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On Black Widow and The Expendability of Childless Women
Natasha’s “sacrifice” sends the detestable message that the only value that childless women have to our larger society is in death.
This essay contains spoilers for Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame and previous films in the MCU
By Clarkisha Kent
About two weeks ago, I went to see Avengers: Endgame, the highly-anticipated follow-up to Avengers: Infinity War. While watching what was supposed to be a massive piece of cinematic and pop culture history, I found myself also watching Black Widow, one of the original six Avengers and the only original female avenger, fling herself off the highest cliff in a moment that was supposed to be visually stunning and narratively satisfying.
Except it wasn’t.
Instead, I felt rage. And to be honest, this confused me. Natasha Romanoff has never been my favorite character and being played by the “Asian” Scarlett Johansson has not helped the apathy I have felt for said character over the last ten years. However, I know convenient narrative misogyny and inconsistent (and corrosive) characterization when I see it. And since I know that’s what Natasha was a victim of, I knew I would have to say something.
There are several reasons why Natasha’s “noble” sacrifice is highly uncharacteristic and even vaguely insulting.
Starting with this one:
Natasha, at her best, would have found another way.
As much as Endgame wants you to believe that this sacrifice is in line with Natasha’s previous character arcs…it’s not. Because Natasha would have instead guessed correctly that sacrificing Hawkeye (even though he is her friend) makes more sense since he has already lost what he has loved and since she loves him; and in the best case scenario, she would have even found a clever way to bend the rules of the Soul Stone—and in a way that didn’t involve dying.
Of course, we don’t get any of the scenarios I describe above, because, we don’t even get the best version of Natasha. The Natasha we get in Endgame is a shell of her former self. One that has tragically devolved since her stellar introduction in Iron Man 2 and her fatal character departure in Age of Ultron.
Starting with IM2, Natasha is introduced as “Natalie Rushman”, assistant to newly-instated CEO Pepper Pots and new eye-candy for genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist Tony Stark. She is portrayed as very pretty, very matter-of-fact, but also very aloof and seems to be into Stark’s advances…until she is revealed as a secret agent for S.H.I.E.L.D. who was installed to get some details on Tony’s psychological state for the Avengers initiative. Her introduction is thrilling and makes it very clear right away that what makes Natasha truly dangerous is her ability to wield her femininity as a weapon because she knows that the men around her—including Stark—will abandon all common sense as soon as they see her superb pair of tits and shapely ass.
The Avengers continues this “femininity as a weapon” thread with a positively brilliant scene between Loki and Natasha in the film’s second act. At this point, we see Natasha trying to press Loki for information on Clint, his whereabouts, and what Loki plans to do with him if he succeeds in using this film’s McGuffin—The Tesseract—to bring about an alien apocalypse on behalf of Thanos. Natasha makes it clear that she wants her friend back, partly because she owes him and partly because her spy past has seen some killer days that she wants to pay recompense for. The “red in her ledger”, so to speak. Loki plays along for a bit, but then makes it clear that after he’s done with Clint, he plans on coercing him to kill Natasha in the most gruesome way and then “split[ting] his skull” when he realizes what he’s done. He mocks Natasha’s futile attempts at redemption, implies she is beyond it, since her ledger is “dripping red”, and goes for the misogynistic one-two punch by referring to her as a “mewling quim” (read: “crying vagina”) as his closing zinger.
We see Natasha recoil in horror and watch her eyes fill up with tears at Loki’s ugly words before she turns around, unable to look at him. And because he thinks he has the upper hand, he makes a villain 101 mistake by revealing that his master plan also includes him triggering Bruce Banner to bring forth the Hulk and tear the ship apart. And it is then that Natasha stops sniffling, straightens her back, acknowledges our villain’s nefarious plan, and thanks him“for his cooperation.” The big reveal is that this was an interrogation the whole time. And while we briefly thought that Natasha had lost control of it to the verbally slick god of mischief, we find out that her “emotional display” was always part of it. That it was her weapon to get Loki to underestimate her because of her femininity and then slip up, like the prideful demigod he is. And Loki, of course, is shocked because he, the trickster god, just got outsmarted by a “crying vagina”
At this point, two movies have established Natasha a stone cold, calculated killer and strategist with killer good looks that she uses to her utmost advantage—and ultimately for the good of S.H.I.E.L.D. But Winter Soldier complicates this with the reveal that S.H.I.E.L.D has been the Nazi organization known as H.Y.D.R.A the whole time. This reveal shakes her to her core, and she quite literally has to ask herself if she is a good person and what a good person would do to remedy the situation she is in. And by the end of Winter Soldier, this question of goodness is still at the forefront of her mind, but she knows she has to do something major, without compromising who she—the great Black Widow—is. So, in the film’s climax, she decides to engage in radical transparency by dumping confidential information on the internet that not only reveals the true nature of S.H.I.E.LD/H.Y.D.R.A and presumably all the evil things they have done for the last couple of decades, but she also does this at great cost to herself—destroying her carefully constructed anonymity and spy persona forever.
