Primer to “Marvel Cinematic Universe as Literature”: Trauma, infertility, and “monstrosity”

I will be posting discursive entries regarding some topics we have considered for the roundtable “The Marvel Cinematic Universe as Literature,” hosted at the Northeast Modern Language Association convention on Saturday, March 19, at 4:45 PM in Room 16 of the Hartford Convention Center.

I think what cemented the organization of this roundtable was largely the discussion that emerged right after Avengers: Age of Ultron‘s release, regarding how the film represents Natasha Romanoff’s sterility and her own use of the term “monster,” whether this terminology is making monstrous the idea of a woman who is not a mother, or whether this was Joss Whedon referring to Romanoff’s loss of choice regarding the treatment of not only her body but her overall self. We were looking at relevant sets of writing at The Mary Sue, iO9, and Salon. Obviously, this representation could sustain enough discussion for at least one session, and it emboldened us to organize a session that would give scholars an opportunity to share their thoughts on researching and teaching the MCU. I was reading these arguments while I was on my way from NeMLA one weekend to Dartmouth the next for yet another convention on comics, and during that trip, Mary Ellen Iatropoulos, Heather Urbanski, and I pretty much knew we were going to propose this session.

While Mary Ellen will be looking with much more depth at Romanoff in this roundtable and in another panel (“The Monster in the House,” Saturday, March 19, 11:45 AM, Marriott Hartford Downtown Conference Room 5),  I will share my current thoughts on Romanoff’s representation. I have not yet read or heard Mary Ellen’s presentation, so these remarks are my own and not reflective of her argument, and they are still being developed as we head into our roundtable–hence subject to change:

I think my interpretation is much more closely aligned with Ashley Reed at The Mary Sue, who sees “monster” not necessarily only disparagement of infertility but as an overall inhumanity felt by Romanoff, a survivor of child abuse and espionage.

As well, I think my argument has much less in common with Meredith Woerner and Katharine Trendacosta at io9, who locate “monster” alongside other moments read by Woerner and Trendacosta as maternal. In contrast, I think, Woerner and Trendacosta are stretching the context of the scenes. While it is definitely persuasive to see how the film makes Romanoff into a maternal figure–such as her bedtime story to calm the Hulk–I think those instances taken together to support their argument overlook the immediate context of those moments. It is difficult for me to refer to Romanoff as largely or only a maternal role towards the other characters, especially when Woerner and Trendacosta ignore obvious sarcasm coming from Romanoff, such as her line about “picking up after you boys” when retrieving Steve Rogers’s shield. That joke seems far less about taking on a parental role to the men on the team. At best, I could say it is so sarcastic and actually an attempt to mock the men by infantilizing them as “boys”; at worst, and which I think Woerner and Trendacosta are accurate about how Whedon is toying with placing Romanoff into a maternalistic role, and even if he is being sarcastic, his embrace of that imagery for the only female member of the team at that point is frustrating.

I also agree with Libby Hill at Salon, who identifies how the discussion refusing to let Romanoff refer to herself as “monstrous” may inadvertently silence discussions about infertility in films overall.

I will add, however, that it is surprising to me that these arguments tend to ignore that what provoked Romanoff to discuss her infertility is Bruce Banner’s own frustration that he cannot have children, a topic introduced far earlier in the MCU, whether in The Incredible Hulk (2008) and the danger of sex provoking Banner to transform, or the first Avengers (2012), where Banner rocks an empty baby’s bassinet while mourning about what he cannot have. In other words, infertility is identified more easily in the film and in criticism with a woman like Romanoff, even as we all overlook infertility in the film and in criticism as identified with a man like Banner. That point I think emphasizes why it is important to look critically at Romanoff’s portrayal: the film’s emphasis on her infertility and giving her the line about seeming “monstrous” is in context of how she hears Banner making the same points, identifying that these issues of infertility and monstrosity are hardly limited to one gender and therefore should be a concern for all persons.




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