This post will contain a lot of discussion about Avengers, Age of Ultron and will go into quite a few plot points, character arcs and other things in detail. In short it’s going to be entirely filled with a ton of spoilers and so should be avoided by anyone who has yet to experience the movie yet!
Very recently there has been a considerable controversy over the part of Black Widow in the most recent Avengers movie, which is despite the fact it was directed by a noted feminist in Joss Whedon. In essence the argument revolves around the romance plot between Bruce Banner (aka The Hulk) played by Mark Ruffalo and Natasha Romanov (aka Black Widow) played by Scarlett Johansson. Some commentators have taken the way the romance plays out as being extremely anti-feminist and even directly stereotypical. In particular is a scene where Black Widow talks about how she was forced to become a lethal assassin and finally had to be sterilized, which is then fatefully followed by the line of being made into a “monster”.
Aside from the unfortunate way the lines are delivered one after one another, making it easy to interpret the conversation as being her sterilization making her a monster, the problem for many is that we have the main female superhero reduced to her stereotypical “motherhood” kind of trope. Subsequent to this the remainder of the movies journey for Black Widow feels inherently tied into that of The Hulk (also Sterile), culminating in him rescuing her from Ultron’s clutches. Of course she arguably subverts this trope a bit by tricking him into continuing to fight for the Avengers, when all he wanted to do was take Black Widow and leave.
There are a lot of different articles on this issue and there are two very different interpretations. Some people believe, based on the films generally good context and story based scenes that the treatment of Black Widow isn’t that awful after all. For example some of the scenes like Natasha being captured by Ultron have been interpreted and have support in the movie as being a deliberate move to aid the team, as opposed to becoming an agency-devoid damsel. Likewise even after the scene where Black Widow describes herself as a monster, she ultimately still stands up to defend others and by the end of the movie, she makes the selfless decision to stick with the team while The Hulk leaves.
However, in my opinion many of the “But context!” arguments fall short for numerous reasons and the most important of them is simple: The Avengers core flaw is that Black Widow is a Unicorn. Scroll back up to the top of this post and look at the poster of the Avengers as they are initially (I’m well aware Scarlet Witch joins by the end of the movie!). What you’ll notice is pretty obvious: Black Widow is the only woman on the team initially amongst a group of men. This has the unfortunate consequence of making her the “Unicorn” or the ideal that everyone looks at for what a female superhero is supposed to be.
Now by all means let’s remember that Black Widow is *not* an incompetent hero by any stretch. She is easily an important member of a team that has a near god like entity in power with Thor, then there’s the Hulk, a technological super genius in Tony Stark and a serum induced supersoldier with Captain America. That’s pretty tough competition for the more mundane members in Hawkeye and Black Widow to keep up with; but they do. Black Widow has an excellent scene where she retrieves Captain America’s shield after dropping from their aircraft and then holding her own against Ultron.
It is just as the only female member, her story falls into common tropes that other female superheroes (and characters) regrettably come to repeatedly. Intrinsically, she’s linked to a male character in the story and a large motivator for his behavior. She’s the one who ends up being captured for the others to rescue (deliberate or otherwise). In the end, her story revolves around wanting to have the stable kind of family Hawkeye does but is denied due to her infertility. As logically constructed in the movie as each of these individual elements actually is, they stick in the craw of many feminist commentators because there is no other female contrast or character to show “Women can have other stories too”.
It’s easy to criticize something as being sexist or misogynist, when it’s the only way you’re presenting a female superhero. It’s actually good that I waited some time before I wrote anything about this, because in the weeks since the movie came out Mark Ruffalo has actually addressed this concern rather directly. His remarks about the lack of female superheros in these films and thus a wider range of different stories for them to have is poignant. In many ways as I pointed out above due to the good contextualization of many of these scenes in the actual movie, there is an argument to be made he’s right in saying the criticism over Black Widow is hyper-critical. However, it is also also inversely proportional to how many women are represented in these films. Only one woman means a lot of respective criticism when you do something that feels not quite right, sexist or following stereotypical tropes for women in comics/movies.
