, there is the female spy does seducing part. But that was part of the original character. The Black Widow is not strictly human. She has enhanced abilities through biotechnology — quick healing, age resistance, enhanced reflexes, etc. This is hinted at in the film re her mysterious background and shown in the battle, (it’s why she doesn’t dislocate her shoulder grabbing on to the alien sled,) but they don’t elaborate on it because they are keeping her background mysterious. So she has more confidence than a regular human.
Could they have picked a female superhero of the Avengers who was not a slinky spy? Yes, but Black Widow was a solid part of the Iron Man universe and had been used in Iron Man 2 to great effect, and was also one of the major Avengers. So she got the Avengers slot. The anger towards a woman who dares to be as powerful as a man is certainly there, but that anger is a reality women have to face. The other male members of the team did not have that attitude towards her, nor did Fury, her boss. Banner’s anger was not about her being female, but about her being from Shield. You could have done the scene the same way with Colson. He never expresses a belief that he considers her lesser, and as he explains, the secret to his control is that he’s angry all the time with everyone. The involvement of women in the Avengers movie was not perfect, (largely due to the studios involved,) but the movie did not show them as lacking in bravery or power, I feel.
And yes, Pepper was at home and preparing to have a romantic dinner with Tony, but they’ve done plenty of scenes in the Iron Man movies with Paltrow taller than Downey.
May 8, 2012 @ 1:56 pm
I have to agree with other posters- I saw the ‘turning away crying’ bit as obvious manipulation on her part. I was worried for a second in the theater that it would be ‘oh look, she’s the only vulnerable one on the team’, but then I remembered that it was a Joss Whedon movie, and her immediate drop of the act and “oh, that’s your plan for me? Okay, what else do you feel like telling me?” confirmed it for me.
May 8, 2012 @ 2:02 pm
Disclaimer: Not arguing with your post, just offering my two cents on the topic.
I thought Black Widow’s character was one of the far better representations of a female superhero, especially considering that she doesn’t have any supernatural abilities. For one, I commented to my husband about how nice it was to see a female superhero in a uniform that WASN’T cut open to the waist, or with a G-string over mostly see-through tights. If I recall correctly, Black Widow and Hawkeye wore relatively the same outfit (or my memory sucks, also possible :)). The “quim” remark made me flinch because I knew the translation, but perhaps I automatically assumed the villain would be sexist as well as evil. So aside from hating the word, it didn’t strike me as out of line compared to the other terrible things Loki did. Re-the Banner scene, yes, she flinched, but I think any man would, too, at the prospect of the Hulk about to bust loose. And she flinched but also pulled a gun, ready to take care of the problem, so I didn’t take it as a sign of weakness another male character wouldn’t have shown. I took it as wise caution around Banner. All of the Avengers seemed pretty wary of the Hulk breaking out in the first 2/3 of the movie. I also loved how Black Widow used perceived feminine weakness as a weapon against her male antagonists. Might have given the movie 5 stars just for that.
Of course, you could take all the above and correctly assume that because of how often women are poorly portrayed in superhero movies (do not get me STARTED on Mary Jane’s character in Spiderman!), my expectations are very low.
Jim C. Hines
May 8, 2012 @ 2:09 pm
You’re more than welcome to argue with my post, you know 🙂
That said, I don’t really disagree with you here. Some of the things I’m looking at feel somewhat small, especially when compared to other films. But when put together, they did start to bother me. That said, I agree that this film did far better than most, and there’s a lot I really liked about Black Widow’s character.
May 8, 2012 @ 3:20 pm
What evidence? The end of that scene, where BW says “Thank you for your cooperation.” (I may be getting the quote wrong, but he upshot of it is there.
And that is it, to me. She told him that he gave her more than she gave him. She knows she has demons, she knows she has vulnerabilities, and she is on the path of dealing with them. Yeah, BW is vulnerable, has weak points. I think the fact that she does NOT hide them (or, rather, deny them when they are used “against” her), but rather uses them to great effect, is part of the larger strength of her character.
And again, at the end of that scene (the interrogation with Loki), she is not crying, not vulnerable, not broken. She is entirely whole, and looks him in the eye, and tells him that she got him. He revealed his plan to her. The look on Lokis face was utter disbelief.
She played him and then told him that she was playing him and in control, the entire time.
Or so it seems to me.
