Monday, June 8, 2015

[SPOILERS for Age of Ultron and Mad Max: Fury Road] You Belong Here, Too

One of the first TV watching experiences I can remember is the art deco city against the blood red sky of Batman: The Animated Series (1992)A gift to my preschool boyfriend (he was my boyfriend by my decision, I remember, and probably not his) was a chewed Blowpop stick with the wrapper tied around the top like a cape. I claimed it was Batman. My mom opted to intervene regarding my homemade action figure.

My favorite characters in the show, however, included Catwoman, true to her morals (ie, protect cats, because cats were and are the best). I also knew she was tied to Batman in a complex almost-romance. It took a while for me to understand she was a villain. I remember a very passionate argument about it on the school bus when I was in kindergarten, later realizing my friend at the time only knew of Tim Burton's inferior (I felt) take on Selina Kyle.

I loved Joker's girlfriend and henchwoman, Harley Quinn (whose earnestness and accident-prone nature endeared herself to me), Poison Ivy (who was extremist, classy, and sexy without, apparently, being interested in men), and Detective Renee Montoya (who took no shit from anyone else on Gotham's corrupt police force and, I learned years later, went on to become The Question in the comics). I was a lot less interested in Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, who seemed bland and lacking in complexity.

Promo Image for Catwoman in
Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995)
So it was a while before I realized superhero fiction was, by and large, marketed for boys. Due to Bruce Timm's sleek and PG-rated if same-ish designs of female characters for his Batman, it was longer before I realized most of the outfits of women were marketed for the gaze of heterosexual men.

Less vivid than the memory of trying to give trash to my preschool sweetheart or seeing the credits of Batman appear on-screen is my recollection of going into a comic book shop for the first time. I was with my Mom, I think, and I was met face to face with a collection of scantily clad posters complete with disproportionately large cleavage.

No one told me to leave the comic book shop. Of course not. I left anyway, though. I was a shy kid. There was a sense that this wasn't for me.


Alison Bechdel's 1985 strip for "Dykes to Watch Out For"
introduces the idea of The Bechdel Test
via a discussion of Alien (1979)
The Bechdel Test shouldn't be used as a bar for movies to clear. A film can have one, named, female character and have important things to say about feminism; a film can have multiple female characters who talk about a man maybe once but inhabit a story with a misogynist subtext.

Instead, the Bechdel Test is a litmus test for a number of movies as a whole. It shows us that the stories we're producing and consuming as a culture tend to be about one group, specifically straight, white men. The "test" is not pass/fail, in a sense, but poses questions regarding who are the people we believe are worth talking about.

All the Marvel Cinematic Universe films I've consumed have female characters who have interested me and have felt fully realized. That's great. The Bechdel Test doesn't measure that.

MCU movies that don't pass the Bechdel Test: Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), The Avengers (2012), and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014).

MCU movies that do pass the Bechdel Test, though often with contention: Thor (2011), Iron Man 3 (2013), Thor: The Dark World (2013), and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).

In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Black Widow and Hawkeye's de facto army wife, Laura Barton, discuss the latter's unborn child. Natasha's sad but resigned that the newest addition to the Barton clan won't be a Natasha Junior but a Nathaniel. "Traitor," she murmurs sarcastically to Laura's baby bump. This just barely passes the test; Natasha doesn't know she's talking about a boy until the conversation's end. The two characters, however, establish that they can talk about things beyond the male protagonists. A world exists beyond Thor, Captain America, and even Hawkeye.


Captain America: The Winter Solider has garnered praise for depicting Black Widow and Captain America as buddies rather than love interests. She's his partner in running from S.H.I.E.L.D. and his wing-man in trying to find him a date. It bucks the trend of a primary female character who acts only as love interest.

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow
in Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014)
Still, I read Natasha's story arc as purely external rather than individual. She wants to save the day with Steve and Falcon and she succeeds. I like the competent person she is during the film, but I don't like that her role could be given to Falcon and very little would change in the movie, though I suppose it would certainly make the distract-the-enemy kiss scene more subversive.

Now, Natasha's super funny in this role. She's amusing when she makes a reference to War Games (1984) with "Do you want to play a game?" but my favorite thing about that moment is that we're given a hint she watches movies. We don't know if she hates going to the gym in the morning or if she has a drink when no one's around, but, well, she sure watches movies. Hey, even a movie made the year she was born, apparently!