But there are other negative consequences to making Black Widow – and somewhat by extension female superheros – a unique snow flake, particularly demonstrated by the controversy over the “Slut Shaming” jokes of fellow Captain America and Hawkeye actors. Sure this is a ridiculous, silly and dumb jokey thing to done by mistake (largely) on a long gruelling press tour: But it shows how she’s viewed by the people who act alongside her. Black Widow gets so much expectation heaped upon the way she behaves and is portrayed in the movie, precisely because of viewpoints such as this one where being the sole woman with a group of men men makes her a “slut”. The controversy over her weak moments or human characterization happens, because people project idealist expectations on her due to being unique.
That whole “Unicorn” thing again.
It’s also reflected in other issues surrounding the portrayal of Black Widow as a character, where she has been largely left out of nearly all of the merchandise for the film. She’s a valued member of the team in the movie, but when you see the overall context for how a female superhero is viewed outside of it the picture becomes rather more depressing. This overall context of the way women are often marginalized and written into specifically gendered stereotypes is why there is such an uproar over the character. In a film where there were three or four female avengers, a single storyline like this would not stick out if the other women’s motivations were anything as varied as the various men on the team.
Of course there is some reason to hope for the future, with a Ms. Marvel movie on the way and Scarlet Witch joining the avengers (so there are at least two women on the team now). Additionally the conversation around the movie, how Black Widow was treated in comparison to the other characters and even the actors, most notably Mark Ruffalo, throwing in their two cents about the other issues like the lack of merchandise, female characters and such is a good way forward.
But of course, how does this relate to roleplaying? Well, let’s get back on topic for the blog here and discuss what we can actually learn from the controversy. The most important thing I try to remember when I am writing a campaign is what NPCs or characters I need, in what roles and for how long. A character that needs to be interacted with repeatedly over the course of a campaign has to be thought of differently, than one who dies in the first encounter they have with the PCs. I also try to consider how many characters I have of different genders, races and beliefs as well.
A good example of contextualizing what I am talking about here is my Dungeons and Dragons campaign, Curse of the Black Pearls. Setting my game in Eberron allows me to explore a large array of different stories, one of which is how the other nations in the war reacted to Cyrean refugees fleeing from their now blasted fog covered homeland after it exploded (under mysterious circumstances). One of the interesting things from the 4th Edition Eberron book, which stuck with me after I read it, was how some nations responded to these refugees with considerable cruelty. Denying them entry to ports, sticking them in internment (aka concentration) camps and just outright prejudice in seeing them as “Cursed”.
This is the context where a former naval officer and otherwise honorable soldier, became twisted into a cruel pirate captain. It started initially with just taking the ships of other nations, massacring the crew and even civilians in order to send a bloody message that the seas weren’t safe. Eventually it culminated in the discovery of a powerful artifact upon one of the merchant ships, which spoke to the pirate and corrupted them utterly. This pirate became determined to use the power of ancient artifacts to summon a wave of demons upon those who wronged their people. Now leading their small rag tag privateer’s navy and driven by fanaticism, years of oppression, hatred and mistrust in the other nations, they seek each of the artifacts in turn to make their new bloody age of demons a reality.
Now, did you think of the character above in your mind as a man or a woman? Why?
Believe it or not, I’m not asking as a gotcha question because originally in the first draft of Curse of the Black Pearls, back when it was still a campaign for 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, the pirate captain above was a man. When I started running the same campaign idea again in 5th Edition, I changed some of the aspects of the origin of the character a little, but otherwise what was once a man I decided to rewrite as a female villain instead: Hence the creation of Talitha. The change of gender wasn’t done at random or because I felt I needed some quota of women, but rather to acknowledge a very real female pirate who actually lived: Ching Shih. The name of the pirate fleet being the Crimson Legion and their flag being a bloody red spiral both flowed naturally from this bit of history as well.Making Talitha a woman was logical to me and provided an intrinsically important female character to the entire campaign.
