Why I’m glad there hasn’t been a Black Widow movie… yet

Before I get down to the main topic of this post I want to make one thing clear. I am going to discuss a topic related to gender inequality in cinema. While I have read and reread it before posting in an attempt to ensure that I haven’t said anything that means something other than I think it does, that doesn’t mean I won’t say something inadvertently stupid or offensive.

So, just to be clear, I am in no way intending to defend Marvel Studios’ obvious issues with gender equality. There is a whole ream of blog posts to be written on Marvel’s failure to address the cultural hangover of their 1960’s heritage. The fact that it will be an entire decade over the MCU’s existence (1) before they release a movie with a solo female lead is ridiculous, and the state the merchandising is in would be funny if it wasn’t so depressingly sad.

So please forgive me if I inadvertently say anything that sounds like I am defending them on this. That is not my intention.

In the “geek” community there is currently a lot of anger surrounding the way woman are being depicted in comics. Both in written and cinematic form it is obvious that gender balance issues still exist. As I stated above, I’m not going to attempt to go into too much detail about this, because (a) I know more intelligent people than me are putting it a lot better than I would, and (b) I’d inevitably say something that means something other than what I meant.

What I want to discuss today revolves around one of the more prominent focus points of this argument; that fact that in the Marvel Cinematic Universe there has yet to be a female lead solo movie, and that the most prominent female character in the series, Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow, has been repeatedly relegated to a supporting role

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But here’s the thing. I’m glad she hasn’t had her own movie, because without one she has become the most interesting character in the MCU.

I personally believe that Black Widow has had – possibly inadvertently – the best character development in the entire series. One thing Marvel has done well with their secondary characters in the MCU – and yes, at this point I wouldn’t call her secondary, but let us for now assume “secondary” means that they haven’t had their own movie – is develop them across multiple movies. I have always been a fan of reoccurring background characters. The ones who aren’t part of the main plot but appear throughout a series. It gives a story a sense of continuity. A feel that the world carries on while the heroes are busy doing their thing (2). Part of the reason the MCU came together so well was characters like Natasha Romanov, Nick Fury, Phil Coulson (3), and Maria Hill brought everything together. It wasn’t just the ‘Big Three’: Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, each working with interchangeable, faceless extras. They were part of a world that existed independently from them.

And some secondary characters grow to be come more prominent. Not all, but Natasha was one that did, until she was one of the main characters in the first Avengers movie. And that slow development – spread out over time rather than dumped on us in one go – has allowed her a layer of mystery the others are lacking. The Big Three Avengers are clear cut characters. They may have layers and development, and the actors do a great job of making them three dimensional, but we always know who and what they are. There is no mystery to them. Romanov isn’t like that. She’s not a celebrity, soldier, or god. She’s a spy. An enigma. Her entire life has been about deception. Whatever the situation has needed, that’s who she has become. Her scenes with Bruce Banner in Age of Ultron were probably the first time the audience have seen her completely honest and bare. We’ve slowly learned snatches of her history, but no more than that.

Then there is the fact that she isn’t really a “super” hero. Rather than gaining her abilities through some accident of birth or genius, she will have spent a life time training to become who she is. She’s not a demigod. She doesn’t focus on her own problems and adventures over anything else. She’s not so powerful that it’s impossible for her not to be the centre of the world around her. She goes where she’s needed, doing what’s needed to do.

And that leads to the fact that she is one of only two Avengers with no powers (4). Damage or injury that the others would shake off without thinking would kill Romanov or Hawkeye. But she keeps up with them. She chooses to keep up with them. No one would think less of her for letting the actual “super” members of the team take them lead, and than follow to mop up after them. What sort of person is she that she doesn’t?

And for one last point – and I know some people will disagree with me on this – I feel it’s important to recognise that she’s never been anyone’s sidekick. In Iron Man 2 she turns up as a spy, completely showing up everyone who underestimate her because they couldn’t see past her appearance. In Captain American: Winter Soldier Steve Rogers only succeeds because she is there at times to take the lead. She’s doing her job, which involves working with the others. She’s not working for them.

