Are we all still mad about Black Widow’s weirdly placed and (unintentionally?) offensive emotional revelation in Age of Ultron that she’s a monster because she can’t have children?
This has been up for discussion since the movie aired and is probably old news now in Internet Time, (there’s certainly been a lot written about it that is much better than anything I could say) but I think the issue surrounding it bears repeating or at least examining. Not just Natasha’s case, but the use of infertility as a tragically villainous trait, because it’s definitely something that keeps popping up. Among Orphan Black’s philosophical and allegorical dealings with female bodily autonomy and all that jazz, it’s revealed that one of the reasons why the decidedly domineering and villainous Rachel has such beef with Our Heroine Sarah is that she’s envious that Sarah and can have children and Rachel can’t. She also kidnaps Sarah’s daughter and is entirely ready to forcibly adopt her at the same time she’s got people about to harvest Sarah’s ovaries in the next room.
Like, whoa, girl. Calm down. Her infertility (part of her intelligent design in the cloning process) is not the only thing about her that concretes her as an antagonist, but it’s sure as hell part of her reasoning for doing what she does and being the way she is. While it might be unfair to say the narrative is implying that being biologically incapable of bearing children is a something that will turn you into a terrible person prone to physical and emotional torture… the implication, like Black Widow’s “monster” comment, is there. And it doesn’t seem quite fair.
Not to say, of course, “ugh, big deal—as if being sterile is the worst thing that could happen”. It’s a perfectly valid reason to be distressed, depressed, and feel like there’s something wrong with you. While it’s important to acknowledge the blaring voice of ingrained social values as it hoots “a woman’s biological destiny is to pop out babies, and if she can’t or doesn’t want to she is a freak of nature and not a true woman!”, it’s also important to step back and look at this on a personal level. I can’t speak for myself since I’m nowhere near any of this in my life at current, but I can imagine that wanting to have children and then finding out it’s impossible due to failings in your integral makeup would feel like a crushing betrayal from your own body. The Blaring Voice of Social Values certainly can’t help on top of that. It would be awful, and my heart goes out to people who have to give up on or rearrange their goals for a family because of it.
On a fictional level, if it can alter your life and emotionally shatter you like that, I see no reason why it shouldn’t be a legitimate starting point for a spiral into villainy, or self-described monstrosity. But, as always, the ever-crucial but, is that it must be handled with appropriate weight and delicacy. There is absolutely no reason Natasha shouldn’t be torn up about being sterile, especially when it was forced on her as part of her initiation into a league of deadly assassins. Having taken away her chance at an ordinary childhood, The Red Room has also taken away her chance at an ordinary adult life. Whether or not you argue it’s part of her character to want to have kids, the point is it’s a horrifying denial of autonomy. She doesn’t feel like a full person because of the conditioning she went through that took away any choices she could make about her life.
That, I think, is what Ol’ Joss was attempting to get at—Natasha was made into a monster by being trained into a ruthless murder weapon from a young age, all choice in the matter removed. Being sterilised was the cherry on the cake. But because of how little time is devoted to her backstory in Age of Ultron, the amount of focus on the sterilisation aspect (the repeated shots of her on the gurney, surgical tools, etc.) gave it a weird weight. And in a story where the other main characters are all men, it stuck out as being very specifically picked as a woman’s problem. It felt like a shortcut to sympathy based on presumed gender roles, and whether or not that’s why it was chosen, the fact that it came out in a heart-to-heart essentially made to make her male love interest feel better—the love story of which came out of left field and then promptly disappeared by the end of the film—is what makes it awkward and has generated the backlash.
Can forced sterilisation improve your ability to murder? Well, apparently, it can certainly help—Angelina, a.ka. Madam Red, from Black Butler also has it tucked away as part of her tragic villainous backstory. Like Natasha, though, it’s part of a longer conga line of terrible events, which start with the man she loves marrying her sister and ends with said sister, who she had a terrible internal love-hate relationship with, burning to death in an as-yet-unexplained (we’re up to chapter 100, surely we’ll get there one day) fire. In the meantime, Angelina successfully wriggled her way into the medical profession in the middle of the Victorian Era and found her own hubby, almost able to get over her unrequited love. She even fell pregnant, and it was looking all sunshine and roses, until a carriage accident injured her and killed her husband. The only way to save Angelina, apparently, was to remove her uterus, foetus and opportunity for future siblings for them and all.
Bam, shot at a happy ending destroyed in one fell swoop. Amidst all her grief, like a middle finger from the cosmos, she kept getting assigned sterilisation surgery on prostitutes, helping them casually throw away what she herself had wanted so much. A last straw on the proverbial camel’s back, and suddenly our little lady is Jack the Ripper. Whatever conflicted remorse she may have felt among her rage was pretty much silenced when a Grim Reaper shimmied down and did nothing but encourage her, sympathetic for the cause since she also can’t have babies (in part due to being canonically transgender, in part due to the contradictory nature, I imagine, of being able to bring life into the world when you spend your days harvesting the souls of the dead).
Madam Red’s backstory is all revealed in a single-chapter flashback after only being hinted at here and there, so again, it can be peered at as a case of “couldn’t have babies and thus went evil” as a shorthand for a female antagonist (and don’t get me started on some of the possible awkward implications of having Grelle, a trans woman, as a villain, but perhaps it’s not worth getting into at all since most main characters in that series are either villainous or queer-coded or both). But, as with Rachel and Natasha, it forms part of a greater narrative about removal of control and agency, and the emotional conflict it generates.
Interestingly, all these case studies are where the infertility was somehow induced—none of the characters were born with it naturally (except Rachel, but she had her genetics tweaked). It’s also not a narrative you tend to see with male characters, so when it does appear it usually manifests in this way: body autonomy and ability to bear offspring is removed by a greater power, woman feels like hell about it, and commits herself to a despairing spiral of anger and self-deprecation. They possibly also stab people, because clearly the removal of childbearing ability cuts off any lingering maternal instinct and makes it easier to commit homicide. It’s a very female-specific storyline because it can serve as an excellent allegory for how women are so often screwed over by society and whether or not they have control over their own body is always up for debate, and damn it, they have the right to get mad about that and go Dark.
Which makes it interesting… however, it can also feel slapdash and come with a barrel of awkward implications, and be part of a trend I despise, which is putting women through physical and emotional trauma to induce their badassery or evil behaviour. It can also be done to drag out audience sympathy, because again, it’s expected that having kids is a woman’s number one dream and destiny, and not being able to do that makes her a tragic and/or monstrous Other. Again, it’s a perfectly valid source of emotional trauma, but when it’s picked because “uh, this is something girls worry about, right? Babies and stuff?” it shows and it hurts. If you’re not a mother, you’re probably a serial killer, assassin, or uber-bitch business clone, right?
The moral is, if you’re going to give Black Widow Baby Angst, at least foreshadow that crap and don’t just cram it in where it has little to no relevance and only serves to weaken her when it’s convenient for the plot. It could have been awesome to have as a running emotional plotline among other things, if not only because then infertile women would have someone—and an Avenger, no less—to see themselves in. You can’t have kids? You’re allowed to be distressed about that… but don’t forget, you also have the ability to save the world. You aren’t any less of a person, and maybe you can find your own superheroic family in non-traditional ways.
But, alas, here we are instead with Miss Motherly Monster and her ilk of broody villainesses. As much as I adore all these characters, it would be nice to see a change of pace and handling that is less likely to come off as a jab to the childless.