The Bechdel Test is one of my favorite things in the world. There are fewer succinct ways to condemn the entertainment industry than to note its regular failure of the Bechdel Test. When you realize that the majority of movies you will see this year fail the test it’s a horrifying thought.

In order to pass the Bechdel Test your film/television show/radio comedy hour must:

  1. Feature two women.
  2. Who talk to each other.
  3. About something besides men.

That’s it. Those are the only things a piece of entertainment has to do in order to pass. NOT HARD. But then, it is in fact very hard as evidenced by the breakdown of passes, failures, and not even eligible films over at the Bechdel Movie List.

And right now The Avengers is at the top of that list. This past weekend it broke box office records, made a load of money, turned Joss Whedon into an A-List director and proved to the world that superhero team movies can be successful (apparently some idiot out there didn’t know that).

It also failed the test. In fact, I think there was exactly one scene in which two named women were on film at the same time. And neither spoke to the other.

But you know what The Avengers did have that sets it apart from other films, and particularly other Bechdel failures? It had women in many small supporting roles usually reserved for men. Women flew planes and manned computers and gave orders. Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill wrangled Avengers and battled mind controlled baddies and served as a sound stone for Nick Fury! Pepper Potts busted Tony Stark’s balls and built a skyscraper!

They also weren’t sexualized at the cost of their humanity!

Particularly the sole female Avenger and de facto lead heroine, Black Widow. Yes she posed a few times and played on others expectations because she’s a woman. However I should note that her name is Black Widow and that she is one of the original manipulative super spies in literature.

And though, she certainly did bank on her sex to get what she wanted she is never overtly sexual.

On the left her character poster from Jon Favreau's Iron Man 2. On the right her character poster from The Avengers.

In fact there was a major shift in the character from her introduction in the abysmal Iron Man 2 to her appearance here. Where before her chief defining power was the ability to always land with one leg sort of stuck out to the side, now her defining quality is her ability to TAKE A PUNCH FROM THE HULK AND SURVIVE SANS ARMOR AND GOD POWERS. Also you know, her twirly martial arts shtick, her ability to manipulate anyone and that whole just overall badassness that has her going toe to toe with gods, machines and supermen.

That’s a big shift in characterization and a welcome one. Black Widow is not an easy character to “nail,” precisely because of her groan inducing history. Who really wants to see another super lady spy who uses her vagina like Captain America uses his fist? Not I! And instead of going to that dried up well Joss Whedon and Zack Penn chose to focus on her other, more interesting qualities. So while Iron Man wrestles with the idea of self sacrifice, and Captain America and Thor worry about fitting in and Hulk tries to keep a hold of his temper Black Widow is seek absolution for the multitude of sins she has committed.

And in the process she’s presenting perhaps the best realized superheroine since 2004’s The Incredibles, which, coincidentally, are still the high mark in superheroines on screen. So while it is incredibly frustrating that she and Maria Hill didn’t share a scene where they talk, plot or join up with Pepper Potts for ginger adventures we can all still take heart in the fact that she wasn’t in a love triangle, did not require rescue, and technically saved the earth from invasion all on her lonesome.

Now let us all cross our fingers that by 2015 we have an Avengers 2 and a Black Widow film. And here’s an idea, throw Maria Hill into the latter. Then we can have our Bechdel success AND great superheroines in one film!

Now. A word from Captain America’s glutes. Because that was about the only thing really sexualized in the whole film and hoo boy am I okay with that.

  • pandaonatractor

    Let’s see, Black Widow uses her sexuality and emotional manipulation to get what she wants out of men, (she implies the Russian general in the beginning is a poor lover, and then later lets Loki threaten to rape her) and then her big contribution to the final fight is to embrace her masculinity and grab Loki’s spear and plunge it into the glowing portal box. Yep. Sounds like a great female character.

    • You forgot to mention that her entire intro scene is revealed to be her playing helpless in order to get info on the general’s connections, and the second she needs to, she hands three grown men presumably with military backgrounds their butts, despite being tied to a chair.

       “Lets Loki threaten to rape her”? So you think she should’ve just walked into his cell just to stand up for herself and compromise her objective of getting the plan out of him? She uses Loki’s need for attention against him, exactly as a good operative should, regardless of gender, and Tony tries something very similar later. Using his misogyny against him effectively doesn’t make her a bad character.

      She’s smacking bad guys around just like everyone else in the big fight, and the fact that you have to try and make closing the portal that the horde of alien invaders are coming through sound Freudian in order to denigrate it speaks more about you than it does the film.

      Yes, she uses her sexuality to manipulate people, and toys with their emotions. Because she’s a spy. If she is not doing those things when require to accomplish her aims, she is, by definition, a terrible spy.