In Age of Ultron, we're given a fuller picture of Black Widow's background. We see a young Natasha trained in the Red Room. She's genuinely distressed when she has to kill a hooded man.We see that Natasha likes kids for the first time when she interacts with Laura and Clint's. Later, she reveals to Bruce that the graduation "gift" the facility gave her is actually sterilization. That's a sad, twisted violation, taking away someone's agency.

And I thought Natasha's vulnerability over it was splendid.

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Black Widow is a hell of a lot more interesting when she isn't being deified as a kick-box goddess. This is a part of her life she hasn't discussed on-screen before. It doesn't define who she is, but it helps shape her character. Her sadness over her formative years doesn't feed into a deadly psychosis but human grief. She's not just the Mystery Woman in Avengers, pretending to be hurt while manipulating sociopaths out of information. She's not the flat Femme Fatale she jokes about when she pours Bruce a drink early on in Age of Ultron, purring "A man's done me wrong." She's a character who can shoot, punch, and quip with the best of them while being allowed to feel and express pain. 

It gets weird because her breakdown comes in the middle of a conversation in which Bruce and Natasha compare how they've been weaponized. Bruce looks on at the only woman on the team upset about, among other things, the limitations of her reproductive organs. He's the only man on the team who admits he, too, can't have children, but this is her scene to grieve. Looking at the scene as a moment isolated from the rest of the movie, the subtlety is lost and a woman becomes solely defined by her reproductive organs. It's as if several, very illuminating lines have been shaved off the scene in order to save time, because all the words make sense by themselves, but the ideas they conflate needed a better buffer.

Their conversation is like watching someone balance a bunch of spinning plates on sticks. They're up in the air, they're tilting, they're staying put, now they're tilting again, and at the last moment, a few come crashing down.

I maintain the problem with this scene isn't that Natasha is sad, but that her position on the team at this point makes her the One Woman, the character that must be the stand-in for Every Woman and her feelings about babies.

Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Later, Natasha is captured by Ultron. She's knocked out and when she wakes up, he's doing the very thing he said he wouldn't do to Tony Stark: describing his evil plan. He's alone and lonely and Natasha is supposed to play the captured damsel. Except then she uses her expertise to signal the rest of the Avengers to her position.

She's plays the role "right" up through when Bruce comes to save her. They want to run away but she changes her mind to save the world. "I adore you," she says as she kisses him. Then she pushes her rescuer into a pit and the Hulk jumps back out. Then they go do battle.

The damselization trope is absolutely used here, but at the end, I felt it was averted. Not everyone agrees with that, perhaps believing it went against character to use the idea in the first place. I understand but found more power in the idea of Natasha turning a bad situation to her advantage rather than avoiding that situation altogether.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is one of my recent, favorite shows. It's an unlikely comedy about a woman kidnapped and isolated in a bunker for fifteen years before returning to contemporary society. The comedy comes from Kimmy's fish-out-of-water exploits and the ways she pushes to be defined outside of her trauma, even though it's had an effect on who she is.

The same can be said of a very different story, the action drama, Mad Max: Fury Road. There, a number of different women make up the primary cast and deal with the end of civilization. These characters vary in strength, complexity, and agency. There's room for women with all sorts of life experiences: super competent driver Furiosa (Charlize Theron), waifish, kidnapped wives new to independence, and a desert-dwelling grandmother biker gang who have created a different sort of society. They're all survivors, coping in different ways.

Courtney Eaton as Cheedo the Fragile, Abbey Lee as The Dag, 
Zoë Kravitz as Toast the Knowing, 
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, and Riley Keough as Capable
  in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
We don't live in a world where billionaires care enough to put on mechanized suits and fight crime or where the deserts are full of high-speed truck races with flaming guitars, but we do live in a world where women are kidnapped and hurt. Their agency as human beings is challenged.

But they push through. They go on.

Natasha remains emotionally guarded in Iron Man 2, Winter Soldier, and, except for a key scene, Avengers

Watching her fall in love with Bruce Banner is watching someone let down her defenses, make herself vulnerable. He's "kind of a dork." He doesn't compete the way Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man do. Natasha believes it's because he's more self-aware.

