A Media Literacy Series
‘Unplugged’ is a blog series by the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault that critically observes, analyzes, and deconstructs various forms of media through the lens of our media literacy prevention strategy. It is important to note that everyone interprets and consumes media differently and our analyses are just one interpretation of many.
This blog contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame and references movies earlier in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise. This is only one interpretation of the Avengers franchise, and is not intended to discourage people from enjoying the movies, rather to be critical consumers of media we do enjoy.
For part one of this series, we explored the ways in which the original male heroes in the Avengers manifest masculinity and how they have challenged or accepted the harmful norms that contribute to sexual violence.
Part two of this series will explore the roles played by women in the Avengers and what social messages are transmitted through these heroines.
Double the Work
Many women in the Avengers series play the role of emotional caretaker. Natasha Romanoff, or Black Widow, is one of the characters that most obviously takes on this role. Her relationship with Hulk (Bruce Banner) throughout the series largely characterized by her unique ability to calm him down in his moments of rage. Following The Snap, Natasha carries the responsibility of keeping tabs on her team, bearing the emotional and literal labor of cleaning up after The Snap and pulling the team back together when it’s time to take action. While the additional work of emotional labor isn’t inherently harmful—caring for the emotional needs of those around us is important! — it can cause harm when this labor isn’t evenly distributed. Historically, women tend to carry a higher level of this labor in their relationships and workplaces.
Natasha isn’t the only character to carry the emotional burden of her team. Gamora, of Guardians of the Galaxy, is often responsible for supporting the character development of her male colleagues and the overall emotional well-being of her team. On top of being a highly skilled fighter and strategic thinker, Gamora also has to manage Peter Quill as he jockeys to be the “Alpha Male”. This involves having to redirect the team to stay on track, managing conflict between two or more men, and often ignoring Peter as a parent would a child throwing a tantrum. Rather than carrying his own weight and valuing Gamora as an equal team member, Peter expects her to act as his colleague, intimate partner, and mother all at the same time.
Expectations of Femininity
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been criticized for the ways traditional norms and expectations are upheld. Expectations that women are supposed to maintain a certain image of femininity, support their male colleagues’ emotional growth, and serve the primary focus of sexual or emotional fulfillment for men rather than as competent team members in their own right are consistently upheld. Natasha, the most well-known woman in the MCU, is consistently objectified. She is also a victim of sexual violence, committed through her forced sterilization.
Rather than exploring this through the loss of agency, choice, and control over her body, we are led to believe that the inability to procreate makes her a monster equivalent to the Hulk in his moments of rage rather than a victim of a horrific act of violence.
Rather than exploring this through the loss of agency, choice, and control over her body, we are led to believe that the inability to procreate makes her a monster equivalent to the Hulk in his moments of rage rather than a victim of a horrific act of violence. This perception is problematic precisely because it’s a huge factor that leads her to be sacrificed for the Soul Stone, while Clint is chosen by the MCU to live on because he has a family that will come back after they undo The Snap. One analysis of this could be that Natasha’s life has less value specifically because she is not a mother, making it easier to sacrifice her over others. This is not an expectation the male characters are held to, where their value as heroes and people are measured against expectations of parenthood. This mirrors the many ways women are told that if they fail to live up to the feminine ideal, which usually includes motherhood, they are disposable.
Captain Marvel’s newly cropped hair in Endgame challenged concepts of femininity, but the online response to her haircut showed us how women are held to a certain standard of attractiveness. Fan had an overwhelmingly positive response to her short hair, but the conversation demonstrated how women are expected to not only show up and do the work, but also look a certain way while doing so. The men of the Avengers are also expected to maintain a certain image, but the difference lies in the purpose behind that. Men are expected to look powerful and strong—women are expected to embody those characteristics while also meeting the needs of the male gaze.
Invisible and Expendable
There is one scene in Endgame where all the female Avengers come together in a show of girl power. In the blink of an eye, the scene is over and we are back to centering the male characters. This is particularly true for the women of color on the team. Okoye and Valkyrie support the Avengers and also lead nations, yet they are given less screen time and credit than their white counterparts. Endgame continually reinforces that women’s work belongs behind the scenes, that women exist only to support their male colleagues, and that they are ultimately expendable . Examples of the ways Endgame undervalues and ignores women’s work include:
- Pepper has supported Tony through his losses and traumas, encourages him to rejoin the Avengers, and fights alongside the Avengers but isn’t valued as an equally important member of the team.
- Valkyrie stepped up to lead the Asgaurdians and help them thrive, yet Endgame portrays Thor as the leader.
- Captain Marvel is criticized by team members for being “absent” from Earth, despite being responsible for an entire galaxy.
- Okoye is one of the few leaders left in Wakanda after The Snap and supports both the Avengers and her country at the same time, but Endgame devotes only a few minutes to her story in favor of focusing on male and white characters.
- Natasha is sacrificed for the Soul Stone instead of Clint because she doesn’t have children.
- Natasha’s death isn’t given the same level of mourning or honoring as Tony’s death.
Endgame continually reinforces that women’s work belongs behind the scenes, that women exist only to support their male colleagues, and that they are ultimately expendable .
We have seen the MCU increase representation of women, which is an exciting change! We’re looking forward to the recently announced and long-awaited Black Widow movie, She-Hulk series, Ms. Marvel series, Captain Marvel sequel, and more.
At NJCASA, many of us are very invested in the MCU and enjoy watching and partaking in anything Avengers-related. Still, it is important that we practice media literacy skills and evaluate how these movies continue to reflect norms that devalue women’s work, objectify them, and place them in supportive roles to male characters. Understanding the ways in which gender norms are perpetuated through media helps us understand the broader world around us and allows us to be less influenced by media messages. It’s critical to analyze how people across the gender spectrum are portrayed and how those portrayals both reflect and perpetuate harmful norms that work to uphold rape culture. Women in leadership roles, feminine approaches to leadership, and superheroes defying the gender binary are critical to dismantling rape culture.
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