Warning: Agent Carter and Age of Ultron spoilers ahead
I am conflicted.
I think that representation is generally a good thing, but, in this case, I don’t know what I feel. I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome about a year ago. I wasn’t terribly surprised when I got the diagnosis; I had suspected for a while, but besides the sometimes unbearable symptoms, the biggest downside to PCOS is a marked lack of fertility. (That’s not to say that all people with PCOS are doomed to a childless life. Many people have children through adoption, surrogacy, or even by managing symptoms enough to conceive).
I didn’t really want children before or after my diagnosis, so that personally didn’t affect me. However, it always piques my interest when I see representations of infertility in media. Recently, Marvel has addressed this in their cinematic universe in both Agent Carter and Avengers: Age of Ultron.
I’ve made my feelings about Age of Ultron known. I didn’t think it was a great movie. That aside, the inclusion of Natasha’s sterilization as part of her Black Widow training struck me as an odd inclusion in the film. Many fans had an issue with this. Particularly with Natasha’s remark that she was a “monster” because she could not conceive children.
It would be extremely problematic if someone besides Natasha said or implied that she was a monster or less of a woman because she could not have children. However, this isn’t the case here; Natasha is one of us. She can have these insecurities because she’s in the process of dealing with it. Even as a fictional character (and a fictional character with very different feelings from me), we have to allow her this.
On the other side though, male superheroes seem to be able to have it all. They can be strong, in love or infatuated, and have some sort of tragic backstory or conflict that drives them. Why can’t we allow Natasha the same thing? What attracts people to Natasha is her strength, but what is strength without perseverance? The movie didn’t sexualize or minimize Natasha and Bruce’s relationship nor her infertility. Simply including it is not problematic, and I actually think is really interesting for a superhero film, but the way in which it was handled was as sloppy as the rest of the film.
The biggest issue I have with this is how odd Natasha acts through the whole film. Rather than having Natasha deal with these things like Natasha, she responds in very emotional and maternal ways, which so far, are behaviors exclusive to this film. This is an issue with Natasha’s character in general, and I think Civil War is the only film to really get her right, but Age of Ultron is the clear outlier. It’s almost as if her character was written around her subplot rather than written as reacting to her subplot. She can still have these wants and insecurities without sacrificing how she has more or less acted in the past. I appreciate that she was brought to the forefront in this movie, but I wish it was done better.
The criticisms I’ve heard the most regarding Natasha in Age of Ultron refer to the lack of payoff with this storyline. Natasha puts this out there as a way to relate to Bruce, but then she just leaves it. There’s no further commentary. People are used to having their characters play through dark emotions so they can have a cathartic experience. When Natasha doesn’t resolve anything, the audience, rightfully, becomes frustrated.
The main thing to consider, however, is that these are a series of movies. Character development often spans multiple films and, when it doesn’t (*cough cough Iron Man 3 cough cough*), it feels rushed and unfinished. Natasha still has time to expand in this new aspect of herself she’s presented to Bruce and to the audience. I don’t know that this will happen, but I hope it gets explored in her tenure.
In Agent Carter, it’s not Peggy, rather, Jarvis’s wife, Ana, who struggles with infertility. When she is shot protecting Jarvis, she loses the ability to bear children. Jarvis is told this after she wakes up and chooses to keep it from her.
What bothers me about this show is that, for the remainder of the show, Ana’s infertility becomes Jarvis’s struggle instead of Ana’s. While infertility can be a shared struggle for a couple, it’s not shared in the show. Jarvis holds this knowledge while Ana recovers from the surgery, not knowing what has happened. Even Peggy finds out before Ana. Although they are the main characters of the show, it is a missed opportunity to develop an otherwise one-dimensional character. And now, with the cancellation of the show, there will never be a pay-off for Ana’s storyline.
I’m not trying to demonize the MCU based on these representations. I’m glad that they’re bringing up the issue at all, honestly. The representations, though, are very telling of how infrequently this story is told. The infertility/sterilization subplots are handled awkwardly, even sloppily. Moreover, instead of showing the differences in how women handle this, it always seems to go back to a great and terrible pain. Though, because it is traumatic for many people—especially for those who are fertile until after some sort of accident or illness—I think it’s fair that many writers want to stick to exploring the feelings of pain surrounding infertility. However, when one in five women has PCOS, we have to wonder why people are still struggling to tell these stories.