This month the GeekMoms have been enjoying spooky tales of peculiar children, talented alchemists, mysterious desert towns, and deep, dark, fears.
These include the latest in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children‘s novels, a novelization of the Welcome to NightVale podcast world, the latest from Jenny Lawson aka The Bloggess, and the definitive origin of Black Widow.
It’s usually difficult to find the elusive Natasha Romanoff, but not today: You can now find Black Widow starring her own young adult title, Forever Red, in bookstores everywhere.
Black Widow: Forever Rednot only gives us a much-needed insight into the history of Natasha Romanoff, but also introduces a new teenaged character, Ava Orlova, who made her debut in September in the Mockingbird comic book one-shot. How do their paths intersect?
“Being able to tell a canon story—the definitive story of Natasha Romanoff’s past—that was both the carrot and the stick,” says author Margaret Stohl. “But the book is both an origin story and a legacy story—with our Black Widow and our Red Widow—so in many ways it becomes a very powerful female narrative about friendship and really sisterhood between two pretty amazing women.”
I am sure you have all seen the hashtag #WeWantWidow going around, imploring Marvel to include more of the Black Widow character not only in merchandising, but to the collective Avengers movie universe.
A movement is growing. It was exciting to get the update from our friends at Legion of Leia.com about the Black Widow Flash Mob that took place on June 6. The idea was created by Kristin Rielly, founder and editor of Geek Girl Network. The outcry was sparked by the Avengers: Age of Ultron’s lack of the Black Widow character. The voices included female Disney and Marvel fans from around the country, coming together to take change in their own hands.
My four-year-old’s untimely demand (most of them do come when I am in the shower) seems to be right in step with this social media uprising.
So after my shower, we went searching for Avenger team items. The cute hat above was found at Target and did not include Black Widow. Sadly, it didn’t shock me. I think I had gotten used to the gender inequality when it comes to finding female Marvel, DC, or Star Wars characters in merchandise from local stores. Most of Ella’s geekware items have been purchased in the “boys” section. In all fairness to Target, just this summer there has been a recent influx of superhero clothing, so they seem to be taking steps to offer more for girls and women. One was even found that included Black Widow. It’s a good start.
Choosing to get the hat, I asked Ella why she thought Black Widow was not on it. Her answer was, “She was off saving people and saving Hulk and Captain America.”
We decided to add her to the hat ourselves. We found a picture of Black Widow in Ella’s Captain America: The Winter Solider coloring book. It was chosen because it had her on the cover. Coloring the picture together, I mentioned that sometimes if we want to change things, we need to find solutions and do it ourselves.
Maybe someday Ella will be writing for Marvel or designing clothing. She might be packing up this hat as a sentimental reminder of her youth on her first astronaut mission to Mars. Those DIY, problem-solving skills may just come in handy if her mission team needs something important mended.
Whatever her future, it is my hope as her GeekMom that she remembers that she is the architect of her own life and to put on a towel before jumping out the shower with ideas to change the world.
In her own way, she is joining in by saying #WeWantWidow too.
The last, of course, is tongue-in-cheek, but as I was writing this column, I noticed that I unconsciously put “writer” before “mom,” perhaps because I’ve considered myself a writer all my life. Being a mom came later.
Temporary pause of obligatory SPOILER warning for Avengers: Age of Ultron to follow.
But thinking about why I had put “writer” first, along with the controversy about Black Widow’s role in Avengers: Age of Ultron, started me wondering about the boxes society puts women in. Because in pop culture, it often seems like a women’s primary role is either as a mom or something else—usually something dangerous or time-consuming that moms shouldn’t do because, hey, who else should watch the kids?
What if, like me, you’re two things at the same time?
Let’s take Age of Ultron. I love that Hawkeye’s a dad. I’m also completely cool with Laura Barton doing the stay-at-home mom thing. I’ve done that and I don’t regret it for a second. Women fought for equal rights to have choices. All choices are equally valid, so long as the ability remains to choose.
After all, that’s what Black Widow was mourning in the same movie. Not that she necessarily wants kids or that she can never do what Laura Barton has done. No, Widow’s in mourning because the choice was taken from her, one of many ways those who raised her to be a weapon took away her individuality.
