Feminism / Films

‘The Avengers,’ Strong Female Characters and Failing the Bechdel Test

Originally published at Bitch Flicks and cross-posted at Fem2pt0.

Smashing box office records, audiences have been swept up in The Avengers hullabaloo. Interesting and compelling, the epic superhero film based on the Marvel comics unites Black Widow, Captain America, Iron Man, Hawkeye, the Hulk and Thor “to form a team that must stop Thor’s brother Loki from enslaving the human race.” It was good. Really good. It contained complex characters and funny, clever dialogue. In a genre that exhibits strong female characters yet often objectifies women’s bodies or reduces them to ancillary love interests…how was The Avengers’ portrayal of women?

With Joss Whedon, a proud feminist and Equality Now supporter, at the helm directing and screenwriting, I eagerly hoped for a feminist film. I absolutely adore Firefly, only watched a handful of Buffy episodes (I know, I know…I need to watch more), and I couldn’t stand Dollhouse (don’t even get me started on the predication of rape, objectification and misogyny…but I digress). Forever inspired by his radical feminist mother and his love for X-Men character Kitty Pryde, Whedon shows an adept talent for creating and writing strong female characters.

 The lone female Avenger is Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), a “highly trained spy,” assassin and martial arts master. Haunted by a dark past, she’s a fearless warrior possessing a razor sharp mind and an impressive knack for interrogation. In one of the best scenes, she goes head to head with the film’s villainous nemesis Loki (and Thor’s brother) in a labyrinthine mind game. While I’m not thrilled that Black Widow uses “feminine wiles” as a method of manipulation, her opponents anticipate vulnerability in her because of her gender. Natasha deftly uses and exploits their stereotypical gender biases to her advantage.

Black Widow could have easily become a one dimensional character. Yet she embodies strength and depth. She’s decisive and forever in control of her emotions. Although I don’t like the implication that being emotional equates weakness. She’s not technically a superhero (nor is her partner archer Hawkeye) as she doesn’t have special powers. Yet she arguably had the best fighting sequences with her nimble and dexterous prowess. There’s one where she’s tied to a chair and kicks ass…it’s seriously amazing! Johansson talked about how she would be delighted to do a Black Widow film in the realm and style of The Bourne Series. That sounds freaking awesome.

In most films and TV series, the media objectifies and commodifies women’s bodies for the male gaze, reducing a woman to her sexuality. While she dons tight costumes, that doesn’t happen here. She’s not merely a sex object. Black Widow is an integral part of the team. She’s the one who thinks they should all work together when petty arguments and inflated egos threaten to divide them. SPOILER!!! -> Natasha ultimately ends the climactic epic battle as she’s the only one who realizes they need to close the portal in order to halt the influx of the alien army. <- END SPOILER Black Widow plays with gender stereotypes but doesn’t wield her sexuality as a weapon. She uses her ridiculously impressive martial arts ass-kicking skills for that.

Aside from Black Widow, The Avengers film depicts S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders, my favorite actor on HIMYM) and two brief scenes with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Maria is one of S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson)’s Chief Lieutenants. She’s calm, collected and authoritative, even in dangerous situations. We see Maria run the deck of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier. She doesn’t approve of controlling people as we see when she criticizes Fury for manipulating The Avengers’ emotions to finagle a specific response. Pepper is the CEO of Stark Industries (Iron Man/Tony Stark’s company), as well as his girlfriend. She’s intelligent, precise, organized and charming.

When asked about Whedon’s strong female characters, Johansson called him “gender blind:”

“He wants his female characters to be dynamic and competitive and assured and confident. And it has nothing to do with anything but the fact that he just celebrates those kinds of strong female characters.”

AlterNet’s Julianne Escobedo Shepherd thinks The Avengers possesses a “stark feminist perspective” as it differs from so many other superhero films. Even in movies with multiple female characters like X-Men, the women often orbit the male characters. Not so in The Avengers. Escobedo Shepherd goes further asserting Johansson portrays Black Widow’s “talent for manipulation as a boon for the art of spying, rather than any kind of femme fatale cliché.”