Remember, Black Widow was originally a bad guy. Assuming that they are keeping that back story – and I think that’s a safe assumption from what we’ve seen – she was a killer for the KGB. An assassin. She has red in her ledger. She was offered a second chance, and now does what she does now in an attempt to make up for her past actions. She doesn’t believe that she deserves to ever get to quit and live happily ever after.

As I said earlier, Black Widow is the most interesting character in the entire MCU.

It boils down to this: unlike with the other characters, as an audience we have had have to fill in the gaps in her story ourselves. We’ve had to use our imaginations to build up a picture of who she is from the little we’ve seen. With each appearance we see a little more, and build up our own personal interpretation of her backstory. It’s that interaction with the character that make her who she is. If we had been given a solo movie too soon, I don’t know if this would have been handled so well.

But I do have to say that this doesn’t let Marvel off the hook. I argue that her slow buildup made her a better character. That having her own film would have ruined this. However this is (a) no excuse for not introducing another female lead, and (b) no longer the case.

I can understand how the MCU ‘Phase 1’ was focused on the three main – male – heroes. They were the tentpoles of the franchise. I can forgive them that. But there was no excuse for not bringing one in for ‘Phase 2’. There is no excuse for waiting until the end of ‘Phase 3’ before we get Captain Marvel, or indeed develop Black Widow into her own story.

And now the mystique is established, Black Widow could easily slip fully formed into her own movie. We now have enough of an idea of her that we want to see more, not because we want a female lead movie on principle, but because the character calls for it. In the correct hands, with a writer and director who understand who to handle the character and don’t simply try to shoehorn her into an cut and paste action adventure, it could be amazing. It needs to be a spy thriller. Captain America: Winter Soldier showed Marvel that their fans can enjoy an action move tinted with political intrigue. A Black Widow movie with just be one step further along that road. It needs to answer some questions while leaving more open. Think of how Wolverine’s story was left at the end of Xmen 2. We knew more than we did, but there was so many more questions left unanswered. The answers we had were satisfying, but the character was still left with some mystery (5). The moment they simply decide to spell her out, the character would be ruined.

Actually, I don’t want her to have a movie. I want her to have a series, a la Agent Carter. And it should be on Netflix so it can be dark and gritty. Marvel have shown that can get the perfect mix of dark and fun with Daredevil. She needs story and character development, not just a series of fights and explosions.

The fan base is ready for it. There's a story to be told.

The fan base is ready for it. There’s a story to be told.

So come on, Marvel. All the elements are there. Time to make up for your lack of care with your female characters. Make it up to up with something awesome.

1 I mean since Iron Man. I’m not counting to two original Hulk movies because, well, who does?

2 Wedge Antillies is the best character in the original Star Wars trilogy. Why does not one else see this? Come on, he survives both Death Star runs!

3 Who should have stayed dead. People disagree. They are wrong. There will possibly be a future post on this.

4 I’m counting super genius and a metal suit that turns you into a superman as a “power” here. Go with it.

5 Xmen: The Last Stand and Xmen Origins: Wolverine DID NOT HAPPEN! Why do people labour under this delusion?

The selection of gender

How do you go about choosing a character’s gender? Is it the same as something like their name, height, or hair colour and a just a choice for the writer to make? Or it is more intrinsically linked with the nature of a particular story?

One of the many points of discussion that has sprung up in the current cultural debate about gender politics in society has been how there are so few “strong female characters” in our media. I’m not going to go into detail about the deeper issues here. There has been plenty written and discussed online already – to varying degrees of vitriol – but I want to address this particular issue that is unavoidably interwoven with any creative media. Like it or not we come from a traditionally patriarchal society, and thusly our storytelling traditions have been very much filtered through that ideology; men are the protagonists in life, with women at best secondary or at worst totally sidelined. As Joss Whedon famously pointed out, until we reach the point where strong female characters are no longer highlighted as different from the norm we will remain in an unbalanced media.

