So, I'm a bit of a shipper. I love a good romantic subplot in a story, and that investment in a potential couple is often what pushes me from liking a series to all-out obsession.
But Black Widow's role in Age of Ultron has once again got people talking about whether romance has a place in the plot arcs of "strong female characters," and whether giving a character a love interest makes her somehow lesser or more cliche. In short, can a character have a love interest and also be feminist?
The answer to that question, of course, is an obvious yes. There's nothing anti-feminist about love. A character isn't weaker because she has a romantic plotline. But these romantic plotlines can be representative of a much bigger problem, where a female character only exists in relation to her male love interest. In these scenarios, it's easy for people to roll their eyes and claim that the romance itself is the problem, but there is nothing wrong with a romantic plotline in and of itself -- it's all in how it's treated, and how the female character is portrayed outside it.
Basically: does the character have a love interest, or are they nothing but a love interest? Are they a character who has a romantic subplot as part of their own rich story, or are they defined by their romantic connection to another?
1. Does the character have goals and ambitions of her own?
Finding true love excluded, of course.
2. Does she deal with conflicts that aren't just about true love?
Anything, really. Career problems. Family tension. Fighting Ultron to save the world. Whatever. Is she struggling with something in the story other than her relationship?
3. Does she actually talk about or address these conflicts or ambitions? Are they mentioned even vaguely as much as their love troubles?
Aka does she actually have ambitions and conflicts, or are they just name-dropped in order to make her look more rounded out than she is?
4. If she's part of an ensemble cast, does she have concerns of her own, beyond a vague connection to the big plot?
"Stopping the big bad" isn't really motivation enough if everyone else shares the same story.
5. If the answer to all the above questions is "no," are the other characters in the story similarly preoccupied with romance?
I'm not sure the result would be a particularly good movie, but if Jane Foster cares about absolutely nothing but Thor, and Thor cares about absolutely nothing but Jane Foster, then it's not a problem of sexism, because each character is equally wrapped up in the other.
So let's talk about Black Widow in Age of Ultron again. Although her out-of-nowhere romance with Bruce Banner was frustrating, it's not a problem, in and of itself. She's allowed to have a romantic subplot as part of her character. It only becomes a problem if all of Black Widow's other characteristics vanish in the face of this romance.
And, unfortunately, I think her ability to pass the test is debatable here. Yes, she has a goal and a conflict beyond her romance -- she wants to stop Ultron and save the world -- but that's a shared goal, not unique to her, and most of her screentime, when not in battle, is spent talking about her potential relationship. Bruce Banner, on the other hand, wants to stop Ultron AND deals with his relationship with Black Widow AND struggles with the question of whether he's a monster or a hero and whether it's safe for him to continue to fight. His problems come up in relation to himself, while Black Widow's problems (like the infamous "I'm a monster too" scene) come up in relation to her love interest and what he needs.
It's not an obvious fail, because Black Widow is an already established character and so automatically has more depth, and there are hints of development in her flashbacks, but it's enough to raise questions. Whether it's a problem just with Black Widow or with the writing in general, or even whether it's a problem at all, is definitely up for debate. And that debate is complicated by the fact that it's a new movie, and people can only judge it based on the emotional memories that it left them.
But no. Contrary to the tone of some recent discussions around Age of Ultron, there is nothing wrong with a female character having a love interest. She just needs to have other characteristics too.