The overwhelming outrage Marvel studios felt after the release of Avengers- Age of Ultron from feminists across North America largely focused on the demeaning nature that Black Widow was portrayed as representative of the sexist problems riddling Marvel’s comics and movies. Yet, while as a character Black Widow was perhaps written into the script using cheap, obvious jokes, is no one going to talk about the revelation that she was forcibly sterilized? Furthermore, that she believes she is a monster because of it?
As a Marvel fan I was shocked at the scene between Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) and Bruce Banner (The Hulk) where they are playing with the idea of running off together and Banner flips and reveals that he cannot have children and thus there is no future with him. Romanoff then reveals that as a part of the graduation ceremony in the Red Room where she was trained as an assassin/ spy, she was sterilized. It is implied that she tried to avoid it but could not and was strapped to a table for the procedure. Then the line…
Before I lose my feminist shit, lets take a moment to clarify and look to the back-story of Black Widow. Firstly, while this article is critiquing the way that sterilization is casually tossed into the mix, that does not mean that I am criticizing the entire movie, nor all of Marvel comics-nobodies perfect. Now, looking at the back-story of Black Widow we see that there was two main ways that the Marvel big guys could have taken her character. In 1964, Natasha Romanoff was introduced as the villain Black Widow in the Tale of Suspense Vol 1. and in later comics it was revealed that she was orphaned by a Nazi attack and was then adopted by a Russian solider. Her skills developed under his training and caught the eye of the KGB, eventually making her the best assassin/spy and later coming into contact with the avengers and joining them. However, it was when her back-story was revisited in the Ultimate Avengers that this sterilization business comes in. Again orphaned by Nazis, adapted by Russian solider, she was tricked into thinking that she was training as a ballerina. Instead, the Red Room was a KGB training facility where they brainwashed, experimented, enhanced and trained young Romanoff among others to become KGB assassins/spies. Pregnancy was thought to be a weakness and family was considered the only thing that could get in the way of following orders. Thus, it became the graduation ceremony to sterilize these women. I want to clarify why this is a forced sterilization. Regardless if you think that the flash-back scene in the movie showed that Romanoff was forced or not, all of the women in this program were brainwashed, thus there is inherently a drastic power imbalance and a lack of choice.
So Marvel writers chose to go with the sterilization/ Red Room route regardless that there was no real mention of this back-story in any of the previous movies. I’m not a mind-reader so I don’t know why they chose this but I would argue it is partially to make her character more human. Romanoff is kind of robot in her efficient, militaristic attitude and what Age of Ultron does, is bring her into being a soft squishy, womanly character that is deeply flawed and you can feel bad for.
We have to acknowledge the use of sterilization to further demonize the Russians as the greatest gift and job a woman can have is motherhood (note some sarcasm). Yet, looking at the history of comics in helping people to identify the “real” enemies in throughout history (Nazis, Russians, machines), using sterilization is an old hat in the comic world. Stay tuned for a blog about this!
Yet what can we say about the monster quote? I argue that this scene in particular is a struggle with ableism. It is fairly easy to see how Bruce Banner/ The Hulk has a disability- his split personality, uncontrollable anger, not to mention the infantilizing done in Age of Ultron when they use a lullaby to calm him down. Whether you believe that sterilization specifically is a disability, most can agree with a rather simple definition of disability as not being able to function at the level of “normal” (please note that this definition is problematic in many ways). What is the most “normal” thing about being a woman? To have children and Romanoff cannot do that. io9 noted that they wanted more from the back-story and character development of Black Widow then a sad story about how she can’t have kids and must adopt The Hulk as a giant baby to make up for it and I partially agree. Yet I think looking at this interaction between these characters as the interaction between two individuals who struggle consistently with a disability is a more powerful possibility. In fact, many people were stunned, including hardcore comic fans at the romance that blossomed between Banner and Romanoff as that is not in the comics. Perhaps their kind of companionship is more a companionship of those in similar communities, feeling similar feelings of Otherness and difference rather than because a guy and a girl must fall in love in Hollywood. While this idea gives me a warm, happy feeling in my belly, we cannot deny Romanoff’s statement about both of them being monsters in light of her sterilization reveal. Is she a monster because she can kill without emotion or because she can do this due to being sterilized. The statement is a little vague but still alarming. Perhaps, Banner and Romanoff’s characters will understand one day that being disabled is not a monstrosity but is instead another way of living. Navigating ableism is the bitch, not disability itself.