I’d like to clear something up – I, Molly Regan, do not have children.
I thought my childless state was made pretty clear by the consistent absence of a kid and the nonexistent history of a full-term pregnancy, but this past Sunday has proven otherwise. It seemed that everyone was desperate to include myself, and a number of my fellow childless friends, in the Mother’s Day festivities this year. From the usual family members insisting that I needed to get on with popping out kids, to the waitress at my Saturday lunch wishing me a happy Mother’s Day “in 10 years” with a cheeky wink, everyone seems to think that it’s about damn time that I get to the real work of adulthood.
Every time I tried to explain “No, I do not have children” and “No, I have no intention of having them any time soon,” I was bombarded with very personal, accusatory questions: “But you do want kids, don’t you?”
“Think of your mother! She needs grandchildren!”
“Well, nobody’s ever really ready to have a kid. You can’t wait forever!”
“Oh, I think you’ll want them a lot sooner than you think …”
“Wait, you can have children, right?”
While I keep trying to remind myself that the comments were well-intentioned (I think?), it’s hard not to feel that my entire character has been reduced to my reproductive parts. And it’s pretty hard to not question whether or not the decisions I’ve made are the right ones when I’m under constant attack from everyone ranging from a stranger at a swim class to the woman serving me french onion soup.
This perception that women should have motherhood as their ultimate goal takes center stage in Avengers: Age of Ultron as Black Widow reveals the most intimate side of her assassin training. During a private conversation with Bruce Banner, it is revealed that the final portion of her training involved sterilization, as a child was viewed as a distraction that may limit Black Widow’s ability to kill with impunity. The discussion comes about after Bruce calls himself a monster, referring to the literal monster that lives inside of him. In an effort to comfort Bruce, Black Widow discloses her very personal history and states, “You know what my final test was in the Red Room? They sterilized me, said it was one less thing to worry about. You think you’re the only monster on the team?”
Then they cried and embraced and thought Wow, how wonderful to have a friend who can relate to my trauma on a personal level and doesn’t judge me for the awful things I feel about myself. We all came away with a sense of greater self-acceptance because, though we all feel monstrous at times, it doesn’t mean we’re not superheroes in our own right. Super sentimental, right? Glad we all gained such a wonderful, heartfelt experience.
No, I’m totally fucking with you. We lobbed death threats at Joss Whedon on Twitter because he didn’t write Black Widow the way we wanted him to.
I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with Joss Whedon. His writing is smart and emotional, but his status as a feminist icon is problematic. Every time someone asks why he keeps writing strong, powerful female characters, he smirks and responds, “Because you keep asking me that question.” Rather than writing well-rounded characters for the sake of narrative relevance, it kind of seems like he’s just doing it to make himself look good. Seeing the same ass-kicking action heroine rattle off witty quips time and time again can get tiresome, and while I’m a fan of Whedon’s work, I’m also a little weary of his “feminist” motivations.
My biggest complaint with the “strong, powerful woman,” trope is that, well, it’s a trope. It’s just a box in which we can place women and another type of woman we can hold up as the best. In order for one type of woman to be the best, others have to be worse. Not exactly the most feminist ideal. I would absolutely love to see the “strong powerful woman” trope move aside in favor of a more nuanced (and admittedly more abstract) “strong in her own ways and always growing” character prototype. We can continue to write female heroines without writing the same types of female heroines – strong, powerful, proficient in martial arts, witty and quick, kind of tortured but not really, and an ever-changing rotation of blonde/brunette/redhead (Buffy, River, Black Widow, etc.).
While Joss Whedon has proven that he often fails in multi-dimensional female representation, he succeeds in other areas. Giving Black Widow the opportunity to speak about her own negative perceptions of her experience is one of those successes. By having Black Widow refer to herself the way society at large would view her and her actions, Joss Whedon was able to brilliantly portray the issue of internalized misogyny. In essence: Black Widow thinks she is a monster because others would view her as such.
Instead of making the leap that the word “monster” is meant to imply that women who can’t have kids don’t have value in our society, perhaps we can examine how Black Widow perceives herself through a patriarchal society that reduces women to their reproductive abilities. Just as I have been questioning my own selfishness for not having a child by 25 (my ultimate conclusion being that being selfish is fucking awesome), perhaps Black Widow embraced the safety of her private conversation to express the questions she has had about herself. While women are, of course, more than the sum of their parts, the reality is that society often reduces them to both their physical makeup and their nurturing desire.
Female characters often suffer from an overzealous attempt to make them flawless to the point of caricature. Honest internal conflict, mistakes, dilemmas, flaws and desires are much more feminist than buff women kicking men in the crotch. So why attack Joss Whedon when he provides that? Feminist critique is one thing. Death threats are quite another. I don’t think the irony of the “real monster” is lost on any of us.
What Black Widow does in this conversation is give a voice to women who feel the crushing pressure of a mommy-centric society – one that views those who opt for a life without children as selfish, hedonistic and downright heartless. Though I’m guessing the majority of women do not have the same complex assassin background (and if they do, well, all the more relevant), the perception of these women is the same: No matter the reasoning, if you opt out of having children, you’re a monster. Kind of hard not to think of yourself this way when everyone is probing into your personal life, demanding to know when you’re going to get pregnant and really prove your womanhood to the world.
The reality is that women aren’t strong, powerful and confident 100 percent of the time and it’s ludicrous to portray them as such. It’s not misogynistic to show the flawed, vulnerable sides of the female experience. We’re allowed to feel like shit sometimes. It doesn’t destroy the feminist cause.
Telling a man to commit suicide though, that’s not really helping our case.
Molly Regan is an improviser and writer in Baltimore. She likes chicken pot pie, Adam Scott’s butt and riot grrl.