On slut-shaming and female superheroes

Photo courtesy Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios

About a week before Age of Ultron was set to come out, stars Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner got into hot water for calling Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) a mean word. Since its release, in a series of stories that predictably are now completely out of control, writer/director Joss Whedon was chased off Twitter, though he since denied it was the cause, and Renner hopped right back into the hot water by reiterating he offending term on Conan. Also, co-star Mark Ruffalo has criticized Marvel for not producing toys of Romanoff, and all these things have only fanned the fire about there still not being a female-based comic book adaptation.

Two things:

Black Widow is totally a… you know

Since Romanoff’s introduction in 2010’s Iron Man 2, she’s appeared in four movies and had romantic or sexual undertones with a different character in every single one of them. She’s aggressively interested in Bruce Banner (Ruffalo) in Age of Ultron and seemed to be in a long-term relationship with Clint Barton (Renner) in The Avengers, though their interactions in the sequel seem to indicate a close non-romantic relationship. Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Age of Ultron heavily imply a tryst with the captain (Evans), and she had about as romantic a plot as you could have with a character of Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) emotional maturity in Iron Man 2. I’m not one to call a lady a bad name, but it’s implied that she’s made her way around the group here.

This is not a bad thing. Everybody, have sex with everybody else. Sex-positivity is the way of the future. However, it is a bad thing that, over four movies with three different writers and directors — one of whom has an ironclad reputation for writing strong women characters — Marvel’s only significant female presence seemingly cannot exist without a romantic subplot. She’s not a lampshade by any means — she acted as SHIELD’s liaison to the main characters in a couple of movies and she keeps pace with the more famous characters in the crossovers, but it seems like she just can’t be written without having or being some kind of love interest. This pattern calls into question the studio’s ability to handle women characters. I can see it being an issue that Evans and Renner said those things, but the much bigger problem lies with the writing.

Marvel isn’t in the social justice business

A lot of the specific criticisms about how Romanoff has been handled in the past few days have come with broader questions about why there isn’t a female-lead superero movie yet, and it’s for the same reason Ruffalo doesn’t have his toys — Marvel Studios does not care about political points. The studio’s job is to make money, and it doesn’t think it can do it with female-oriented movies and merchandise. This is obviously mistaken, but the company’s got no real reason to take a gamble it doesn’t want to take just because it’s the right thing to do.

Dirty as it seems, the decision is economic, and Disney knows that far more people complain about the lack of a product than would actually buy it.

The important thing to remember is that all of these things — Romanoff’s constant romances, the lack of female movies and merchandise — reflect on the consumer as much as the producer. Marvel is in the business of giving the people anything and everything they think we want, and that means it’s on us to prove that there’s a female market that remains largely untapped.

DC doesn’t have Marvel’s cushy station and their female lead was always more famous anyway. Gal Gadot will star as Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman next year leading up to her own feature the year after that. It’ll be the first real opportunity for the female-based superhero market to prove itself, and after all this backlash it really needs to.

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3 Responses to On slut-shaming and female superheroes

  1. xmenxpert says:

    I disagree. In iron Man 2, she had a mild flirtation with Stark, but he was clearly in love with Pepper, so the flirtation never really became romantic. In Avengers, her relationship with Barton was kept vague – most people read it as romantic, I always thought it would be far more interesting if they were platonic life partners. (Indeed, I’m of the opinion that Barton should be gay.) In Winter Soldier, her relationship with Cap was clearly friendly – a running gag was her trying to set him up with other women. The only character she’s actually been romantically linked with was Banner – the others were, at most, subtext, and with Cap, just fans wanting to see something that wasn’t really there.

    So she hasn’t “made the rounds.”

    On the second point, there’s very strong support for a good female-led superhero movie. People want to see it. Proof? Good female-led action movies have been making money. There have been a few female-led action movies over the past few years that have gotten positive critical reception, and great box office reception. Women make up a large portion of audiences for action movies. They made up 40% of the audience for GotG. The idea that a well-made female-led superhero movie wouldn’t make money is just ridiculous. Women want it. Men want it. People want these movies.

    And the fact that there have been so many people who have been so upset about the lack of merchandise for female characters shows that, yes, there’s a market for that, too. Even if only a fraction of those upset about it would actually buy it, that’s still kind of a lot of people, and it would make Disney money.

  2. swanpride says:

    First of all, this is the first time we had Black Widow in a romance. In Iron Man 2 she was undercover, all the flirtation was just that especially since Tony (the real “slut” of the MCU, at least until he got his arc reactor) was even back then pretty much into Pepper. The Avengers was pretty clear that the relationship between Natasha and Clint was a working one, based on her owing him for sparing her life and introducing him to a new life. And no point anything romantic was implied. And the only flirting she did in “The Winter Soldier” was with Falcon, with Steve she builds a friendship and the movie is very, very clear about it being all there is. And even if she had “made the rounds” the word is still uncalled for, because having four relationships in seven years is pretty much normal.

    And second, there is a market for Comic book stuff geared towards females, as well as merchandize. You can’t argue that “nobody would buy it” if there is nothing there to buy in the first place. That’s circular logic. There have been a number of female lead movies, including female lead action movies in the last years and they were all successful. Yes, movies like Catwoman or Elektra bombed. But so did Green Lantern and nobody says it was because there was a male lead in the movie. Those movies simply sucked.

  3. Pingback: An internal dialogue about whether or not to review Hot Pursuit | reelentropy

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