Wednesday, May 20, 2015

On Female Infertility, 'Avengers: Age of Ultron', and That Scene


It has come to my attention that there is a war raging right now in the nerd community over whether or not it's okay that Joss Whedon put a scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron where he explicitly makes Natasha Romanoff infertile. So take this as my explanation of this battle, specifically an explanation of why, though I have no objection to female characters being infertile and dealing with their infertility on camera, this scene rubbed me way the hell the wrong way.

There are a bunch of reasons, honestly, and they all sort of nest together like those oh so topically appropriate matryoshka dolls. But here is what they all come down to: I have no inherent problem with Natasha as a character being presented as infertile, nor do I have any real problem with her thinking of herself as a monster as a result. My issue with this scene, and therefore with the characterization of Natasha in all of Age of Ultron is in the timing of it. Namely, that these are the only five minutes of character development that Natasha gets in the entire film, and all of them are about this one topic that has never come up before and I doubt will ever come up again. That's my problem, in a nutshell.

See, one of the bigger issues with Avengers: Age of Ultron as a film is that it spends so little of its very long runtime actually developing the characters. Most of the film is taken up with action sequences, that, unfortunately, lack an emotional gravitas. Namely because we don't care about the people getting beat up. The rest of the film is spent setting up other Marvel properties, which leaves the barest minimum of space in which to actually spend time with our heroes. 

As it stands, some of the heroes get short shrift. Steve and Thor get almost no development at all, while Tony gets the barest nod to his previous films. Clint and Bruce, then, probably get the most, and it's sad to say that Natasha's five minutes still put her in better standing than a lot of the team.

We have to go into this understanding that part of the criticism of "that scene" and how Natasha's infertility is handled comes from time constraints and the way the movie was made. There just isn't enough time set aside in the film to do this topic justice. And female infertility, especially of the sort that is so emotionally traumatizing as to cause Natasha freaking Romanoff to break down in tears when she mentions it, is far too complex a subject to be covered in so short a time.

So there's that.

But there's also the fact that, as characters go, Natasha isn't really the one I would pick for a big emotional story about her inability to have biological children. And that has to do with how she's been set up in the previous films. In Iron Man 2, we meet Natasha, but she spends most of the film undercover as "Natalie Rushman", a pseudo-competent assistant to Tony Stark who's mostly just there to keep him busy and not dead. She plays herself as a sweet sorority girl, and so there's really nothing in that movie that gives us a real indication of who she actually is.

The bulk of what we know about Natasha as a person comes, then, from Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, movies where she has a much larger screen presence and is, presumably, acting as herself. And the stuff we know about her from these two films really doesn't indicate more than a passing interest in having children.

In Avengers we know Natasha mostly as a deeply pragmatic, honestly terrifying woman. Her introductory scene proves to us that not only is she extremely physically capable, she's also brilliant. We meet her as she's conducting a "reverse interrogation" on a Russian mob boss, and the tactic works so well that she later uses it on the God of Lies and Tricks himself, Loki. Aside from that, her experience in the film is mostly down to her supreme badassness in battle and the really funny snarky comments she makes in the background. Also her relationship with Clint, which is cute, but, again, gets about five minutes of screentime.

It's not until Captain America: The Winter Soldier that we get a real understanding of who Natasha is when she's not on duty, and even there the revelation is muddled by her own admission that Natasha really has no interest in being her "authentic self". As she says to Steve, "The truth is a matter of circumstances. It's not all things to all people all the time, and neither am I." The Natasha we meet in that film is one who uses emoticons in her text messages, makes stupid dad jokes, and is generally a huge dork, but she's also a Natasha who feels incredibly young.

Like not literally young, since we don't actually know how old she is, but young and rather fragile emotionally. We get the impression of a woman who never had the chance to grow up at a normal pace and now finds herself trying to retrace her steps and gain her maturity as best she can. Natasha comes off as the sort of person who needs a few years to just let herself figure everything out, and who's been going on empty for so long she doesn't think she'll ever get it. In other words, Natasha in this movie doesn't seem like the kind of person who gives two craps about whether or not she's going to have kids someday. She seems like the kind of person who wants to know how to wake up without nightmares.