May 8, 2012 @ 3:27 pm
On the other hand, Loki did try really hard to kill Thor (dropping the cage, with Thor in it) after mocking him (Will you ever not fall for that?).
He enslaved HE and made him kill and betray friends and colleagues. And total strangers.
Loki is an insult artist. He crafts his jibes to play on what weaknesses he perceives in others.
He is also, as noted earlier, a complete asshole.
I do not think he treated BW with any more contempt than anyone else, nor any less. He holds all of Humanity in contempt, and given time, no doubt would have called every single person, on Earth, a bad name. Or killed them, as his mood takes him.
May 8, 2012 @ 5:28 pm
Interesting article on this subject on The Atlantic. They see it as “one of the most memorable moments in the film,” a moment that “closely reflects that problem as it exists in the real world.”
I would agree with that assessment. Art can show the world as it is or the world as we’d like it to be. Both approaches have something to teach.
May 8, 2012 @ 5:30 pm
Oh, the link to the article is: http://tinyurl.com/bruunve
May 8, 2012 @ 9:42 pm
“The only female Avenger is sent in to use her vulnerability as a weapon of interrogation.”
It worked. She knew it would work. Men are dumb, sexual animals. There is nothing about that scene that doesn’t ring true about society and reality. Just because you don’t like it makes it no less true.
“There are at least two scenes that feel like she’s being “put in her place” by a more powerful man.”
There are at least 4 scenes where BW puts men in their place as well. It’s give and take. This is Whedon FFS. If there is anyone in Hollywood who isn’t sexist…it’s Joss damned Whedon. You glossed over those scenes because they are detrimental to your points though…so I understand your need to have done so. Or perhaps you truly didn’t see those scenes.
“The phase “mewling quim” was utterly unnecessary and not at all in keeping with the rest of the dialogue, so why it used?”
Loki is from Asgard. A place that uses antiquated language on a regular basis. Hell, half the jokes in the Thor movie are based around how he talks differently and uses antiquated dialogue. Perhaps you need to watch that one again…Go for it…I’ll wait. This is an antiquated swearword with a sexual connotation. It’s quite reprehensible as a term…but Loki is an ass, and yeah coming from his background he’s a sexist ass…so what does he do when he’s cornered in his rat cage by a very clever woman…he thinks of the nastiest comment he possibly can and actually “spits” it out at her.
Basically it’s like this Mr. Hines. You watched a movie written by the guy who made ass kicking, strong women popular (Buffy, Dollhouse, Firefly), a sub-genre you write in, and you saw a comment made by a villain and made it out to be sexism on Joss Whedon’s part. It’s not. In fact to suggest that a villain is allowed to be as villainous as he likes…so long as he’s not sexist (because that’s somehow over some villain-line)…is pointedly ludicrous. “Boo, our villains need to be nicer!” What, no they certainly do not.
What’s amusing to me is that you conveniently miss the fact that our villain, Loki, spends an entire scene telling gathered humans that they are essentially cattle, made to be ruled slaves…Is that okay? as long as it’s not sexist right? Is that over your “villain-line”? Right. Okay then.
He’s the bad guy. He’s written like a bad guy. And yes this gives him carte blanche to be as nasty as he may be. He’s also quite the racist (simply against humans in general) when you think about it, so if you need another thing to talk about…
This entire post implies that Joss Whedon as writer should have steered clear of anything like that in crafting his film version of Loki. A notion I find both peculiar, and blinded to reality.
You also ignore (as I mentioned) the times in the film when BW puts the men in their place. Easily pointed out scene is the one where she clearly is interrogating (not “being” interrogated…in case you missed that too) the Russians and has the upper hand the entire time. Not once do those “powerful mobsters” have anything on her…not once do they have the upper hand, even as she’s strapped to the chair. She proves it with how fast she gets out of it and kicks all their asses.
Mentioning the Hulk scene with her is ludicrous too. I don’t care who you are, male or female or orangutan… if the guy who can turn into the Hulk shouts at you in anger…you piss yourself. It had nothing to do with gender. What nonsense.