All because it is the right thing to do. Because it is what a good person would do. Which Natasha is.
To be clear, these three films establish that Natasha, at her best, is calculating, but empathetic. Steadfast, but not uncompromising. Strategic AND conscientious. Always willing to get her hands dirty for the right cause. Always thinking ahead. Always ten steps ahead of you. Stronger than she looks, but with just enough vulnerability to remind you that she is a living, breathing human being.
You underestimate her, this tiny woman, at your own risk.
And there’s no way this version of Natasha sacrifices herself in the careless way that Endgame Natasha does.
So. How does Natasha arrive at that improbable fate? Well, I refer you to the pesky detail of Natasha being a “childless woman” and how this canonical fact came about because of my least favorite MCU film: Age of Ultron.
Which brings me to my next point:
To get Natasha, this dynamic do-gooder, to think that throwing herself off a cliff would be doing the world some good, you must destroy her character. And that’s exactly what Age of Ultron did.
Pointing out that AoU completely chucked Natasha’s characterization into the sun tends to confuse people since the first and second Avengers film was written by the same person—Joss Whedon. But this is what happens when a man smelling himself so much that he inserts himself into the film (through Bruce Banner), boasts about his “feminism” even though it’s stuck in 1994, and doesn’t actually think women are, you know, people.
All that gives you a film that takes away all the things that make Natasha a dynamic character. I mean, it wasn’t enough to have her suddenly fall in love with his self-insert, even though said insert literally slapped the piss out of her in The Avengers. And it just gets worse from there. Aside from the highly inappropriate jokes about them potentially-smashing (i.e playing “hide the zucchini” even though I’m pretty sure Banner can’t even get an erection without destroying half of a city), you get two really big instances of Natasha’s established character arc going off the rails. The most baffling one was Natasha getting kidnapped by Ultron, the villain, only to wait around and get rescued by…Bruce. This is annoying, but I can overlook it.
What I can’t overlook was the most damaging instance, in which Natasha shares that she cannot have children. This all starts when Bruce and Natasha ponder a potential relationship out-loud (ew) and he voices feeling inadequate and defective for obvious Hulk reasons. So much so that he thinks himself monstrous. And also useless since all that radiation in his blood most likely renders him impotent. So to comfort him and also liken herself to a monstrosity, Natasha brings up the fact that she cannot bear children either. She doesn’t reflect on all the terrible, murderous things that she has done—which would be in character for her since she is very practical. No. She just mentions not being able to make babies as a similar example. And the implication and impact are, well, monstrous.
It’s bad enough that Whedon treated both examples as equal things to abhor, but the impact here, whether he realizes it or not, leaves the audience with the idea that Natasha is defective. That she is a monster. That she will never ever be whole due to something that she really didn’t have any control over and something that shouldn’t define her, her womanhood, or her value. It’s a horrible message to send, especially from a character who has never expressed any want our desire to have children (it’s like being James Bond. Do you really think James Bond would have time for kids? Hell no) and never expresses any similar notion again.
But it’s this very message that ends up being Natasha’s undoing and seals her final fate in Endgame.
Which brings me to my last point:
A “Childless” Natasha Was Always Destined to Die in the MCU
I’m gonna keep it 100. Childless women have zero value when it comes to our society. Since people—patriarchy—only really value women for how many babies they can pop out (and add to the workforce because…capitalism) or their capacity to make men “happy” or “better”, you can start to see how hard it might be for a childless woman to move freely within society if you don’t fall in line.
And the most unfortunate part is we don’t really fare well in fiction either. We usually get sacrificed in the apocalypse—be it a zombie apocalypse or the post-apocalyptic apocalypse—in order to save some other person. If the writer/director of this film wants to be extra gross, the person who gets saved will usually be pregnant or have some sort of [biological] family to return to. When we are not sacrificing ourselves, we are portrayed as power-hungry and ruthless career women that have no morals, with a reminder that our lack of children and rejection of motherhood have made us this way. Or we will be obsessed with our career or some other pursuit. Not because we are great at it (which would make logical sense), but because we literally have nothing else to do with our time or lives and are filling a void because of our “lack” of children. Films in recent history that lean all the way into these extremely disgusting tropes include The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Mother’s Day, Jurassic World, and now…Endgame.
