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A guide to the growing controversy over Joss Whedon’s Avengers and Marvel’s gender problem

A scene involving Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers: Age of Ultron has kicked off the biggest Marvel movie controversy yet.
A scene involving Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers: Age of Ultron has kicked off the biggest Marvel movie controversy yet.
Marvel Studios
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Look at these angry tweets sent to the director and screenwriter Joss Whedon, the man behind both Avengers movies, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and a host of other beloved geek properties.

There are many, many more collected in this Storify.

Whedon has been a geek hero for years now, but a few of his directorial choices in Avengers: Age of Ultron have caused many to accuse him of misogyny and call for his head. And his decision to quit Twitter in the aftermath of Ultron's release (in what was largely a quirk of timing) has only fanned the flames. But is this controversy his fault, or part of a larger problem with Marvel's inability to know what to do with its one successful woman superhero?

The controversy focuses on a scene partway through Avengers: Age of Ultron. Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) and Bruce Banner (the Hulk) are taking a breather at a farmhouse owned by a friend. They're hiding out from the apocalyptic doom raining down around them and their fellow Avengers — the perfect opportunity to have a chat about their incipient relationship.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Marvel Studios

The scene in question involves Natasha Romanoff, better known as Black Widow, who is played by Scarlett Johansson. (Marvel Studios)

Natasha (who is played by Scarlett Johansson) has a bit of a crush on Bruce (Mark Ruffalo), and she's trying to convince him they would make a great couple. Bruce demurs, referring to the (quite literal) monster inside him. Natasha, impassioned, tells him all about her training as a master assassin and reveals her deepest secret: she was sterilized. Having a child might compromise her ability to kill people with impunity, her trainers believed.

It's the way Natasha relays this information that has caused many to question the way Ultron treats the character — and whether the film is ultimately uninterested in the emotional lives of women.

Says Natasha:

They sterilize you. It's efficient. One less thing to worry about, the one thing that might matter more than a mission. It makes everything easier — even killing. You still think you’re the only monster on the team?*

In the context of Natasha's overall character arc — she's a deadly assassin trying to atone for the awful (mysterious) things she's done — it's hard to argue that Natasha thinks she's a monster specifically because she can't bear children. She's never seemed particularly interested in starting a family, and her story is about seeking redemption, not about having kids.

But in the context of this scene, and specifically in the context of her relationship with Bruce (which culminates in the two of them discussing running away together), it's much easier to infer that Natasha is so sad about not being able to have kids that she thinks of herself as a monster. To a lot of people it seems as if she, like so many female characters, is being reduced to her reproductive choices.

For more on why many find this scene troublesome, check out Meredith Woerner and Katharine Trendacosta's excellent io9 post (which also wonderfully explains why it's silly to call Natasha's brief capture by the film's villain a damsel in distress moment), as well as a piece by Jen Yamato at the Daily Beast. For defenses of the scene and character, Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post and Sam Adams of Indiewire are particularly astute.

But much of what's driving fans' anger isn't really about Natasha. It's about Joss Whedon in particular and, perhaps more important, the Marvel Cinematic Universe's general inability to launch a story about a woman superhero.

Marvel will release 19 movies with male leads before its first film with a female lead

The cast of Avengers: Age of Ultron isn't exactly teeming with women.

The cast of Avengers: Age of Ultron isn't exactly teeming with women.

Marvel Studios

When it comes to incorporating prominent women into its movies, Marvel struggles. The studio has Black Widow, as well as a standard-issue girlfriend character for each of its main heroes. One of these characters — Peggy Carter — has spun off into her own very enjoyable TV series. In fact, the company's record is slightly better on TV, where it also has Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a show that boasts gender parity. But its TV shows have a fraction of the cultural impact of its films.

Marvel's treatment of Black Widow is frequently outright lousy. In the buildup to the release of Ultron, the lack of Black Widow merchandise prompted an outcry that grew to eventually include Ruffalo himself, and the reasoning behind the company's lack of said products was depressingly cynical. (Disney corporate, it turns out, assumes it has the young girl market locked down with its princess franchise.)

But Marvel also doesn't know what to do with Black Widow. As Darren Franich points out at Entertainment Weekly, she's a character who has been four different things in four different movies, with only Johansson's rock-steady performance holding all of these interpretations together.

Some of that is just a byproduct of the way serialized storytelling tends to twist characters to fit the story, rather than vice versa, but it's also well beyond what any of Marvel's male heroes deal with. And despite the obvious fan desire for one, Marvel has no plans for a Black Widow solo movie — and its first female-led superhero film won't arrive until 2018, after 19 movies led by men.