Despite three strong female characters and Black Widow’s awesomeness, I didn’t find the movie overtly feminist. I can’t help but wonder if people are looking to find feminism where not a whole lot actually exists because of Whedon’s reputation. The Avengers contains some gender problems.

Loki hurls a misogynistic insult at Black Widow, calling her a “mewling quim.” Translation, a “whining cunt.” Lovely. He reduces her to her vagina. Now, not everyone’s going to get the inference right away. I know I didn’t. Although something about the condescending tone made me suspect a gendered insult. Whedon says he often “abuses” language, depicting different vernaculars, including Shakespearan dialogue, to reveal character traits. It’s interesting that instead of writing an overt insult, Whedon subversively portrayed Loki’s sexism.

Some people apparently accused Whedon of “not being macho enough” to direct the superhero bonanza. So let me get this straight. If a guy is a proud feminist and writes strong female characters, that makes him unmanly to direct an action movie? And what does that say about women…that female directors possess too much estrogen to direct? Ugh.

Many critics and bloggers have focused on the Hulk, thanks in large part to Mark Ruffalo’s fantastic talent and the hilarious snarky dialogue, thanks to Robert Downey Jr.’s quick wit as Iron Man. Interestingly, of the 6 Avengers, Black Widow gets the 3rd most screen time. Yet she still remains the only female Avenger in the film. And that’s a problem.

In the comics, The Avengers had a rotating line-up of superheroes. Couldn’t the movie portray an additional female Avenger, like Wasp or Scarlet Witch or She-Hulk? Maybe they didn’t want two green Hulks. Fair enough. Although She-Hulk, a brilliant attorney, is pretty badass. Whedon even said that when they weren’t sure if they could accommodate Scarlett Johansson’s tight schedule, an early script contained the female superhero (and founding Avenger) Wasp. He “fell in love with the character.”

So here’s my question: why did they have to scrap the role of Wasp the minute they secured Johansson’s Black Widow? Why not have 2 female superheroes in one film?? Sadly, the movie suffers from the Smurfette Principle.

Coined by feminist writer Katha Pollitt in looking at children’s entertainment, the Smurfette Principle is when a male ensemble features one female character. Think the Smurfs (before the introduction of Sassy), the Muppets and Voltron (I’m clearly showing I’m a child of the 80s here). Pollitt asserts that the problem with this trope is that “boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys.” As the articulate Anita Sarkeesian at Feminist Frequency points out, it transcends children’s entertainment as we see in films like Star Wars, Star Trek, Watchmen and even Inception as well as TV shows like early seasons of Big Bang Theory and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Films and TV relegate women to “sidekicks or sexy decorations.” Luckily, Black Widow suffers neither of these fates. She holds her own as a fierce and capable character, neither shoved aside nor reduced to a dude’s love interest. But it’s still problematic that Black Widow is the only female team member. The male Avengers contain multiple male personalities: a sarcastic genius playboy, a lonely selfless soldier, a skilled sniper, and a tortured brilliant scientist. But as far as women’s representation, there’s just one female Avenger. Granted, she’s a badass. But it would have been nice to see more diverse personalities…which might have been rectified with another female superhero.

But my biggest problem? No women talked to each other. At all. What the hell is up with that??

Like Film School Rejects’ Gwenn Reyes, I too found the glaring lack of women talking to each other to be The Avengersgreatest flaw.” Maria talks to the other Avengers. As Nick Fury’s right-hand person, it makes sense she would interact with the Avengers. Plus Maria and Natasha have probably crossed paths before since Black Widow already worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. Couldn’t the two women have talked about the upcoming battle? Or strategized, commiserated…anything??

Just because the portrayals of the female characters were positive, doesn’t mean I think the movie smashed the Bechdel Test, a simple test that asks that two named female characters talk to each other about something other than men. With women comprising only 33% of speaking roles on-screen, The Avengers failing the Bechdel Test proves the cavernous gender gap in film and how far we still need to go.

