First, go read this thought-provoking article by Meredith Woerner and Katharine Trendacosta. This started as a reply to their piece, but turned into this post, because I didn’t want to hijack the comments section.
I’ll be honest: I never realized just how little there was in the way of female superhero merchandising until I got married. My wife, a true comic book/superhero fan herself, is often frustrated at the lack of toys and collectibles of female characters. Sure, we buy statues from our local comic shop, and she has quite the collection, but if she just wants an inexpensive fun thing for her desk at work—something that didn’t cost in the triple digits and won’t be impossible to replace—no luck.
Case in point: after seeing Age of Ultron—which we both loved—we had to do some shopping. We breezed through the action figures at our local Target and my wife was ready to snatch up one or more Black Widow and/or Scarlet Witch toys, because she loved the characters. Alas, nowhere to be found. If she wanted any of the male Avengers it was an endless buffet. I can only imagine how many girls half or a quarter of her age go to see the movie and have the same intent afterward only to turn up empty-handed. So, yes, there is a drought of female superhero merchandise (outside of the pricier boutique items you’ll find at specialty stores) and that’s a problem.
But as for Black Widow’s sterility: I can see how the delivery of her reveal was problematic, because that exchange was awkward and strained, just as it would be in real life. Banner is grasping at straws to distance himself from Natasha, Natasha is grasping at straws to come closer to him. What comes across as clumsy writing, to me, actually felt organic in that when in such a heated discussion, people don’t tend to take the time to carefully phrase their words so that the intent is clear.
With that being said, I don’t think the intent—either on Whedon’s part as the writer/director or Widow’s part as the character—was that she regretted her sterility. We don’t see her indulge in any of the typical Hollywood visual tropes of the barren woman who wants more than anything to be a mother: she doesn’t stare mournfully and with longing at Hawkeye’s kids as they play or wear a mask of sadness as she strokes Susan Barton’s pregnant belly. We don’t see her exhibit any nurturing or doting attitude on a child, claiming an offpsring-by-proxy. At no point in the movie are we given any indication that she equates her value to her ability to produce children. Even as she delivers the line, she doesn’t seem particularly bothered by being made infertile, except in the context that it was only part of the inhumane and desensitizing training she went through. She’s far more bothered than the lives she has taken; after all, the most pronounced image in her vision was that of the person with a bag over their head, obviously a target of execution, a way to test her capacity for murder.
In fact, if the quote from IMDB is accurate, Natasha never actually uses her infertility as a self-insult.
Bruce Banner: [looks at Barton’s home] I can’t have this, any of this. There is no place on Earth I can go where I’m not a monster.
Natasha Romanoff: You know what my final test was in the Red Room? They sterilized me, said it was one less thing to worry about. You think you’re the only loner on the team?
She responds to Banner pining over never being able to have the idyllic American family life with it, reminding him that just because he’s a big green monster, he’s not the only one who will never be able to settle down and have the house, picket fence, pets, a barn, and 2-3 healthy, energetic kids. She effectively tells him to stop feeling sorry for himself.
UPDATE: In trying to find a source that corroborated IMDB, I came across other articles commentating on this exchange, and they ALL quoted the line as Widow saying “monster” instead of “loner.” Even with the line as that, I still don’t think we’re supposed to infer that Natasha sees herself as less of a person due to her infertility. She sees herself as a monster due to the completeness of her conditioning, with her sterilization being a part of that: it’s not the infertility by itself that makes her a monster, but the total package of being a trained murderer that does. Regardless, it’s clumsily written dialogue at best.
Nevertheless, Black Widow is given a “child” in the form of a character that needs nurturing, care, and special attention in the form of the Hulk. Woerner and Trendacosta point out that this is how Marvel/Disney got around the issue of her being infertile—with no way to have children of her own, she’s simply given a giant baby to look after instead. The whole “lullaby” ritual definitely has maternal overtones to it, but Widow is the most empathetic and patient Avenger, thus the one most capable of bringing Banner down from his rage-filled highs. Could you imagine the straightforward Captain America, the egotistical Tony Stark, or the boisterous Thor being able to summon the delicacy and calm required to bring the Hulk under control? I can’t. Hawkeye might be able to summon the skill necessary to diffuse a rampaging muscle monster—him being a father and accustomed to raging juvenile emotions—but we have seen Black Widow’s capacity to relate and communicate before: she broke through Selvig’s mind control in The Avengers and helped put Steve Rogers’ anxieties about finding his place in this new world at ease in The Winter Soldier (I’m thinking specifically of their conversation in the truck on the way to the derelict Army base). It’s not Widow’s maternal instincts and aching that make her the best one to deliver Hulk’s lullaby; it’s her ability to project calm and clarity—not exclusively a maternal skill.
Black Widow’s treatment as a character, and Marvel’s handling of their female characters, is far from perfect. I think it’s ridiculous that the men get cut, bruised, drenched in sweat, and visibly exhausted, yet she and Scarlet Witch always look stunning even in the midst of planet-threatening combat (I think Natasha may have had a split lip in the first Avengers movie?). Remember: men can wear their battle scars proudly, but women must always be pretty and feminine, even when fighting flying robots! The only Marvel movie to have a female character who wasn’t at least a temporary love interest was Guardians of the Galaxy (Gamora was a target of Star Lord’s “pelvic sorcery,” but she shut him down with authority). And the first female-led superhero movie won’t come to us until a full decade after the first entry in Marvel’s shared cinematic universe. Maybe at least that one will pass the Bechdel test.
But I really don’t think that Black Widow’s inability to bear children is supposed to be anything other than a minor detail about her character that demonstrates just how controlling and heartless the secret organization she used to serve can be. They took away—without her consent—her ability to reproduce. They altered young Natasha’s body, one of the primary things which she is supposed to own and have agency over. Even if she wanted to have children (and she never says or otherwise indicates that she does), she can’t, and it’s all because she could be a more effective killing machine. She is no longer that killing machine, as evidenced by her ability to relate to people and project a calming presence, and is now very much in charge of her own life, currently serving (by the film’s end) as co-leader of a nationally celebrated team of superheroes. If it was ever Joss Whedon’s, Marvel’s, or Disney’s intent to undermine Black Widow’s strength and independence, I would have to say their plan backfired.