Spoiler Alert: We Are All Monsters
On that controversial moment from Age of Ultron.
Author’s Note: This essay reveals plot points for The Avengers, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Also, Rosebud is a sled.
Editor’s Note: This is one writer’s opinion on the treatment of and response to Black Widow’s storyline in Age of Ultron. Other writers have expressed alternate views, and they are equally important. Please see our full Ultron review for even another take.
If you’re anything like me (and I don’t recommend it), it was a source of endless delight but no real surprise when Joss Whedon (I shall henceforth call him Joss; you’re not the director of me) was chosen to direct The Avengers, because the Joss Whedon oeuvre is always, at bottom, about what it means to be human. In that respect it stands in the best tradition of sci-fi and fantasy and of the superhero genre as a previously vilified but now beloved subset of that tradition. What is it that makes a human? Is it popularity and the approval of our parents (Buffy)? Is it a soul, a conscience, good deeds (Angel)? Is it freedom to go our own way (Firefly)? Is it the slow accretion of a lifetime’s worth of memories (Dollhouse)? Is it achievement and recognition (Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog)? Is it superpowers (The Avengers)?
If you are a character in the Whedonverse, the answer to all of those questions is a big fat No, and you will learn that in the most painful way possible as those things are systematically stripped from you. As they fall away it will become annoyingly, foot-stompingly, I’m-taking-my-ball-and-going-home obvious that the only thing that makes you human is caring for other humans: physically, emotionally, economically, nutritionally, even when they don’t want it and curse you for it. It’s not liking them, it’s not even loving them—that, too, will be taken from you. It’s just attending, day in and day out, to their needs.1 You will suck royally at it, you will fail utterly, you will hurt the people around you in the very act of attempting to care for them, through your hubris, your carelessness, or through simple exhaustion. Even if you die—even if you die twice—you will still be expected to do it. It is what you must do if you want to be human. If you don’t want to be human, well, that’s another story. In that case you can be Angelus, or Jubal Early, or Ultron.
This is why, as both a happy inhabitant of the Whedonverse and someone who considers myself a pretty okay feminist (but perfect feminism is something we are all working toward, not something we have achieved), I wasn’t bothered by Black Widow’s “I’m a monster” reveal in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Certainly there are aspects of Black Widow’s characterization and marketing that are execrable, and those have been discussed ably elsewhere.2 But I read the scene not as reducing Natasha Romanoff to a non-functioning uterus on legs, but as part of the ongoing Jossian interrogation of what it means to be human. Natasha believes she is a monster—something not human—because, like Bruce and unlike all those dorks who are busy failing to lift Thor’s hammer, she has figured out what being human means. And for a very long time in her life, every opportunity to care for other people was closed to her. She was trained to manipulate, torture, and murder other human beings—to do the complete, total, 100% opposite of caring for them. And to make her more terrifyingly efficient at the task, the possibility was removed that she might care for a human even at the most mindless biological level. She cannot even provide—even accidentally—a hospitable environment for a fertilized egg.3
If we read this scene in isolation, then yes, the idea that Natasha is a monster because she can’t have children is deeply, painfully offensive; it is a betrayal of all of Joss’s soothing feminist promises: that he understands us, that he values us, that when we someday achieve the personal nirvana of meeting him in the ruddy and endearingly balding flesh he won’t just stare at our boobs but will listen—really listen—to our exhaustively sourced theory that Penny is the real hero of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. But Joss is only secondarily a feminist; like Louis CK (what is it with the ruddy, endearingly balding men?) he is primarily a humanist, and the frustration that we as women sometimes feel as viewers of his shows/movies/internet musical thingies arises from the uncomfortable grating of those two tectonic plates against one another. Joss manages to write pretty good female characters precisely because he knows, deep down and in spite of his failings (remember, perfect feminism is something we are working toward) that women are human. This knowledge doesn’t negate feminism; it necessitates feminism. Feminism is crucially important to our human project precisely because it remains so excruciatingly difficult to see women as human. (It is particularly difficult for heterosexual men, of which Joss is one, but it is difficult even for women themselves.) But it means that, if you are Joss Whedon, your feminist project will always be ever so slightly subordinated to your humanist project.
