(Feminist) Avengers Assemble!

I went to go see The Avengers on Friday night. If you had any interest in any of the preceding movies, GO SEE THE AVENGERS. Without spoiling anything, I will note that the ensemble cast was very well-balanced, and the script gave each hero at least one moment of unadulterated awesome that made the theater break into cheers. They kept the previous casting for everyone except Bruce Banner, and both the new nerdy dude and the CGI green guy are an improvement -- the new actor is charmingly understated as Banner and, via a new mo-cap technique, also provided a lot of the (decidedly not understated) movement and expression for the Hulk, and the combination works very well. The Hulk still doesn't look 100% real, but even the real people in the movie don't look 100% real, so he fits in.

Also, if you're seeing the US release, there's a new stinger at the end of the credits. Stick around for it. We didn't stop laughing for quite a while.

I am here, however, to talk about the Black Widow. Point number one is Scarlett Johansson's ass. Specifically, I appreciate that she has one. They let Joss Whedon do this flick, and Whedon is exceptionally fond of 'waif-fu' in his works -- Buffy is pretty tiny, and River Tam is practically pocket-sized. Johansson, while she is slightly on the short side, is also very curvy, and has thighs that might believably belong to someone who kicks people in the face for a living. I haven't looked her up much, so I don't know whether her body acceptance spiel is genuine or Hollywood lip-service, but at least she's saying it and then not going and losing twenty pounds whenever we look away, so good for her. She tends to put it something like "I'll never be 6' tall and 120lbs." People generally exaggerate in both directions when they use comparisons like that. She's 5'4" according to IMDb and from the phrasing I'd guess she's over 120lbs -- I'd eyeball her at a pretty fit 130lbs or so and probably a size 4/6 depending on where the garment has the most structure, so if you ever wondered what that really looked like, there you go.

I'm waiting with bated breath for the people who bitch about everything women do on film to complain about the skin-tight catsuit. The camera does like to linger on Natasha from the back (to be absolutely fair about it, this is also how Captain America is introduced -- to excellent effect in IMAX 3D, let me assure you) and the spy suit is always unzipped for max cleavage on the front, plus at one point she's in a generic Tiny Black Cocktail Dress. She wears makeup when she goes out to kick ass. Horrors! What are we teaching our little girls?

These people are kind of missing the point. Admittedly, most women in comics are dressed like circus Playmates because they're hot and comics are drawn by dudes, but Natasha is one of a handful of postmodern gender-conscious superheroines who are doing it completely on purpose. (Another good example, if you hang around the DCU, is the Black Canary.) Her entire schtick as a spy is telling people exactly what they want to hear and then, after they're done explaining their evil plans to her in vivid detail, sometimes including PowerPoint presentations and handouts, punching the fuck out of them and delivering them unto whoever wanted their sorry carcasses in the first place. Thinking that because she's female, because she's beautiful, because she wears eyeliner and her boobs are like RIGHT THERE all the time, that she'll be ineffective and emotional and easy to handle is depicted as something the bad guys do, and she consistently uses it to hurt them. It's about as blatant as the whole "teamwork is awesome!" thing -- all of the villains make that tragic mistake, and none of the heroes do.

(Even Cap, who you might think would have the most trouble adapting to this, doesn't mistake her for anything other than dangerous. Of course, he might have already learned this the hard way even before he was frozen. In WWII, the Russians fielded an all-female band of snipers who were known both for looking like pin-up models and being the sort of sharpshooters that could take the ear hair off a gnat without disturbing its flight -- not necessarily in that order. Russian women tended to be put to work just as often as Russian men, and the communist regime thought it was hilarious to play on the capitalist swine attitude that women were fragile second-class citizens. Twenty years after communism, all the Russian women I've met have still been baffled by the idea that things like roofing and car repair are 'guy work'.)

One of my main complaints about people who call themselves feminists (as opposed to the people who are feminists, but consider this to be so self-evident that it doesn't rate a label) is that many of them have the idea that when you say women can do anything, what this actually means is that women can do anything men can do. When I was young, I had a lot of people tell me that, and what they meant by it was that I could go into the hard sciences, or politics, or business -- none of them floated that being a brainiac might also make me a good grade-school teacher or nurse or painter or mother, even though these are all equally valid and important things to do with your life. If I'd decided I wanted to be a housewife, I would have gotten people clucking at me and mourning the utter waste of potential. (So, what, only people without any other options in life should reproduce? Yeah, that plan'll work out great...)

The knee-jerk reaction to characters like Tash (and Lara Croft and Bayonetta etc) is that they reinforce the sexist stereotype of the femme fatale, and cater to what is traditionally seen as the male fantasy of a powerful woman who can be won over by love/sex/whatever. (Other side note: Why is it wrong to have this fantasy, and why is it wrong for some character to fulfill it? We produce entertainment media for our own entertainment, after all.) It's certainly true for some of the busty action-babes around, but not for characters like these. Tash is pretty much devoted to deconstructing the cliché and hitting people in the face with it. If there's anything more anvilicious than than making sure the bad guys' sexism is part of their downfall, I'd like to see it.


  1. Because I like to generalize from a single instance, I found Whedon's construction of the women of Firefly to be very feminist-positive. I'm not surprised that as screenwriter for this film he carried his modern sensibility into comic book motifs.

    Feminist is a very overloaded term but your "can do anything men can do" is a splendid example of what I too considered muddled thinking.

    I've not yet seen The Avengers nor am I hip to comic book stuff generally, but it would be hard to alter iconic costuming.

    Looking at the Zoe/Malcolm writing as an example, equally competent, capable, and complex but different because, surprisingly men and women are different. Sure, River Tam was small (she was a teen after all), but her character wasn't. Jewel Staite was cast as an engineer and had the physique of a woman.

    There is room in old tropes (westerns, superheros) for new ways of articulating fictional characters.

    1. Methinks you are reading a bit too much into the "waif-fu" comment. It's a sort of a thing with him that his martial artists are tiny girls, and while there's nothing especially wrong with that (he did write the characters, after all, and he wrote them thusly), it didn't fit with Natasha's established character, and I'm glad they cast to fit the iconic image instead of changing it for the sake of changing it. I didn't tender any comments on Jewel et al because she has nothing to do with the point I was making.

      People using the tag "feminist" to mean anything other than a general "women are humans too, let's treat them like we mean that" are one of my hot buttons. I was particularly put out by the "You can do anything!" speech once it became apparent that they didn't really mean anything, they meant some random thing they valued, particularly if it was usually associated with dudes. Being all a-twitter about a female student liking math is just as stupid as being all frowny at her for the same reason.

  2. I assume RDJ was his usual, wonderful self?

    1. Both RDJ and Samuel L. Jackson were graciously asked back to play themselves, except in superhero costumes. So, yes. They were awesome. :)

      Stark actually got a couple of surprising character moments in the film. You wouldn't think that being a blithely self-centered egomaniac would be any help to anyone (other than possibly Tony) at all, but damned if it wasn't. You'll know when you see it.


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