I was a little surprised when I saw the first Avengers movie and realized that it did not pass the Bechdel test. What’s the Bechdel test? You ask. It’s kind of like the Turing test but it tests for gender equality in movies. There are three requirements. 1) There must be at least wto women with speaking roles. 2) They must speak with each other. 3) The conversation must be about something other than a man. It’s harder to pass than you might think, especially for comic book movies. None of the Iron Man movies pass. Man of Steel doesn’t pass. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight don’t pass (haven’t seen The Dark Knight Rises). I wouldn’t have been shocked if Marvel’s The Avengers failed to pass the test. Knowing that Joss Whedon wrote and directed it, however, changed my level of expectation. Joss tried. I know he did. He got really close too. The fact that Maria Hill and Black Widow can be on the helicarrier at the same time and not have 3 lines about, say, security, only makes it a more glaring example of how difficult it can be to get good female interaction in major studio movies.
I was worried, given The Avengers’ failure, that Age of Ultron might also fail to live up to my feminist expectations. Fortunately, it turns out that I had nothing to worry about. Age of Ultron only one more speaking woman than The Avengers but had 3 Bechdel-passing conversations. The problem with the Bechdel test, however, is that is does not guarantee that a movie is feminist. That is why it is important to examine the nature of the conversation. After all, as a friend pointed out, “Becky look at her butt. It is so big” from Sir Mix-a-lot’s one hit wonder passes the Bechdel test.
First things first, let us get to know our players.
Natasha Romanoff (played by Scarlet Johansson), trained to be an elite spy and assassin since childhood, is an ex-member of the KGB and the only female Avenger to appear on screen. Ever since her shaky first appearance in Iron Man 2, Black Widow has been the champion of comic book movie feminists and more than a few are upset that Captain Marvel is getting a movie before Black Widow. Most recently, Natasha was spotlighted as a victim of slut-shaming when Jeremy Renner, who plays her best friend in the movie, had a very offensive response to a question from an interviewer that highlighted how prevalent casually misogyny can be.
Maria Hill (played by Cobie Smulders), first appeared in The Avengers as Nick Fury’s right hand woman. Since S.H.I.L.E.D’S dissolution in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Maria has been working, presumably, at the top levels of Stark Industries.
Dr. Helen Cho (played by Claudia Kim), is a cross between an engineer and a surgeon, having invented a process of synthesizing tissue that makes stiches obsolete. She has a lovely amount of screen time for her first showing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Woman Three (played by Julie Delpy) is a spoiler. If you do not to be spoiled about one of the character’s backstory then you should stop reading.
Woman Four (played by Linda Cardinelli) is a spoiler. This character is also extremely significant for a major character’s backstory. She does, however, have one of the best Bechdel-related conversations of the movie that very subtly gives away Whedon’s humor.
Wanda Maximoff (played by Elizabeth Olsen) is also making her first appearance in the MCU. She is not a mutant, since Marvel Studios aren’t allowed to say “mutant” in their movies, but she does have super powers including telepathy and telekinesis. She is also very much defined by her relationship with her twin brother, Pietro. The two are orphans in a former warzone in Eastern Europe and it has been them against the world ever since their parents died.
Conversation Number One
This conversation involves Maria Hill, Dr. Cho, and Natasha Romanoff. The boys are involved in this conversation as well and it centers on the movie’s villain, Ultron, and what the A.I.’s motives are. The women are active participants, helping to piece together the puzzle and figure out what the team’s next steps should be. I love this conversation because of how utilitarian it is. This is not meant to reveal some key character development. This is not Whedon making a statement. He is just using all of his talking pieces to move the story forward.
Conversation Number Two
This is a memory of a conversation between Natasha and one of her early instructors in the art of spying and killing. The scene is revealed to us when Wanda “bewitches” Natasha in the Avengers’ first battle against her and Pietro. In it, Woman Three and Natasha discuss a graduation ceremony. It is intercut with shots of a young Natasha practicing ballet, handling firearms, and getting out of chokeholds. Natasha later reveals, in a very touching conversation with Bruce Banner that this ceremony involved a very invasive procedure, one that I am not sure a lot of children watching will understand.
Conversation Number Three
This is actually a trick conversation between Woman Four and Natasha. Pay attention or you will miss it.
What does it all mean?
There are some who believe, despite this clearly passing grade, that the movie is not very feminist and that Joss Whedon might not even be a feminist. This is an old criticism http://www.themarysue.com/reconsidering-the-feminism-of-joss-whedon/. Bizarrely enough, some point to the romance between Black Widow and Hulk as someone making Natasha less of strong character. Strong women don’t get to have love interests? What? Then there is the fact that Black Widow spends some time as a captive who needs rescuing. She does do a little bit of work aiding her escape. Unfortunately, the only other character Ultron could conceivably hold hostage is Clint Barton and Joss was already making up for how poorly he treated that character in The Avengers.
So let’s consider some other moments. As I was faithfully waiting for that first moment a woman actually a conversation with another woman I saw Tony Stark and Thor start to wave their man sticks around. Of course instead of competing intellectually or physically they compare their women. This began when Maria Hill asked the logical question at a mission after-party: Where were Jane Foster and Pepper Potts (Thor’s and Iron Man’s romantic interests respectively)? If Joss Whedon is such a feminist why did he not put all the female characters in the movie? Probably because actors cost money that Disney wasn’t willing to pay and the story has almost too many characters, any. Still, watching these men compete arguing who has successfully wooed the better woman put a sour taste in my mouth every time I watched the movie. Until the third time when I finally heard what Maria Hill cough-said at the end: testosterone.
And I have to go back to conversation number three. That one gets me every time.
Are there flaws with Whedon’s feminist perspective in the movie? Perhaps. Are there filmmaking flaws in the movie? Definitely. Is it a fun movie and worth showing to little girls around the world? I think so.
p.s. Hawkeye would kick the ass of anyone who sluts-shamed Black Widow.