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Reel Women: Has ‘The Avengers’ Smashed the Bechdel Test?

Black Widow
Marvel Studios

Joss Whedon‘s ‘The Avengers‘ hits theaters this Friday, and with it the promise of the long-awaited union of several of our favorite Marvel heroes, like Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor. But what about the ladies of the film?

In ‘The Avengers,’ Scarlett Johansson plays Black Widow, a beautiful and limber assassin, and Cobie Smulders (‘How I Met Your Mother‘) plays Agent Maria Hill. These are our two big female protagonists. It’s also worth noting that at least half of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in the background of various scenes are women, as well, so there’s no shortage of female bodies present during the film.

But is the very presence of women enough, regardless of how physically tough they are? For this question, we turn to the infamous Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel Test, for those unfamiliar, is named for its inventor, comic book strip artist Alison Bechdel. The rules to pass the test – which is a sort of litmus test for female presence in movies and TV – are simple: The film must have at least two women. These women must have names. The two women must talk to each other about something other than a man.

‘The Avengers’ passes the first rule easily, as both Black Widow (real name: Natasha Romanoff) and Agent Hill have names. Where the film gets into trouble, though, is with the second rule. There is not one moment in the film where these two women talk to each other. In fact, I can’t recall one moment in the film where any two women talk to each other. Maybe some of the female agents were speaking to each other in the background, but without knowing those characters or hearing their conversations, we can’t count those instances as passable.

And yet, even though Agent Hill and Black Widow never speak, both women are still positively represented in ‘The Avengers.’ Both are sensible, intelligent, and strong — physically and mentally, which is incredibly important to note.

This doesn’t come as a surprise, either. Joss Whedon has a long history of writing women well, from ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ to ‘Firefly’ and even his recent horror comedy ‘The Cabin in the Woods,’ co-written with longtime colleague Drew Goddard. Whedon’s women (which sounds like a cos-play softball team or an elderly book club) are always well-rounded, often complex, empathetic, and — most importantly — independent.

The weakness in Black Widow’s character is interesting to note: In a past life, Natasha was a villainous assassin who was given a second chance by Hawkeye, and now she’s trying to repay that debt and wipe her bloody slate clean. Instead of using that weakness to pad a potential love story or force some maudlin theatrics into the plot, Black Widow takes her weakness and uses it as a tool of manipulation and strength. She is a confident woman who is aware of her past and the implications of her former wrong doings, and no one else is going to make her feel badly about what she’s done.

Agent Hill, on the other hand, shows typical human weaknesses, like a delayed response when asked to shoot at someone she would normally consider an ally. She’s just as quick and nimble as Black Widow, reinforcing the idea that the women in this film kind of have the leg up (pun intended) on men because they are more lithe. Their moves are faster, more complex, and less brutish. To the point: when these women kick your ass, they’re going to do it elegantly. Whedon approaches the action of his women with careful consideration, and the end result pays off impressively.

There doesn’t seem to be enough talk coming out of the early screenings about just how awesome Black Widow is. It’s easy to dismiss Agent Hill because her part is smaller, but Black Widow is the only female protagonist in a room full of superheroes, and yet all we’re talking about is Iron Man’s wit, Captain America’s nobility, the Hulk’s rage, Hawkeye’s aim, Thor’s might, and Nick Fury’s slickness. What about Black Widow’s ferocity? Scarlett Johansson is a divisive actress, but she deftly handles both the rough and tumble action and the clever dialogue handed to her.

And it’s okay for men to think she’s awesome. A female hero isn’t put there just to pander to women, nor is it only acceptable for girls to look up to her. She’s a hero and she saves the day just as much as the big guys.

Thanks to Whedon’s tremendous writing skill and the way both Johansson and Smulders embody these two heroines, it’s safe to say ‘The Avengers’ has broken the Bechdel Test. Just because a film doesn’t pass the test doesn’t necessarily mean that the film presents women poorly. Neither of these women speak to each other, and yet, they still manage to be strong, positive representations of women… who just happen to kick a lot of ass.

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