Let me be clear. Most movies — superhero or otherwise — couldn’t care less about portraying complex, intelligent, strong, dimensional women or gender equitable roles. So The Avengers is a step in the right direction. But if you only depict your two female characters (no matter how empowered they are) talking to men, it subtly reinforces the notion that women’s lives revolve around men.

While it’s a really good action movie with strong female roles, I still expected more feminism from you, Joss Whedon.

13 thoughts on “‘The Avengers,’ Strong Female Characters and Failing the Bechdel Test

  1. Great post. A couple nits I can pick, but otherwise I agree with the sentiment.

    Regarding the casting choices, you’re looking at this in a vacuum. A lot of the payoff in the Avengers film comes with the fact they’ve set these characters up in the course of 5 other Marvel-helmed films, none of which Whedon had any involvement with.

    It would have been great to get more female characters into those films, but it didn’t happen, and thus Joss was dealt a hand and he had to do the best he could with it. I’d say he did pretty well. If we’re lucky, his massive success here will give him some creative input into future Marvel films. Fingers crossed.

    I don’t think many expected the non-super Black Widow to be such a crucial member of the team, nor to be as prominent in the screen time. I sure didn’t. That was a really nice surprise, and it took a character that was pretty undeveloped in Iron Man 2 and actually made her into something that I could easily see another franchise developing from.

    I think it was brilliant having Loki lash out with a reductive insult, because it just showed how effectively Widow was manipulating him.

    I’m not sure if any comic book movie has passed the Bechdel test yet, so it doesn’t shock me that this one didn’t. The potential was there, it didn’t happen, maybe next time. The Bechdel test certainly isn’t the only way to define women-positive films; one of my favorite edge cases is Fight Club, a film seemingly filled with misogynists but one that contains the message that the logical conclusion of hyper-masculinity is a dead-end.

  2. You mention the “Smurfette principal,” which is an interesting point,
    but then you realize “Smurfette” is arguably the most popular of all the
    Smurf characters.
    When we were selling those little Smurf figurines to coincide with the recent
    film, “Smurfette” sold out almost immediately.

    I think, with the Avengers, Black Widow stands out in many ways, because she
    is the lone female superheroine/hero.
    This could work in for that particular character’s benefit.

    And where is Wonder Woman?
    Is she part of a different group (DC, Marvel…i have no clue, as you can tell.)

  3. Ironically, Joss was tasked to try and bring Wonder Woman to life, but the studio eventually bailed on him. Here’s hoping it’s something he might be given to tackle now that he made the studios a bajillion dollars.

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  6. Good post.

    For Smurfette figurines, we have to consider the possibility that 50% of the viewers say only one character to empathise with, while the other 50% spread their purchases across a greater character base. That’d explain Smurfette selling out so quickly.

    @Ryan Meray
    Wonder Woman is a different comic company. There are a range of Marvel female superheroes, but they tend to come with a lot of story baggage. For example:
    The Invisible Woman – You pretty much have to bring in or explain the absence of the rest of the Fantastic Four
    She-Hulk – You have to explain how she got her powers based off the Hulk
    Storm/Rogue/Kitty Pryde – All of these link into the X-Men a bit too easily, which either turns this into a mutant movie or requires more exposition
    Wasp – Generally comes with Antman/Giantman attached, which means you’re picking up two characters when you want only one.
    The other female Marvel characters I can think of also come with more characters attached to their story too. The exception is:
    Ms Marvel (Carole Danvers) – From memory this character is pretty stand alone, but she also introduces a major powerhouse with no drawbacks (that I recall) into the team. That would probably have been hard to have on the team without it becoming “The reasonably behaving and significantly overpowered (think Superman-lite) Ms Marvel sighs and solves the problem easily”. Still, she’s a reasonable candidate.

    The best option we can hope for is that there is an Avengers 2 and that it focuses on introducing female heroes in logical ways without bringing in too many male characters.

