I’ll just say it: I fucking loved Natasha in Age of Ultron. Reading that Black Widow post on the main page was bewildering. And quite frankly all this backlash is pissing me off. (Spoilers from here on out.)
Now, I have to say that I agree with them completely about the marketing situation. It is bullshit. From Jeremy Renner’s comments to the lack of merchandise to the very fact that Marvel has one main female superhero. And the situation isn’t going to change significantly, considering how Marvel’s CEO feels about it. Actually this is part of why the backlash has been so strong: there’s one main female character and people expect her to be representative of every woman woman ever. Except there’s no “every woman” - any character like that would have to be incredibly generic to the point of blandness.
But they’re wrong on almost everything else about the movie.
First of all, the whole “red in my ledger” thing from the first movie is not necessarily a plot point. It’s a reveal, it’s something that’s part of Natasha’s past. But do we need to exactly how much pain and destruction she’s caused to understand that she wasn’t always a hero? That she wasn’t always on the side of the good guys? No. And that is not the point of her character. She is someone who fought and kicked and clawed her way out of brainwashing and abuse and being turned into a killing machine into someone with an adoptive family and friends.*
The fact that Nat gets a love story is not a problem. She’s a female character with a love story, but that’s not her only story. Saying that she is now a ”just a love interest” is the problem. It ignores all her development in previous films, and it ignores everything she does in AOU. She kicks just as much ass as everyone else in every battle. She gets the synthetic body away from Ultron - without that there would be no Vision. And, ultimately, she rejects Bruce’s offer to run away, because it’s more important to save lives. And if all you see after watching this movie is the love story, then that’s on you.* Natasha is not a love interest. Natasha is not a love interest.
I agree with the critics that the scene with her and Bruce where she reveals that she was sterilized could have been much better written (and it feels like maybe it was cut for time?). But that’s not what that scene is about either. Part of why Natasha is interested in Bruce is because they both know what it’s like to completely lose themselves and do things they don’t want to do: Bruce as the Hulk, Nat under the Red Room brainwashing. She speaks of her graduation that involved killing a cowering, pleading person as well as her sterilization. It’s easy to see why Natasha doesn’t see herself as quite human. People who make that scene all about the fact that she was sterilized are taking things out of context, IMO.
She also doesn’t ever say she wants children. Bruce brings that up. But even if she does, there’s nothing wrong with that. That doesn’t make her weak, that adds an interesting new layer. There’s more than one kind of strong female character.
What she does say in that scene? For the first time in the movies she says she wants something. She wants a personal future for herself. Someone who knows what it’s like to be completely unmade, to be just someone else’s tool, sees a different future for herself. And that’s huge for her.
I honestly have no idea where the Black Widow as a mother figure idea came from. Yes, she’s the one who gets to calm down the Hulk, but those are moments when she uses her Red Room training on brainwashing, not any kind of maternal instinct. It’s a follow up to the first film when she also faces the Hulk head on. And it seems she’s the only one on the team who dares directly face the Hulk without a suit of armour. None of her interactions with Hulk feel maternal. They’re actually pretty tense. She’s doing a job no one else can.**
And another point that I’ve seen often (but isn’t much addressed in Meredith and Katharine’s post): Natasha is not a damsel in distress. She wasn’t “rescued” by Bruce. She was imprisoned in a place crawling with hundreds of Ultron’s mini-me’s. If she got out what would she have done? Taken them all on and gotten herself killed? Instead she transmitted her location to the team and waited for the distraction.
Is Joss Whedon a perfect feminist? No, and there’s probably no such thing. It’s pretty clear he has his own biases and privileges and those do show up in his writing. Probably more than he’d ever admit. But Natasha’s story is not something to be held against him.
The intensity of the backlash has been surprising to me. Yes, we should be having conversations about why we have one female superhero on the movie screen. We should talk about the roles assigned to women and society, and we should talk about how women are represented on screen. And yes, it gets old and it’s tiring and if you always keep your cool, you’re a better person than me. But exaggerations and nasty messages don’t really help.
*Actually, Bruce follows the storyline beats of a love interest more closely that Nat ever does.
**I’d make an argument for Steve being more of a mother figure for the team what with “language!” thing and trying to reign in the Science Bros and making sure everyone is accounted for. But that’s a whole nother post.