In the Whedonverse, real humans—”real” in the Velveteen Rabbit sense—take care of other humans, which means that human relationships will always take precedence over human individuals. The “I’m a monster” scene is about the relationship between Natasha and Bruce and the fact that their relationship will never include a particular mode of caring for other humans: the mode in which you collaboratively create another human through mutually consensual and, in this case, potentially pretty dangerous but also probably super hot sexual intercourse; pop it out of your body; and nurture it to adulthood. It is Bruce who raises this issue because, having seen Natasha with Clint Barton’s children, he thinks it might be important to her; one of the ways he cares for her as a human (a person who takes care of other humans) is by anticipating her potential desires as a woman (a person who might want and also be biologically able to produce children). A similar scene appears in Buffy the Vampire Slayer when Angel tells the much-too-young-to-even-think-about-marriage Buffy that as a vampire he can’t father children. And then in Angel, through some just-so sleight-of-hand, he does. Buffy never even comes close. If anything, in the Whedonverse it is men who are obsessed with procreation; women are usually too busy caring for their fellow humans in all the other ways they must.
All of this makes Whedon’s work deeply sentimental, in the sense that the sentimental seeks to discover and to elevate that which is common to all people in order to establish a basis for equality and mutual care among them. And as such it imports all of the difficult baggage involved in attempting to reduce complex individuals to fundamental sameness. Because of course none of us can escape the markers of sex, race, religion, language, geographic origin, etc., that we drag around with us at all times. No one—not even Vision, who ought to be ungendered, but ends up Paul Bettany—can exist as purely, unmarkedly human, and our attempts to deny difference are most likely to transform us, through a terrible irony, into Ultron, who exists in relation to no one: “I’ve got no strings to hold me down.” Black Widow’s character is the ground on which this battle is waged: between being just one of the guys and being a unique and special monster. It’s not fair, but the real work of being human, as Joss Whedon and anyone else who’s paying attention already knows, has always fallen to women. We’re the chosen ones. Lucky us.
1. This is why, as much as it pains me to say it given the general Meh-ness of the show, Agents of SHIELD is actually the Jossiest of Joss’s MCU properties. Because it is about how SHIELD has tried and failed miserably to be exactly what it says on the tin—a shield for the human race—and is now pulling itself up, slowly and haltingly and with much infighting and political-philosophical meandering, to try again.
2. Yes, it’s unfair and annoying that there’s very little Black Widow merchandise available for girls (not to mention boys) who enjoy the Marvel franchise. Yes, it’s obnoxious that Black Widow is the Smurfette of the MCU (and that the absolutely smashing Peggy Carter appeared in AoU only as Cap’s lost love and not as the amazing asskicking spy she is the other 99.999% of the time). Yes, the implication that Hulk is Black Widow’s “baby” whom she puts to sleep with a “lullaby” is icky (as all conflations of lover and mother are icky). These are all valid criticisms, all well-argued; and thank Thor the accusation that this kind of perfectly civil and interesting feminist dialogue somehow “drove” Joss Whedon off Twitter has been soundly refuted by the man himself, in an interview that includes two—count them, two!—shout-outs to the Peggy Carter of nerd-culture critique, Anita Sarkeesian.
3. The idea that she chose this life for herself adds to her burden of personal recrimination, but at the same time it raises questions of agency: how much can a child kidnapped, brainwashed, and trained for killing be held accountable for her adolescent choices? The fact that she seeks redemption instead of making excuses is perhaps her most heroic quality.
Ashley Reed lives in North Carolina. When she’s not thinking about Joss Whedon, she’s pondering nineeenth-century American literature.
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