But it started me wondering: There are action heroes who are fathers—the Rock is all over my television screen in his new San Andreas trailer—but very few action heroes in pop culture are mothers. Hawkeye can be a dad and be a superhero, but the women are divided into mom and not-moms.
Then, I started making a list of great mothers in science fiction and fantasy, either books or movies, and realized that most of the ones on my list were known as mothers first. Even Sarah Conner is protecting her son in the Terminator movies and Elasti-Girl/Helen Parr, who is awesome, is best known as part of a family unit.
Where are the mothers who are equally moms and something else?
The first example I could think of was Amanda Waller from the original Suicide Squad in DC Comics. She was a single mother who lost her husband and one of her sons to violence, and developed a career. When you first think of Waller, the image that comes to mind is “stands up to Batman,” not motherhood. Of course, DC has since decided to de-age Waller and change her physical appearance so now she’s younger, hotter, and presumably not a mom anymore.
There’s also Joss Carter from Person of Interest, whose first adjective is police officer, though she’s also a fiercely protective mom. And there’s Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, who’s so complicated that one adjective doesn’t begin to describe her. (Bujold also made a Dowager Queen, Ista, the heroine of one of her fantasy novels, Paladin of Souls, and Ista’s adventure has little to do with her children.)
Less well know is Kate Spencer, DC’s comics Manhunter, who is a lawyer, superhero, and mom. (Unfortunately, she’s not appearing anywhere in DC Comics right now.)
But the list is frustratingly short. Complex women who are something else and mothers were hard to find in science fiction and fantasy.
I suspect it comes down to that the general feeling is that once women become mothers, their adventures are over. Jack Bauer of 24 can be a super-spy and a father. The Rock can be a rescue pilot and a dad. Their action “jobs” have little to do with their being parents, though sometimes they use their skills to save their kids.
The vast majority of women in action movies who are mothers just need that simple description “wife,” “mother.” Not, “spy” or “police officer” or “soldier” for whom that role means as much as their role as mothers.
It sends the message that while men can go off and do dangerous jobs and define themselves not just as fathers but as something else, a women’s role of mom takes precedence over all. Once motherhood begins, that’s it. Television dramas do somewhat better. Witness Alicia on The Good Wife, not SF/F, though it’s nice that Alicia’s identity as a lawyer is as important to the show as her role as a mother.
In season 2 of Castle, an FBI Special Agent, played by Dana Delaney, is introduced as an intelligent, competent FBI agent who chases serial killers. Only later is it revealed that she’s also a mother. This surprises Beckett and it surprised me, because it played on my subconscious assumption that someone with this kind of job wouldn’t also be a mother.
If women want to be mothers above all else, that’s great. I’d just love to see more professional women (for lack of a better term) in SF/F succeeding at motherhood and their chosen careers, just as fathers can do. It’s obviously a situation that we, as a society, still don’t fully accept.
My dream is that in Maria Hill’s next appearance, we find out her husband and kids live on a ranch in Montana, that her family is totally supportive of her work as one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s premier agents, and that we, the audience, don’t judge her for her periodic absences caused by the need to do her part in building a better world.
The calendar may say it’s spring, but the summer movie season is officially upon us with the release of the sequel to 2012’s blockbuster The Avengers this weekend. It’s Marvel, it’s Joss Whedon, and it’s the Avengers, so there’s no question Avengers: Age of Ultron is going to be a megahit to rival, perhaps even surpass, its predecessor.
A traditional review seems rather pointless for a film like this. I mean, if you want to see it you’re going to see it, no matter what the critics say (for the record, I say it’s a whole lot of fun and well worth your time). What’s more valuable, I think, is an exploration of the issues the film raises, particularly in terms of the depiction of its main female hero, Black Widow (deftly portrayed by Scarlett Johansson).
Due to some grossly insensitive comments made by a couple of the actors in an interview (et tu, Evans?) and the observation that Black Widow has been woefully underrepresented when it comes to merchandise, the character has become a lightning rod for controversy on the fringes of the Avengers franchise. And let’s not forget that despite Johansson’s popularity and the rich well of story material, there’s still no sign of a Black Widow standalone film.
