The Male Smash
Black Widow’s first two encounters with The Hulk in full force show how scared she is of being overpowered and victimize and pull back the curtain on her calm persona showing responses with the intensity and emotional edge of somebody being triggered by past traumatic experiences. The first one is fairly harmless, but still presents the Hulk as a looming, pseduosexual menace (how Whedon/Ruffalo’s Hulk arcs throughout the movie is another story for another article — suffice it to say that Hulk turns out to very much not be a bad guy, but at this point in the story Black Widow thinks he might be, so we get to see how she reacts to a violent, aggressive masculine presence, gaining some insight into how she might have experienced them the past):
The most important thing we learn from this scene is that Black Widow is not naive to the threat Hulk represents here. This is character development for the Black Widow — she’s been through some rough stuff, and it’s definitely affected her psychologically.
The second scene is much darker and more violent, where, though Loki’s machinations, Hulk goes on an uncontrolled rampage through the U.S.S. Impossible Physics, spending a lot of that time chasing Black Widow. The way the sequence is shot — with Black Widow cowering in a corner in tears and the Hulk snarling at her, breaking things, and looking to scare her and toy with her as much as smash her, strongly suggests that Hulk is representing sexual abuse and Black Widow is representing the psychological affects of sexual abuse.
In an interview back in March, Whedon described his vision of the Hulk as, among other things, “A Hulk who feels dangerous, who might hurt somebody we care about, who belongs in a classic horror film.” So I’m not making up this dynamic.
Pass the Bud, and Stay Loki
In the scene where Black Widow interrogates Loki inside the Hulk cage, we learn about the “red on her ledger” — referring to past crimes, presumably murders, Black Widow committed in her previous life of crime before turning into a good guy superspy. Red on ledgers of course represent resources or liabilities — differences between the sides of the ledgers that must be transferred or otherwise compensated for in order to even out the account. If there is nothing to offset that red ink, it becomes a loss.
Loki attempts to gain dominance and control over Black Widow by shaming her over her “red ink” — especially with regards to her relationship with Hawkeye, which has romantic undertones. And Black Widow seems affected, to a degree, even if she is feigning some of her hurt and outrage into order to trick Loki into revealing why he allowed himself to be captured.
It might seem a stretch to associate this red ink with specifically sexual shame — the sort of shame that so often forces victims of sexual violence into silence. But the use of red ink can’t be coincidental. Red stains in English literature are intimately and indelibly associated with female sexuality and particularly the loss of sexual innocence — due to the longstanding European tradition of publicly displaying a sheet with a red stain on it the day after a wedding to prove the loss of a wife’s virginity during a wedding night (and, by extension, demonstrating her “virtue” beforehand).
This symbol plays heavily in Shakespeare in particular, also giving rise to the famous “damned spot” of Lady Macbeth — a bloodstain that marks the guilt of murder in such a way that Lady Macbeth virtually goes mad with her inability to ever clean it again. The spot and the irreversible guilt felt by Lady Macbeth is connected through the symbol of the red spot with the less of female virginity and social “virtue” in a horrifying way. Here is Dame Judy Dench, whom you may know as the Elemental from The Chronicles of Riddick (As well as many other more respected if marginally less see-in-the-dark-space-armada-ish works, great and small), performing the famous Act V Scene I of Macbeth:
Black Widow’s story arc in The Avengers is built around this “red ink” and whether it will lessen the conviction she needs to be an Avenger (spoiler: it doesn’t).
Slings and Arrows
The place where Black Widow’s guilt and conviction reach their synthesis is in her relationship with Hawkeye, who has been mind-controlled by Loki for much of the film, but comes around after a blow to the head. At some point in the past, Hawkeye, himself not an especially good dude for quite a while, spared Black Widow’s life. While Loki claims that Black Widow cannot ever truly pay back the debt represented by the “red on her ledger,” Black Widow resolves to save Hawkeye, and they bond over their shared experience and the guilt they both share over the things they have done.
The Avengers is smart in creating this symbol for female sex/violence guilt (the red ink) and giving Black Widow a legitimate cause to believe it is her fault — she cannot simply wake up one day and not feel this guilt anymore. She must instead find her power and conviction to do what is important despite the guilt.
One of my favorite exchanges in The Avengers is right around where I see Black Widow and Hawkeye moving past this problem.
Black Widow: Just like Budapest all over again.
Hawkeye: You and I remember Budapest very differently.”
It turns out that Black Widow and Hawkeye don’t really aim to get rid of the “red ink” on the ledger — they want to move forward and work together — both with The Avengers and with each other, despite it, because their conviction to do what they value is more important than the power their red ink has to shame or limit them.
And there it ties into discourses of power and behavior modeling — heroes with relationship baggage.
Scratch what I said earlier: Banter isn’t the most Whedonesque thing there is. That’d be heroes with relationship baggage. He loves that stuff even more than witty one-liners and pop culture references.
In the end, The Avengers is among the rare popcorn action flicks (along with, for example, Terminator 2: Judgment Day) that not only resists perpetuating the discourses of power that sustain pandemic sexual violence, but that advances discourses of power that provide an alternate model with the potential to changing the narratives that shape behavior in a positive way.
Of course I am highly skeptical of attributing praise or blame for the aggravation or alleviation of broad social problems to individual pieces of art, and I am especially reluctant to do so in this case — so think of this as one person’s reading as it relates to one interpretation of the current crisis, and leave your thoughts on your own reading below.
And for more analysis of the Coulsian “convictions” that either arise from us or reach out to us and drive the Avengers, keep tabs on Overthinking It. We love this stuff.