Endgame Natasha follows many of these “childless woman” tropes to a T. After the time skip, she is the only one concerned with maintaining Earth’s security though New S.H.I.E.L.D. This in itself is not problematic, but it becomes just that in a later conversation with Steve when she is urged to “get a life”, seeing as she has become obsessed with her new role. And obviously, because she is a childless woman, they don’t show her doing other things like her male compatriots. She can’t go off to have a family like Tony and for some reason, she can’t leave her desk long enough to seek out support groups like Steve. Nope. To fill the void of the family she has lost—and the bio-family she will never have—she is behind that work desk.
Until it’s time to be “nobly” sacrificed of course.
If you watched the film, you know that this sacrifice comes after Natasha and Clint travel to the planet of Vormir as part of their “time heist” plan to retrieve the Soul Stone and then learn that one of them will need to die for this purpose. Aside from the fact that suicide should not even work according to the established rules of the stone (In Infinity War, Red Skull states that “The stone requires a sacrifice; You must lose that which you love.” But in Endgame, the word “sacrifice” is left out entirely, re-focusing message instead on loss), you start to figure out fairly quickly that it’s going to come down to Natasha “choosing” to off herself.
Granted, all signs point to Hawkeye. After all, he spent the last five years killing a bunch of “bad Mexicans” (The Cartel) and “bad Asians” (the Yakuza) because he, like over half of the planet, lost his family to The Snap. There is ironically no white supremacist in sight, which is telling considering to the political climate we’re in. And he’s barely repentant and considers himself long gone. But when the big decision comes up, he figures it has to be him because of the bad shit he’s done. And what really confirms that it should have been him is that according to the stone, him sacrificing himself in order to get his family back, but losing the opportunity to ever be reunited with them in this current timeline would have just made more fucking narrative sense.
This would have turned his reprehensible arc into a redemptive one.
But no. We have childless Natasha here. And while it makes more sense to yeet Hawkeye off the cliff, her status as a childless woman makes it so that writers Markus and McFeely cannot help but fall back on misogynistic tropes associated with her childlessness. After all, despite Hawkeye’s sins, he has a family. He has something to live for and people to return to if they succeed. Natasha has none of that. I mean, she does have “chosen family”, but this film goes out of its way to discard that every time, almost in a way that boasts that bio-family is supreme. And if she were to live, these male writers wouldn’t know what to do with her—despite the fact that there are plenty more stories you could tell with this legendary super spy. In fact, they’d probably opt to return to her desk, even post-snap and continue to passive-aggressively denigrate her for having “no life”. And, for that, she “deserved” to die, because it was the “noblest” way of someone of her status to go out. And just in case you didn’t think they were taking this “childless women have no value” thing seriously, they essentially kill her twice—the first time on Vormir and the second time when her “chosen family”, the now all-male Avengers opt to just not memorialize her at all.
This is a bitter pill to swallow with even more abhorrent implications. Indeed. Natasha’s “sacrifice” sends the detestable message that the only value that childless women have to our larger society is in death. It doesn’t matter that she was a good and productive member of society, who was only getting better and better. It doesn’t matter that she was a fiercely loyal friend and compatriot. It doesn’t matter that she was the most brilliantly tactical Avenger. It didn’t even matter that she was a damn good aunt to Clint’s kids. Her value as a character and person evaporated the moment she was deemed childless and thereby monstrous in Age of Ultron.
And death was her reward.
Clarkisha Kent is a Nigerian-American writer, culture critic, columnist, and up and coming author, with fixations on storytelling, body positivity, misogynoir and a commitment to crafting your favorite viral tweets (yes she is both “Groupon Peen” girl AND the author of that Prince William tweet. You know the one). As a University of Chicago graduate with a B.A. in Cinema and Media Studies and English, she brings with her over five years of pop culture analysis experience, four years of film theory training, and a healthy appetite for change. Her writing has been featured in outlets like Afropunk, The Root, MTV News, BET, The Establishment, HuffPost, Wear Your Voice Magazine, and Essence. She is also the creator of #TheKentTest, a media litmus test designed to evaluate the quality of representation that exists for women of color in film and other media.
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