When The Avengers: Age of Ultron came out, we ran a post called “A Romance Reader’s Guide to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.” In that post, we talked about why we adore the men of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Now that Ant-Man is almost here, with Evangeline Lilly punching Paul Rudd in the face, let’s talk about the women of the MCU!
Although the MCU has yet to give a female character a solo movie (Captain Marvel doesn’t come out until 2018), the MCU is full of fantastic female characters. Interestingly, I found that they were much harder to put in categories than the guys – they might start in certain categories (Action Chick, Career Woman, Science Geek) but they are too complex to stay in their tidy boxes, and there’s too many of them to talk about them all in detail. So this is a meditation on the women in the MCU in general, with some specific examples as highlights.
There’s a whole other box to unpack, which is full of stuff like how Marvel as a company treats its female characters as opposed to how Marvel writers and directors treat them, and how the women are discussed in the media, but that’s a box full of giant hideous hairy fanged spiders so, no. Short answer – within the movies and shows we’re given, the writers, directors, and actors seem to put a lot of effort into giving women agency and identity beyond being “The Girlfriend.” Within the company and in the media, hey, guess what, sexism is totally still a thing. Any discussion of the MCU women takes place in a context of scarcity – something that was brought into sharp relief by the release of Mad Max Fury Road, which transformed the conversation about female roles simply by having multiple female leads and giving all of them something to do, as opposed to the MCU model of having one major female character per movie and a couple of female supporting roles.
The MCU (which includes movies and television shows) features several female action heroes including Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow), Agent Peggy Carter, Lady Sif, Agent Melinda May, Bobbi Morse (Mockingbird), Gamora, and Maria Hill (for starters). Even though they can all be described as “Action Heroes”, they are all very different people. The easy banter of Mockingbird and the military correctness of Maria Hill could never be confused with Natasha’s ferocious survival instinct or Gamora’s somewhat crazed assassin persona. Many have redemption arcs, as do many of the male heroes, but not all of them (I’m secretly hoping to discover that Sharon Carter of Winter Soldier has no angst whatsoever and just likes kicking ass).
Then we have science geek Jane Foster (Thor), science geek Simmons on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and hyper-competent CEO Pepper Potts (Iron Man), as well as an under-used science geek in Ultron, Helen Cho. Sometimes the characters get to move outside of their comfort zones in ways that reveal their complexity. For instance, In Iron Man 3 Pepper got to be a truly terrifying action heroine for about five minutes (after which she said, “Oh, my God. That was violent.”) In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Simmons has a sweet personality and as such people around her constantly forget that she’s also got some serious experience as an undercover agent and can lie her head off if she has to. Pair that with a recent ruthless streak and she’s completely unpredictable even before something extremely startling happened to her in the Season Two Finale.
The only woman to date to have her own TV show is the wonderful Peggy Carter, star of Agent Carter. Peggy first appeared in Captain America, where she could easily have just been Steve’s love interest. However, Peggy was a clearly defined character in her own right, someone who had goals and dreams beyond her relationship with Steve. She ended up with her own TV show, Agent Carter, in which she tackled sexism in and out of the workforce while solving a conspiracy. The series had a great supporting cast of women but to tell you much about them would be to spoil the reveals. We at Smart Bitches were crazy about the show and we are ecstatic that it’s getting a second season. You can read our recap and review of the pilot here. We loved Peggy’s well-rounded character, her total lack of fucks to give, her persistence, and her ability to improvise weapons from office supplies. I’ll never look at a stapler in the same way again.
Of The Avengers, the heavy-hitter is Natasha Romanoff, AKA Black Widow. Natasha was raised in a spy training program in Russia. She has a dark and troubled past. Natasha showed up in Iron Man 2 but she was basically kick-ass eye candy in that movie. It wasn’t until Joss Whedon included her in The Avengers that she totally stole the show.
