I was going to post an Age of Ultron review today, but since the movie isn't out in the U.S. until next week, I've decided to stick with one specific topic: that bizarre conversation between Bruce Banner and Black Widow.
SPOILER WARNING: This post (obviously) contains spoilers, but only for one scene between Bruce Banner and Black Widow.
If you've seen the movie, you may already know what I'm talking about. It's the scene where Natasha tells Bruce she was sterilized during her childhood spy training, and how this makes her a "monster" like the Hulk. "It makes everything easier," she says. "Even killing."
This conversation was so terrible that I actually double-checked with several friends to see if they interpreted it the same way. They did. So: let's unpack what the hell was going on in the mind of acclaimed feminist Joss Whedon when he crafted this masterpiece. (By the way, Scarlett Johansson was pregnant while filming this movie.)
Bruce and Natasha begin the movie in the early stages of a tentative romance. He mentions that he can't have children, and she says that she can't either: she was forcibly sterilized as a teenager.
This backstory is horrifying, but it gels with what we already know about Natasha. She was trained (or brainwashed) as a child by a Russian spy agency, where girls were taught to be perfect assassins. From their perspective, it was "expedient" to sterilize their students, preventing unwanted pregnancies and cutting off another potential family tie. But instead of being handled sensitively, this backstory concluded with Natasha describing herself as a "monster" because she couldn't have biological children. Sterilization made it easier for her and her colleagues to kill people.
So, either the movie is dehumanizing Natasha because she can't get pregnant, or she thinks of herself as a monster as a result of abuse she suffered as a child. Here are my top three explanations for what was going on in this scene.
MAYBE my friends and I all misinterpreted the scene. Maybe she wasn't referring to infertility as "monstrous," and instead was speaking in general terms about her past as an assassin. But if she was speaking generally, then why mention it right after she and Bruce were talking about infertility? Unfortunately, I think this explanation is unlikely.
She is speaking in half-truths. She was sterilized as a child, but she only mentioned it to try and connect with Bruce. Sure, she likes him, but the only way she knows how to bond with people is through manipulation. This would explain why she compares herself to Bruce and the Hulk, although if this IS the case, we're still looking at a scene where Natasha equates infertility with inhumanity -- even if she doesn't actually feel that way.
She literally thinks that she is a monster because she cannot have biological children.
Looking at each of these explanations, I'm brought back to Bruce's reaction, which was... not much, if I recall correctly? The obvious response was to tell her that she isn't a monster, and that the people who did this to her are the real monsters. But that didn't happen. Instead, Bruce just sort of ignored Natasha's bizarre assertion that infertility is like being the Hulk.
Is it realistic for someone who experienced forced sterilization to think of themselves like this? I don't know. Perhaps if she had been raised to believe that motherhood is the purpose of a woman's life, but there's no evidence to suggest she was. It makes sense for her to be traumatized by the abuse she experienced during her training, but to compare sterility with inhumanity? WHAT THE HELL.
If taken at face value, Black Widow's statement isn't just offensive, it's damaging. She is the most prominent female character in the Avengers franchise, and the only major female character who isn't a love interest. And now, in a movie that will be watched by millions of impressionable kids (and no doubt many adults with fertility issues), Black Widow says that she feels like a monster because she can't have biological children. Do I really need to explain why this is was a terrible idea?
Next: Age of Ultron, Part 1: The Empire of Tony Stark