We heard it referenced in Avengers: Age of Ultron, when Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johannson) told Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) that she could never conceive children because her tyrannical spy/warrior training program in Russia forced sterilization on its members.

“In the Red Room where I was trained... where I was raised, they have a graduation ceremony. They sterilize you. It's efficient. One less thing to worry about. The one thing that might matter more than a mission. Makes everything easier. Even killing. You still think you're the only monster on the team?”

Ever since that line was uttered, many outlets zeroed in on the “monster” line with outrage at the suggestion that not bearing children makes someone a monster. But I think that misses the point Jos Whedon probably meant for Romanoff’s line—to me, it seemed she was empathizing with Banner and the term monster was meant in a Mary Shelley-type way to refer to their technologically altered bodies feeling freakish even to themselves. Romanoff didn’t choose to be sterile, so it seems unfitting to compare her state to those who can’t bear children naturally or choose not to conceive.

Back to Black Widow’s reference to sterilization, it was a stunning admission at the time—one of the few glimpses into Romanoff’s past from the Avengers cannon, and one that struck to the heart of many viewers. We don’t exactly imagine superheroes prioritizing families on the side, and yet here is the Black Widow saying that having a family would be “the one thing that might matter more than a mission.”

Sterilization comes up again in this latest Black Widow film

In the Cate Shortland-directed Black Widow, Romanoff’s first standalone film that broke pandemic box office records with $80 million on opening weekend in theaters and $60 million more via premium access on the streaming service Disney+, the sad topic is reprised. While sterilization is only explicitly mentioned in one scene, its impact on women’s freedom, dignity, and hopes for the future permeate the story’s overarching emphasis on freeing women from oppression.

In Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff and her sister Yelena (the fantastic Florence Pugh) team up to take down the Red Room training program. Along the way, they reconnect with their once foster father, Alexei (David Harbour), a super soldier who can’t let go the memory of his glory days as a Russian Captain America-like figured called the Red Guardian. After they release him from prison and are curt in their communication, their dad mocks Yelena asking if it’s “her time of the month.” To which Yelena replies:

“I don’t get my period dips--t. I don’t have a uterus.”

“Or ovaries,” Natasha pipes in.

“Yeah, that’s what happens when the Red Room gives you an involuntary hysterectomy. They kind of just go in [raises arms as if reaching up inside a woman] and they rip out all of your reproductive organs. [Gestures the act of ripping out with a deadpan look.] They just get right in there [continues to mime ripping and reaching up] and they chop them all away, everything out, so you can’t have babies.”

According to director Cate Shortland, the line wasn’t even in the original film script, but actresses Pugh and Johannson took issue when they say a joke about the women being irritable on their periods in the script.

“I love it,” Shortland told Polygon in an interview. “Because it’s like, if you’re gonna make that joke, I’m gonna unleash Florence Pugh on you. She’s gonna Yelena you. It’s one of my favorite moments in the film.”

Black Widow’s director highlighted forced sterilization on purpose

Shortland told USA Today that a focal point of her work on Black Widow was to highlight real-world issues women face across the globe, sterilization included. The goal was to:

. . . have the Marvel universe intersect with reality. So we talked about trafficking. We talk about women's reproductive rights in the film because they're things we care about. And instead of it being about victimization, the characters make jokes about it because it's happened to them. I hope that that lifts people up. The trauma the characters have been through, they're trying to come up and answer it, not let it put them down.”

While I might prefer a deeper dive than a joke-infused reference to as serious a problem as forced sterilization, I am reminded this is a comic-book movie. Working within this genre, I think Shortland’s handling of the topic may have been as well delivered as possible.

By my watch, the repercussions of the girls’ sterilization permeate the mood of the film. Pugh delivers her reproductive status in deadpan. There’s a cold, unspoken but palpable vibe of angst throughout the girls’ journey that captures a deep underlying pain of how they’ve been robbed—of their families of origin, of their mental and physical health, and of their freedom in numerous ways, including their reproductive freedom and the chance to experience hope for a better future through a new generation. When Alexei and others in the story don’t quite get the severity of these destroyed avenues of hope, the silent glances between Natasha and Yelena are loud on screen. I would say this is where Shortland shows mastery in conveying the women’s empowerment element necessary for a film about breaking an oppressive trafficking ring of women and girls; it’s not virtue-signaled, oversold, or overstated in a heavy-handed way; but it’s ever-present.

Forced sterilization in the real world

Sadly, forced sterilization is not just a dramatic plot device but a reality that happens all over the world. The Chinese government has received scrutiny for sterilizing its Muslim Uighur population. California just approved paying reparations to people it forcibly sterilized for decades, including women of color, those with disabilities, and many poor, incarcerated, or otherwise vulnerable populations. And Planned Parenthood head Alexis McGill Johnson recently admitted in the New York Times that Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger “endorsed the Supreme Court’s 1927 decision in Buck v. Bell, which allowed states to sterilize people deemed ‘unfit’ without their consent and sometimes without their knowledge—a ruling that led to the sterilization of tens of thousands of people in the 20th century.” And the ugly history of sterilization in America includes the targeting of Black, Latina, and Native American populations.

In our world that embraces birth control as a staple of women’s empowerment, it can get messy when we talk about forced or pressured sterilization. Just like in Black Widow’s case, where the Age of Ultron line was construed as calling women who don’t bear kids “monsters” or “reducing Romanoff to her reproductive choices” since we should leave room for some women to celebrate not having kids (except, lest we forget, Romanoff didn’t choose to be sterilized), some women’s health groups celebrate aggressive contraceptive campaigns that include or approach forced sterilization on the women they claim to serve. Western-funded contraceptive campaigns in Africa, for instance, are making African women "sterile at the cheapest rate possible,"according to Nigerian biomedical scientist and author Obianuju Ekeocha.

Before rushing to make caveats to celebrate those who prefer not to have kids, I think we can do better to listen to the voices of women who have been forcibly sterilized to hear how they feel about what happened to them. There are a number of documentaries on affected populations that are worth watching. And, while Black Widow is a fictional story of the superhero genre, it portrays on a big screen the tragedy women can experience due to forced sterilization—and how it’s essential we fight back.