There are many reasons for this. Some of it is, of course, straightforward misogyny. The recent #GamerGate scandal has highlighted how much of that lingers around certain types of people. But as vocal as this segment can be it is not one that has an overtly active role in the real media. And yes, while I understand that many people have been seen to pander to this demographic I refuse to believe that entire industries have purposely developed around this kind of mindset.

No, the larger part of this issue has been blindness. Time and time against I have read interviews with men in the media who have told the same tale; unique to them but telling the same story where they were made to suddenly realise they had been perpetuating the gender divide without even realising it. They had never considered themselves as marginalising women. They were merely part of an established system that did so on such an ingrained level they could not see it for the trees.

This issue is an endemic one, but one that is slowly being swept aside. Mainly due to the actions of a few very strong and impressive role-models who have made a stand rather than allow themselves to work within a broken system, facing the far too often vitriolic nature of certain areas of “internet culture”. I honestly feel that today writers and media creators are far more aware of gender in their work than in any time in recent history. The issue is not going to fixed overnight, no social injustice ever is, but it has been set on the right path.

So, as a writer, how much do you need to worry about this? How much do you need to actively plan your work to help bridge the divide when it comes to female characters?

When I was nearing the end of The Serpent’s Eye I began to worry. I realised that I had written a book that hit all the traditional tropes of the old system without thinking; I had one single male protagonist, and all the female characters were viewed through the filter of his viewpoint. Did that mean I had written a bad story? Did it mean I was one of the many people perpetuating the gender imbalance through not paying attention?

No, I don’t think I was. Not everything needs to pass the Bechdel test. More things need to of course – in fact most things should – but the important question here was could I justify my choices for the good of the story?

And yes, I think I can. The story I had come up with involved somebody traveling aboard to deal with a serious of legal issues for a prominent family in the nineteenth century. Would there have been any female lawyers at that time? And if so would they be hired for such a job by an ancient and traditional noble family? For all the thousands of ways I could have created a female protagonist and worked them into the story, this would not have worked for the level of simple realism I wanted to achieve.

I know there are stories that can be told where the gender of the characters will not have one single effect on the plot. It is just that I believe these are as rare a chickens teeth.

The simple fact is, as much as we may not realise it, interpretation of gender plays a massive part in our lives. Everyday we are making thousands of snap judgements about the people we pass in the street based on age, appearance, clothing, attitude and hundreds of other tiny unnoticeable triggers. We don’t even notice we are doing it until we think about it. It is impossible to get to know someone without spending time learning who they are, and so our minds learn shortcuts based on what we can take in quickly so we can make a snap judgement of how they might act based on our previous experiences. These shortcuts are filtered and developed through the societal norms of a culture with thousands of years of momentum. We may try to be gender-blind, or colour-blind, or any kind of prejudice-blind, but it is simply not psychologically possible. It can take years to get to know someone personally, and until then, and even after, all our thoughts and interactions with them will be interpreted using the preconceived ideas that are simply so ingrained into who we are that we don’t realise they exist.

A good writer cannot simply spell out everything about a character, and so has to make use of their reader’s prejudices and assumptions to fill in the blanks. This is a tool that needs to be carefully used. Whether you want the reader to fill in the blanks in a character’s background, or to throw the reader by playing with their assumptions, the first stage is understanding how a reader will initially flesh out the character in their first scene.

These subconscious interpretations can have a profound effect on a story. The writer Brandon Sanderson has said how in earlier drafts of the first Mistborn novel the main character, Vin, was originally a boy. However he felt the tone of the story wasn’t sitting right but he couldn’t put his finger on why. Then he decided to change Vin to a girl and everything fell into place. The story needed a female protagonist, as the character dynamics simply were not working otherwise.

