“Agents of SHIELD,” motherhood, and the Black Widow problem

I’m really proud of Skye. Not so proud of Black Widow.

Well, not necessarily proud of Skye as I am with the writers of “Agents of SHIELD” and how they managed to take a character with little grounds for being in the story at all and give her a reason to exist. I’m proud of the fact that she has inner conflicts that surround her relationships with the other women in her life, how she struggles with her past, how she has awkward family conversations, how she has overcome people’s expectations and has proven herself not only in the field on missions, but also within the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization, and to the audience.

Of course I’m proud of how she shot her season one love interest three times and doesn’t regret it.

And this is all from a show that Joss Whedon, the director of the “Avengers” films, doesn’t consider canon in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, instead of trying to ignore it, the rest of the creators at Marvel Studios should be taking notes, especially when it comes to how their female characters are portrayed. It’s also why I’m not very proud of what has happened to Black Widow.

The disparity between the women in “Agents of SHIELD” and in the MCU is kind of staggering. Women are often relegated to love interests and passive players. There have been apparent efforts to fix that, with Pepper Potts’ expanded role in “Iron Man 3” and the improvements surrounding Black Widow’s role as confidant to Steve Rogers in “Captain America: Winter Soldier.” However, with the release of “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” I’m reminded again of how far the studio still needs to go.

One of the main criticisms surrounding “Age of Ultron” is its portrayal of Natasha Romanoff, up until this point, the only female member of the team. In the new film, the creators decided to give her a romantic interest in Bruce Banner, who is still grappling with his loss of control with the Hulk persona. While in theory, the pairing could have worked (both Natasha and Bruce spend a lot of time together and have a sense of camaraderie that stems from their internal separations from the rest of the human race), the film frames it poorly. Robin Hitchcock at Bitch Flicks pointed out that Natasha’s role to bring Bruce down from his Hulk state in the form of a lullaby has dangerous allusions to a domestic abuse relationship, for instance, along with wrapping up her story in Bruce’s for a good chunk of the film. She begins to develop independently thanks to flashbacks brought on by Scarlet Witch, where we finally get a glimpse into her life in the Red Room, where she was trained to be an assassin (a place we got a closer look at in “Agent Carter”). We learn that Natasha was a victim of abuse and torture, including a medical procedure that she received upon her “graduation.”

Our only payoff with this information is in a scene between Bruce and Natasha, where she tries to convince him to run away with her. The team is laying low at Hawkeye’s farm with his wife and kids, which apparently has gotten the two thinking about family. Bruce gestures around the child’s room where the two stand, stating how he physically can’t have children. That’s when Natasha reveals that the procedure left her barren. So she sympathizes with Bruce, because she’s a monster too.

A relationship between the two could have worked. If the creators wanted to go down the “monster” route, they could have made it focus less on Natasha’s ability to have children, how the only reason she feels separate from others is that she can’t get pregnant. Later in the film, when she gets kidnapped by Ultron, she disappears for a good chunk of the running time, allowing Bruce to come in and save her. With both of these instances, Black Widow has been relegated to a role like Hawkeye’s wife, played by Linda Cardellini, who is only there to be pregnant and wish for Clint to come home safe. It’s not just her insistence that her inability to bear children makes her less than human–an insulting statement in general–but it creates an opportunity for her character to be swallowed up by another. Natasha’s character arc comes to a halt so that Bruce Banner can become a hero, rescue her, and then have some conflicted feelings about leaving at the end.

I had been trying to figure out what bothered me so much about Natasha’s story in “Age of Ultron” and it comes down to how she doesn’t have much of her own story at all, especially compared to some of the other Avengers. Everything that Natasha experiences in the movie–from the infertility storyline to becoming a damsel–diminishes her character to support the arc of a man. With the exception of Scarlet Witch, the women in “Age of Ultron” become either props or almost meaningless. While Black Widow gets in on the action sequences with the rest of the team, her time is defined by her relationship with Bruce. Hawkeye’s wife, whose name I can’t remember, exists to expand her husband’s character. Maria Hill and new addition Dr. Helen Cho exist to move the plot forward but almost get no character development of their own. In this universe, women are either mothers or sidelined.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a fictional character having to go through romantic drama or deal with the conflict concerning procreation, but it has to exist in a shared space. The Bruce Banner/Natasha Romanoff relationship mostly benefits Bruce as a character. It could be argued that Natasha’s new role as a romantic love interest is a devolving, as she goes from prominent member of the team as being highlighted as solely a love interest. Playboy suggested that Black Widow being the lone superheroine is to her detriment, making her the “one person there to be paired with” adding, “in a male world a woman automatically becomes, potentially, everyone’s property.” The audience’s awareness of this fact only enhances the infertility storyline as one that makes Natasha only as good as what she can give to whoever she fucks. There is no growth of her own.

This is in contrast to “Agents of SHIELD,” which has used themes of motherhood to strengthen its characters instead of diminish them. In the season two episode “Melinda,” we get a flashback into the character of Melinda May, why people call her “the cavalry” and why she has closed herself off. Melinda had been trying to settle down with her husband, start a family, when she was sent on a mission that led to an encounter with two Inhumans. One was a woman with super strength, the other was the woman’s daughter, able to control the emotions of others. The young girl didn’t have control, had grown unstable, had sought to use her powers to kill those around her. Melinda made the decision to ultimately put a bullet in the girl’s head, leading to a traumatic break in conscience that destroyed her marriage, caused her to become closed off emotionally, and leave the field.

This storyline was introduced in parallel to Skye’s interactions with her own mom, who she had met for the first time. This, plus the fact that Melinda had become a mentor to Skye, brings an added dimension to the idea of motherhood. That it’s about relationships, not bodily functions. In the world of “Agents of SHIELD,” mothers are important but can also be dangerous. They mean so much more to a culture and a community. With Skye’s mom, a leader in the Inhuman community, the idea of motherhood can actually break things apart. Skye spends multiple episodes dealing with her parents (or trying to) and those consequences, that being in a nuclear family doesn’t mean being “normal.” “Agents” deals with those relationships and how they impact the characters, how they have been shaped by those interactions. More importantly, both Melinda and Skye evolve because of those stories.

I look at Marvel’s cable properties, including “Agents of SHIELD” and “Agent Carter” and I continue to be impressed with its female representation. It sounds like my standards are low, but in reality, that’s the bar that been set. Here is what I expect: that women in media are portrayed as more than just women, more than just a love interest or a mass of bodily functions. That they exist as people.

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