Let's talk about Black Widow's sterilization scene in 'Avengers: Age of Ultron'
“You’re not the only monster on the team.”
In “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” these are the words of Natasha Romanoff speaking to Bruce Banner after they mutually reveal they’re sterile, incapable of bearing children. It’s no coincidence they say this surrounded by kids’ toys in Hawkeye’s secret country home.
While I’m very curious if there’s footage of Bruce Banner talking about fatherhood somewhere on the cutting room floor, I do think it’s powerful that Black Widow has a soliloquy’s length to describe how fertility was irreversibly rendered from her, as a requirement of her job.
What is mind-blowing about “the sterilization scene” is that “Age of Ultron” director Joss Whedon and his screenwriters had the audacity to sneak a gender dichotomy into a $250 million movie featuring robots and flying cities. That this message is so rarely addressed in film at all is a testament to the cordoning-off of “women’s issues” – AKA “women’s-only issues” – in the cinemascape, period.
That message is choice, and specifically motherhood as a choice.
The fact that Natasha doesn’t mention adoption or fostering children honors the intent of this scene: it’s not about lovers sussing out the logistics of family planning, but a woman mourning the loss of an option.
Hawkeye – aka Clint Barton -- exercised choice. His joining SHIELD was contingent that he’d get to have the wife, the kids, and the knowledge they’d be safe. In a clichéd phrase, he “has it all.” Whether Natasha ultimately wanted kids or not is besides the point: the Red Room’s policy of sterilization takes even the option of “having it all” away, insisting its female recruits cannot be the greatest killers in the world and have an emotional bond with their babies.
Yes, there are members of both sexes in this Marvel universe who are infertile. But consider the real-life statistical disparity that having kids helps the careers of men and hurts the careers of women. A job involving motorcycles, sniper shooting, code-cracking and ass-kicking certainly has its own list of preferred qualifications in this fictional world, but I find it still oddly refreshing that you can draw a direct line from Black Widow’s screenwritten experience to real-life glass-ceilings. Would a female superhero be lauded more or less if she had a secret family stashed somewhere?
As I mentioned in my piece about “Ex Machina” – an exceptional film about gender-as-construct – traditional “identifiers” of female-ness include the ability to bear children and the “hardware” to pleasure a straight man sexually. In this way, too, Black Widow’s identity as a woman has been forcibly splintered. In order to become a super-spy, not only did she lose the ability to bear children, but her sexuality is furthermore amplified and weaponized, which both de-feminizes and hyper-feminizes her at the same time. This is a specifically a “women’s issue” in an Iron Man Man Man Man’s world, and yet another double-standard one could take away from this scene. Isn’t her sexuality also what feeds the sexist “slut” comments made by Jeremy Renner IRL, or the “whore” line in “Guardians of the Galaxy?”
And speaking of hardware, consider Black Widow’s Scarlet Witch-induced nightmares about her operation during the “graduation ceremony.” I don’t think it takes an incredible leap to link her dream-induced horror to women’s real-life pregnancy and sexual traumas, like unavailability of safe abortions, genital mutilation, menstruation isolationism, forced sterilization of female prisoners, hymen reconstruction and so-called “virginity tests.”
This isn’t Black Widow’s movie. I don't want to ignore that Auntie Natasha is frequently a prop for and "picks up" after men in “Age of Ultron,” as many writers have noted. "Ultron's" got some glaring problems. But the sterilization scene plays to a specifically feminine theme, which is further supported throughout the movie. See how she soothes The Hulk back into Bruce, her tactics initially like a pro’s approach to a deadly predator, transitioning to the physical and verbal language of a mother to a child. In her rich interpersonal life, Black Widow enjoys friendship with Hawkeye but, just as importantly, has a loving relationship with his wife, their daughter and their unborn son. (And, yes, even the literal conception of Vision has a parallel here.)
I think it’s reductionist to refer to this expressive scene as Black Widow “whining” or her “mini-breakdown.” It’s astonishing something so vulnerable, intentionally fractured and female-centric tucked in between gun blasts. To me, the script doesn't imply that every woman dreams of having a family; rather, it exposes the painful paradoxes between sexuality and fertility, choice and conscription, superwomen and supermen.
Maybe that’s among the reasons Natasha calls herself a monster, because like The Hulk, she’s really torn between two selves: who she’s programmed to be, and who she could have been if she only had the choice.