In Nice or Naughty – <shamelessplug> Available to read now in Dark Holidays, an anthology from Dark Skull Publications </shamelessplug> – the protagonist is a young girl with a little brother. Had I swapped the genders around it would not have altered the plot in any way, but the feel of the story and the reader’s relationship with the character would have changed significantly. Most people will have a very different preconception of a young girl’s attitudes towards her little brother than those of a young boy towards his little sister. You never meet the brother in person, he is only discussed, but that relationship is vital to the story and I can’t afford to bore the reader with a page and a half spent spelling out their relationship. Rather than do that I used what I feel will be the reader’s preconceptions and then subtly nudge them at the correct points to give the impression of the children’s relationship.

Now I don’t believe for a moment that, at this stage of my career, my work is going to have any affect in the greater debate on this issue, but also I don’t want to be seen as simply one more white male writer creating white male characters. What I do want is to create stories with a variety of characters and types, and this will sometimes mean developing a story about the character. Sometimes I will have to create male characters, if the story requires it, but at least I am aware that this is not the only option. I know that I need to develop stories to fit around female characters – and in the greater scheme of things also characters of different races and cultures – rather than let my stories grow around lazy writing. To make sure I push myself as a writer.

In the end my choice was not one of which gender I felt like writing, but which gender better fit the character and story.

Avoiding the Refrigerator

While I’ve been working on story ideas for The Æther Collection, I’ve started thinking a lot about how authors use characters. I obviously wanted each story to seem different and fresh, and so I have tried to keep in mind each plot and character so that I do not repeat myself.

This started me thinking about how I was using female characters. I actually started to worry, as the first three stories I had completed, and also my in progress novella, all had male protagonists. I really didn’t want to only write from the male perspective, but that seemed to be what I was doing. I was forced to take a look at the future stories I had lined up, and reassure myself that I had plenty of good female characters lined up.

But what I really did not want to do,was fall into the trope of “Women in Refrigerators”, or “Fridging” for short.

The basic idea of Fridging is when a poorly written female character is used for the sole purpose of forwarding a male character’s story; usually suffering a terrible fate such as death, torture or rape. If they actually survive the ordeal, she will generally be far weaker than she was before, thus giving the male character a greater need to protect her.

The term ‘Women In Refrigerators’ was coined by writer Gail Simone, and named for a Green Lantern story in which Hal Jordan’s girlfriend was murdered and stuffed into a fridge. Simone noted how in art and literature, yet comics in particular, it was the norm for female characters to be subservient to the male protagonists. In almost all cases they were side characters, or love interests at best.

The idea of Fridging has become somewhat of a rallying point in feminist argument. And – I would like to state – I agree that it is a problem. Growing, as they did, from the culture of the ’30s and ’40s, graphic novels have been hidebound to traditional gender roles for years. Even at the turn of the century they were yet to evolve away from having the most interesting characters being male. Especially the enduring, tentpole titles such as Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Captain America or The Flash. I don’t believe it was intentional, it was simply that this trope grew up in the media and many people simply could’t see it for the trees.

But stepping away from the gender issue for a moment, the concept that Fridging encapsulates is not essentially a bad thing. A story will always have a protagonist, and to a greater or lesser extent the plot has to revolve around them. Therefore, the other characters, their actions and the consequences thereof, will always be filtered through that main character. Sometimes, the whole point of a side character will be to suffer and/or die so that the protagonist’s story can move and develop.

For the sake of example, let us imagine a hypothetical story, a tale we shall entitle; Hypothetical. Let us assume that the writer has no traditional biases towards either sex. Hypothetical has a single main protagonist, who we shall name “Protagonist”. The story follows Protagonist through his adventures; his interactions with his friends, family and enemies.

Now, in Hypothetical, Protagonist is the focus of the plot. The actions of any side characters are going to be filtered through his perception and we are going to be following his reactions and opinions. If one of the other characters – let us call them “Side Character” – dies, we are going to follow this through Protagonist’s eyes. The decision to kill them off will also have been made to forward Protagonist’s story arc.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the above story: both Protagonist and Side Character could be either gender. Side Character was there to further Protagonist’s story. That is all. You can’t have a story where every single character is equal. But you must have a story where every character is interesting.