If Marvel were doing a better job of appreciating that there are superhero fans of both genders, the outcry might have been a minor spat, instead of a major storm.

But the outrage is also particular to Joss Whedon, the director of Avengers: Age of Ultron, and that's in part because of how Whedon has presented himself.

Joss Whedon is an outspoken feminist — but his work doesn't always reflect it

Samsung Celebrates The Release Of 'Avengers: Age Of Ultron'

Joss Whedon (right) talks with TV host Chris Hardwick at an event celebrating the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Samsung

Personally and politically, Whedon is definitely a feminist. He frequently labels himself as such, he works with groups like Equality Now, and he's been a frequent public supporter of figures like Anita Sarkeesian, whose Feminist Frequency YouTube series has been the target of misogynistic outrage.

But artistically, things are more complicated. Whedon's work trends toward feminism, but his true great cause is storytelling, and he always prioritizes the latter if it makes for a better story. Whedon likes to tell stories that test the strength of communities, stories where horrific actions are often forgiven and written off because the larger community requires it. And though this is why his stories are so frequently good, it also has a tendency to clash with his fictional feminism. (More on this in a bit.)

As he told BuzzFeed's Adam B. Vary when explaining that he'd left Twitter to concentrate on his writing, not because he was being attacked by militant feminists (as some had assumed from his timing):

I’ve said before, when you declare yourself politically, you destroy yourself artistically. Because suddenly that’s the litmus test for everything you do — for example, in my case, feminism. If you don’t live up to the litmus test of feminism in this one instance, then you’re a misogynist. It circles directly back upon you.

How Buffy the Vampire Slayer helps explain Whedon's Avengers

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the best TV shows ever made. Don't you dare say otherwise.

20th Century Fox

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an early, terrific example of television establishing that women can be in control of their own lives and their own action shows, just as easily as men. The arrival of Buffy and Xena: Warrior Princess in the late 1990s signaled the arrival of the feminist action hero on TV. Whedon has specifically pointed to the landmark portrayals of Ellen Ripley from the Alien franchise and Sarah Connor from the Terminator franchise as touchstones.

Both Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor were notable for the way they simply overthrew existing action paradigms by putting a woman at the center of both stories. Yes, their films were science fiction, but the characters felt like genuine breakthroughs. Alien, in particular, is structured in such a way that the emergence of Ripley as the hero is almost a twist ending.

It's easy to see how Buffy (and Whedon's later female action heroes) are inspired by this particular character type. But Whedon traditionally goes one step further. Instead of being menaced by science-fiction monsters, his characters have to exist within patriarchal institutions designed to control them.

Indeed, this is specifically the message of the final episode of Buffy, where the title character's triumph over evil itself isn't as interesting as her decision to endow every "potential" vampire slayer in the world with the power that was within her all along.

The slayers were once controlled by a male council of watchers; now they're not. Sure, part of the reason is the evil itself blew up the watchers. But it's even more important that Buffy decided the previous structure should be destroyed in the first place.

Similar storylines exist in Whedon's later sci-fi series Firefly (where a potentially superpowered girl is experimented upon and eventually goes rogue) and the much darker Dollhouse (where a woman is literally exploited by a sci-fi escort service before realizing what's happened to her).

Whedon's feminist storytelling is, thus, placed within the idea of institutionalized, patriarchal sexism that ultimately must be destroyed if women will finally get everything they deserve. And because he's a student of action cinema, he represents those forces literally, so that his heroes can physically kick those institutions in the face.

In this context, the Black Widow storyline becomes not about her mourning for the children she can't have, but about her creation by a system that cared nothing for her as a human being and everything for her as a game piece it could move around on the board. Her reproductive rights were violated in the most heinous way possible and her freedom of choice stolen from her.

As Libby Hill, with whom I share a marriage and a Netflix account, writes at Salon:

As much as it may look on the surface like Natasha is mourning motherhood, what she’s actually mourning is her ability to choose. It’s not about children; it’s about choice. What she has lost isn’t even so much her ability to have a family (as mind-bogglingly brilliant as she is, she, of all people, could find a way to procure a baby). No, what she mourns is her ability to fantasize about that "normal" life, the world opposite the one she currently lives in.

