I posted my review of the new Avengers movie yesterday, now that I’ve finally seen it–including some commentary on the Black Widow backstory reveal. However, I wanted to go into that on more detail in its own post. Because I have a lot of thoughts on it, in no small part prompted by this article on Salon that I spotted this morning.
This is going to be one of those “go not to the elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes” kinds of posts, mind you. Because the thoughts I have are not necessarily in agreement with one another.
Also, obviously, there will be spoilers for the movie. So I’ll be putting the majority of this behind the fold. Do not clickie if you haven’t seen the movie yet, and are trying to avoid commentary about it!
So yeah. I have to say right out that I feel that the Salon article makes a very, very compelling argument, and one that I hadn’t entirely latched onto when I wrote the review yesterday: i.e., that Natasha has agency over every aspect of her body except one. And being denied that agency, the ability to choose whether or not she ever has children, is devastating.
I’m here to tell you: yes. It’s a hard punch to the gut. Why do I know this? Because I was denied that choice, too. In Natasha’s case, it’s because of her training as an assassin; in mine, it’s because of my cancer.
It’s really almost beside the point that Natasha almost certainly would not have ever had a child before now, out of the sheer lack of practicality for such a choice. She’s an assassin, for fuck’s sake. And I have to admit that if the Red Room did a hysterectomy on her, which seems like a logical conclusion based on what we saw in the movie, it would nip a lot of problems in the bud. Even aside from the whole question of pregnancy, it would also let her avoid all the problems involved with periods.
Periods suck for a lot of women. And if you’re going into a career as a deadly killing machine, y’know what you don’t want to have as a liability? Two or three days out of the month when you’re dropped flat on your ass by debilitating cramps.
“I’m sorry, I can’t take this contract, I’m retaining every ounce of fluid I take in, I’m cramping and just had to wash three pairs of underpants, and I HATE ALL LIFE AND ATOMIC MOTION, so you have exactly half a second to FUCK OFF. BECAUSE I HAVE A BAZOOKA.”
Yeah, no. Not gonna fly. (Amusing though I find the image of a PMS-y Natasha.)
There are also issues I could see here of just not wanting to leave traces of her genetic material lying around, too. Which is exactly what would happen if Natasha would have had to deal with periods. Given all the wacky things we’ve seen accomplished by science in the Marvel universe–remember, this is a comic book universe we’re talking about here, and we’ve seen all kinds of wacky science in all of the MCU movies to date, as well as in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.–that has “bad idea” written all over it. Not to mention that there’s the potential for her simple bodily scent changing during her period being a problem, too.
Although speaking as someone who’s experienced a hysterectomy*, I also really hope that the Red Room took care of surgically-enforced premature menopause, too. Because you know what else sucks? Premature menopause and the hot flashes that come with it. Which would be another liability to consider when you’re training up a female assassin.
None of which lessens the fact that at the end of the day, Natasha was denied the choice to control her own fertility. I maintain that even though young Natasha presumably did agree to go through with the graduation “ceremony”, it wasn’t exactly a choice she could refuse. She was brought up by these people. They were her authority figures. She was doubtless taught to believe that the biological urge to have babies was a weakness, and one that would keep her from fulfilling her training.
And now that Natasha is older and has taken charge of her destiny, it doesn’t really surprise me in the slightest that this has come back to haunt her. It doesn’t surprise me either that it’s hit her hard. It resonates with me more than I expected, too, because this past Friday, I got hit in a similar way. A coworker of mine was being given a baby shower at my day job, and I found I couldn’t deal with being there, so I had to bow out–just because it reminded me that my experiences with cancer had deprived me of the ability to ever have a child.
Again, almost beside the point that my wife and I had more or less gone in a childless direction anyway, for assorted reasons. My experiences with cancer have been my Red Room. They made the choice for me, and denied me that agency. And just by glancing at the comments on that article on Salon.com, I saw that I was not alone in that resonating with me, either.
Time and time again, we see the trope of “wanting to have babies” as the ultimate desire for women in a story, particularly badass women like Natasha. It’s shorthand for making a badass woman more relatable to the audience, to humanize her. I’ve seen it all over the romance genre, for example, where so many heroines in romance have “marriage and babies” as their endgame. But the romance genre isn’t alone in this, either. It happens in SF/F, too, and all over the place in popular culture in general.
Why is it so prevalent in popular culture? Because it’s so prevalent in society in general. People who’ve chosen to be child-free get shit for it, particularly women. Women who elect to spend time on their careers rather than stay home and raise kids–sometimes just because they love their career, and sometimes because they have no choice if they want to pay their damn bills–get shit for it. And you need look no further than the furor surrounding anti-abortion laws, not to mention recent laws in some states that penalize women if they have miscarriages, to see attacks on women who fail to fulfill the idea that their ultimate destiny is to make babies.
This is not okay.
Which is why, even though Natasha’s backstory reveal did resonate with me on one level, on another it makes me weary and sad. Because yet again, we have a woman in a story who feels like her worth as a person and as a woman has been compromised because she not only can’t have children, she had to agree to be sterilized in the first place. Which I think is the crux of the matter here, and which needs to be emphasized: Natasha is upset with herself not because she can’t have babies per se, but because she deliberately chose to be sterilized in order to make herself a better killer.
And that’s bullshit. Not because she feels that way, but because she has been forced into a position where she has to.
We need more stories where it’s shown that a woman can choose to be child-free, and have that be as valid a life choice as any other.
But until we get them, I’ll be over here wishing Natasha was real, so that I could buy her a drink, look her in the eye, and tell her, “We’re not monsters, and anyone who says otherwise can go fuck themselves. Now let’s get out there and kick some ass together.”
* ETA: I should clarify–I also had my ovaries removed, which is why I had the premature menopause. Be a REAL interesting question as to whether that happened to Natasha too, in which case, yes, she’d have had to deal with that too in some in-universe-appropriate way. I could certainly see the Red Room people deciding to do that too, for general reasons of keeping the genetic material of their assassins under their control.