I’ve been thinking a little about Anna’s post about Black Widow in Avengers: Age of Ultron and about Black Widow as “love interest” and the “monster” comment and Disney/Marvel’s rather hideous sexism in merchandising and trying to separate out all those bits and pieces into a coherent thought.

And I’ve got various things to say about various parts, but I think want to talk about this one tweet. It gets spoilery below here, so consider yourself warned now.

Now, I heard the anger over some of the scenes in that film before seeing it, but I also saw this tweet before seeing it, so I had both of those in my head going in. And one question I had in my head was whether this was Mark Ruffalo doing damage control.

And having seen the movie – I don’t think it was. I’m watching that film, and I’m seeing Mark Ruffalo playing Bruce Banner and The Incredible Hulk as the biggest, greenest, most muscle-bound love-interest ever. Leaving everything else – text, intent, things we don’t know – aside: that’s how I see Mark Ruffalo playing it.

Now, let me take a moment here before I go any further, and say that wow I totally get the other response. I truly get it. It’s not a reach to get to the “monster” reading, or a reach to get to the Widow-is-the-love-interest reading. It’s sad that it’s not, but it’s not.

And that’s not because of the text, not directly, but because that’s what we’re so very very used to getting when there’s any sort of romantic involvement in these sorts of films. Of course Black Widow has been made The Love Interest, because that’s what they (almost) always do. Of course any discussion of sterilisation and “monster” are going to be linked, because that’s the kind of horrible sexist bullshit you keep getting thrown in your face over and over again.

These are tropes. They’re long-lasting tropes, the fertility/monster one is a misogynist trope, and it’s all so dominant a pattern that it’s hard not to see…

…even when the text doesn’t support it. I was listening close, because I knew this was coming, and I honestly don’t think the text supports it.

But if I hadn’t been listening closely, I wouldn’t have got that. I might’ve reacted the same way many other people did. So believe me when I say I understand the reaction. In this atmosphere, it’d almost be surprising if one didn’t have that takeaway, hitting the scene unprepared.

And I will go further and say that given the historical pervasiveness of the fertility trope – that horrible “you’re not a woman if you don’t/can’t have kids, you’re some sort of monster” trope – that this particular angle shouldn’t’ve been touched, because even if you get it right in the text, there’s no way to get it right in the milieu. Not in the now. I think that was a mistake.

But I don’t carry that same opinion about having Bruce/the Hulk in the role of Black Widow’s love interest, even if a lot of people are going to reverse-read it, because I think the actual intent is up there on screen.

I am in fact again going further and saying this reading isn’t just in Mark’s performance; I say it’s supported in the text. I think it’s author’s intent.

I cite two scenes in particular.

First scene: Bruce tries to talk Natasha into running away. They’re done, he says; they’ve done their bit, they can get out. Let’s go. Some people have read that as Bruce “saving” Black Widow, as Bruce seeing Natasha as someone who needs to be saved, thus reducing her to “love interest.”

Replay that scene in your head and play it against the hundreds of other emotionally-identical scenes from other action/hero films. Ruffalo has the love-interest’s side of that conversation. Not the hero’s side. It’s the “you could have a normal life” speech, a speech usually given by “the girlfriend” who doesn’t want to see “the hero” get hurt and/or die.

Also, notice, it’s Banner leading with the emotional exposure, it’s him being the emotional one, baring his fears and his hopes, which allows Romanoff to let her guard down and respond. Romantic interest, and hero, in that order.

In short, this is a scene between love-interest and action-hero – but with Ruffalo playing the love interest, and Johansson playing the hero. Not the other way around.

Second scene: The Hulk flying away in the (effectively unpiloted) jet, at the end of the film, turning off the comms. It’s easy to make a comparison to the end of Captain America: The First Avenger, but that’s wrong, because what Hulk is doing is completely different. What’s going on here?

Bruce/the Hulk is leaving… so that Natasha can be the hero she needs to be, co-leading the next generation of Avengers. It’s the “I must leave you, and sacrifice my love for you, so you can do what must be done” scene. You’ve seen it before. It is also a fixture of these films, particularly older ones.

And again: Ruffalo has the love-interest side of it. His actions are the noble sacrifice of the love interest. He’s not going off to be a hero; he’s going off to the middle of nowhere, removing himself from the board, so that Black Widow can stay and be the hero she needs to be.

And that’s exactly what happens, which means that’s the text.

So in the end… I don’t think that tweet was damage control. I think it was real; I think it was text; I think it was intent.

And I think they’re both really easy to read the other way because I also think you can make some pretty good arguments about fairly straight-up inversion of tropes being a little lazy. It’s a little too easy to flip ’round who is who in those roles when the patterns are so clear. And that’s at the foot of the writer.

Which means I think Joss Whedon is smart to walk way from these films at this point. I think he’s done, and it showed. But that’s a different discussion entirely.

So there are certainly things to be unhappy about here. The Whedon snappy patter being a bit too by-the-book this time around. (Or maybe I’ve heard too much of it and am starting to see the, heh, strings?) The whitewashing of The Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. (I get that they can’t have the same origin, because of who owns what, but still.) Jeremy Renner horribly going on about Black Widow being a “slut”, which others have talked about in both terms of slut-shaming sexism and falling out of how if you only have one lead woman character and want hints of romance in a heterosexist environment, you’re going to be moving her around all the time. All those are reasons to be unhappy with it.

But this – this relationship – isn’t. Not for this reason, at least.

Hell, we finally have another one of these things passing the Bechdel test. We have six named women with speaking roles – Black Widow, The Scarlet Witch, Maria Hill, Dr. Helen Cho, Laura Barton, and Madame B.

It’s not good enough, I’m not saying that. But for all my problems with this film – and I had several, including the “huh, hard-takeoff AI, this show’s over in 20 minutes but oh for no good reason it’s not” problem – I felt like I could breathe. It was nice.

Now if we could get Disney to stop erasing their own damn women from their own damn merchandise, maybe we could get another step, too.