Natasha has “a very specific skill set” which includes combat skills and interrogation skills (in the sense that she outwits everyone she talks to, causing them to spill all their secrets without even noticing that they just did so). As someone who is super-trained and super-skilled, but not super-powered, she brings a human and vulnerable element to the group without being regulated to being “the chick.”
Here she is in the opening of The Avengers. Initially it looks like we are seeing a pretty gross, distressing scene of a woman in peril being menaced by men. Watch her flip the entire script at 2:05. It’s not that she flips it in terms of beating everyone up – we expect that. It’s the fact that all along she’s been in a completely different scene than we thought we was in!
In Age of Ultron, Natasha reveals that as part of her training program, which included brainwashing and various kinds of abuse, she was forcibly sterilized. She refers to herself as a “monster” following becoming a trained assassin. Many people interpret this scene as Natasha saying that she’s a monster because she’s infertile. In my opinion, that’s a huge misinterpretation of the scene. Moreover, the scene as a whole is a searing indictment of the “a woman who is infertile is not a woman and doesn’t deserve love” trope.
The important thing about the scene is that Natasha is not the only Avenger who feels that her choices and ability to have a family have been taken from her – Steve, Thor, and Tony both express a longing for home and family and a sense that they will never be able to have it in this movie or (in Thor’s case) previous films. Natasha only brings up the sterilization because Bruce (The Hulk) claims that he can’t give Natasha a happy life because a) he’s done horrible things and is therefore a monster and b) can’t father children and therefore can’t make a woman happy. Natasha’s response is to point out that a) she can’t have children either and b) both Bruce and Natasha were turned into killers against their will (we can say this about Natasha because her training began when she was a very young child and not capable of adult consent) and choices about their lives were taken from them.
While Bruce’s response is to decide that he therefore can’t and shouldn’t be happy, Natasha’s response is to mourn the loss, take responsibility for her many misdeeds (the “red in her ledger” described in The Avengers) and move the fuck on. Why should her abusers have the last say? Why should Bruce’s? Hell, yes, she thinks she deserves happiness. Additionally, the implication from how the scene is edited is that her monstrousness stems not from her infertility but from the many atrocities she committed in her past, and the forced sterilization highlights her lack of choice and power in accepting the role of assassin.
Natasha is not unique in her mourning her inability to bear children – while Tony doesn’t mention children specifically, he’s desperate to stop Avenging and have a regular life, and Steve and Bruce explicitily address the grief and dislocation they feel because they are unable to have a family life. In Bruce’s case, his inability to have children is just as biological as Natasha’s and it causes him just as much grief (and, again, he’s the one who initiates the conversation with Natasha by citing his own inability to have children as a reason that they shouldn’t be together, to which Natasha basically says, “Fuck that shit.”). Natasha is unique in her determination to build family (Auntie Nat!) and claim happiness on her own terms, while the guys are sunk in angst.
Pepper Potts is a completely different character – she’s a terrible, terrible liar, and she hates violence (because it’s stressful, not because of moral issues), and she has no combat skills whatsoever (a few glorious minutes in Iron Man 3 aside). Her strength as a character comes not from her combat abilities but from her brains, her competence, and her ability to hold her own (more or less) against Tony, who steamrolls right over everyone else around him. I wrote a lot about Pepper in this review of Iron Man 3.
In the video below, she might seem a bit wussy (I love the way her voice scales up when she says, “There’s pus!!!”) but I can honestly say that if my boss asked me to perform open heart surgery on him in the course of my office day I’d panic too. Right after this video cuts out, she tells him, “Don’t ever, ever, ever ask me to do anything like that, ever again,” to which he replies, “I don’t have anyone but you.” Awwwww.
Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy is an outlier at this point because the GoG isn’t closely tied to the rest of the MCU yet. She’s a rogue assassin with Daddy Issues and a lethal case of sibling rivalry with her sister, Nebula, of whom we didn’t see nearly enough. While Natasha is careful to suppress as much emotion as possible, Gamora is a rage machine who stalks around like a mobile grenade with the pin pulled out. Like Peggy Carter, Gamora has to fight for respect among her own sexist allies, and she resists being seduced by Quill. She gives us the epic line, “I am not some starry-eyed waif here to succumb to your pelvic sourcery!” While Peter Quill is the nominal hero of the movie, Gamora is the one who figures out how to stop the bad guy (see this great article in Slate: “Zoe Saldana is the Real Hero in The Guardians of the Galaxy.”