You ignore the point of the scene you mention with Loki where she essentially tears him down to the point where he totally loses his cool with her. You ignore the fact that up till that moment in the whole first hour NO ONE is able to get that reaction out of Loki. NO ONE. None of the men can even get him close to making him lose it. But Natasha does it, and she does it in a couple of damned minutes. There is nothing about that scene that EVER says she’s not in control…she’s fully in control and even the looks we get from her where you ASSUME he’s “gotten to her”…he hasn’t. He’s meant to see her stop (even not facing her), he’s meant to see her shoulders slump, he’s meant to think he got to her. He never did. This is Natasha Romanov…and no one (especially not a guy) gets the upper hand on her. That you clearly missed that is beyond weird to me. It was clear as a bell to us.
Lastly, you may have seen something in the film that you felt was sexist…but when a main argument is that the “villain shouldn’t be allowed to be sexist” is part of your soapbox…(again, so the villain is allowed to be nasty and kill people and be bigotted against an entire planet…but he shouldn’t be sexist because that’s not cool/too far)…what the hell?… And another main point is that you feel that Whedon clearly wrote in sexist material that didn’t belong…
I think he’d disagree, and might be a bit sad that you didn’t feel like making a post about how you enjoyed the film…and instead make a post mentioning how you liked it and then proceed to superimpose your own skewed view of the film, dialogue and scenes where you tear it a bit of a hole…with poor points that don’t really hold up under scrutiny.
Also, Let’s separate art from the artist shall we.
Removing viscera from fiction won’t remove those notions from reality. It won’t. Believing such things is naive.
Big Danny T
May 8, 2012 @ 10:04 pm
” Re-the Banner scene, yes, she flinched, but I think any man would, too, at the prospect of the Hulk about to bust loose. And she flinched but also pulled a gun, ready to take care of the problem, so I didn’t take it as a sign of weakness another male character wouldn’t have shown.”
Shoot, the fact that she stood her ground when just about any man would have gone running says volumes about her strength of character. yeah, she had fear on her face, but so would anyone when faced with the possibility of having to deal with an unstoppable giant green rage beast.
Jim C. Hines
May 8, 2012 @ 10:12 pm
What surprises me is that it took twelve hours for the first “But it’s Joss Whedon!!!” comment to show up.
May 8, 2012 @ 11:44 pm
You are deeply embarrassing the rest of us Whedon fans, What The Hell. Whedon did write the movie, but he did not write the original material for Loki, Black Widow, the Hulk, etc. Marvel writers did, over the course of fifty years when things greatly changed over time. (Black Widow’s comics Avengers costume has a neckline that goes to her navel.) And Whedon did stay true to that material to some degree. So there’s nothing wrong with looking at classic comic book issues and how they effect the movie and at how power interactions might be occurring between male and female characters. The reality is that Marvel failed by only having one female superhero character in the movie and Whedon wasn’t happy about it and neither are most people. And that one female superhero was using seduction and fake weakness to do her job, whereas the male superheroes were not. There’s no reason we can’t have a reasonable discussion about stuff like that, and Whedon would be the first guy to join in. Jim isn’t on a soapbox, he’s just looking at his own reaction to things in a movie that he liked. So grow up and learn how to talk to people without screaming at them. Because I can tell you, Whedon has clearly expressed in press that he doesn’t have much patience with that sort of attitude. As Whedon said: “All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend. Art isn’t your pet — it’s your kid. It grows up and talks back to you.”
May 9, 2012 @ 12:04 am
Could be. 🙂 That was entirely unclear to me, if so. It felt like the top floor of an office building to me; Tony even says the top 5 floors are all R&D.
May 9, 2012 @ 8:24 am
Yes; I believe that “Hulk” trumps gender in this case. I think that Cap would have flinched pretty much the same way. I think that Stark’s reaction … well, I think that the reason Stark wasn’t in that scene is because the character is too shallow. Whedon could probably write it, but I couldn’t. Hawkeye would have been interesting, but they’ve established that he has some problems with distance and intimacy. Only a certifiable idiot would send Hawkeye to talk with Banner – you need someone with more social skills. And I would argue that for the scene to work, the person has to be human; there has to be absolutely no doubt that if Hulk appears, the individual will be nothing more than a greasy spot on the dirt floor.
I think you’ve posed a fantastic set of thought questions here. I don’t happen to agree with you on the answers, but I think consideration of the questions is very worthwhile. In each of the cases you cite, my respect for BW rose considerably because of the interaction.