Which brings us to Avengers: Age of Ultron, and here we are presented with a very different Natasha. Even before we get to the scene at Clint's farmhouse - and don't worry, we're getting there - Natasha's characterization is markedly different than it was in the previous two films. Here she is mostly consumed with her pursuit of an older man (Bruce) and trying to enter into a relationship with him. And I'm actually fine with that conceptually. Bruce is a really compelling character, and while I miss Betty, I think he and Natasha work pretty well together. I'm fine with that.

What I'm not fine with is how it takes Natasha's story, which up until now has been about a severely traumatized woman trying to find herself and figure out who she really wants to be, and turns it into a much more generalized "girlfriend" role. See, in a world where women in action movies are almost exclusively girlfriends and wives, with the occasional daughter thrown in, Natasha was a breath of fresh air. She wasn't anybody's love interest, she was just herself. She was competent and cool and kickass, and her narrative relied on no one but herself.

The problem with her characterization in Avengers: Age of Ultron, then, is not so much that she's involved in a romance and concerned about her ability to have children, but rather how this is all we know of her in the film. This is the only storyline she has in the movie, and that's the issue.

So. Getting to "that scene", the major beef I have with it is not Natasha's infertility itself, but rather that her infertility becomes, due to time constrictions, the only issue she meaningfully grapples with in the entire film. And I have some big issues with that.

For starters, it plays into the idea that women essentially are our biology. When Natasha calls herself a monster, she is falling into the trap that says that women are defined by whether or not we have a functioning uterus. And while it is completely understandable that a woman with Natasha's history would see it this way, it is unacceptable that Bruce doesn't comment on this or make some remark showing how Natasha's forced sterilization is different than his accidentally murdering thousands of people

Because in that scene, Bruce is explaining to Natasha why they can't be together. Namely, because he's a monster and he doesn't think she would be safe. This is, for the record, a pretty reasonable objection. Bruce has shown in the past and in the film itself that he is not particularly good at controlling the Hulk. And while this does seem slightly contrary to his emotional development in Avengers, whatever. He's an out of control killing machine. And oh by the way, he can't give Natasha a normal life because he's infertile and they couldn't have kids.

This last part feels very much tacked on to his argument, especially since, before the arrival at Clint's farmhouse and the revelation of Clint's children and hyper-fertile wife, I don't think we've ever even seen Natasha in the same room as a child.

We're given no indication that children are something Natasha wants up until this scene, and yet, following Bruce's explanation of why his history of accidentally murdering entire cities makes him a monster, Natasha lets loose with an explanation of why agreeing (under brainwashing) to let herself be forcefully sterilized when she was eighteen is a reason why she's a monster and they should be together.

I hope that at this point you can see why for so many people, myself included, this moment was one giant needle-scratch.

It felt contrary to everything we knew about Natasha by now, and it also felt very weird for the tone of the movie. And what's worse is that I actually think this has the potential to be a really compelling plotline. Natasha's infertility is established in the comics, as is her abusive backstory in the Red Room. 

Natasha was raised as a child soldier and assassin in a secret governmental program, was brainwashed, and has had her memories messed with so many times she's not exactly sure what the truth is. All of this and the revelation that her "graduation ceremony" was a hysterectomy (or oophorectomy, we don't actually know) makes for really compelling sad material. In other words, this story would be great...in a two hour long Black Widow movie.

But as a five minute subplot in a larger ensemble film, it falls flat and becomes, frankly, insulting. In a society where women are valued disproportionately by our reproductive capabilities, this scene is genuinely harmful. It contributes to a view that sees infertile women as less than human, or at the very least, deserving of shame. And the fact that Bruce simply accepts what she's said as monstrous and never contradicts her or explains why it wasn't her fault because she was eighteen, under duress, and brainwashed, makes it all that much worse.

Frankly, even just setting the scene as a moment between Natasha and Clint's wife, Laura, would have been better. Still too short and not dealt with in enough grace and understanding, but better. Because then the scene would have been about Natasha and her reckoning with her past as she looks at her best friend's perfect family and beautiful children. It would have given Laura something meaningful to do, and could have even let us have a moment where Laura affirms that just because Natasha will never be a biological mother doesn't mean she has lost at right to call herself a human. That would mean a lot coming from Laura, I think, at least based on the relationship they hint at.

Instead, when she has that conversation with Bruce, it makes her moment of deep character development, the only one in the film, actually about their relationship, not her. And that's really frustrating.

