Last year’s release of Avengers: Age of Ultron was a veritable whirlwind. Its opening weekend saw it earn more money in a few days than most movies do in their entire lifetime. Much has been said about the sheer density of the film itself, featuring a whole mess of Marvel heroes punctuated by a bombastic finale that saw an entire town get leveled. Amid the rubble, an issue has cropped up, concerning the treatment of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. Quickly overshadowing one of the biggest releases of the year is a serious conversation regarding gender politics and superheroes.
The saga began when Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans jokingly called the character of Black Widow a “slut” during a presser for Age of Ultron. Renner doubled down on his comments on Conan, drawing the ire of the Internet for demeaning the only female member of the Avengers. Outside of this, another controversy was brewing: Marvel’s line of toys and merchandise for the movie were decidedly light on Black Widow. They even took one of her most memorable moments from the movie, where she was dropped out of a helicopter riding a motorcyle, and replaced her with Captain America in both the official Lego set and Quinjet toy pack.
All this has led many to question why the only woman on the Avengers is being marginalized to such a massive extent. An even better question though, is why one singular character has become the poster child for the mistreatment of female characters in the Marvel universe. Why, out of all the heroes in comic book movies, is there such a sharp focus on Black Widow? NPR’s Linda Holmes posits an interesting theory that answers this.
In her article detailing the situation, Holmes theorizes that our honing in on Black Widow isn’t so much due to her treatment, and more a product of her being one of the only representations of comic book women out there.
These, for me, are scarcity problems. They are problems because there are so few opportunities to show women in action blockbusters that I tend to crave something very much capable of moving discussions of what those portrayals can be like forward.
With so few women in action movies to act as examples, a spotlight gets shone on the one in the movie that made almost $1 billion in its first two weeks in theaters. Black Widow is paragon of the female superhero because she’s quite literally one of the only ones we have to look toward as a role model.
Holmes went on to make a comparison between baseball and football games. Each football game carries more weight than a baseball game because there are fewer of them. Similarly, every single portrayal of a female superhero carries weight, because there aren’t many other alternatives out there. No one’s going to hold up say, Tony Stark, as a statement on masculinity in an ocean of other male characters. As more women start to find themselves as title characters (looking at you, Wonder Woman), each one will carry with it the same stigma that Black Widow has.
The “Black Widow Controversy” will continue to rage on, for as long as women are underrepresented in action roles. Perhaps someday we’ll arrive at a place where the scarcity problem has fixed itself. But for now, our discussion is rooting in that very issue, as we try to suss out just how we should be portraying the female superhero archetype.
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