These are all legitimate gripes, important to the ongoing conversation about the treatment (or, sadly more often, mistreatment) of women in Hollywood. Yet it always seems as though there are those lying in wait for things like this to happen, ready to fire up the outrage machine and whipping out hashtags like pre-printed Super Bowl championship T-shirts. There’s a old newspaper saying: “Never pick a fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel.” The updated version is: “Never offend anyone who sells ad space by the page click.” To be fair, it doesn’t help that tone-deaf filmmakers, actors, and studios fall into the trap every single time.
So now, instead of talking about Black Widow’s arc in Age of Ultron, we’re drawn into a larger debate about slut shaming and invisible protagonists on retail shelves. There are plenty of places where you can engage in that worthy discussion, but I’m not going to get into all of that here (others have covered the topic quite thoroughly). What I’d rather focus on is Natasha’s storyline in the film itself, an aspect often overlooked in the midst of all these external elements.
This is where I must to pause to issue a spoiler warning before continuing. The following article will deal with some minor plot points from the film. I won’t be revealing any major details about the final act or any of the other character’s storylines (except where they directly intersect with Black Widow), but if you want to go in truly knowing nothing you may want to stop here and come back after you’ve seen the film. Otherwise, let’s dive right in.
Setting aside for the moment her appearances in previous MCU installments, I would argue that the storyline Whedon has written for Black Widow in Age of Ultron is actually quite empowering. The sweeping action sequence in the film’s opening shows her fighting shoulder to shoulder with her male counterparts. They value her for her skills and what she can contribute to the team. No one talks down to her, flirts with her, or considers her lesser because of her gender. She’s the only one who points out the difference, often jokingly referring to her compatriots as “boys.”
In a way, Natasha Romanoff is the spiritual successor to Peggy Carter, achieving the equality and respect among her colleagues that Peggy could only dream about in the 1940s. I believe in giving credit where it’s due, and Whedon has made Black Widow an intrinsic part of the Avengers, consumer products not withstanding.
It’s Natasha herself who goes and challenges that dynamic by not only having romantic feelings for Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), but expressing them to him outright. She takes the initiative, making it clear to him that she’s still considering whether to go for it, and if she does it will be on her terms. It’s sort of adorable the way Bruce has no idea what to do with this declaration. He’s obviously interested (even the “other guy” has a soft spot for her), but has convinced himself he’s damaged goods. What he doesn’t realize is that’s exactly what she sees in him. She’s damaged too, and looking for someone who won’t judge her for it.
I’ve heard some critics take issue with the fact that Black Widow in Age of Ultron is basically defined by her relationship to a man, as if somehow that diminishes her as a character in comparison to her male counterparts. I don’t agree with either part of that assessment, but let’s say for the sake of argument that the first part is valid and her journey in the film is centered around her connection with Bruce. If that’s true of Natasha, then it’s true of Bruce too, since they are on a parallel path. Their story is about trying to find some shred of good in a whole lot of bad. The question that unites them is whether they are too far gone for redemption. Love is one measure of redemption, but it’s not Natasha’s only option.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the film should be held up as beacon of feminism or anything. Though it features a handful of outstanding female characters, they scarcely interact.
I especially wanted to see more of the strong friendship hinted at between Natasha and another female character outside of the world of the Avengers, but their screen time together is minimal. Certainly there’s room for improvement on the Bechdel front. What I’m arguing is that Black Widow is far from marginalized in the source material, even if she gets the shaft everywhere else.
Age of Ultron is a very crowded film, with lots of moving parts. That Whedon was able to serve so many characters, even in a minimal way, and still keep the running time under three hours is an impressive feat of storytelling.
I encourage Black Widow fans to see the film themselves and form their own opinion, outside of the Internet echo chamber. You may come to a completely different conclusion, and that’s fine. That’s great. That’s a discussion I’d love to have.
We know you’re all waiting with all the patience you can muster, ticket in hand, for this weekend’s release of Avengers: Age of Ultron. To tide you over, here are a few new featurette videos, starring Black Widow and Scarlet Witch.