I think the Banner vs Widow is the most interesting of the three; I think that the fact that the power level of the hulk makes this an issue of power. Gender is as irrelevant as hair color or diet, or their favorite flavor of ice cream. (the part that I find unbelievable is that she brought shield to the party; I would have found it more believable if she’d come alone. She knows that shield agents will do nothing but die.) I think the look on her face as she pulls the gun is particularly telling. This is (in my opinion), the only time in the movie where Ms. Romanov is not control; I think she’s ashamed of herself, not for flinching, but for permitting the flinch to drive her into a weaker position (and I mean that in a strictly tactical way).
Widow vs Loki – again very interesting observation, but as she walked away, I had the opposite impression. To me, that was utterly in character with BW – she is able to pull that kind of emotion out of herself and use it as a tool. She is willing to drag herself through the emotional cesspit and expose her vulnerability to the bad guy because it will attain the objective. She’s honest with herself about what it will cost. What a cool person and someone I want on my team. For an interesting exercise, rewrite the scene with Fury as the interrogator, and then determine whether the differences in technique arise from gender or from Fury’s requirement to appear invulnerable.
For me, the fascinating thing about the questions you raise is that once we examine these through the lens of gender, I find it difficult to discard the lens. Once the question is asked, I can’t unask it. Odd as it may seem, I wasn’t aware of BW’s gender through most of the film; BW was Clever, she was Human, she was in emotional control, but she wasn’t overly gendered. (the exception was the reference to her gender in the interrogation scene with the Russian.) That’s what I’ve always asked of my female heroes; gender is merely one of their attributes, and not relevant unless the plot calls it into relevance. But now that someone has drawn attention to her gender, I can’t ignore it.
May 9, 2012 @ 10:54 am
When I heard it used, I attributed it to Asgardian way of speaking as well. Whedon appears to be pleased with it ( http://whedonesque.com/ ).
Thank you, Jim, for this discussion.
May 9, 2012 @ 10:59 am
I definitely saw that as a SOTL riff (it’s my favorite movie).. Ironically, when Clarice is also called a c—, it’s by someone else, and Lecter says, “Discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me, I would not have had that happen.” So, you know. Sociopathic cannibal: better manners than a demigod. Odin would be disappointed. 🙁
May 9, 2012 @ 1:04 pm
Gender and Power, gosh yes. I grew up reading Marvel comics. Back in the way-back, BW was the classic Russian-spy-femme-fatale-Emma-Peel (about whom I will hear no wrong, btw!)-catsuited-sexy-assassin. God knows we see enough of that old relic in action movies, to this day. So I found what they’ve done with BW in the movies a really interesting take, from the first. I liked the way Whedon set her up in this film, as using all those expectations against people. Fun, but her interaction w/ Loki and her two scenes w BB/Hulk were clearly meant to be something different. Whedon has a history of taking classic tropes (vampires, westerns, superheroes) and playing them action-packed, witty, re-tooled and fun, except, here and there, “click”, something deep and/or disturbingly real slips in. The plot then speeds past and you are left blinking, and thinking “What just happened?” Fury sent her to Loki, why would he not? She’s the master of getting information from super-villans, that’s been established. Her plan is to make him loose his cool. That’s how she reads people, after all (the mobsters at the beginning, getting Stark drunk in IM2). The set-up recalls SOTL, I’m sure that’s intentional. SHIELD has a fat file on Loki, and she’s clearly read it. The key is guilt and redemption. Loki is a snarling bad guy, it’s not dissimilar to her first scene. Pass the popcorn. The switch flips, when she brings up clearing “red” off her ledger. On a dime, Loki turns and uses language and intensity just a little too ugly, too sexist, too scary for the movie as it’s been set up so far. Is he saying he’d force Barton to rape her for godssakes! “click!” indeed! Tom Hiddleston said, in some interview, that there was one day when Whedon went over a script with him and he thought, “Wow. We’re going THERE? In THIS movie?” Want to bet which scene they were filming? The guy has played Iago, after all. Perhaps too many years of watching the Loki character gender-switch in the comics has affected me, but I saw his viscousness as triggered by self-loathing. He identifies with her. She was clearly faking the “You monster!” and the tears, but I thought I saw a second of genuine surprise before she turned. The audience was equally surprised. Wow. That’s what triggers this guy? That’s how dark this is? One of the things I loved about the film was how jumpy EVERYONE was around Banner. When Stark poked him with that pencil, the whole cast (and most of the theatre) gasped. Mark Ruffalo played it so beautifully. But I think you are right that BW, seemed to have an extra edge of fear. I read it as part of her persona. Hulk is terrifying because he is absolutely random, as likely to kill friend as enemy. The impression I got what of her was as character whose (physical and mental) survival depends on manipulating others, or at least understanding them and predicting their moves. Made sense that Hulk would scare the crap out of her. Her first scene w/ Banner in India seemed designed to set that up. We were clearly supposed to be thinking of gender and threat in those scenes. Putting a hackneyd (if well-acted, and thrilling) “damsel-in-distress chase scene right after a threat of sexual assault is clearly going to tap some issues. It was that clarity that surprised me. I’m used to seeing these things as garden variaty cultural sexism, or cynical audience manipulation. These issues seemed to me, tucked into a well-made, CGI-filled PG-13 blockbuster, but also clearly marked, meant to be considered and talked about. Tidy bit of film-making, if you think about it.
