May 9, 2012 / Opportunity

Why “The Avengers” is a Feminist Film


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


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  • Edee Lemonier

    Thanks for a great review! About time we have a movie of this caliber! Now excuse me, while I go buy some tickets online….

  • Destructor

    I disagree. A long sequence of the film featured Black Widow (yes, a competent character, but needlessly clad in skintight leather) being stalked and attacked by a man who couldn’t control his anger- however once his anger died down he was completely forgiven without question for his actions because his anger made him out of control. This was not at all addressed.

    This film completely fails the Bechdel test, mainly because there are only two female characters and only one of them has any agency. The rest of the cast is made up entirely of bickering alpha males that fit the worst stereotypes of masculinity- an alcoholic arms dealer, a Norse God who resorts to violence as first resort, a walking advertisement for jingoism and/or the benefits of steroid use.

    Calling a movie that is largely one long fight scene between men feminist is drawing a really long bow.

  • River

    Those are interesting points, Destructor. I’m not sure that I agree with you, though. Calling the Hulk “a man who couldn’t control his anger” isn’t quite right. He’s more like a man who turns into a giant gorilla who could slam you two feet into the floor. It was more than his “anger” that made him out of control. It was the the gamma radiation monster inside of him. Remember, this is a superhero movie.
    True, the movie was low on females, I’ll give you that. But I agree with Anderson: the Black Widow, like so many of Whedon’s women characters, is a beautiful example of a strong female character. She’s got all of the advantages mentioned in the article, and additionally, she’s not absurdly perfect. If Widow had somehow been able to escape the Hulk with nothing but some martial arts and a pistol, I would have been disappointed. Imperfect characters are more real (as “real” as a character can be, in a comic book movie).
    And yes, Destructor, the men in the movie are bickering alpha males–at first. But that’s the beauty of the story: they change. Banner embraces the problem that haunts him, turning a horrible burden into a force for good. Thor does his best to stop a war: in his youth, he says, he would have sought one out. But, he’s changed. Captain America, in this movie, I wouldn’t call jingoistic at all: patriotism isn’t really dealt with. His focus is on saving all of humankind. Ironman, yes, projects the image of arrogance and selfishness, but he takes a page from Captain America’s book and is willing to sacrifice himself to save New York.
    So yes, at the beginning of the movie, the men are all bickering like little boys. But, Joss manages to take them on a journey to self-improvement, while also writing a story that combines action and plot in wonderful ways. And yes, the Black Widow is chased by an angry man, but overall, I’d agree with the author, that she is a fantastic leap forward for women characters in superhero movies and many other action movies.

  • Magneta

    I liked the movie and I’m a big fan of Marvel comics (though I usually stick with Thor and X-men) but I don’t think the Avengers is a feminist film. It managed to not be blatantly, disgustingly misogynistic but that’s not the same.

    Women, half the population, are still erased down to basically three named people that don’t interact with each other. Potts fulfills the role of Iron Man’s girlfriend and shows up for about three minutes. Maria Hill wasn’t much better off. She has barely any presence on screen and she’s been white-washed. Yes, I’m aware that she was originally a white Russian, but in her last few significant appearances (Civil War and Secret Invasion) she has been dark skinned. Black Widow is zipped down. It’s not the hugest deal but in the comics this is often taken to stupid, boob-popping levels. It’s a reminder of how much the work the comics still need to do. Women are constantly dressed and posed to remind everyone that they’re there primarily to be looked at.

    My biggest issue with Black Widow is how her “powers” are treated in the movie. Many of her big moments depend on her looking helpless and scared. In her first meeting with Banner, she tears up and looks shaken. Understandable, but this is supposed to be a character that is in perfect control of her emotions. I don’t want to spoil so I won’t go into detail but her confrontation with Loki isn’t much better. I don’t think her power lies in the her “smarts” like the article claims but in her ability to emotionally manipulate men by acting like a helpless woman. The manipulative, beautiful but dangerous woman is not a feminist trope. In addition, having her major motivation revolve around a man who saved her isn’t all that great.

    Also, did we really need a misogynistic slur (“quim”)? Sure, it reflects badly on Loki but he doesn’t use homophobic, racist, or any other gendered curses so I don’t understand the need the add a misogynistic one.

    To repeat, I liked the movie. I plan to go watch it again. But I do think it is getting way over-hyped and adding “feminist” to the praise seems pretty silly to me. Feminism isn’t about one woman with “girl-power” getting along well enough in a sea dude-bros. If Marvel had bothered to include more than the bare-minimum token lady Avenger (Wasp, Scarlet Witch, Ms. Marvel, Spider-woman, the female Hawkeye… seriously, it wouldn’t have been great feat), maybe my opinion would be different.

  • Bes

    The movie doesn’t appeal to me on any level other than I am in lust with Thor. I don’t see going on The View as marketing to women audiences. The only people I know who watch View are retired old men. Most women work during the day. I think it is at least good that the women characters aren’t offensively portrayed like Catwoman, I felt offended even having to sit through that trailer. Now I scream BOOOO! at offensive trailers such as Sucker Punch. At least that provides some entertainment.

  • Destructor

    Agreed with Magenta- I think there is a trend to say that:

    A. Because I am a feminist and:
    B. Because I like thing X then:
    C. Thing X must also be feminist.

    I think this fallacy is compounded by the fact that Joss Whedon is an avowed feminist who has previously created feminist works. But I think our reading is distorted in this case- imagine The Avengers was not directed by Joss Whedon, but by one of the directors of the other Marvel films (which are not feminist films)- would we still judge it so positively? It’s a fun, popcorn romp, and there’s nothing wrong with being a feminist and enjoying it. But feminist films should, *at the very least*, pass Bechdel. If our bar for entry is lower than that then the term becomes almost meaningless.

