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Beyond Love Interests

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So, I’m a bit of a shipper. I love a good romantic subplot in a story, and that investment in a potential couple is often what pushes me from liking a series to all-out obsession.

But Black Widow’s role in Age of Ultron has once again got people talking about whether romance has a place in the plot arcs of “strong female characters,” and whether giving a character a love interest makes her somehow lesser or more cliche. In short, can a character have a love interest and also be feminist?

The answer to that question, of course, is an obvious yes. There’s nothing anti-feminist about love. A character isn’t weaker because she has a romantic plotline. But these romantic plotlines can be representative of a much bigger problem, where a female character only exists in relation to her male love interest. In these scenarios, it’s easy for people to roll their eyes and claim that the romance itself is the problem, but there is nothing wrong with a romantic plotline in and of itself — it’s all in how it’s treated, and how the female character is portrayed outside it.

Basically: does the character have a love interest, or are they nothing but a love interest? Are they a character who has a romantic subplot as part of their own rich story, or are they defined by their romantic connection to another?

1. Does the character have goals and ambitions of her own?

Finding true love excluded, of course.

2. Does she deal with conflicts that aren’t just about true love?

Anything, really. Career problems. Family tension. Fighting Ultron to save the world. Whatever. Is she struggling with something in the story other than her relationship?

3. Does she actually talk about or address these conflicts or ambitions? Are they mentioned even vaguely as much as their love troubles?

Aka does she actually have ambitions and conflicts, or are they just name-dropped in order to make her look more rounded out than she is?

4. If she’s part of an ensemble cast, does she have concerns of her own, beyond a vague connection to the big plot?

“Stopping the big bad” isn’t really motivation enough if everyone else shares the same story.

5. If the answer to all the above questions is “no,” are the other characters in the story similarly preoccupied with romance?

I’m not sure the result would be a particularly good movie, but if Jane Foster cares about absolutely nothing but Thor, and Thor cares about absolutely nothing but Jane Foster, then it’s not a problem of sexism, because each character is equally wrapped up in the other.

So let’s talk about Black Widow in Age of Ultron again. Although her out-of-nowhere romance with Bruce Banner was frustrating, it’s not a problem, in and of itself. She’s allowed to have a romantic subplot as part of her character. It only becomes a problem if all of Black Widow’s other characteristics vanish in the face of this romance.

And, unfortunately, I think her ability to pass the test is debatable here. Yes, she has a goal and a conflict beyond her romance — she wants to stop Ultron and save the world — but that’s a shared goal, not unique to her, and most of her screentime, when not in battle, is spent talking about her potential relationship. Bruce Banner, on the other hand, wants to stop Ultron AND deals with his relationship with Black Widow AND struggles with the question of whether he’s a monster or a hero and whether it’s safe for him to continue to fight. His problems come up in relation to himself, while Black Widow’s problems (like the infamous “I’m a monster too” scene) come up in relation to her love interest and what he needs.

It’s not an obvious fail, because Black Widow is an already established character and so automatically has more depth, and there are hints of development in her flashbacks, but it’s enough to raise questions. Whether it’s a problem just with Black Widow or with the writing in general, or even whether it’s a problem at all, is definitely up for debate. And that debate is complicated by the fact that it’s a new movie, and people can only judge it based on the emotional memories that it left them.

But no. Contrary to the tone of some recent discussions around Age of Ultron, there is nothing wrong with a female character having a love interest. She just needs to have other characteristics too.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

14 thoughts on “Beyond Love Interests

  1. Spot on! I was thinking the same thing. It would be very boring if interesting female characters could never have – or be – love interests. Of course they can. The issue is how they are protrayed apart from that and if they have a story of their own.

    I also depends if a female character is the main protagonist or not. I was thinking about Outlander, the series you have written about before. It´s a lot about love, but it´s not Claire´s only struggle or goal in life, and Jamie is at least as focused on her as she is on him. In Outlander, he is “the love interest”, even if he is more than that.

