The Erasure of Black Widow: Do We Need to Write Female Characters Differently?

Eyes

 

 

by Sue Archer

I saw the movie Avengers: Age of Ultron last week. I had been looking forward to watching this movie for a long time, so I did my utmost to avoid encountering any spoilers. I enjoyed it, though I felt that parts of it were uneven and that it didn’t come together as well as the first Avengers movie. Once I saw the movie, I checked out what other people thought of it. That’s when I discovered the complaints about the character development of Black Widow.

I realized that the movie I saw was not the same movie that others had seen.

*character spoilers ahead*

 

What Some People Saw
A betrayal of Black Widow’s character through

– making her “the girlfriend”

– making her a damsel in distress

– making her a mother figure

– making her feel monstrous for not being able to have children.

 

What I Saw
An evolution of Black Widow’s character, as shown through

– her attempt to develop a romantic relationship

– her demonstrated ability to protect her other team members and fulfill critical missions (without super powers)

– her yearning for family and connections

– her acknowledgement that she feels monstrous due to her training as an assassin.

 

What happened here? How could these interpretations be so different?

I certainly don’t think that the portrayal of Black Widow’s character was perfect. I’ve complained before about the lack of strong female characters in action movies, and this movie doesn’t break any new ground on this issue. Outside of the movie itself, Marvel is not impressing me with their failure to produce Black Widow action figures. They have even erased her from her own key movie scene.

But still. I didn’t pick up on all the negative nuances that others found in this movie.

This leads me to the question of how to treat female characters in a male-dominated genre. Should writers be treating female characters differently from male ones? And how should gender issues be addressed?

 

Female Characters as Human Beings
I’d like to think that all characters are simply human beings. When Black Widow needed to be rescued in the film, I didn’t see her as a damsel in distress that needed to be saved by a boyfriend. I saw her as a valuable team member that needed to be rescued by another member of the team, just as the Avengers would do for any team member. The fact that she was female and in a relationship just didn’t make any difference to me.

But I can see why others found this disturbing. We’re constantly surrounded by stories that portray women as the girlfriend, the damsel in distress, the mother figure…so we understandably get twitchy when we keep running into these tropes.

In reading up on this issue, I came across a fantastic article by Kate Elliott (one of my favourite fantasy authors) called Writing Women Characters as Human Beings. She shares three key pieces of advice, which I am paraphrasing here.

1. Have enough women in the story that they can talk to each other.

In this respect, Age of Ultron fails the grade. Although there are multiple female characters, they don’t have meaningful moments with each other. I can’t even remember if Scarlet Witch and Black Widow ever talked to each other.

2. Pay attention to how you are assigning minor roles.

In many stories, the tertiary-level characters are played by men. Age of Ultron does include several female characters in minor roles, including Dr. Cho, Laura, and Madame B.

3. Your female characters should exist for themselves, and have their own agency in the plot of the story.

I would say that Scarlet Witch is the female character that has the most agency in this movie. Her decisions and actions drive many of the key plot points. Black Widow has less agency in the plot, but I would argue that she does have her own dreams and desires that she acts upon in the movie. It’s just that those desires do not line up with the idea of a “kick butt” female action hero. Is that wrong? Maybe not. But in the context of male-dominated superhero action movies, it clearly doesn’t work for a large segment of the audience.

 

 

Guest post contributed by Sue Archer. Sue writes communication tips with a creative twist on her blog Doorway Between Worlds.

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18 thoughts on “The Erasure of Black Widow: Do We Need to Write Female Characters Differently?”

    1. You’re welcome, Jon. Thanks for reading! I agree that it can be a tricky thing to balance, but I believe most readers can spot (and applaud) authors who are focused on writing well-drawn female characters. I know I appreciate all efforts in that direction! I wish you all the best with your writing. (I love the title of your blog, by the way!)

      Liked by 1 person

  1. THANK YOU. Black Widow was not “reduced” to a love interest in AOU. She has an entire action sequence with Cap and Hawkeye where she is crucial to the mission and kicks butt. She does not let her love interest distract her from her job, and she practically saves herself from Ultron with that Morse code device she builds.

    I actually loved that we saw some of her human side, because too often she dodges introspection with coyness or sarcasm. It’s a defense mechanism because she’s a very broken person. A broken person who had no choice. And while the “monster” line could be easily understood, I do not think she was referring to her infertility either. She was definitely talking about being an assassin.

    If you want to see reductive characterization of a woman, see how Padme Amidala was reduced from a strong senator-warrior to a waify wife/mother figure in Star Wars Episode III. She was basically reduced to a plot item in order to push Anakin over to the dark side. Talk about supporting a man’s story 😛

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes, she did kick butt, Michelle! I love how she builds that Morse code device, too – it was sadly overlooked in the commentary. I thought it was wonderful to see a more well-rounded version of Black Widow.

      I agree with you about Padme – yet another reason I’ve been trying to pretend the Star Wars prequels don’t exist. 🙂 I have better hopes for the current reboot of the Star Wars franchise – but I’m not going to get into that here, since I don’t want to spoil anything for people who haven’t seen the new movie yet.

      Thanks so much for commenting!

      Like

    1. Thanks for sharing that short, Allie! Hopefully Marvel will build on some of what they have done in AOU and give her more screen time in the future. I’d also love to see more about Scarlet Witch and the other female characters in the franchise.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I write a lot of female characters in both my contemporary crime/detective fiction and in my historical adventure fiction. They are good and bad, smart and not so smart. Heroes and villains, nice and mean and a lot in between. They are not all beautiful, young or skinny. They are, I hope, real enough to come alive in the reader’s mind. Oh, and the guys too.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Although I, too, think female characters should have their own agendas in a male-dominated story, I feel they shouldn’t be equal to the protagonist. My view is that only the antagonist should be coming close or equal to the level of the main character.

    Liked by 1 person

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