Black Widow, Whedon and that WORD
Take Two: Revenge of the “Read more,” cut. Which never, ever works for me.
So, I am going to say again, in bold, italicized text: THERE ARE SPOILERS HERE. THERE ARE SPOILERS HERE. IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE AVENGERS, I AM WRITING ABOUT SPOILERS FOR ONE SPECIFIC SCENE. PLEASE TURN BACK NOW IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE AVENGERS YET AND DO NOT WANT TO BE SPOILERED. I AM NOT KIDDING.
I am now going to write a few paragraphs to give you time to change your mind in the event that you don’t want to be spoilered but your curiosity is driving you.
Joss Whedon tends to write women well. They are complex, flawed, heroic, and generally a joy to watch. Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff is no exception. I went in hoping for the best, but given that Scarlett Johansson is often stuck in window-dressing/muse/object of desire roles, I wasn’t sure what, “The best,” would mean.
I was very, very pleasantly surprised. Not only is she written as a complex character with her own motives, she’s not treated as a sexual object by either the other characters or the camera. Joss Whedon has subverted the male gaze, in how this character is shown. Scarlett Johansson is my new favorite BAMF-hero.
In Whedon’s thank you to fans, he mentioned being proud of, “Getting, ‘Mewling quim,’ out to the masses.”
I’m not sure if that statement is what’s driving controversy over the line, because it is an odd way of commenting on something that is actually pretty shocking. It could be that Joss Whedon is waiting for us all to get the line. Given that it’s a bit of antique slang, that could take a while. It could also be that no one is expecting a slick, big-budget film to have that kind of subtext.
What I read, in both the portrayal of Black Widow and the refusal to have the camera treat her as a THING, is that Joss is willing to subvert and smack people upside the head with a point.
There is a predominantly male gaze in comics art, in the fanbase, and in the geek community as a whole, women are randomly subject to some incredibly vicious and sexually violent rhetoric. I’m pretty sure Joss Whedon knows this. I’m also pretty sure he thinks it’s bullshit.
LAST WARNING IF YOU DON’T WANT TO READ SPOILERS. NOT KIDDING. KEEP READING AT YOUR OWN PERIL.
From the first moment she’s onscreen, Natasha Romanoff is capable, confident, and completely determined in her objectives. There is no hint that she thinks anyone on her team is better than she is as what they do, because they’re male. For having superpowers? YES. For being male? NO.
She demonstrates the ability to take a perceived weakness or position of weakness, and exploit it against her opponent.
Ask any female gamer or comics nerd, or programmer about the kind of crap they have to take on a daily basis. This is not unusual. If you’re female and geeky, you’ve dealt with some extra helpings of casually brutal misogynist language and made a choice about whether it’s worth it to walk away or suck it up and deal. Either option, you lose, but: if you suck it up, you might eventually win out. If you walk away, you’re just another, “Mewling quim.”
Yes, when I watched the scene the first time, I was shocked and my jaw dropped. I gasped because I have a stupidly broad knowledge of language. It is an exceedingly clever use of language in getting something past the radar of the ratings board, and incredibly effective because in the moment, it just seems like part of a vicious diatribe.
Loki is everyone’s favorite Woobie-destroyer-of-world’s. This is a complex villain, not someone who is clearly TEH EVILEST EVIL THAT EVER EVILED, and Tom Hiddleston plays him brilliantly.
The comparison to Clarice Starling’s introduction to Hannibal Lecter has already been made, by Cleolinda Jones. However, the part she doesn’t delve into, is that during that meeting, Lecter is horribly cruel to Starling. He mocks her accent, deconstructs the difference in quality between her bag and shoes, and while another inmate has told her, “I can smell your cunt,” Hannibal deliberately and creepily SCENTS her and tells her, “I myself cannot.” Given how reliable a character Lecter is, what are the chances that he was lying? Given the obsession he develops for Starling, while he may be somewhat more courteous in his language than Miggs is, I don’t think it’s a non-sexual obsession. Ultimately, Hannibal calls her, “A well-scrubbed, hustling rube.” It’s vicious, but perhaps a bit less visceral than the scene between Loki and Natasha.
In the scene, Loki is expecting a man to interrogate him and that Natasha will be sent in to be the, “Friendly,” one. He’s underestimating her already, dismissing her, toying with her. As she appears to make herself vulnerable to him, he seizes that vulnerability and exploits it in an attempt to bully and intimidate her. She is calm, matter-of-fact, and sincere throughout the conversation. Loki sees her weakness and strikes, detailing what will happen to her and someone she cares for. It is brutal and he does it with obvious relish. “You mewling quim,” is meant as the ultimate insult, as it translates to, “You whiny cunt,” and yet…
While she feels it, Natasha doesn’t flinch from the task at hand. She accomplishes her objective, and beats Loki at his own game.
That this is a crude insult, that Loki is that contemptuous and derisive, is perhaps a sign that he’s losing his composure or it might be just another power play. Throughout the film, he similarly exploits the male characters’ weaknesses, albeit without quite the same language. It’s possible that Loki doesn’t view her as weaker because of her gender, but is counting on her to feel the societal determination that she is and is attempting to exploit that. It’s possible that by giving us a character who has already shown us her mettle, and giving her that moment of vulnerability in the face of someone who is clearly a bad person, Whedon has exploited the audience’s weakness. The audience on opening weekend was 40% female, and I’d bet that most of the women in the audience have been through something similar in their lives. Whether it’s street harassment, harassment in the workplace, and for geeky women, the harassment of a community where some members assume we’re weaker because of our gender.
Black Widow isn’t burdened with that, she doesn’t feel weak in being female; she exploits the assumptions of men, about female weakness. She does it, and she wins.
Maybe that’s the message we should be taking away from that word: She wins.
Maybe the audience should start thinking about the ways they use language towards women, and maybe that’s the message. Joss is incredibly savvy, he knows his audience is savvy, and he is very, very good at inserting the meta-textual layers that can be read in his work with deliberate intent.
I would love to have Word of God on this, from him. I really would. My own conclusion is that Loki’s first loss isn’t to anyone but Black Widow.
If you’ve seen it, you know how that turns out.
If you haven’t, you should.