Of course, just writing one singular woman and patting myself on the back in self-congratulations wouldn’t have done a lot of good, so then I started thinking about other supporting characters as well. The privateers court for example, is an important point where the players interact directly with individuals who could very well decide how well (or poorly) their later war effort goes. On the council is a mixture of male and female characters, of different races, ethnicity and distinct motivations. The advantages this provides me in roleplaying opportunities are considerable, while also showing my players that women occupy as wide a range of roles in Eberron as men do (even if this isn’t explicitly stated anywhere).
If you can’t see why this kind of diversity in opposition and allies makes sense, consider how your players would think if the only dragonborn they ever encountered in the game was a deceptive sociopath who attempted to kill them. Such experiences – even in an entirely fictional game – often give players long memories and an immediate “They are one of them? Get im first!” type of attitude. This is exacerbated considerably if you do have more than one dragonborn character in the game, but yet all of them still follow that same deceptive trope. Here is where writing characters with a diversity of positions in your story matters: The noble dragonborn barbarians who later assist the party can be a terrific contrast to those from Argonnessen (a land ruled by dragons), who are deceptive and abuse terrible magic.I’m using a fantasy race above, but you can replace dragonborn with anything you want and it doesn’t matter what the context of the system is.
In Trail of Cthulhu or Call of Cthulhu, if there was a great flaw in the way I used to write these games years ago it was often defaulting to making women consistent victims. Has someone been grossly murdered by a cultist or monster? Well, they were almost 90% likely to have been a woman. If you look at a lot of other fiction, which often inspires your own, very often women are disproportionately victims or potential victims that need to be protected by the “heroes” of the story. The more I’ve attempted to move away from the idea of automatically making women victims of some mythos creature or cult, the more interesting the mysteries I have been writing for my players to solve.
In a lot of ways this has been the problem with many comics, where female superheroes or other characters murder, mutilation or harm is frequently used as motivation for male characters to act. It’s even got a specific name attached to it called “Women in Refrigerators“, named after a superheroes girlfriend who was murdered then stuffed into a refrigerator. Returning to the original topic of Black Widow, this is the basis and context to why people reacted so badly towards her romance plot and regret of being ‘sterilized’. It feels like yet another female hero getting exactly the same stereotypical and offensive plot treatment, which women have been shoved into multiple times in the past.
This isn’t to say in my Trail of Cthulhu games women are never hurt, murdered or otherwise given some kind of special treatment. There have certainly been women who have been put into very vulnerable positions, such as Tracey Wong who was taken hostage by the insane serial killer from the first investigation, but even so she has now proven to be an extremely capable and independent character since (who has helped save the PCs several times now). Likewise, Tracey is not the only significant female character in the game and so even if she is captured like a classic damsel, there are many other female characters like Smile or Joleen who aren’t placed in such positions. Unicornism is a problem when you limit the roles of certain characters to stereotypes or traditionally gendered tropes.
If Tracey is a strong female character and yet is the one routinely captured by cultists, this creates more of an issue than if she’s one of a multitude of different female characters, who all perform a wide range of roles as both antagonists or protagonists. Just like how Tony Stark having PTSD is a compelling part of his individual character and humanity, as opposed to showing that all male superheroes have severe disorders from their experiences. This is because it’s obvious how different male superheroes react to the same kinds of stress: Because the audience is presented with and see multiple different perspectives and examples between the other male avengers.
The concluding point of this post is that when you write a very limited number of women – or other minorities such as people of color for that matter – you run the most risk of showing them in roles that some might consider sexist or otherwise problematic. In many ways, you aren’t helping by subsequently responding with “Well, I can write whatever stories I want to tell”, when you’re only telling specific kinds of stories for a certain kind of character who happens to be female. When you make the roles and kind of stories you tell for women in your game narrow, you’ll get a response of “Why is it that women only occupy X roles?”.
By treating your female characters as if they are people who could have a range of opinions, potential stories and roles they can occupy within your narrative you’ll inherently avoid the issues created by “Unicornism”. This will also help to give your writing a broader base of ideas to work with, which may even be a satisfying challenge to go against years of established cultural and narrative tropes!