bechdel taser: at least we aren’t the victims (conciliatory notes from the avengers)
The Avengers was released on my 21st Birthday. Joss Whedon’s impact on my childhood and adolescence has been recorded everywhere, from the essays I submit to real-life university subjects, to the airwaves as I stumble for words at 6am, to this very column. It felt like no mere coinkydink that Wednesday of all days was the day.
So, on the one hand you could suggest I have an unusually rose-tinted bias, on the other that such background knowledge is a boon and (secular) blessing. Of course, the knowhow really demanded by the film is some familiarity with its intertexts: Marvel comics, and the recent films spawned from them.
Well, I’ve seen Thor and the first Iron Man. The film was still completely comprehensible, as such a blockbuster demands its audience expands further than the geek fringe. I also think there’s something of a pleasure in strangely outfitted characters talking about pasts more interesting than ‘I went to university in Sydney’, or ‘He left me and I cried for seasons’.
But that’s the thing. Only one of the Avengers is female – The Black Widow. And although it’s an ensemble film, screen-time precedence is given to those characters who already have their own spin-offs. While Natasha Romanoff speaks of a checkered past with ample intrigue, much of her dialogue seems designed to set up her own franchise. Because it is so description and explanation heavy, it lacks the humour of interactions between Tony Stark (Iron Man), Bruce Banner (The Hulk), Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Thor.
In fairness, some male characters meet the same fate—Nick Fury and Hawkeye. The only other female character with more than a cameo appearance is Fury’s right-hand man, Maria Hill. She never converses with Romanoff, so the film fails the Bechdel Test, but amid the film’s twin conceits of action and developing the ensemble, such a conversation would have been difficult to justify. A lot of the dialogue between the fellows is also elucidatory of the foibles of big egos, which through the lack of female interjection become a criticism of competitive masculinity. They variously spend time trying to prove they are the strongest, cleverest and most emotionally adept. Through Whedon’s hand, these conversations are funny, and remain clear posturing, as I doubt anyone thinks more of the characters involved in their wake.
Though I refer to Romanoff and Hill as ‘characters’, it’s a label difficult to justify. Because their parts are given over to action and the film has so much to do, even in the case of Romanoff the role is barely embodied. This denies a female viewer clear subject position.
This meant I spent some time wondering whether men should attempt to take on any Avengers as subject positions. It’s a world where big muscles are valorised and naturalised. Except in the case of The Hulk and perhaps Thor, the rippling, Charles Atlas bodies on lingering display are set up to espouse desirability. Comic book musculature is no longer comical, but a strivable aim. In this case, identification with the hero could put more pressure on a voyeur than they anticipated.
So maybe it’s best for all genders to abscond from subject positioning and enjoy the film for its intertextuality, humour and action. Joss Whedon is the antidote to the second act slump. Where other directors flounder in pace after they’ve put the gang together, Whedon excels in developing exactly what needs to progress to make you give a damn about the ludicrous destruction on display.
One of the more problematic aspects of comics is that a female partner will often end up helpless, in peril, waiting for a male hero to save them. It adds drama, suspense and empathy if you can put a face on the world that needs saving. They’re something to fight for, and a hero can contemplate whether it’s all worth it if their loved ones are at risk. And so often it’s the woman. One of the really excellent things The Avengers does is avoid this trope entirely. It does it by just not featuring their companions, or getting them out of the way early. While usually I’d espouse the need for an increase of vajayjays in action films, knowing how practically inevitable that turn is makes me reconsider.
And while we may not be able to draw ourselves into the inner lives of Romanoff and Hill, they’re never saved by men or found at their mercy. Whedon’s subversion of interrogation scenes – which is potentially in the comics, I really don’t know – is worthy of a hearty smirk.
I think if I lived in Avengers-land I’d be writing essays about a Superhero Industrial Complex. With so much rebuilding to be done after the battles, I suspect Tony Stark is really behind it all. He’s the one who can profit from the fallen towers and crushes metropolis, and thereby has an interest in continuing to attract supervillains. Oooh, conspiracy.
The Avengers doesn’t treat women badly, it just doesn’t feature them much. Sure, you see some cleavage, but men are equally objectified – hell, moreso, by virtue of their greater representation. You can’t really enter the psyche of a female hero, as a woman, but that would be a scary world to find yourself in, anyway. The Avengers is a fun action film that most women will be able to see without feeling offended or oppressed on a personal or gendered level. If it does well, Whedon will be given ample leverage for his flights of cinematic fantasy. This film may not have done the ladies proud, but his credentials and the frame within which he was working suggest that is anomalous.