Incidentally, this thing where the alleged hero isn’t really the hero comes up in MCU movies a lot. The guy is the star, the guy gets the big speeches and “saves the day”, but if you pay attention you realize that women are driving the plot and frequently are the ones who actually do the day-saving. Pepper Potts isn’t much of an action girl but strictly speaking, out of three movies, she’s the one who actually kills two of the main bad guys while Tony flies around looking impressive. Agent May plays a completely different role in the forming of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. than Coulson thinks she does, and the cute nurse who lives next door to Steve in Winter Soldier has a much bigger role to play than doing laundry and flirting.
The newcomer to the MCU is Scarlet Witch. The casting of Scarlet Witch was controversial because in the comics she’s half Jewish and half Romany, and actress Elizabeth Olsen is an American blonde. I don’t know enough about either the comics character or the Romany people to comment on this too much, but MCU Scarlet Witch is depicted as an Eastern European brunette. While whitewashing remains a concern and I don’t wish to under-emphasize it, at least they did keep some idea that she is motivated to do the things she does because of a cultural history of conflict and oppression. This is tied to the idea that Tony Stark is complicit in her suffering, which works thematically with the movie even though it’s a huge divergence from her comic book origin.
Frankly, since she’s retconned out of her comics persona almost beyond recognition (unlike her comic book counterpart, MCU Scarlet Witch is not Magento’s kid, she’s not specifically stated to be Romany or Jewish, and oh yeah – she’s not a mutant) I don’t see why the movies didn’t save themselves a lot of trouble by calling her “Crimson Sorceress” or something. Whatever, she’s awesome and we love her and her wacky rave hand dance powers.
Scarlet Witch is the baby of the group and she has a redemption arc as well as a healing from trauma arc. Her prejudices cause her to make mistakes – she is unable to see that Tony has changed from the arms dealer he once was. But she’s also perceptive: she can see that in some ways Tony really IS the arms dealer he once was, in the sense that he will do whatever he thinks he has to do and he gets obsessed with projects and ideas. She’s powerful psychologically and mentally, too. By the end of the movie she can play with people’s minds in ways that leave them catatonic and throw robot drones around like rubber balls. It will be interesting to see her grow up in subsequent movies.
One of the things the MCU does well is allude to the fact that these women have friendships and alliances with each other. Even when we don’t see much interaction between the women on screen, there are hints of them having relationships offscreen, like when Maria Hill talks to Pepper on the phone at the beginning of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, or when she makes a reference to being friends with Agent May in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. In Iron Man 2, Tony clearly thinks that Pepper and “Natalie” (Natasha’s undercover identity in Iron Man 2) are going to fight over him, but they are actually great working partners who get along just fine. A major theme in Agent Carter is the importance of friendships between women. There are tons of relationships between women in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., my personal favorite being Bobbie and Izzy who I ship so hard after Bobbi, in a flashback, tells Izzy, “You know I love your whole thing, right?” Women in the MCU often try to kill each other or engage in subterfuge for political reasons, but they don’t have the kinds of stereotypical catfights that Hollywood so loves to indulge in.
Another nice touch is that all the women who engage in physical combat have distinct fighting styles that are consistent with their characters and histories. Peggy is Army trained so she’s a brawler, and she almost always grabs something to use as a weapon to give her an advantage against heavier opponents. Natasha is from the Black Widow training program, so she knows fancy martial arts with a lot of kicks and flips, but she’s also all about survival so she’s not above biting a guy during a fight. Mockingbird (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) has a great fight in which she’s teamed up with her ex-husband. As they fight an onslaught of bad guys, they have a conversation in which their words say one thing (they don’t trust each other and can’t communicate) but their actions say the opposite thing (they work seamlessly as a fighting team and save each other’s lives repeatedly).