All good. I could wish that a great character like Sam Wilson would support a title as The Falcon rather than have to adopt another identity but the direct comic market is crowded and his adventures will sell better if he’s dressed in the red, white, and blue. Plus, there’s some nice symbolism in an African-American Captain America, though Sam isn’t the first.
As for the new Thor, she’ll get a chance to headline a title for six months to a year and hopefully, there will be enough interest in her as a character so that when the hammer eventually passes back to its original owner, she’ll stick around.
But I’m not satisfied or particularly thrilled, given how these changes won’t last and there’s no guarantee that Sam or the new Thor will end up as lasting characters. See: Thunderstrike.
I’m even less thrilled by looking at the image above, which is pretty much all of mainstream superhero comics diversity problems in a nutshell. It’s supposed to get readers excited about a revamped Avengers line-up.
Good: I count four women to seven men. Not a 50/50 ratio but it’s decent. Also good: the new Captain American and Deathlok, plus some an interesting mix of characters.
Bad: The art. The dudes need to work on their hip thrusts because their ability to showcase that booty is way behind the women’s ability to let us know that, hey, they have HIPS & BUTTS. Also, the two women at the forefront are the only ones showing skin in this photo as well. Shy about the bionic arm, Bucky? I know legions of people on Tumblr who would be happy to see you fight enemies shirtless. Also, the female Thor’s head seems smaller than her breasts. That’s an unfortunate side effect of possessing Mjolnir.
Even worse: See the redhead on the top left side? That’s Medusa, one of the Inhumans. One of her major abilities is that she has super-powered hair she can use as tentacles. Therefore, the little decoration over her glittery hoo ha (AKA vaginal area) raises my eyebrows instantly. Just what are you trying to imply about that area, which is also prone to hair, Marvel?
And Medusa isn’t the only one currently with a costume that, ah, accentuates that region. When the New 52 began two years ago at DC, Supergirl’s costume sported an attention-drawing shield over her vaginal area. Given that the character is underage, it’s an unfortunate showcase, to say the least.
So I have to ask: What the heck is with the attention to the glittery hoo ha, artists?
The men don’t get equal treatment. In fact, Superman’s outside underwear was eliminated in the New 52 because, I guess, no one like drawing attention to his Johnson or something. What’s the matter Clark? Feeling a little insecure about the Kryptonian package?
Jokes aside, an image widely circulated by Marvel to draw attention to stories that they obviously want to appeal to female readers is full of incredibly mixed messages.
Look, we have women! But, hey guys, they’re still hot and half-naked sometimes. All good, right?
To bring us back to Billie Jean, I feel like Marvel and DC are constantly handing out crumbs.
I want it all.
I want a Wonder Woman movie.
I want a Black Widow movie. It’s just sad that Scarlett Johansson has superpowers in a new movies and she’s not Widow.
I want female costumes designed to make heroines look as powerful as the heroes and I want female poses that match that power, not that say “Hey, fanboy, come up and see me sometime.”
I want more female heroes who can be young and cute, like the new direction for DC’s Batgirl, but also older and experienced and who want to be married, like Batwoman. (And yet, can’t be married because of editorial edict.)
I want comics that are full of women of all shapes, sizes, and ages, not just as the lead characters.
I want women in comics in nearly the same percentage as men, instead of being relegated to the usual pop culture ratios represented these figures: only 11% of family films, 19% of children’s shows, and 22% of prime-time programs feature girls and women in roughly half of all speaking parts. (Cite: Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.)
You want to appeal to female audiences, Marvel and DC?
How about writing fascinating female characters doing interesting things while not dressed or posed with a big sign that says “have sex with me.” I know you can do it. I currently see Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel and Batwoman and I still have my Chuck Dixon and Gail Simone runs of Birds of Prey.
I look at my classic Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont and John Byrne and I see characters that I love having awesome stories written about them. I see women who are friends with each other. This is the comic that kick-started Marvel’s resurgence in the 1980s. I bet the men won’t run away screaming if you take some lessons from it and apply it to today’s comics.
A week ago, I was on my way to meet the often-stealthy members of S.H.I.E.L.D for a Captain America: The Winter Soldier debriefing. But someone or something didn’t want me there.