If Side Character wasn’t a fully developed character, then the audience has no reason to care about them. Oh look, Side Character died and Protagonist is upset. Boo hoo, why should we care? If you stick in a flat, forgettable character – whatever their gender – then you’re being lazy. You might as well just tell the audience “Now Protagonist is upset”. That is bad writing. It’s lazy writing.

Or if they were an interesting character that was suddenly killed off for unrelated and empty reasons, other than to move Protagonist’s story along, then that’s going to anger the reader. We expect more. You can’t simply throw away a character because it was convenient at the time. You’ve got to back it up and make it rewarding for the reader.

But if Side Character had a back story and their own arc, and the death came about for valid reasons, then the audience can be invested in Protagonist’s reaction. It’s part of the story.

I would really like to say that this issue is purely a writing issue, and those who equate it with gender issues are wrong, but I don’t think I can. As much as I would like to separate Fridging and gender equality, the connection between them has become too strong to be ignored. For the longest time, this is how female characters were treated. They were simply triggers for the male characters to respond to; they were there to be rescued, or avenged. It was something many people didn’t even realise they were doing. One of the responses by other comic writers to Simone’s original posts on this topic was that they hadn’t even realised how they were perpetrating this trope.

I have posted about poorly written female characters before. If it’s not actual chauvinism, it’s a breed of pure laziness. If you’ve never written an interesting female character, then you need to think about the way you see the genders in your writing.

There is nothing innately wrong, literary speaking, with a girlfriend/wife/mother dying in order to advance a male protagonist’s story. In the same way, there is nothing wrong with a boyfriend/husband/father dying in order to advance a female protagonist’s story. You simply have to ask yourself; is this action justified?

If you’re not careful, you run the risk of accusing any story where a woman is endangered as sexist. On it’s own, it isn’t. Otherwise we’ll be living in a world where no story will ever put a woman in danger again. But we do have to be aware of the greater picture. I could go into this topic in far greater detail, but that’s not what I’m looking to do today. Plus there is plenty written already. Check the internet.

This topic has been on my mind a lot, as I’ve been worried about straying into Fridging territory myself. The stories in The Æther Collection are going to be, to a greater or less extent, focused around death. This means that – in at least one or two of these stories – I am going to be using the death of a loved one to affect the protagonist. And in the short story format there isn’t often time to fully flesh out an extra character. I need them to serve a purpose, and that purpose is solely to affect the main character.

Does this mean those stories are automatically bad? That the idea is boring and I’m a chauvinist to write them? Would it be OK if it was a female protagonist, rather than a male one? Is it wrong that a character might simply be there to die at a predestined point, if the theme of the collection is death? If I focus on one character for five thousand words, with the others simply floating around them?

Or does it simply come down to how well I write? I want to think so. I believe that as long as my stories are well written and based on an interesting concept, the roles of each character in relation to each other are less important. I might not be able to fully flesh them out with their own arcs and plotlines, but I can still make them well written and realistic.

And if I complete the collection and have not used one female protagonist, or I have made all the female side characters flat and uninteresting, then that’s just bad writing. I’d have made several errors, both from the creative viewpoint and the gender equality viewpoint.

After all, I’m pretty sure that I don’t have a problem with women, or having strong female characters. But I have to be aware of what I’m doing. The problem Gail Simone brought to people’s attention wasn’t that comic book writers were actively promoting sexist views, but that they hadn’t noticed that they were still sticking to the old tropes and not moving beyond them.

So be original, be creative, and most of all be aware that these issues are there, even if we’ve failed to see them.

Woman in Fantasy

The portrayal of women in the media has been a very prominent topic recently. These discussions are taking place across many fields and topics, but due to my sphere of interests I’ve found a lot being said when it comes to women in ‘geek’ culture.