May 10, 2012 @ 8:21 am
Given the previous movies, where Tony kept the really cool toys in his home, I figured it was 80 (or however many) floors of office and industrial space, topped by 5 floors of R&D (increasingly dedicated, as you move up the floors, to his personal pet projects), topped by a penthouse home.
And they looked pretty much at home when “Phil” showed up with the folder…
May 10, 2012 @ 1:32 pm
Yeah, Whedon is sneaky. When you think what he tucked into Buffy, it’s pretty impressive.
May 10, 2012 @ 11:35 pm
See, I would have said that she was acting too, based on the Russian scene. However, I think she was acting like she wasn’t affected at the end of the Loki scene, and covering up her actual discomfort, to get what she wanted. She got stuff done, but it did shake her. If you notice, she is huddled in a corner directly after that looking shaken, as the attack is happening, and she says to Hawkeye later (in an awesome scene) that she’s “been compromised.”
May 10, 2012 @ 11:40 pm
The only scene I noticed her huddling and looking shaken was after she got chased by the Hulk. And… yeah. That? Totally justified.
May 11, 2012 @ 2:48 am
I didn’t have much of a problem with BW’s scene with Loki. I didn’t think Fury sent her, I thought she was working on her own – as almost everyone was at that point of the money – to try to find a way to save Hawkeye. She was trying to get information out of someone tougher than a Russian arms dealer, so she had to open herself up a little to be convincing, but she was clearly in control of the situation.
She’s a spy and an assassin running with superheroes. She’s going to use whatever works. She isn’t a one-trick pony, though, because she handled Banner in a completely different manner. Yes, she flinched when he hit the table, but I’d argue that every character in the movie other than Tony Stark would have flinched. This is a guy who can handle Thor one-on-one and punch out spaceships. She at least came up armed.
Pepper being barefoot the first time wasn’t a big deal – she works casual. The second time, though, she was barefoot while construction workers were cleaning up the building. I found that a bit odd. I can’t imagine it was because of the height issue – they’ve never gone out of their way to hide her height before – so I don’t know what was going on.
As for Agent Hill, I’ll pass on making any analysis. For some reason, I could never look at her without thinking of Robin Scherbatsky. No idea why – actors and actresses play different roles all the time, and it doesn’t bother me a bit – but even when she was bleeding from the head and shooting people – not exactly her usual fare on How I Met Your Mother – it didn’t work for me.
May 11, 2012 @ 2:52 am
Oh that was it? I couldn’t remember which part. Also, there’s still her convo with Hawkeye; I’d say she was definitely shaken in the interrogation scene but proceeded as best she could, because she’s a badass professional.
May 11, 2012 @ 11:36 am
I think all the points you brought up are based on interpretation and conjecture. Because of recent events in my life, I kept a close eye on this movie, looking through a lens of feminism/non-feminist traits. (Frankly, it almost kinda ruined the movie for me). I couldn’t find many, compensating for the fact that the material originated in a much more male-dominated culture (e.g., most of the characters are male, but you really can’t change that without fundamentally changing the source).
-I don’t believe Banner had control in that scene in Calcutta. As shown by “put down the scepter”, he’s not 100% capable of controlling his own actions. I think Banner may have backpedaled when he said it was a test. Maybe it was half and half.