    I was also thinking about the critisized Twilight and why it doesn´t work, despite the fact that Bella is the only main character. The problem is not the love story in itself, or that she loves Edward. The problem is that she becomes completley obsessed with him and cares about nothing else but him. She has no real life, no interests etc beyond him. She is an extremely boring character. If she had ben portrayed differently, perhaps The Twilight Saga wouldn´t have been that bad.

    1. That’s a good point about Outlander. Jamie is very much Claire’s love interest, but he still has an entire plotline of his own, with his relationship with his sister and his attempt to clear his name of murder. He feels like a character who has lived a whole life before Claire appears, rather than existing solely for her to fall in love with.

      One of the most frustrating things about Twilight is that every other character has an interesting backstory and interesting motivations… and yet it focusses on the romance between the two who don’t have anything going for them except each other.

      1. Exactly, Jamie is a good love interest, like all female love interests deserve to be. His life didn’t start when Claire turned up and even if she has become the most important person in his life, he has other goals and motivations as well.

        It’s easy to think that this problem could be solved with female protagonists. But Twilight sadly shows that even if a woman is the (only) main character, she doesn’t always get an interesring story of her own, beyond a man.

  2. While she’s sadly criticized way too much for the admittedly tiresome trend of being made the damsel in distress for the final act of all three movies, Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane from the original Spider-Man films is actually a really good example of a love interest who passes that test, she has her own backstory, issues and ambitions that are a big focus for her character just like Peter’s are for him. That the previously awesome Black Widow falls short of a 2002-2007 non-superheroic love interest in this movie is sad.

  3. I agree with you entirely, Rhiannon. but also, I was wondering, how did you like Wanda/Scarlett Witch? I haven’t read the comics with her in them but I’ve heard the Avengers changed her character quite a lot.

    1. I really enjoyed Scarlet Witch and can’t wait to see more of her, but I don’t know anything about her in the comics, so I can’t really compare. I thought she had a really interesting plot arc and more depth than pretty much any other female character in their first Marvel movie so far, though!

  4. I have never heard anyone question that male characters have love interests. In the end of a fanatsy epic I won’t name so I don’t spoil for anyone, the hero is more concerned about his(in my opinion) immature relationship with his first teenage love, than about ascending the trone. I didn’t like that plot development since all his ambitions earlier in the books were reduced in favor of his romantic relationship, even if it can be argued that it is realistic. But who would claim that a strong male character shouldn’t have a romantic subplot, even if such subplots aren’t necessarily good.

  5. Well said. Glad you brought this up. My wife Jacqui & I were discussing the exact same thing, and she made the same point about romance and that it is possible to do it well if a female character is not purely defined by said romance.

  6. “Yes, she has a goal and a conflict beyond her romance — she wants to stop Ultron and save the world — but that’s a shared goal, not unique to her, and most of her screentime, when not in battle, is spent talking about her potential relationship. Bruce Banner, on the other hand, wants to stop Ultron AND deals with his relationship with Black Widow AND struggles with the question of whether he’s a monster or a hero and whether it’s safe for him to continue to fight.”

    But you just said that “stopping Ultron and saving the world” is just a shared goal not unique to her, so it doesn’t count. So why does it count for Bruce, then? It’s still a shared goal not unique to him.

    As for him struggling with the question whether he’s a monster or a hero and whether it’s safe for him to fight – it’s the same thing he did in the first movie, the same thing he always does. There was no development for him in this movie except for his relationship with Natasha. It’s like saying that Angel in some episode of his TV show had an arc because he was angsting about his vampire nature and redemption. And Natasha did some remembering and angsting of her own. Maybe it was in relation to him and their relationship because he was the first to bring it up… but most of his scenes were with her, and if she was mentioning it in relation to him, it was because she has it together much more than he does. Ironically, while you’re arguing that he had a stronger arc, I was just listening to a film podcast yesterday where, in their review of the movie, all four hosts agreed that a major weakness, according to them, was how weak Hulk’s arc was, and that all he got in the movie was a relationship with the Black Widow, who was the one driving the relationship, while all he did was react to her.

