The Ladies of the Avengers

by | May 9, 2012
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

by A. Lynn. Originally posted at A Nerdy Feminist.

Did you know I’m married to a movie guy? Like, a BIG TIME movie guy. As such, his excitement for the first blockbuster of the summer, The Avengers, was pretty extreme. And we had the opportunity to see it early last Monday night. But because it was so damn good, we saw it again Friday night (and he even saw it a third time yesterday.)

Aside from just being highly entertaining and just the right amount of humor and high-paced action, The Avengers even got a few things right about gender. This isn’t surprising as many geek feminists laud Joss Whedon (the writer/director known for his comparably strong female characters like Buffy.)

But as someone who doesn’t know a ton about Whedon’s work (sue me! I’m a NERD, not a geek!) I didn’t really know what to expect. I just knew I was really happy to not be offended by the end of it. So let’s take a look at what I specifically liked about the women of The Avengers. This might get a little tricky, because I’m really, really going to try to avoid spoilers, but no promises…

1) No tokens here!
Some disappointing facts are the very low number of women in The Avengers overall, the complete absence of women of color, and the fact that it does not pass the Brechdel Test. However, the women who are present in the story are far from tokens. Natasha Romanoff (the Black Widow-played by Scarlett Johansson) is the only official female Avenger. However, she is an integral part of the team who holds her own in every critical way. In fact, the teamwork nature of the Avengers is their biggest strength and one of the most entertaining aspects of the film. Each of the members of the team play a critical role in the culminating scene and Romanoff is no exception. And she’s not alone. Agent Hill (Cobie Smulders) who is Nick Fury’s #2, is also extremely important, strong, and decisive.

2) Let’s rescue each other.
How many times have we seen a superhero movie where the woman (typically a love interest) fucks up at some point and has to be rescued by her male counterpart? Hmm…about a billionty. In The Avengers Romanoff and Hill are not love interests but they are each rescued by men at some point in the film. But here’s the big difference: they also save men. Like I mentioned,  the characters in the movie are truly a team, and as such, they have each other’s backs.

3) What? Are you sexist?
One of my favorite things about Romanoff is that she is actually able to pray on the sexism of villains to her own advantage. (I’m trying to stay sooooo un-spoilery right now, so bear with the vagueness.) Suffice it to say that when Romanoff appears weak, there is much more than meets the eye. She’s always in control of her situations. It’s something that we as the audience don’t even realize, since we’re too often used to seeing emotional, weak women.

So all in all, I was really pleasantly surprised with the gender depicted in the film.

Of course, it’s not perfect. My biggest concern, as I mentioned above, is that I can’t think of a single woman of color speaking role. I mean, Samuel Jackson’s Nick Fury is the only significant black man in the film. So we have one significant minority character and two important women over all. Yet again, the intersection of racism and sexism has thrown minority women under the bus.

But I feel I can say that The Avengers is a step in the right direction for gender depiction. I wish it had gone further and contained more diversity of women (race, body type, etc.) but I am appreciative for what it was. Especially since Johansson’s Romanoff just annoyed me in Iron Man 2. I should have known that in the right story, she’d be an awesome character.


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  • ~Sacha

    I saw it and felt much the same. I was most curious about the lone blonde female scientist that appears prominently but has no speaking role in the earliest scenes of the film. It struck me that she stuck out, and then it struck me that in a film with literally hundreds of extras in random soldier/scientist positions, none were women. I think that was a definite lack which could have been EASILY remedied. I agree with this analysis about the way the two women were represented. It was interesting that Scarlett’s cleavage, apart from the first scene, wasn’t the focus of her shots and that there were several shots in which the gaze on the male body (particularly Chris Evans in early scenes) was very much akin to traditional sexualized representations of women.

  • A

    Well the fact that you demand there be people of certain color and sex to please you makes you both sexist and racist.

    2nd you didn’t even notice the fact that they used the last name Romanoff (Male gender) instead of Romanova (Female gender). Russian last names have different endings based on gender.

    • jarrahpenguin

      I’m not sure what you’re trying to say about the significance of using Romanoff instead of Romanova.
      On the other point, it’s not at all sexist or racist to say you want more diverse representation. She nowhere said they shouldn’t have men or white people, just that there was opportunity to make the cast more diverse, especially the extras, and no good reason not to do so.

      • A

        Because Russian names are different for genders. In America it would be Mr. Smith, and Mrs. Smith. In Russia it’s Mr. Romanoff, and Mrs. Romanova. So them using Romanoff states that she is a male. Do a little research on things outside America.

        They had tons of female extras. She’s complaining they don’t have enough women. Someone who isnt sexist wouldn’t have noticed or cared enough to write an article about it. Especially complaining that it didn’t pass the Brechdel Test.

  • Roxanna Bennett

    Natasha Romanoff is one of Natalia Romanova’s many, many aliases in the Marvel Comic books and is irrelevant to this critique.

    I was very relieved by the treatment of Black Widow in the film, I got nervous during the scene you very un-spoiler-y allude to but they pulled it off. I was disappointed by the lack of women in the film, it’s not like the Marvel Universe isn’t full on interesting female characters, but they did spend over five years building this film from the preceding Marvel films and kept the continuity intact. Hopefully going forward they’ll introduce more of the amazing women from the comic books.

    • A

      “Natasha Romanoff is one of Natalia Romanova’s many, many aliases in the Marvel Comic books and is irrelevant to this critique.”

      Natasha to Natalia is the same as Lisa to Elisabeth. Romanoff is not an alias, it’s the male gender version of Romanova. It came from someone doing poor research on Russian culture, and falling for stereotypes. Figures Americans know nothing outside their bubble.

  • 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.

    • A

      You should either read the comics, or not watch the movie at all. You completely missed the point of the whole movie.

      • Destructor

        I think it’s completely valid to view and analyze the movie in isolation, or in the context of the other Marvel movies that precede it. If the only people who went to see The Avengers were people who read the comics first, it would not have made $200m in the first weekend (comic book readership is at an all-time low).

        The vast majority of viewers will be viewing it without this additional material, so it makes sense to analyze what those viewers will make of it- if you have to read the comics to get the point of the film, then it has failed as a coherent piece of media.

        Anyway, if you’d like to extrapolate on how the comics make the move feminist, I’m all ears.

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  • Silva

    Seems to be usual Whedon misogyny. But hey: diversity of body types in superhero comic book adaptations? How does that work?

    (Which doesn’t mean the lack thereof is something I like – it’s just … kinda intrinsic to the genre.)