Someone also pointed out (and I really wish I remembered who - let me know if you know) that in all of the hoopla about this issue, people are ignoring the really obvious subtext, which is that apparently making a woman sterile is the most evil thing you can do to her. Which is a weird standard. I mean, yes, forced sterilization is really bad, don't get me wrong, but the person pointed out that this argument, that the worst thing the Red Room ever did was sterilize Natasha, is akin to arguing that the worst thing HYDRA ever did was give Bucky Barnes a vasectomy. Which they might have. Who knows?

And even still, I think this argument can be expanded, because Bucky Barnes actually likes kids. We know implicitly from his discussion of the old neighborhood and from comics canon which gave him four younger sisters, that Bucky really liked children. Moreover, he probably considered having his own children someday. But most of all, because we have a sense of who Bucky was before HYDRA took him, the loss of his ability to have biological children would represent a permanent loss of who he was before they took him and of his ability to have a "normal life".

But with Natasha, we've never had any of that. We've never had any indication that Natasha wants a "normal life" or babies or any of that. So while her infertility and sterilization are undoubtedly traumatic memories and definitely something she is understandably deeply upset over, it's surprising to hear her talk about it like it's the worst thing that ever happened to her.

Again, though, I want to stress that my real issue isn't with the fact that Natasha is infertile or even with how it happened. I actually think that the whole strategy makes sense: of course you would want to make sure that your little assassin children can't reproduce. It's horrible but it makes sense. And, though painful, it's easy to see why Natasha would view this as making her monstrous. 

It does not, however, excuse the film for bringing this topic up and then leaving it behind like it doesn't matter. Five minutes is not enough time to deal with the ramifications of Natasha's pain. Five minutes is not enough time to get past this.

Female infertility is a topic which really should come up more in pop culture. It's real and people don't like talking about it. So in that sense, I appreciate that we now have a superhero who is openly infertile. I would love an entire Black Widow solo movie that deals with this and the other undoubtedly numerous experiences she had in the Red Room that she is now trying to work through.

But in the other sense, the sense where everything that happens in a movie like this reverberates out into the culture, it's deeply problematic that of all the five minutes of character development we could have gotten, what the writers and producers and everyone chose is five minutes of Natasha expressing how she's a monster for not being able to have babies. These are her only five minutes. That's why we're pissed.

Still, it was nice seeing Ruffalo and Johansson go head to head in some serious ACTING moments.

8 comments:

  1. I do not disagree with anything you are saying in general. However, I think that in the film what she actually says is, "Like you Bruce, I cannot have children." Then, separate point, "I am a monster, because of my upbringing and all the people I murdered in my job as an assassin." I don't think she ever says, "I am a monster because I cannot have children." I do agree that the writing here is not entirely clear, but since Whedon and the Russo's have done such a good job with her character up to this point, I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

    Coolness,
    TGnome

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    1. I can appreciate that you're more willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. But I'm not. If ever there was a scene that needed to be handled with the utmost grace and intentionality, it's this one. And they blew it.

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  2. My interpretation of the scene was always that Natasha sees herself as a monster because of how easy is for her to kill compared to Banned, who hates that part of himself.

    I think her wording of that is what is causing all the polemic.

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    1. Right, but like I said above, you can't be unclear in your wording in scenes like this. They are still guilty of creating bad stereotypes, even if it was unintentional. Their "good intentions" do not absolve them of sending harmful messages.

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  3. So take this as my explanation of this battle, specifically an explanation of why, though I have no objection to female characters being infertile and dealing with their infertility on camera, this scene rubbed me way the hell the wrong way.

    I mentioned on your earlier post that I have my own problems with this scene, so this isn't disagreement with you, but I will say one thing in its defence: it comes right after Nat is psychologically smashed by Wanda Maximoff hitting her with her memories of the Red Room. Her *first* lines convey it much better - when it's being an Avenger she characterises as the dream she woke up from, not Wanda's illusion - the Red Room is so monstrous, Nat can't see its products as anything but monsters.

    Which all squares with:

    Natasha really has no interest in being her "authentic self". As she says to Steve, "The truth is a matter of circumstances. It's not all things to all people all the time, and neither am I." The Natasha we meet in that film is one who ... feels incredibly young.

    I think she sees it that everything in her beyond the Red Room is because of Hawkeye bringing her into SHIELD - that while she probably wouldn't phrase it this way, he pretty much saved her soul. Hence her closeness to him, her loyalty to SHIELD, her misery when she learned it was compromised, and her hurt when she finds out she wasn't on the shortlist of people Nick Fury trusted.

