I just attended the 2015 Comic Con in Denver. There was a persistent theme present in the panels I attended: the role of the female in superhero and dystopian fiction. Two characters in particular were mentioned: Black Widow and the recent Avengers: Age of Ultron film, and Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games.
In her commentary about Black Widow’s support role in the Marvel Universe, Jen Yamato of the Daily Beast writes,
After exposing her true S.H.I.E.L.D. agent identity, the former Russian spy then paired off in 2012’s The Avengers with Renner’s Clint Barton/Hawkeye for a storyline that tore the stoic archer’s walls down for the audience’s benefit….in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, you’d think Black Widow earned the right to brawl and battle her own demons, just like the boys. Nope. Playing sultry therapist to yet another Avenger, Black Widow was partnered with Evans’s Steve Rogers/Captain America in service of pulling the hero out of time into the 21st century….Age of Ultron sees Black Widow yet again employing her feminine charms to help advance a fellow male teammate’s personal growth. The Hulk can now finally control his rage-outs, but her soothing female touch and cooing ministrations are literally the only things that can calm him.
Yamato goes on to imply that Joss Whedon, who is known for writing strong female characters, dropped the ball with Black Widow, portraying her with “the kind of female troubles only a man can write” and reducing “the baddest bitch in the MCU to a shell of a superheroine who’s sad she can never be a complete woman.”
Now, we know that Black Widow was forced to become an assassin, right? Therefore, it is reasonable to assume she is not whoever she might have been had that mind-manipulation never occurred. It seems to me that Whedon is working that angle. He is choosing to present her as a woman whose true identity was stolen from her; a girl who was forced to become violent, or as Yamato puts it “just like the boys.” What the movies really show is a woman who is not comfortable with who she is. She is clearly choosing the supportive, soothing roles. Why? What if, deep down, she is nurturing and gentle? What if her violent nature is a result of abuse and exploitation? And if she embraces those things at the expense of her true nature, is that the kind of female superhero we really want? All this also explains her interest in Banner, who is essentially in the same predicament as herself: he is a man whose masculinity has been warped and overextended, so that he can never freely express himself as a man (interestingly, Banner’s heroism is never questioned, despite his moping, self-doubt, and insecurity.)
Now, Katniss. What I hear about Katniss is the complaint that she is “too much like a man” and also the question “why does she have to become like a man to be heroic?” or “When are we going to see a woman who is feminine and also heroic?” Katniss is strong, tough, and unemotional. She is what everybody seems to want Black Widow to be. But there’s a difference. Katniss is what she is naturally. Her environment has produced her. (Note: it also produced her sister, who is weak and shy and wants to be a nurse.) Katniss does what she does, not because she’s masculine or feminine, but because she can and because it’s needed. She finds herself to be strong, and able to protect. Her family needs protecting. So, she protects. And that choice is heroic. On the other hand, Black Widow’s struggle is internal. She fights against the evil that was done to her. She fights to allow her true nature to shine through, despite her programmed impulses to be a badass bitch. The only part of Age of Ultron that didn’t sit well with me was when, at the end, Cap tells Natasha to stop moping around and get ready to fight. That’s right. Quit being all feminine and weak and sad and reflective. Be a man. Be a hero.
Here’s my conclusion: the original premise of this debate is totally flawed. Femininity / masculinity are not qualities upon which heroism is predicated. I think Pepper Potts is heroic. But did I like the end of Iron Man 3? Not really. Because Pepper does not need to become Iron Man to be heroic. She only needs to be the best version of herself, and to use her strengths to overcome adversity by making difficult choices that are true to her goals. That’s what makes a heroic protagonist. Katniss uses physical violence and mental acuity to overcome her enemies. That’s who she is. She knows and uses her strengths. Natasha Romanoff’s mind has been warped and damaged by villains so as to make her an assassin. Any attempt to overcome that false identity, even if it involves becoming supportive and soothing, is, I think, heroic enough.