I reminded myself that I’m not just a GeekMom writer, I’m a superhero—I’m Hygena from Stan Lee’s Who Wants to be Superhero? I had a mission! I had been called on to bring our readers important declassified information from the expanding Marvel Universe. I could do this!
But every superhero has a weakness, and I discovered I have two: L.A. traffic and mommyhood. Still, I could not be deterred from fulfilling my mission, which was to bring you an update from this panel with actors Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Sebastian Stan, and Anthony Mackie, plus directors Anthony and Joe Russo, as well as producer Kevin Feige.
The appearance of Johansson at this press event is likely of double-interest to GeekMom readers, since she’s soon to be a mom herself. How serious the actress and future mother would be treated this time around remained an open question.
As GeekMom’s founding editor Corrina Lawson wrote back in February in her Cliffs of Insanity column, at prior press conferences, Johansson was diminished to mostly dieting questions. By comparison, Lawson raised the issue of the Black Widow character being overly sexualized in the Avengers comics. And the actress herself quipped in Entertainment Weekly that she’d have to wear “pasties” just to get a Black Widow movie made. Would the tone change with Captain America: The Winter Soldier?
The question that our readers wanted an answer to most was if there will be a solo Black Widow movie. “I think that could be great,” said Feige, who runs Marvel. “We’ve got various outlines and ideas of where to take that… there’s a big element that explores her backstory in an upcoming Marvel feature… as you’ll see in (the Winter Soldier movie) and Avengers: Age of Ultron, she is kind of key to so much of the broader world.”
Johansson agrees there are a lot of avenues to explore for her character. “I think Natasha is a bit of a reluctant superhero. She doesn’t necessarily have this strong golden moral compass. Let’s not forget, she started out her career as essentially a mercenary.”
As to what Johansson finds attractive in the role, “[S]he uses her feminine wiles as kind of a part of her job, but she doesn’t rely on her sexuality or…physical appeal to get the job done,” she said. “She’s extremely smart, thinks on her feet, is a leader, and has a lot of foresight. Those are all qualities that I think it’s wonderful to celebrate for young women.”
Would producers view Johansson differently once she is a mom? “I don’t know. I’ve been in the industry for 20 years (and) the way roles have become available to me changes as I grow older. You hope to have a career that has longevity and reflects the (personal) experiences you’ve had. It’s what we all hope for—men and women alike.”
On the evolution of the Black Widow character, Johansson said, “This is the first time that we’ve really gotten to see Natasha as a person who gets up, gets ready for work in the morning, has a life outside of just her job once she’s out of the suit. We find Steve (Rogers) and Natasha questioning their own identity, realizing that they thought that they were strong people that had their beliefs and morals, but at the end of it, they (question) their entire professional careers and young adult life and who (they are), what do (they) want, and what do (they) need from someone? Both of these characters are left (at a) cliffhanger at the end…cresting the wave of having this huge moment of self-discovery.”
Physical preparations for superhero movies is always a challenge, and Winter Soldier was no exception. “I had just come off of doing a Broadway (play), which is pretty much the most physically challenging thing you can do,” Johansson said. “I felt like if anything was going to prepare me to have stamina, it was that. Everything seemed like a piece of cake after treading the boards for that long. I was in pretty solid shape from that run.”
But, she said she found the physical routine of keeping in top shape less than inspiring. “Boring. (You) get up at 5 o’clock, go to the gym, all that stuff—it’s not glamorous at all. You train like a dude and then eat a bunch of lettuce. That’s how it goes: nothing fancy!”
And on the subject of the physicality of roles, Cap himself, Evans, addressed how it felt to wear the famous suit. “It always feels like it gets tighter. I thought it was supposed to get more comfortable, (but it) got worse,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with the fact that you know you’re making good movies. If you were disappointed with the previous film, it’s going to be hard to mentally prepare yourself for living in that thing for four or five months, but since Marvel just can’t stop making quality movies, it’s exciting and it’s humbling and it’s an honor to jump back into it—no matter how uncomfortable it is.”
After a special screening, I was amazed to see Robert Redford as a cast member in this latest chapter of Captain America. On working with Redford, Evans said, “He’s amazing. It was pretty intimidating that day, because he is a living legend, but it’s always such a treat when someone you look up to that much lives up to the expectation… He showed up with the utmost professionalism… He really is such an example of what it is to be great.”