    I mean when you think about it, the random distribution of powers across the populace should result in basically 1/2 the supers being female. It’s weird that men get hit by cosmic rays/bitten by radioactive spiders/mutated about 75% of the time. Maybe Marvel is making a comment on men’s risk taking behaviour 😉

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  8. Personally, I was impressed with Avengers, and I’m glad that Black Widow was the only female in the group, for several reasons.
    Looking at personality, Black Widow is one of few female heroes from the Marvel universe who could be included without creating a pivotal romantic link or romantic character history, because many female heroes are follow-ups to male counterparts (e.g. The Wasp). A second female would almost certainly have had a storyline with a male focus. Yes, Black Widow has a history with Hawkeye, but in spite of this the film manages to place her desire to save him on the strength of their bond and the debt she owes him as a partner and the man who brought her into SHIELD, rather than as the romantic interest she can’t live without (she clearly can – he wasn’t in Iron Man 2). Romantic relationships are dangerous, as shown by their decision to relocate Jane so that Loki can’t use her to get to Thor, yet they are also the basis for many female characters either becoming superheroes or else developing their abilities. Black Widow is one of the few who can be used without this cliché hanging over her head.
    Secondly, introducing a second female Avenger would only cut Black Widow’s screen-time. This is true in many shows (power rangers, anyone?) as by attempting to make a show or film have an equal division of male and female characters without having a plot devised which REQUIRES said characters, it’s almost inevitably the case that the female roles are two halves on one part. Natasha Romanoff is part of the Avengers initiative due to her skillset, not her gender. Like all the characters, she’s been chosen because it makes sense to have them in one universe and they would probably be able to stand working as a team, even if they didn’t enjoy it, because their skills complement each other’s. Thor and Hulk possess brute strength; Steve and Tony less so, but then they make more intellectual choices (strength with a human touch?); Hawkeye and Natasha are human, but actually more skilled fighters than any of the others. Trying to force another female in would overshadow someone, as all the logical powers have been dealt with. The only way to squeeze in a new character to the mix without upsetting the balance would be to add someone like the Wasp, and the problem then becomes that, without a long backstory, her character’s very existence is illogical (and yes, that’s taking into account that Thor and Loki and Hulk are all a significant stretch in themselves). That’s ignoring the fact that it’s possibly not the most useful power against the Chitauri. Due to Natasha’s lack of actual superpowers, much of her role is based on her quick intellect, martial arts prowess and the fact that she is forced to think around problems. It’s not gender-based but character-based, because those are the attributes of a spy (Hawkeye shares much of these, but has less screen-time to show it).
    Lastly, the issue with female characters never talking to each other isn’t an actual issue because such conversations would be illogical in the context of the film. Black Widow is only shown in work-mode, in which she answers to Director Fury as the ‘boss’ and Coulson because he’s (almost certainly) her handler. She isn’t shown as talking to anyone else outside the Avengers group or Loki, barring the one time she invades an agent’s screen to see how they’re doing finding Barton. It’s not in her nature to be emotional in front of other people, so a level of trust would need to be built before she had any ‘heart-to-heart’ talks, and she’s not emotionally close to other females. She has never worked for Agent Hill, and there is no reason for the two to communicate, so it makes no sense to suggest they should have had a conversation in the film (the only time Natasha talks with anyone about something other than the mission is her scene with Clint, and even that is related to what’s been happening with Loki, because the film is based around them saving the world, not their personal lives). Similarly, while it is possible she has a friendly relationship with Pepper Potts, Pepper features only in conversations with Tony BECAUSE she is the significant other (a pretty damn cool one, but still – she’s not an Avenger, she’s not working on their mission, so it doesn’t make sense in the context of the film to have a scene with her). So saying it’s not a feminist film because females don’t talk to each other doesn’t work, because judging a film on the number of times women talk to each other is like judging a film based on how many times a character wears a motorcycle helmet – without context, it’s meaningless.
    Oops – that became a rant. But I really do think Joss Whedon is gender-blind, and when I watched this I wasn’t thinking ‘male’ and ‘female’, because Whedon has achieved something amazing: he’s made a superhero film where it DOESN’T BLOODY MATTER who’s male or female, because it has zero effect on the plot. No one treats anyone else differently because of their gender (even Rogers is amazingly gender-blind, considering he’s from the 1940s).
    (On a side-note, Loki’s insult to Black Widow was FANTASTIC, however awful it may sound, because he wasn’t choosing those words just because she was a woman; he was choosing those words because they play on the fact that she is both physically weaker (‘mewling’ implying helplessness) than most of the others and that her gender also makes her an outsider. Loki works by isolating people from others – like when he makes Banner feel targeted and lose control on the helicarrier – and so his words probably indicate nothing more regarding his attitude towards women than his helmet indicates a fondness for reindeer…)