When it comes to what are traditionally considered the “geekier”’ genres of Fantasy and Sci-Fi, woman have traditionally had a hard time of it. While there are definitely stand outs within these mediums, women have never been fairly catered to, being shown as only stereotypes and/or sex objects. Both genres understandably suffered from the era in which they grew. I’m not looking to make excuses for or dissect the social opinions of the times, but the early to mid 20th century was a time in which women were not seen as having the prominent role that they do today, and media and literature reflected this.

Media reflects its creators, and those creators were of their time. Tolkien famously created no interesting female characters in his work. Half of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books are unfilmable today due to the casual but specific racism they contain. Stan Lee may well have helped revive the comic book industry in the ’60s, but if you can find a single woman in any of his writing that isn’t a two dimensional stereotype then I’m impressed. EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series specifically had male Lensmen, as only male minds had the complexity to cope with the technology.

It became a self replicating cycle. You aim a genre at boys, so only boys read them, so you only aim them at boys, so only boys read them, and on and on ad infinitum.

Now with this new thrust of feminism back into our social conscious, it is slowly become less and less acceptable to let this cycle continue. The whole point about Fantasy and Science-Fiction is that you can create any world you want. Sometimes based on earth or a pseudo-earth, and sometimes complete original worlds in which the only social norms are what the author creates.

But while Science-Fiction has it slightly easier – the whole futurist aspect allows you to move away from traditional gender roles – I feel that Fantasy has it slightly harder. While it is true that Fantasy is often set in a fictional world, it looks back in a way other genres don’t. While not a sweeping truth, as a rule Fantasy worlds tend to be more primitive, harking back to medieval or at least pre-industrial times. While not direct analogues of the real world, these historical influences must inevitably bring to mind times when women were not equal.

I’m not saying you can’t write strong, interesting female characters in Fantasy. That would be a massive falsehood considering how many have done so. But in the same way many have not, and recently enough.

David Gemmell’s Legend was written in 1984, and yet has only one female character. And while starting off seemingly strong and independent, she quickly falls in love and marries the protagonist. From this point in the book she simply becomes motivation for the male protagonist, as well as a reason for him to rise to authority (by inheriting her father’s titles).

You can see where the author was coming from with this character. He set the story in a primitive earth analogue when women would not have been warriors or held their own titles, and this story focuses on war and battle. And yet that is no excuse for such lazy writing. She seems to have some character in the beginning, but them quickly becomes a vapid piece of motivation for the male protagonist. Even in the mid ’80s I would have expected better.

A better example of the themes Gemmell used would be George R. R. Martins’ Song of Ice and Fire series. Again this is a real world analogue setting with a culture where women are expected to be demure and have their own socially defined roles. But he then created interesting, strong female characters within that culture. He didn’t break the culture, or simply stick in females who were ‘different’ for the sake of it, but worked within what he had created and simply used those characters to show different aspects of that world. And this was only 7 years after the publication of Legend. That’s not a whole lot of time.

I’m not saying that you cannot write a society where the genders are imbalanced, but you cannot simply do that to avoid female characters. There is plenty of good Fantasy fiction out there using the ‘traditional’ cultural roles for the genders as a basis, but good writers will use that. It is a great way to create conflict within the story.

Much of the discussion about the lack of female characters in literature and television is that fact that there really needs to be no difference between the genders unless the story requires it. A famous example of this is Ripley from the Alien movie franchise. The character is often cited as a great example of a strong female role model character, but the fact is all of the characters in that movie were written with no gender in mind. It was later decided to cast the role as female, but the creation of the character had already been done. They made more of the gender/mother aspects in the sequels, but in the original the gender did not matter, and we have a classic character who just happens to be female.

So like everything else when it comes to writing, the answer behind it all is do not become lazy. In society today there is no excuse or reason for poorly written, or omitted, female characters. If you want to write in a world with clearly defined social roles, play with that and create interesting characters within that world. And if in your world a character’s gender doesn’t matter, don’t just make them all male by default. That’s just rubbish.

But remember this rule affects male characters just as much. If you’re lazy in any aspect of your work, it will reflect on the overall quality. Think about it, and write interesting characters that drive the story forward.