Jackson agreed, saying, “I met Robert in a lot of different situations when I was going to Sundance, when I was a younger actor, when he had a more active part in that process, and I missed an opportunity to do several films with him over the years. That morning when I got there to work with him for the first time, we sat down and we talked about a lot of different things: golf, life, movies. So by the time we got on set, it did look like we spent time together or had some past and some darker and more medieval state of counterinsurgency. And it was a great experience. He is everything Chris said.”
Evans had previously expressed some concerns regarding being typecast in the Captain America role. This being his third time in the role, his concerns seemed to have ebbed. “Had I not done the movies, it would’ve been the biggest mistake of my life… It’s changed everything for me… Marvel has the Midas touch, so every time you suit up, you know that you’re making something of quality. It’s rewarding on every level. So, thank God I had the right people in my life pushing me to make the right decision.”
Finally, Joe Russo spoke on his role, along with his brother, in directing this action movie after having directed genre shows such as Community and Arrested Development. “The processes are very different… You have an infrastructure at Marvel that’s very different than anywhere else in the world. An incredible infrastructure, very talented, with very intelligent people, who are there to help you get your vision across. But we always say comedy isn’t very different from action. It requires choreography. The timing of it isn’t very different than stunt work or a fight in a movie. It’s all a dance. So we didn’t feel like it was that big of a stretch for us. It felt like every day that we’ve been on-set for the last 15 years.”
Captain America The Winter Soldier opens in theaters nationwide Friday, April 4, 2014.
Welcome to this week’s adventures climbing the cliffs of insanity. I made a short trip out to California last week to get a look at Dreamworks Animation’s new feature, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, and a look at a super-secret project that may turn out to be next fall’s Frozen–an unexpected and highly unique hit.
But while I was gone, Marvel Entertainment released this promotional poster for the upcoming Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And it’s a measure of how used to overly sexualized women’s images in superhero stories that my first thought was, “Well, it’s not that bad.”
And, if this was just an isolated incident, it wouldn’t be that bad.
For example, Widow is at least looking at the camera and not showcasing her butt, as she did in the promotional images for The Avengers. Of course, her waist has been heavily photoshopped to be longer and thinner, and her hair is also arranged just so to be sexy.
But there’s that pesky context. A context that the actor in the poster is well aware. First, there was her comment in Entertainment Weekly when The Avengers was released that she knew she’d have to “wear pasties” to get a Black Widow movie approved. Then there’s her schooling of the journalist who asked her a question about her diet for the movie after asking Robert Downey Jr. about his performance. This prompted a “Why do I get the rabbit food question?” response from Johansson.
To add more context, news is trickling out about which Marvel cinematic movies have been added to “Phase 3” of Marvel Entertainment’s plan; phase 3 meaning the movies scheduled to be made for viewing after Avengers 2. Not one of them has a female lead. And, of course, Norse Thunder God Thor and all his confusing mythology will have three movies.
How many movies does Wonder Woman, who a similar amount of confusing mythology, have?
Oh, right. ZERO.
So when I see this poster, I think of all that, and I think of how in the big splash page of the current issue of the big DC Comics event, “Forever Evil,” good and bad teams are aligned to fight and yet, up there in the corner, there was still a place to showcase Catwoman’s butt.
And I think of Felicia Day, who got flak for simply cutting her hair short, and then some irate types created a meme supposedly Day before and after her haircut. The point being, I suppose, that Day with hair is sexier. The problem with that?
But there is hope. Queen Elsa would like to point out a few facts.
What’s that you say, Elsa? Wait, I know. You’re laughing all the way to the bank being the star of the biggest Disney movie in like, forever, surpassing $300 million in domestic ticket sales as of January, with about double that worldwide, which puts it on the path to become the biggest grossing Disney movie of all time.
This for Frozen, which is about female friendship. In which sisters are co-leads. And this supposedly in a town that says this kind of movie just will never work. Too tricky. Girl cooties!
I’m sorry, Elsa. To Hollywood, you apparently don’t exist yet.
Oops. Watch out, guys. I wouldn’t piss her off. Or the legion of fans and moviegoers behind her.