Except she's wrong. The Hulk embodies his worst impulses, but that doesn't mean Bruce is the prince of a fairy tale. When they can't run away together, when their relationship isn't going to be as straight forward and simple as one could hope, he runs. Natasha is left behind.

I dislike it when fans say, "I hate how Hulk and Black Widow got together during Age of Ultron." Did you stay until the end? Their romance fails.

Then she marches with Steve to go meet the teammates of the New Avengers, a team that now consists of two women and two men of color along with the time traveler and the robot. She moves on and so does the audience.

Linda Holmes has an excellent response to the gender politics of Age of Ultron with Black Widow, Scarce Resources And High-Stakes Stories, which I recommend reading:
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. [...] Scarcity will always drive us back to these same conversations about how every woman carries the obligation to represent What This Director Thinks Women Are For, and absolutely no answer to that question will ever be a good answer.

This post was supposed to be about depicting women in superhero-based media. Now I realize, in how the Age of Ultron conversation has unfolded, it also has to be about Joss Whedon.

I believe Joss Whedon's work can be viewed under the lens of liberal feminism. It looks for equal representation of men and women in dramatic roles, it defines characters beyond their gender while still bringing up issues that affect said gender, and it believes in the choices of women as individuals.

Nina Evans Allender cartoon in The Suffragist (May 1919)
Liberal feminism shares many tenants with, but is not the same as, say, radical feminism, postcolonial feminism, or sex-positive feminism,. While it shares many of the basic ideas of these movements, it doesn't always explore specific issues in-depth.

To my understanding, while liberal feminism suggests everyone should be equal, it also doesn't always pay specific attention to, say, people who are transgender, impoverished, old, or not white. In which case, this feminism doesn't become about equality for everyone but equality and representation of white, cis, straight men and women, which returns to the same problem of patriarchy: one group is valued as ideal over all the other groups. Feminism that isn't intersectional isn't very feminist.

There's a history of that. Even the suffragette movement at the turn of the twentieth century shares few but unfortunate ties to eugenic feminism, the logic of which was, "Without the vote, women could not act as full citizens; they could not work to ensure the best conditions for mothers and babies and thus could not ensure that the 'best' babies would be born."

So liberal feminism often feels foundational, but alone, it doesn't satisfy the needs of everyone nor does it examine more troubling aspects of its history and contemporary politics. See Mikki Kendall's #solidarityisforwhitewomen.

In my experience, liberal feminism becomes a more palatable place to start for a wealth of young adults and undergraduate students who cry out awkwardly, "I'm not a feminist, or anything, I just believe in equality!" before realizing that that's exactly what most forms of feminism are about.

Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997) established him in the public imagination as Hollywood's pre-eminent liberal feminist. It has excellent messages for people regarding gender and assumed roles but remains friendly to television executives who want to keep the attention of conservative audiences. It's a piece of television that endeared Whedon to culture consumers who wrongly canonized him as THE feminist.

Of course he was never going to be everyone's ideal feminist. Not every critique I've seen of Whedon stems from this, but many do. Buffy should have been the start of more actions shows led by women, but that movement toward change has been slow and halting.

Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch and
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Being in a position of wanting to "protect" Joss Whedon is uncomfortable for me. Artists should take criticism for their art. He's also a millionaire, if not from his previous entertainment endeavors than certainly from Age of Ultron's opening weekend. Other creators have been threatened over less, ex. being female and opinionated or POC and not "grateful enough" for what they have. None of this changes the fact he makes a great deal of media that's interesting to me and, flawed or not, is worth consuming. It also doesn't change people on social media who have threatened him in order to appear "edgy" or suggest he die for not making the film with the Black Widow they specifically envisioned.

Feminism is an evolving thing, a many-faceted way of looking at the world that should never be everything to everyone. Similarly, a single female character can't be one thing to everyone, either. It takes a number of female characters, all with different goals and personalities.


When Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans made their comments about Black Widow being a "slut" for having more than one romantic partner in the franchise, they apologized within twenty-four hours. Fans, as I've experienced them, were disappointed in the comments themselves but willing to give the actors the benefit of the doubt in that moment. Press tours are long. Interviewers only have so many variations on questions and actors only have so much information they can share. It seemed as if Renner and Evans defaulted to ironic sexism, a form of humor that, when utilized well, points out the notions of sexism that continue to thrive in society. Ideally, it punches "up" toward those who utilize this language or make these choices. When not utilized well or free of context (the triple-decker "You know that I know that we know we're kidding"), the humor in itself perpetuates negative stereotypes in a culture arguably full of them. It takes a deft hand.

