Eugenics, Black Widow, & The Evolution of the Mary Sue
*this post not only contains spoilers from Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, but contain talk of forced sterilization and violence against women. Please proceed with caution*
HEY EVERYONE! It’s been way too long since I’ve last posted here. However, I’m happy to report I’m a week away from being a university graduate, and I’m using this time to get back into the swing of creating new content. And what other topic should I cover for the first official BGiM post back than one on Avengers 2: Age of Ultron.
While there’s so much to cover, this post will explore how Avengers 2: Age of Ultron contributes to the evolution of the Mary Sue and the control of women in superhero spaces.
To begin, what is a Mary Sue? Wikipedia defines this as:
In fan fiction, a Mary Sue or, in case of a male character, Gary Stu or Marty Stu is an idealized character, often but not necessarily an author insert and/or wish-fulfillment.
TVTroupes goes even further with this definition, breaking it down:
The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment. She’s exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She’s exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her “flaws” are obviously meant to be endearing…
Other than that, the canon characters are quickly reduced to awestruck cheerleaders, watching from the sidelines as Mary Sue outstrips them in their areas of expertise and solves problems that have stymied them for the entire series.
Though the Mary Sue prototype has connections to fanfiction, she can really be applied to any female character in popular media. If we look at Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, this case can be specifically applied to Black Widow. Now, there’s already uproar about the disrespect as far as marketing of her character in the film’s promotional advertisements, and of course, the infamous interview with Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans calling her a “slut” and a “whore”. But looking at the film itself and its execution of her character, I feel like Black Widow is becoming an exemplary case of the Contemporary Mary Sue.
She’s beautiful, of course. She’s intelligent — she’s a super spy, for God’s sake. But my hopes with the film were that, as with her male teammates, would add to her characterization. This film explored parts of this, but fell short to executing this fully. Two major examples of this was her romance with Bruce Banner, and her disclosure of forced sterilization.
Now, the film as a whole explored how the Avengers balance their humanity and their ability to be “normal” when they have to constantly worry about saving the world from destruction and each other. The other team members were subjected to this same scrutiny — the introduction of Hawkeye’s family and his “safe house” on their farm; Captain America’s pondering on whether or not he will be able to fall in love and have the same. The romance between Black Widow and Hulk seemed not only forced to me, but just downright creepy. There was something incredibly “forced heteronormative” about this exploration of the heroes’ humanity to me, but with Black Widow and Hulk, it was even more so.
In the earlier scene with Black Widow giving Hulk a “lullaby” to help him de-transform from his Hulk state, I got serious King Kong parallels. There was this “powerful creature overtakes a beautiful woman” sexual innuendos going on that just did not sit well with me. But even when Hulk was Bruce Banner, the dynamic of his relationship with Black Widow didn’t seem genuine or plausible to the story. It felt rushed; it felt forced. It felt like the writers’ and director’s push to mold Black Widow into a narrative of being seen as a woman first, and a hero second.
Near the middle of the film, there was a scene that not only threw me off guard but completely transformed my feelings about Black Widow. In a battle with the Maximoff twins, most of the team was under the spell of Wanda “Scarlet Witch” Maximoff and her mental manipulation. In Black Widow’s mind, she flashed back to her training to become the spy that she is today. I did enjoy the complexity this gave her character; her recognition of the lack of control she had in the entire training hit a chord with me. But in a later scene with Bruce when they explored the possibility of their having a “normal” relationship, she discloses that she was sterilized against her will in the “graduation ceremony” at the end of her training.
I wrote before about how there are various themes of control and subjugation of women in comics and superhero media. Black Widow’s forced sterilization sheds a new light to this — she is able to recognize herself as surviving this horrific accident, and showing how it has shaped her as a character is huge for this kind of media. Women can relate to this; this goes directly into how sexuality is used as a major form of control of women, to keep them under the eye of heteronormity.
Eugenics have a long, ugly, and somewhat permanent place in American history, yet it doesn’t show up in our popular media very often. In current events, eugenics arose as a means of controlling the population. The term itself was coined by Francis Galton, and was explored as a way for “improving the genetic quality of the human population”. It was used in the Holocaust, Tuskeegee experiments, Particularly, Indiginous and Black populations in the United States found themselves particularly vulnerable to forced sterilization, as eugenics was so closely linked to other forms of violence at these communities. In any rate, this serves as a problem that continues to haunt us today, as China’s “one-child” policy and the criticisms of vaccines having sterilization as a side effect, and the women and people with uterus being particularly vulnerable to this without their knowledge.
Allowing Black Widow to have a connection to this important topic says so much about the potential of not only the Marvel cinematic world being a reflection of what is to come in our own society, but it shows the potential of power that popular media holds. However, the film and franchise’s continued mistreatment and underutilization of Black Widow as a proper character and superheroine add to marking her as no more than a powered up Mary Sue. She’s allowed to come out and play with the boys — with her motorcycle and her weapons — but she is still kept prisoner by the markers of femininity and control of her womanhood.
There is so much that could be with Black Widow and the other women of the Marvelverse, and this was a huge part of my disappointment with the film on a critical level. Even with the marked awareness of the film and its shortcoming of progressiveness (the film had four named female characters with speaking lines, yet only two of them talked to each other, and it was about a man), thee is still much work to be done.
Til next time,