Because the program that created Black Widow is in Natasha's distant past, she's stuck trying to right the wrongs that were committed against her and the wrongs she perpetrated as an assassin. Even if we think Whedon literally meant that her sterilization made Natasha a monster, I'd wager it's because it was part of her training in dealing out death.

Whedon has frequently said that he finds Natasha the most fascinating of the Avengers. Viewed in the framework of his other characters, this makes a lot of sense.

The Avengers have a gender problem

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) is one of just a handful of other women in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Marvel Studios

Still, the scene in question is clumsily written, and the mere fact that it could incite such an uproar marks it as one that probably needed another edit or two.

But it also speaks to a growing divergence between Whedon's storytelling techniques and feminist genre storytelling in general. Whedon's onscreen feminism often follows a very basic pattern — take a character type traditionally played by a man and gender-flip it to see what happens. It's the same thing Ridley Scott did with Alien's Ripley (who was literally scripted to be played by a man).

But this method has been around for decades now. The "Hey! Look! It's a woman! Playing a part usually played by a man!" approach no longer feels transgressive. Instead, it feels like a trope in its own right, and one that verges on overuse. Meanwhile, fans are increasingly responding to characters who embrace the full spectrum of what it is to be a woman, from very feminine to very masculine.

Interestingly, Whedon is usually pretty good about this. All of his TV series (save maybe the Buffy spinoff Angel) feature a full fleet of women to surround their protagonists, who hit many of those other points on the full spectrum of womanhood. In that way, he can have his feminist action hero, while also offering plenty of other characters for people who don't particularly identify with the Buffy type.

But he doesn't really have that in the Avengers franchise, where Black Widow is essentially the only prominent female character. Yes, there's Cobie Smulders's Maria Hill and Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch (at least in the sequel), but neither character is nearly as important as Black Widow. That leaves Black Widow to represent nearly all women in a very guy-heavy story, and that, of course, is an impossible task.

Whedon's overriding obsession: how communities of people manage evil

'Firefly' 10 Year Anniversary Reunion Press Conference - Comic-Con International 2012

Much of the cast of Firefly, another of Joss Whedon's shows and the one most tied into his theme of ad hoc communities, gathers at San Diego Comic-Con International in 2012.

Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

The theme Whedon has been charting throughout his career with the most nuance is the idea of community. Every single one of his projects is about a small band of friends who find themselves facing off against a world that wants nothing more than to snuff them out. That even applies to the two most famous movie scripts he worked on, Speed and Toy Story.

What makes Whedon's work resonate with so many people is that his communities are often fractious, made up of individuals who do awful things and hate each other from time to time. But because the community takes primacy, friends are always welcomed back, even if they've become evil rage monsters. (This happens in Whedon's work far more often than you'd expect.) Forgiveness comes easily in Whedon's oeuvre; redemption takes more time.

But this means there are plenty of situations when Whedon's characters make decisions that jibe with the story but ultimately seem to undercut his feminist themes — particularly when the community's primacy requires forgiveness of the truly contrite above all else.

Consider, for instance, perhaps the most risible moment in these regards in the Whedon canon. Vampire Spike, frustrated at his inability to possess Buffy, attempts to rape her. She fights him off, and he eventually travels to Africa, where he has his soul restored by an ancient ritual. (In the Buffyverse, the soul is what separates humans from monsters.) Later, everybody agrees to forgive Spike and move on — despite the fact that he attempted to perpetrate a heinous crime against the group's leader.

This is the most obvious moment when Whedon's desire to push his fictional communities to the breaking point conflicts with his stated feminism (or even good storytelling). But he's often come across as too fond of almost punishing his characters in everything he's worked on.

One of Whedon's most famous quotes about storytelling explains that he wants to give viewers not what they want, but what they need. Broadly stated, this means not giving in to fan desire for certain stories but, instead, charting what might actually happen to these people in this fantastical situation. This has resulted in some of the best moments in television history, like Angel's turn toward evil on Buffy, but it's also resulted in some nonsensical ones, like when Xander and Anya broke up on that show mostly because nobody on it could ever be happy. Or, for that matter, Black Widow's reveal of her sterility in Age of Ultron.

At his best, Whedon is a master of ensemble storytelling that packs an emotional punch. But at his worst, he's constantly trying to subvert typical storytelling, to the degree that his efforts to not be predictable become their own kind of predictability. And in that clumsy Black Widow scene, it's this desire that's most likely gotten him in trouble again.

*Correction: An earlier version of this post misquoted the line from the film. The quote has been corrected.

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