While I thumbed through the controversial coverage on my phone, I took my lunch break in Boston Public Gardens. I overheard some college-aged guys throwing a frisbee. They called each other "bitch" when one didn't catch it. They laughed.

Maybe they meant "bitch" in a gender neutral way, but the moment certainly had me thinking. The roots of the term are tied to female identity. "Feminine," "womanly," "girly"--women are not seen as the default, but "lesser" to the default. This is the non-ironic sexist culture we live in, I realized.

The consequences are seen as higher for the same actions, whether it's wanting to catch a frisbee or falling in love. It's the "a man has multiple partners, he's a stud; a woman has multiple partners, she's a slut" scenario, the logic of which appears to be the reductive and literally objectifying "what's the use of a lock that has too many keys" joke. Women, despite making up half the population, become anomalies in their own culture.


I cried a lot as a kid. Specifically, I remember a time in elementary school where I cried every single day. I was "sensitive," my parents and teachers assured me. I hated that. I remember often crying harder out of embarrassment for crying in the first place, for being weak when so many people around me seemed to shake off teasing or a bad day with a shrug.

Catwoman and Batman in
Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995)
It was important to me when Catwoman puts on her mask again to investigate animal cruelty charges against a laboratory in "Cat Scratch Fever," but it was also important to see her laid low by a toxin after fighting to protect her cat.

I liked seeing Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy bond in "Harley and Ivy," but I also wanted to see Harley having to deal with daily (and not-so-daily) problems in "Harley's Holiday."

I also liked seeing Renee Montoya's refusal to abandon her sense of justice in "P.O.V." and Batgirl's sense of loyalty and heroism in pretty much every appearance she's had.

It was important to me that the female characters I related to were strong and cool, yes, but it was just as important that they could be vulnerable and sad. Having just one female character would have never satisfied that.

As a fan since childhood, I maintain any of them could hold down their own show. In fact, I'd love to see shows where they do. What's important is, even in a show where the titular character is a man, that there's more than one woman showing more than one way to be a woman.


My favorite new character to the Avengers is Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). She doesn't get as much time to shine in Age of Ultron, but I love her powers and the moments that she does take hold of the story. Her triumph in utilizing her telekinesis to join the Avengers, her grief over her brother's death, and her savage killing of Ultron afterward. "Do you want to know how it felt?" she asks as she crushes his physical analog to a human heart. I was sad at Quicksilver's death, but I would have been devastated if the Scarlet Witch made as speedy an exit from the franchise.

Claudia Kim as Helen Cho in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2014)
Helen Cho (Claudia Kim) may be a background character, but she's indispensable to the plot while remaining amusing and fully realized. As Nicole Soojung Callahan writes on The Toast, "I knew she was going to be in the movie, but I wasn’t expecting her to have such a pivotal (if still too small!) role. My expectations regarding the super white, super male Marvel movie universe are low when it comes to seeing people of color, women of color in particular."

Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) returns with less flair than she had in the first Avengers, squandering many of her talents by acting as a pursed-lipped Avengers HQ secretary, but by the final act, she's traded up her heels and sensible skirt for her S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform and a mission to save the denizens of Sokovia.

These female characters are important, but perhaps don't feel as varied in femininity and perspective as the ones in the more tightly focused narrative of Mad Max: Fury Road. There, our titular male character is surrounded by women of different social status, age, and strength who all share a good deal of the stage. They are fully formed characters without him. The movie passes the Bechdel Test repeatedly and effortlessly. Max is our central hero, but he lives in a world that doesn't pivot on his needs and desires.

I'm pretty damn hopeful for a sequel in the same world with Theron's Furiosa as the star. I know--a woman at the center of an action film? Like the financially successful Hunger Games or Underworld? What are the odds?

Women who feel fully-realized and complex should be a minimum requirement in stories, regardless of whether they're aimed at male consumers. "Popcorn flick" or "summer Blockbuster" isn't an excuse for pancake flat worlds where only men have agency. Don't keep us out. We belong here, too.