Since I started writing this post, the Internet basically blew up – apparently a lot of people have THOUGHTS. Some people think Ultron is sexist, and it’s undeniable that Natasha’s speech about having been sterilized struck a major nerve in viewers. But I think that some of these arguments ignore the fears that the male characters express about their physical and emotional inability to have children.
A fantastic article by Linda Holmes at NPR points out that no Black Widow storyline can be completely satisfactory, because as the once main female character she has to somehow represent all women. As Holmes says,
These, for me, are scarcity problems.
To be honest, I can’t think of another Avenger whose story Natasha could have swapped with who wouldn’t, in some way, raise questions of whether the story was influenced by gender stereotypes. If she had Tony’s story, she’d be the one who messed up and wouldn’t listen, who created the need for a rescue. If she had Cap’s story, she’d be the one who tries to keep everyone from being vulgar – the behavior cop. If she had the Hulk’s story, she’d be the one whose superpower is being carried away by her uncontrollable emotions. If she had Thor’s story, she’d be the one who doesn’t have very much to do and is omitted from a large stretch of the movie. If she had Hawkeye’s story, she’d be the one who just wanted to go home and be with the kids.
Some people think Marvel should have more merchandising around their female characters (YES THEY SHOULD).
And as for Jeremy Renner…. Honey, for the love of all that is holy, PLEASE STOP TALKING.
With Ant-Man, I fully expect the Internet to explode again. Originally, in the comics, Janet Van Dyne was The Wasp, and she was a founding member of the Avengers. In the movie Ant-Man, Janet Van Dyne does not appear but Evangeline Lilly plays her daughter, Hope, who deliberately takes her mother’s last name (Van Dyne) as opposed to her father’s (Pym) because she is estranged from him. We don’t know a lot about Hope’s role except that she has a significant part in the heist (it’s a superhero/heist movie) and she’s morally ambiguous. Whatever happens, I’m pretty darn sure the Internet will have something to say about it.
Here’s my personal take away: the MCU is deeply flawed in representing women and people of color (and, infuriatingly, LGBTQIA characters don’t seem to exist at all). However, I feel that with every film things get a little bit better. I wasn’t crazy about the Natasha/Bruce romance but I found Natasha’s resilience and determination to make choices about her life to be inspiring, not oppressive. I’m thrilled that the new Avengers line up is two women, one white guy, a purple robot, and two men of color, although frankly the movies are so stuffed that I can’t imagine what the new Avengers will be doing.
I’ve referred several times in this essay to Mad Max: Fury Road, which, to be clear, is NOT part of the MCU. It came out considerably after I had written my first draft of this essay, and it revolutionized what’s possible for women in action film simply by having more than one significant female character in the movie and by giving them all distinct personalities and a lot to do on a non-sexual level. So far, Marvel has been progressive within a conservative model – by which I mean they have stuck to male-led, male-dominated movies, but within that framework they’ve given women significant roles, fully realized personalities, realistic combat abilities (“realistic” given the unrealistic framework of the genre), and friendships with other women. My dream is for Marvel to take the next step – not to erase their male characters, who I adore, but to build a universe in which women are just as much center stage, and in which a variety of narratives are discussed.
Above all, I’m thrilled with the MCU actresses, who always uplift their material. When Peggy Carter says, “I know my value,” she might as well be speaking for all the MCU women. It would be very easy for the MCU women to fall completely into “the girlfriend” or “the chick” role, particularly in the films. It’s largely the actresses who bring a level of humanity and personality to their characters above and beyond that of a sexy lamp (The Sexy Lamp Test was invented by Kelly Sue DeConnick and says, “If you can take out a female character and replace her with a sexy lamp, YOU’RE A FUCKING HACK.”). You can’t replace any of these characters with any other character. It’s unthinkable. The characters, as brought to life by their actresses, are under-served people, but they are people nonetheless.