The Avengers Assemble (2012) directed by Joss Whedon swept across the globe, breaking the billion dollar gross income in the box offices. With a cast of actors who appear to embody their characters so flawlessly, wit and humour that had entire screens roaring with laughter and enough action to keep you on the edge of your seat, who wouldn’t fall in love with the movie? I know I did.
Except, of course, for the character of Natasha Romanoff, or, the Black Widow. While watching the movie, I found myself cringing at certain lines that Scarlet Johanson delivered. Not because she is a bad actor, I find her strikingly powerful as an actor usually, but because they were so cliché – Oh a seductive, manipulative woman – what a breath of fresh air. I assumed throughout my viewing of the film that even though the film itself contained an abundance of humour and action that made it enjoyable, its lack of strong female characters would still send feminists rallying up against the limited role that was given to women in the movie.
Now, I realize that all that characters are embodying typical gender roles here. So let me just make this clear before I rant about why Black Widow’s role was particularly frustrating for me. If you do not already know, or have not already subconsciously picked up, when male characters assume normative gender roles, it’s usually a positive thing. For example, Stark is, as he states, a “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist”. Not too shabby. Even Banner, the caring, soft hearted reluctant hero, whose super strength is portrayed negatively initially, masters his strength and teams up with the Avengers, giving them the extra strength needed to save the world.
I’m not saying that they didn’t give Black Widow any agency, they did. Her acrobatic skills and her power of manipulation comes in quite useful throughout the movie and her presence is a definite positive for the group, but they also depicted her character in such gendered terms that it made me squeamish.
There is an innate flaw in regenerating old comics into new movies. For these characters were created in decades past, and often what appears to be progressive then, is quite regressive now. As Marvel Editor in Chief, Axel Alonso states: “The Marvel Universe has always reflected the world outside your window, so we strive to make sure our characters, relationships and stories are grounded in that reality”. Thus, the Black Widow, initially created in 1964, reflected a need for a female superhero – one that reflected society at the time. This depiction of woman thus portrays the norms of accepted gendered identification of the time – a time when second wave feminism was only beginning to take route – when powerful women were beginning to threaten the patriarchal system. A time when the issue of the socio-cultural representation of women sat on the back burner while issues of equality in the work place, sexuality, family, reproductive rights, de facto inequalities, and official legal inequalities took precedent.
So, bearing in mind the historical context in which the Black Widow was created, lets take a look at just some of the powers she was allotted:
Peak Human Strength: Her physical strength is heightened to a level that is beyond the natural physical limits of a woman of her height, weight and build. She is capable of lifting up to 500 lbs.
Peak Human Speed: Her speed is also enhanced to the peak of human capability. Natasha is as fast as a human can be without being classified as superhuman.
Peak Human Agility: Natasha’s natural agility is heightened to the peak of human capability. She is as agile as a human being can be without being classified as superhuman.
Peak Human Reflexes: Her reaction time is similarly enhanced and functions with the peak of human efficiency and capability.
Ok, so far everything she can do is not superhuman, only very talented. What, then, makes her special? That she’s a trained spy? Are we working with a character that is simply an extremely powerful spy? If so, that’s pretty awesome.
But of course not, this is marvel comics! These people are superhuman, not super spies! So, where does the Black Widow’s extra special talents lie? I’ve discovered only one thing that sets her apart from super spies and humans alike:
Extended Longevity: The Super-Soldier serum variant has also extended her lifespan by dramatically slowing her natural aging process. Although she is almost 70 years old, she has the youthful appearance and vitality of a woman in the physical prime of her life.
Amazing. She’ll stay young for a long time. I cannot wait to see her fight off bad guys by waiting them out.
What makes the Black Widow stand out from the crowd so? The hint is in her superhero name. The Black Widow is a genus of spider, whose females eat the male after mating. Thus, her sexuality is dangerous – a tool that she utilizes to take advantage of males and then to consume them.
Master Seductress: She is an expert in the field of seduction. Natasha has been infamously known to bend many different men to her will and sometimes even get them to do her bidding for her. Hawkeye and Iron Man are two examples and living proof of this. She sometimes continues deceiving certain men through means of acting if she still has a further use for them. (www.DC-Marvel-Universe.blogspot.ie)
Now we’ve got it. She’s super seductive, i.e. super manipulative. Ah yes, I see why flocks of women are aspiring to be her now, who doesn’t want to be a femme fatale? The idea that only women manipulate to get what they want, and that our sexuality is a powerful tool in this sense, is, to be perfectly blunt, a pile of crap. To construct women in this light is reducing them to immanance – that is, that they rely on their bodies to manoeuvre through the world, that their bodies are their source of power and when the time comes that their bodies begin to degrade, they have nothing left.
Now, for all those men thinking “but women are manipulative, they withhold sex, make sexual promises, flaunt their bodies…” So do men. Just look at Tony Stark! But, of course, that’s not the feature that makes him dangerous to their enemies and thus valuable to his team. While I’m sure some women do use their sexuality, as I’m sure some men do, to construct female characters in this light propagates a myth that female sexuality is dangerous. It feeds in to a culture that already assumes that women get pregnant to trap men, to get maternity leave, to live off the state etc. Why, then, would we praise such a representation of female sexuality??
And this is what really, really grinds my gears about Natasha Romanoff – Women seemed to fawn over her. She became an ideal to the female audience members. A post on HelloGiggles.com even went so far as suggesting that some of her most becoming attributes was that she was “ladylike” and that “she’s vulnerable”: “During a brief respite in the midst of being attacked and fighting for her life (and everyone else’s), what did The Black Widow do? Did she look around, satisfied, and pant with a slight smile on her face? No. Did she cock her gun and say some corny “I’m so awesome” line? No. She sank down in a corner and started shaking”. Seriously? You think portraying what is the only representation of a female superhero is this movie as cowering and scared, is a positive thing? I’d prefer the corny “I’m so awesome” line – finally a woman that is unashamedly strong. But alas, sexual, manipulative, beautiful AND strong. Gosh, the patriarchy would simply crumble. Can’t give her too much power – says the fat cat producers.
Black Widow was progressive for her time. She was a step in the right direction when female representation in comics went almost unheard of. Unfortunately, nearly 50 years later, we do need more. As Scarlet Johanson gazes up into the sky, I hope she is dreaming of a time when a female superheroes can genuinely be super.