    She got her soul back, but sold it again almost immediately, has it back again after Winter Solider, and now needs to explore it. Only she got kicked in it instead.

    Bruce is a really compelling character, and while I miss Betty, I think he and Natasha work pretty well together. I'm fine with that.

    Maybe. There's a progression in their relationship which is consistent with them falling for each other, but which I'd personally find more interesting without the romantic angle. Namely faith. In Avengers Assemble, hers are the eyes through which we first and most see Bruce: she's the first to see him change, so it's through her we see what a terrifying physical presence the Hulk is; and yet later, she calmly says they need presence again. Likewise, circumstance means she's the one who most embodies Bruce's fear of what SHIELD may do or try to do to him; yet later, the Hulk fights beside her.

    And then in Age of Ultron they have a faith in each other they didn't before. She approaches the Hulk without fear, and the Hulk is reassured and calmed by her presence. It's a nice thing to see for both characters, but adding love makes it seem... too easy, maybe.

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    1. I do think that's a nice framing of the scene, but I also think that these scenes represent choices made by the filmmakers, and I don't love their choices. So the timing makes total sense - of course she would be thinking about her infertility right after being mind-whammied - but I hate how they did that scene.

      The idea that Nat thinks of her "soul" being something she gained once Hawkeye recruited her is very interesting to me. In general I find her fractured sense of self fascinating and I want more story about that!

      I definitely agree that their relationship would be just as powerful if not more if it were platonic and just about their growing faith in each other. I don't think that would fix every problem I have with the film, but it would help. Romantic love does seem too easy and frankly very reductive. Not a good representation of the complexity of real relationships.

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  4. Someone also pointed out ... that in all of the hoopla about this issue, people are ignoring the really obvious subtext, which is that apparently making a woman sterile is the most evil thing you can do to her.

    I don't know who said it, but it's an excellent point. And relatedly, almost the exact conversation could have happened without it. I mean Bruce has plenty of reasons besides sterility why he can't have a normal life. And Nat could just have easily responded with how the Red Room stripping and remaking her psyche over and over pretty much closed that door for her too. Or with how she was *in* control when she killed her victims.

    Frankly, even just setting the scene as a moment between Natasha and Clint's wife, Laura, would have been better... Because then the scene would have been about Natasha and her reckoning with her past as she looks at her best friend's perfect family and beautiful children.

    Whether she wants children or not, the loss of the choice can still hurt her. In the wake of Wanda's illusion, Laura must seem like the opposite of Nat in so many ways: she's a good person, whole in herself, loving, and worth loving, all the things Nat can't see in herself. And fertility is something that fits better into that comparison than one with the Hulk.

    Natasha was raised as a child soldier and assassin in a secret governmental program, was brainwashed, and has had her memories messed with so many times she's not exactly sure what the truth is. All of this and the revelation that her "graduation ceremony" was a hysterectomy (or oophorectomy, we don't actually know) makes for really compelling sad material. In other words, this story would be great...in a two hour long Black Widow movie.

    Exactly. Just one more reason we need one. (From the perspective of hope, it did cross my mind that Julie Delpy is a pretty big name to cast for that role, if they never intend to use it again).

    So while her infertility and sterilization are undoubtedly traumatic memories and definitely something she is understandably deeply upset over, it's surprising to hear her talk about it like it's the worst thing that ever happened to her.

    Or the worst thing she *is*.


    [Something I'd like to see on the subject of Natpain: she has a "World's Coolest Auntie" mug the Barton kids made her; and she keeps it hidden away in a box where no one will ever see it, because otherwise it could give the family away. That's her life]

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    1. YES! There are so many better things this conversation could have focused on. Natasha's really dark past and history of being an assassin for hire would be great material for a "monsters" conversation. I'm not against the topic, just the framing it in parallel to her infertility.

      Natasha and Laura were probably the relationship I was most curious about. What does Laura know about Nat's past? Was she the one to first sit by Nat's bedside when she got out? How much of Natasha's recovery and deprogramming happened at that farmhouse and how much in SHIELD headquarters? I really really want to know.

      Julie Delpy! I didn't recognize her. That is promising, as is the idea that they could make a miniseries for Netflix...

      [Headcanon accepted. Though I actually prefer to think that she just keeps the mug at their house. It makes her feel good inside to have a special mug, and they're the only ones who would appreciate it anyway.]

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