    I don’t quite understand the remark that the romance is frustrating because it was “out of nowhere”. Where exactly was it supposed to come from? It’s not like they just met in this movie and had their first one-on-one scene, she had substantial scenes with him in the first Avengers movie when she recruited him. They did not start flirting immediately, and why would they? If the first movie immediately plunged into flirting and/or romance, it would have been criticized even more, for treating the only female superhero in the group as if she is there just for a romantic subplot. Would it be possible for the Black Widow to have a romance in this or one of the next movies without it being “out of nowhere” according to these standards? She didn’t have an established romantic connection with anyone in the first movie or before it.

    I can understand criticizing Black Widow’s arc in the movie for not being about much else except a romance and a shared goal, I just don’t understand the argument that Hulk had anything more.

    1. The main problem here as I see it, is exactly what you point out. That Black Widow is the ONLY female Avenger of six. All the others are male. Then it doesn´t matter if Banner´s plotline is mostly about his monster struggles and “lovelife”, because there are four other important guys in the group, but only one woman. Therefore, Black Widow has to carry it all. It looks like Marvel is changing it now with Scarlet Witch joining the group, but considering the huge amount of super hero movies the last 10-15 years, the lack of female super heroes is questionable.

      Both DC and Marvel universes are full of female super heroes. It´s not like they don´t exist. And it´s not like all of them have to be present – far from it – but so far the movies have focused almost entirely on the male ones. The only exception is the X-men movies. Kudos to them!

  7. Of course, this is not just about gender. I understand why some male super heroes just have to be there, due to their popularity. Ironman, Hulk, Thor and Captain America for example. They were also a part of the original comic Avengers I think.

    What I don´t understand is why Hawkeye is neccessary, instead of another female member of the group (as I wrote, there are plenty to chose between). Is Hawkeye and his secret family life really that interesting? Does it add more to the plot than one more female member than just Black Widow would have done? Hardly.

    I hope DC doesn´t fall into the same trap. Let´s face it, Superman and Batman just have to be there. No one wants to see a Justice League movie without them. But Wonder Woman doesn´t have to be the ONLY female super hero here either.

  8. you know I previously haven’t agreed with you on romance. Or atleast not so much how romance doesn’t detract, but that I personally found romance a little boring in IRL* and certainly unimportant. Sure I resent the fact that all the goddess’s of wisdom in western mythology are virgins. But I don’t exactly go out and see chick flicks for the romance.
    Yet over the last day of arguing with a guy about Sansa, when I mentioned that book 1 Sansa was a rationalist who is forced to develop into an empiricist** and his reply in the argument included the line that Sansa was full of stupid romantic notions.
    romantic notions: I don’t know how many times I have seen fanboys for being romantic (rather than rationalising away the empirical evidence of Joffrey’s evil in order to fit in with her ideals) it’s always this romanticism that gets criticized….
    So I wonder: what it is about the romantic notions of women and girls that men find so threatening? Sansa is hardly the first female character to be pilloried for loving Romance (Madam Bovary anyway).
    Why is it that for men, a woman’s character development consists of abandoning romance in favour of what exactly? Would men like women to become disinterred in sex completely? or does romance-which is a coin whose backside is rejection- find women having standards and desires completely threatening.
    Sorry if this is offtopic with the Avengers but I have had a sad and thoughtful day.

    *I love sex with hot guys, but nothing draws out my contempt more than a man who thinks he can buy my affections with fancy restaurants, trips to the opera and expensive gifts. Not that I don’t love those things, but if a man thinks he can buy my affection with romantic gestures and thus make up for his lack of sexual desirability, he can die in a fire.
    ** French and German philosophy tends towards rationalism whilst the British school of philosophy is empirical. Broadly simplifying. It’s actually a rather interesting commentary on GRRM’s part, even if it is unintentional.

  9. Depending on the love interest, having one does open up a bunch of weaknesses that didn’t exist before. A villain just has to compromise the lover.

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