Why “The Avengers” is a Feminist Film
May 9, 2012 by Karrin Vasby Anderson
The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.
The Avengers assembled a record-breaking box office take ($200.3 million from U.S. audiences) on opening weekend, breaking the record set by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows—Part 2. The Christian Science Monitor attributes the film’s opening-weekend success, in part, to women, who comprised 40 percent of the movie’s audience. CSM credits the movie’s performance to Disney’s “aggressive marketing” to women, which included “sending stars to The View.” (Attention Disney and CSM: You had us at Robert Downey, Jr.). Writer/director Joss Whedon deserves props for a script that fulfills comic book movie conventions while subtly challenging the genre’s stereotypical depiction of women. Although Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow is a supporting character (and the only major female role, aside from Gwyneth Paltrow’s stand by your Iron Man cameo), she reminds the audience of the ways in which girl power can be both feminist and fun.
It’s true that Black Widow’s skin-tight black suit provides eye-candy to the 18-25 year-old moviegoing males who are considered box office bread and butter. But archetypes of masculine sex appeal are on display as well (from Thor’s brawny good looks to Bruce Banner’s brainy vulnerability). What’s interesting about Romanoff is that (unlike postfeminist comic book icons such as the S&M-y Catwoman or the botanic beauty Poison Ivy) her power stems from smarts rather than seduction. A master of interrogation, she extricates information from her marks by outwitting them. She is also an accomplished martial artist. In fact, it’s worth noting that unlike the four principal Avengers, Black Widow’s skills do not need to be augmented by a superhuman superpower or a fancy gadget. She goes toe to toe with the bad guys, keeping pace with her male counterparts, fueled only by girl power. In that respect, she’s not unlike a postmodern Ginger Rogers—famous for matching Fred Astaire step for step, but doing it “backwards and in high heels.” The takeaway? What do you need to be in order to keep up with Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, and Thor? A woman.
In the hands of a lesser writer/director, Black Widow might have fought her way into the foreground of the frame just long enough to flaunt improbable breasts in all their (superfluous postproduction) 3D glory. But I’m guessing that would have been too boring for Whedon. Instead, he drops his character into familiar blockbuster scenarios and allows her to extricate herself in less predictable ways. The fact that I can use the phrase “extricate herself” in reference to the action in a Major Studio Summer Blockbuster dominated by male characters is, in itself, notable. Sure, Thelma and Louise could drive themselves off a cliff [sorry, should I have said Spoiler Alert?], but it’s a riskier proposition to let a woman take charge when there’s a big, strong, male lead around (not to mention four).
Like Whedon’s other feminist heroine, Buffy (she was a vampire slayer before vampire slayers were presidents), Black Widow is strong and resourceful. She gets the job done by working with the materials on hand—be they a nondescript chair or a megalomaniac’s ego. She doesn’t seem averse to romance, but she knows that female characters can serve other purposes in films—even in Major Studio Summer Blockbusters. And although she begins the movie in a standard-issue Little Black Dress, she quickly dons the ultimate power suit, complete with appropriate firepower and sensible shoes.
So, why does it matter if The Avengers is recognized as a “feminist” film? Would it have set records at the box office with a more conventionally sexist portrayal of Black Widow? Most certainly. But the fact that it not only garnered solid critical acclaim but also positive word of mouth from women (and not just fangirls, mind you) means that there’s a market for powerful portrayals of women even in standard genre films. The next step will be to convince studio heads that women writers and directors are capable of captaining these blockbuster ships. Additionally, perhaps the broad appeal of The Avengers will put to rest the notion that comic book movies, like 1960s tree houses and the front lines of combat, are “no girls allowed” zones (btw: we’d like into tree houses and combat too). As Moviefone recently found out, we don’t need a “Girl’s Guide to The Avengers.”
Finally, there was one uncredited innovation in The Avengers that I feel obliged to recognize. It was really nice of Wonder Woman to share the technology for her invisible plane with S.H.I.E.L.D. Think that happened in the aftermath of the “DC vs. Marvel” grudge match in the mid-1990s? (Take that, Moviefone).
Follow Karrin on Twitter @KVAnderson