  • Destructor

    Also to River- thank you for your post, that breakdown of the change in the characters has given me a new perspective on the arc of the film and I appreciate it.

    On a separate topic, I think not enough time is given to true analysis of what the Hulk represents. I mean, beyond the literal comic-book machinations like gamma rays and such, I think the Hulk is something of an apologia for male rage. I mean, a man who turns into a gorilla and slams you into the floor when he gets angry? I’m sorry, HOW is this a hero? The Hulk just embodies SO many red flags for domestic abusers: He’s quiet and sulky most of the time, he constantly warns you about the consequences of making him angry, when he gets angry he’s violent and out of control, but after the rage has passed he is instantly forgiven and disavows responsibility because it ‘wasn’t him’. Like, yes, all of this can be explained away using comic book logic, but this is my point: What does he represent metaphorically? The answer is not pretty.

  • Kathleen Wynne


    I particularly appreciated your analysis of this movie and your description of how low the bar must be for it to be considered “feminist.”

    It appears to me that women, like men, have been conditioned to make excuses for men who behave like the “Hulk”. There has been an ongoing and consistent indoctrination of women by men to accept the premise that men cannot control their rage and, therefore, should not be held accountable for their brutish behavior is evident. I’m only surprised that they did not blame his mother for his behavior in some way!

    If only women were just as understanding of those women who stay with these kinds of men, rather than condemning them. They, too, have been conditioned to believe that the man’s violence towards them is in some way their fault.

    There has been little advancement in the changing of this mindset because women still remain easier on men than they are on women for far less egregious behavior. Combine that with men giving passes left and right to bad male behavior and it’s no wonder women still are righting for what is already their’s — EQUALITY and all that entails in our society. Women are still viewed by society in general as guilty until proven innocent, no matter what the circumstances or the offense. Men are always given the benefit of the doubt by both genders.

    Like you, I dont’ see how this movie can be viewed as “feminist” in any way.

  • Bes

    I agree that just because a movie is not blatantly misogynist that does not mean it is feminist. Also just because the female characters aren’t as offensively portrayed as usual doesn’t mean I find them interesting to watch. Makers of comic book movies have pretty much conditioned their female audience to expect idiotic portrayals of women characters and having the actresses who portray them show up at the View or in Vogue isn’t going to change that. And since we are talking about apologizing for male violence and abuse consider that the whole genre of movies where women characters derive their power from violent sexual abuse is nothing but an excuse for evil male behavior. That would be movies like Sucker Punch and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

  • The Follower

    To understand The Hulk better you might have to be familiar with the comics a bit. The true nature of The Hulk is not that of rage but of peace. The Hulk is basically a very calm and peace-loving hippie that only wants to be left alone in a peaceful place, preferrably near flowers. Why he gets into a rage is because people are constantly trying to hurt him. He defends himself from people hitting him, shooting him and trying to kill him in every way possible. That kind of frustration has nothing at all to do with ‘male rage’. It is merely survival instinct, the reaction of any being that is cornered in and targeted for death. I admit he trashes Loki around near the end very aggressively but then again he is facing an immortal god that just tried to enslave humanity so I am willing to forgive him for not using diplomacy – which, instead of violence, Thor tried first, by the way. Besides, that particular scene was more Looney Tunes than realism.

    As for the feminism in the movie I have to say you have almost completely overlooked what Whedon does to the men in the movie, the various roles he offers men. Like River said the voyage the men make is what is cruical for them. And Whedon does have a bit of fun with the expense of their overt masculinity as well. I for one do not view the men nearly as negatively as some of the other commenters. We have the old-fashioned gentleman, the shy scientist, the self-confident businessman with a heart, the hunk that cares deeply for his friends and family, the nerdy fanboy agent and so on.

    And as feminism is not just about women and the role they are allowed but also about men and the roles THEY are allowed, I feel The Avengers is very feminist within the boundaries a super hero movie can be.

  • Bes

    The Avengers is undoubtedly very feminist within the boundaries of what a super hero movie has been.

  • River

    Very interesting perspective on the Hulk, Follower. And I think your last paragraph sums it all up nicely.

  • Priscilla

    Destructor, while you do have some interesting points, I can’t help but question your knowledge of the Hulk. Granted, I haven’t read the comics, but my father raised me on superhero shows and films, so I do know enough. The Hulk is nothing about controlling your rage. Bruce Banner was exposed to radiation that turns him into a monster whenever he gets angry. How many domestic abusers do you know that was exposed to that much radiation. For the Hulk, it’s an uncontrollable condition. For domestic abusers, it’s about control and maybe even esteem issues. *Spoiler* In the Avengers, Banner says that how he learned to control his condition is by always. being angry. The message is that you can’t control When you get mad, but you can control what you DO with your emotions.

    Also, to say a film is feminist or not based on solely a simple test is missing the point entirely. The Bachel Test is a Statement about Hollywood movies, not about whether a film is feminist. The point of the Bachel Test is to show that female characters in Hollywood films tend to be demoted to love interests and not valued as real people. One of my favorite feminist reviewers has a youtube page called Feminist Frequency and she discussed the Bachel Test, and even she said there are feminist films that don’t pass that test and sexist films that do. Think about this: Sucker Punch passes the Bachel Test!