In the first Avengers movie, Black Widow stands alone in a field of men. Despite being the token female character, she breaks the bounds of classic Hollywood femininity and demonstrates depth and a sense of humor. Then came Avengers 2: Age of Ultron. In a highly controversial move, Black Widow reveals that she is infertile, and then calls herself a monster. Really? Infertility makes a woman a monster? Thanks, Joss. Feminists were immediately, and fairly, outraged. How could feminist Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, let his token woman fall into the infertility trope so common in Hollywood? Didn’t Black Widow deserve better than to face the classic cissexist female tragedy – the inability to have children?
Feminist Margaret Sanger said, “No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.” Contrary to the interpretation of most (outraged) feminists, what makes Black Widow tragic is not that she does not aspire to motherhood, but that she has no choice either way. Black Widow’s forced infertility stands for a problem that plagues our society: the external loci of control over women’s bodies. Rather than be angry that her infertility even comes up, let’s have a conversation about women and the choices they are able to make. Our feminist project is far from over. The U.S.-centric view that women now fully own themselves is simply not accurate, even in the West. Thanks to legal obstruction, social norms, and male entitlement, women still do not have complete control over their bodies.
Perhaps the most obvious way in which women lack control over their own bodies is reproductive rights. Thirteen states in the U.S. are considered hostile to abortion and make it extremely difficult for women to get abortions, despite the Supreme Court ruling them legal 42 years ago. More states enacted anti-abortion regulations in 2011-2013 than the entire previous decade. Many states require parental consent for adolescent women to have abortions, further enforcing the idea that young women don’t own their own bodies. A woman from Indiana was recently charged with feticide for attempting her own abortion, inducing a miscarriage with illegal abortion pills. Women under these abortion restrictions are in the same boat as Black Widow — they cannot decide whether or not to have children. Someone else is making the choice for them.
Laws affecting abortion are extremely regressive. The typical woman who gets an abortion is poor, unmarried and young. Women in these circumstances have few choices; they simply cannot afford to raise a child. The cost of raising a child to the age of 18 varies on average from $157,000 to nearly $400,000 in the United States. These numbers do not account for the cost of pregnancy or of giving birth, not to mention any lost income due to having to drop out of school. Abortion, therefore, may seem like the only option to many pregnant women. Clearly the cheaper option, an abortion pill can still cost up to $800 and an in-clinic procedure can cost as much as $1500 in the first trimester. Abortion is expensive because of state regulations targeting abortion, mandated clinical procedures and intellectual property laws. The cheapest option for women is to not get pregnant in the first place.
Female birth control is expensive, often outside the range of insurance coverage, and requires a doctor’s prescription. For women who have poor insurance and cannot afford a doctor’s visit cannot get a prescription for birth control in the first place. These women are also more likely to have unprotected sex. The notion that women have the responsibility to abstain from sex to avoid unwanted pregnancy relies on outdated Victorian-era notions about female sexuality. Women need to have control over their own sex lives through easy access to birth control and, when that fails, abortion. Behind both Black Widow’s tragedy and ours, the assumption stands that women naturally should aspire to marriage and motherhood. Black Widow is violated to impede this supposedly natural inclination; most women today are violated to uphold it.
Male entitlement to women’s bodies affects every aspect of the experience of being a women. In the United States, 18.3% of women have survived a rape or an attempted rape. Despite the commonplace nature of rape, the men who commit rape very rarely are convicted. Unlike with any other crime, the first instinct of most people is to ask what the rape victim did to cause the rape to happen. Questions like, “What was she wearing?” and, “How often does she have sex?” invalidate the victim’s experience, violate her privacy, and place the blame away from the person at fault—the rapist. A culture of victim-blaming and slut-shaming reinforces the notion that women do not control their bodies, men do. Men just cannot help themselves.
So far, this conversation has been largely centered on cis women’s bodies, or women’s bodies with female reproductive capacities. Transgender women also lack the control over their own bodies that seemingly only cis men can enjoy. Anti-transgender violence is a national crisis, as the murder of transgender people often goes ignored. Over 200 transgender people were murdered in 2014 alone. One in two transgender individuals are sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Apart from the shocking amount of violence toward transgender women, transgender women also lack self-ownership medically. Pills that aid with transition are expensive and require a prescription. Women must meet with a counselor who decides whether or not they are good “candidates” for the treatment. Many of the same laws that restrict women’s access to birth control also apply to hormone replacement therapy. Again, these laws are extremely regressive, as they most affect women with poor insurance who cannot afford the necessary doctor’s appointment. Cultural norms also dominate transgender women’s bodies by defining them. When women’s experiences are defined in terms of their reproductive organs, many women are completely left out of the conversation.
In many places outside of the United States, women fare even worse. Women in China face a problem much more similar to that of Black Widow, by not being allowed to have more than one child. Women in China are pressured or even forced into undergoing permanent birth control procedures after giving birth for the first time, or into having an abortion if their fetus is assigned female. In Iran, women are restricted in the way they can dress, and have virtually no access to family planning and reproductive services. In Egypt, 91 percent of married women have undergone female genital mutilation procedures. Unsafe abortions due to government control are the fifth leading cause of maternal death in Mexico. 99 percent of maternal death takes place in developing countries. In Russia, Black Widow’s homeland, it is illegal for transgender women to drive. The world has a long way to go in the fight for gender equality and women self-ownership.
As part of her training to become an assassin, the Black Widow is forced to become infertile because of gendered assumptions about motherhood. The underlying assumption in Black Widow’s graduation is that she will, unless made infertile, eventually want to settle down and have a family. This sexist assumption about Black Widow’s future dictates the choices she has about her reproductive health. Like all women under the patriarchy, Black Widow does not have control over her body, and it is tragic, trope or no trope. Black Widow is a feminist hero because she demonstrates strength and character depth in the face of Hollywood’s stereotypes about femininity and what makes a “strong woman.” She also has a tragic backstory that all women should relate to — not because we should all be baby-making machines, but because we all understand what it means to have control of our bodies taken from us by men with sexist ideas. Women around the world must take up arms and fight for the right to their own bodies. In the fight against the patriarchal domination of women’s bodies, we are all Black Widows.