-I didn’t see anyone treating Black Widow as anyone but an equal, or different because of her biology. I don’t know about “putting in her place”, but there are just as many scenes of men insulting each other as they power struggle (the argument in the lab, Thor vs. Iron Man fight in the forest… actually Tony Stark vs everyone 🙂 ).
-Also, no one ever forces Black Widow to do something because she’s a woman. I don’t remember anyone sending Black Widow to see Loki, I think she did it on her own. I think she was sincere in wanting to save Hawkeye and clear her “red ledger”, but she used that sincerity to her advantage.
-I can’t believe even 5% of the viewing audience knew what a “quim” was on first viewing. Yes, Loki’s insult is sexist, but I think that’s in character — he’s an old, patriarchial god. And kudos to the film for expanding my vocabulary.
Now let’s all go for some schwarama.
Avengers Enthuse Post | So Shiny
May 11, 2012 @ 3:29 pm
[…] shield, etc. Whedon made the unfortunate choice to give Natasha the superpower of Feminine Wiles. Jim C. Hines blogged here about the off-note that comes from scenes where people then confront those wiles. The first time, […]
May 11, 2012 @ 7:54 pm
I didn’t scream, nor did I use any foul language or big capital letters. I challenged Jim on his statements (which he skirted…I can only assume because he thinks I have a point) and backed up why I felt the way I did and I actually went so far as to refute Jim’s specific points one by one (again, which he ignored). How any of that is not debate to you I’m not sure. But I’m certainly not embarrassed by my statements.
KatG, your whole paragraph is an issue with Marvel, not Joss Whedon. Jim picked his fight with Joss’s writing…he never brought up Marvel and a lackluster female presence on the Avenger’s team. so get your facts straight please before scolding me.
May 13, 2012 @ 4:22 pm
Thanks for getting us thinking on the topic, Mr. Hines! This article and the thoughtful comments left by your other readers inspired me to write my own blog post on the topic of these and other scenes in The Avengers. One thing I found really interesting, as a writer, was Hawkeye being under Loki’s control for most of the movie. So that’s also covered in my blog post. Thanks for getting the cogs moving in my head.
May 14, 2012 @ 11:25 pm
What’s bothering me is that people are discussing this as if we saw a documentary, and so Black Widow just did what she did. She was written that way. Why was she written that way? She was the only one written as vulnerable and scared. When the men have their power struggles, it’s all brawn. Hawkeye was under mind control but he sure didn’t ever look weak to me. It doesn’t have to be conscious or intentional for it to be sexist. I don’t know, maybe Joss just thinks men are meatheads.
May 15, 2012 @ 8:21 pm
I think she was written that way because she’s the only one who *could* show vulnerability, based on her already-established character. Not because she’s a woman.
Roll call: Iron Man certainly doesn’t show vulnerability in any of his movies. Hulk shows compassion, so in a way I suppose you could say that makes him emotionally vulnerable (he doesn’t want to be responsible for the horrible things “the other guy” might cause). Captain America maybe could have shown some vulnerability besides just being out-of-time, I suppose. Thor has been raised as a king, so showing vulnerability is anathema to him. Hawkeye, well, we don’t even get to see him under his own control long enough to give him a chance to be vulnerable. And you could argue his talk about not being himself, about being replaced in his own head, showed him as vulnerable.
If it’s the scene with Loki where Black Widow’s vulnerable that bugs you, that’s up for interpretation. Her ability to turn off any emotions she may or may not have been feeling when she turned around and said “So. Banner.” (or whatever), shows that even if she was upset, it was for a split second. Or maybe she was just straight up playing him… Warriors throughout history have used fake vulnerability to get their enemies to misstep (think of the samurai lowering the tip of the sword to make the enemy think he’s too tired, inept, or wounded to hold his weapon properly). Perhaps that’s how she was meant to be written in that scene. And because of how ice cold she was in the Loki scene, it kind of made me wonder about when she pulls the gun on Banner in the beginning–whether she was really as scared as she looked.
Why was she written as the one Banner Hulks out on? I think because she’s the one who convinced him to come back, plus she’s a representative of SHIELD. If it had been Fury who convinced him, maybe it would have been Fury that the Hulk was written to chase around. But the Hulk wouldn’t have come back for Fury. So, that’s why Black Widow was written into that scene. If she hadn’t shown fear (vulnerability) there, it would have seemed weird.
