People have been talking about The Avengers ad nauseum since before its release, so I figured that when I saw it I would not feel compelled to add in my two cents. But here I am, a day after I clapped in the theaters, writing about The Avengers. Like everybody else. I’m even writing about something that other people have written about: feminism in The Avengers. But bear with me here, because I think some of the writers out there have missed some salient points about the representations of women in this film.
As many journalists have rightly pointed out, Black Widow is portrayed here (by Scarlett Johansson) as a strong female who uses her brains to help save the universe. It’s telling that Black Widow is the first Avenger we see in the movie–she’s the starting point for the, ahem, assembling of The Avengers. What’s more, our introduction to her plays to traditional assumptions about women in action movies. When we first see Black Widow, she’s tied to a chair and seemingly prepped for a beating at the hands of big strong Bad Guys. We learn pretty quickly, however, that we (and they) are drastically underestimating her. In short order she knows everything she needs to about their operation and has royally kicked their butts. This scene provides foreshadowing, as later in the film Black Widow plays to Loki’s assumptions and runs the same play. She talks Loki into giving himself away. What’s more, she gets what she needs out of him by appealing to his own sexist opinions. Yes, even men from outer space can be sexist; when Black Widow asks Loki about Hawkeye, the villain automatically assumes that she’s is in love with archer. She uses this against him, playing to his assumptions and portraying the distraught lover just long enough to have him stick his foot in it. It’s a masterful scene that illustrates as much about Loki’s assumptions as it does of our own as a viewers.
Keep in mind that this is a character without super powers–unlike her male counterparts, Black Widow is saving the world as a plain ole human. She doesn’t have a nuclear heart, super strength, or a penchant to turn into a green Mr. Hyde–she’s simply a woman with her own personal set of skills. Black Widow’s martial arts training works in tandem with her wit to save the day. She’s the Avenger who gets the team together, literally knocks some sense into Hawkeye (and Dr. Selvig), and ultimately saves the day by thrusting Loki’s scepter into the Tesseract. Not too bad for one of, what, three women in the movie? Yes, the downside is that there are only three female characters in The Avengers, but that’s honestly 2 more than there usually are in a comic book adaptation, and they’re not in there just to be sex objects for the protagonist (::cough:: Transformers ::cough::). The other women in the film are Gwyenth Paltrow (returning as the resourceful Pepper Potts), and Cobie Smulders as Agent Hill. It’s worth noting that though Paltrow’s turn as Pepper is a glorified cameo, Smulders’ turn as Agent Hill is pretty significant. How many times in an action movie have you seen a woman behind the wheel of a car, chasing down the bad guys while shooting her gun? Agent Hill is present throughout the film, running the deck of the ship and working side-by-side with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).
What really sends the feminist point home is not what is present in the film, however, but what is missing. For instance, there are no long, slo-mo running sequences of Black Widow in a low-cut cat suit. Yes, her outfit is tight, but everybody’s is (did you see Captain America’s outfit? Skintight!), but she’s wearing comfortable shoes, running her butt off, and none of it is slow motion. When she runs, it’s not for your pleasure–it’s to get the hell away from some bad guys. What’s more important, however, is the fact that we’re not the only ones seeing Black Widow as an independent, strong woman–the other Avengers see her the same way. No one questions her abilities as a spy, or talks down to her. For all his womanizing and sexual innuendos, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) never makes a comment about bedding Black Widow or finding her attractive. He never calls her “honey” or questions her abilities. As a member of The Avengers she’s on equal footing with them, and she is never reduced to her gender or to an object of desire. In fact, the only time her gender is brought up is when she’s using assumptions about her supposed female sensitivity to her advantage. Sexism, then, begets an awakening for the men in this film, as men who underestimate Black Widow learn the hard way that their assumptions about women are wrong. And that’s what makes this movie so significant: Scarlett Johansson is a strong, independent, kick-ass savior of the world, everybody knows it, and nobody gives a damn about her gender.