  9. I doubt anyone is completely gender blind, even Joss Whedon, but he definitely treats his female characters a lot more equally and with more depth and agency than most writer/directors, especially when you consider the genres he writes for – comic book and sci-fi, which have long been male-dominated “fanboy” territory.

    Whedon worked with what he had, and the fact that Black Widow fought on the same level as the rest of the team, and brought her own unique set of skills, and was relegated to Love Interest, makes Avengers a feminist movie, because up to this point there have been few (if any) blockbuster comic book movies that can claim to have a female character of the same character.

  10. We can complain that there weren’t enough females all we want. … But you have to look from a storytelling point of view – the characters of Thor, Captain America, Hulk and Iron Man all had their own movies to develop their characters a bit. Black Widow and Hawkeye each had a little bit of screen time in the other characters’ movies to develop them slightly. At this point you already have six characters making up a team and to provide a satisfying conclusion you need to have them all have development and a role in the climax. This did satisfy – something that surprised everyone who realized this necessity before seeing the movie. Introducing any new characters would have been a disaster from the start.

    Considering that an Ant-man and Wasp movie is in development – I think you may get your wish. You just have to be patient.

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  12. Okay, don’t get me wrong, I’m pro-feminist, but you shouldn’t have tried to pick apart Black Widow. I am a fan of the comics, the animated series, and a few other mediums, and it’s clear you have just walked in on the movie with no understanding of how her character originally worked. You really need to do you’re homework if you want to understand a character with this long a legacy and development, and it is clear you have not done this, the only actual reference to the comics being to list other female Avengers and ask why they weren’t in the movie, despite the fact that they were only including superheroes which had already appeared in the marvel cinematic universe, here’s a question, where’s spider-man? You have also shown a lack of knowledge in the superhero genre as a whole, stating that ” She’s not technically a superhero (nor is her partner archer Hawkeye)” despite the fact that some of the most iconic superheroes in existence had no powers, the Most obvious being Batman. In fact, if a heroes powers are based on technology, then technically they aren’t powers, which would include wasp, a heroine you actually mentioned, (worth noting, she got her shrinking belt from Ant-Man so they would need to find a way to include him as well, his movie is coming out eventually and I hope to see her in it).
    Lastly, and arguably most importantly, you continuously claimed that Black Widow was using stereotypes given to her due to Gender to her advantage. This is simply not true. The Black Widow of the comics is older and more realistic than that of the movies, and the casting of her as Scarlett Johanson in Iron Man 2 stirred much controversy because she looked too young to play the role, Joss Whedon decided to fix this by having the characters actually be skeptical due to the age issue and to have her work that to her advantage. This was about age, not gender, and is further proof that you did not do your homework.
    Don’t get me wrong, trying to critique the cinematic Black Widow from a feminist perspective is a good idea, but you should have put more time into fact checking.
    -Concerned Marvel Fan

    • Way off base, Ronnie–the point is the lack of diverse female characters, not the particular backstory of this one. As the author noted, Black Widow is *a* great feminist character. However, you don’t get to have very few women in your movie, not have them speak to each other, and still call it a feminist movie. Sorry! PS: Might want to take a women’s studies class to learn about intersectionality. Being on the receiving end of ageism *sharpens* sexism; it doesn’t negate it.

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