In a lot of ways, Black Widow is really just whatever she needs to be. She goes to convince Banner and means it when she says “I’ll persuade you.” Whatever the situation calls for, she can handle it. Of all of them, she’s written as being the most resourceful, of having the most tricks up her sleeve. Why aren’t we focusing on how cool that is, instead of how she’s the only one who’s written as (maybe) vulnerable?
May 18, 2012 @ 8:49 pm
You folks seemed to have forgotten one very important thing.
Loki was manipulating Banner and the others with his staff. It was always Loki’s plan to have Banner lose control and “Hulk Out”, and Banner was holding the staff during the argument that occurred in the lounge.
Remember the focus on the staff? The mind control abilities it had? C’mon, it was extremely obvious. Banner even made a very unsubtle threat to attack the rest of the group just after he mentioned his suicide attempt.
If you watch the movie again, focus on that scene and listen to what was being said. Banner was even holding Loki’s spear in a threatening manner. One of the Avengers even (with a hint of concern and nervousness) said that Banner should put the spear down. It was very similar to the scene in the Lord of the Rings during the argument over who was take it to Mount Doom, and an obvious homage to that scene.
Black Widow just had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time while Banner was still in the vestiges of his mind control induced anger. If anyone had been in her place, they would have become the focus instead. This is supported by the way he went berserk while he fought Thor, then the jet that shot him. He was looking for a focus for his anger.
It could have been anyone. But I’ll admit one thing, Black Widow was scared of Banner even before that incident… and rightly so. Remember what the Hulk can do. Even so, it was obvious that she was a bit of a frayed rope even before Banner went crazy. The woman has demons. It was stated as much over and over again in the movie.
I hope that explains things.
May 20, 2012 @ 1:39 am
One thing I’d note about the Hulk is that he *did* beat the shit out of random passersby rather frequently. The difference is that she evaded him successfully. The way I see it is this. If a cat is presented with a small batch of mice, and the first four are stupid and die instantly as she swipes with them, there’s no reason for her to keep beating them up. Also, if they cower in a corner as another mouse is escaping, she may give chase because cats are hunters.
The Hulk is raw anger personified, in most concepts of the comics/movies. In my experience, submission and giving up doesn’t ramp up anger. Running and defiance do. BW defied him, and what more, she led him away from the personnel on the ship and waved them off. I think she antagonized him, and I think she knew she bit off more than she could chew and knew it at the end there before he lept out of the Helicarrier. I attribute the shaking not to being PTSD weak whimpering girl, but to the fact that she just took on someone who later punched a giant snake turtle metal dragon alien in the face.
May 20, 2012 @ 2:18 am
I wanted to comment directly on the “mewling quim” comment. I do think it’s a little overthinking… But honestly, it’s the kind of overthinking we need. We need to question. We need to ask these things. And I like that you asked, instead of just railing. That’s a great thing. I like this dialogue.
Here’s how I saw it.
BW played him. She walked in, she played a hand of cards, and she wheedled him. She acted like she was only one layer deep, and she was playing two hands lower. Loki is convinced of his own greatness, and she brought up Hawkeye for two reasons, IMO: She did it to make him feel utterly insulted because KINGLY KING LOKI CARES NOT FOR YOUR PETTY MORTAL BOYFRIEND and because it made her look like a simpering love interest.
She pushed his buttons and waited until he whipped out the most nasty, hateful language he could spill, which revealed that he was angry past being smart. I think that language was there to cue us that he was, in fact, beyond the pale and lashing out angry. Loki doesn’t cuss. He manipulates. When he cusses, he’s not thinking anymore. He cussed, and then she tricked him into letting something slip. Personally, I thought it was a great example of playing off of someone’s hubris.
The movie didn’t pass the Bechdel, and honestly, I didn’t expect it to. I’d be a little miffed if they’d shoehorned something in JUST to pass it. I think that the Bechdel serves a purpose, but it isn’t the be all end all. There are plenty of movies that fail it that I enjoy – and plenty that pass it that are pieces of shit. Hit Girl, Sucker Punch, and Kill Bill all technically pass, and you couldn’t pay me to watch those again. A movie can pass the Bechdel and still make me feel like I need to take an hour long shower and punch Zach Snyder in the dick.
The Black Widow: Debate | Dragon Hunters
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