The Black Widow – A feminist future or a bleak return to the Hollywood Femme Fatale?

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.

~Sarah

10 thoughts on “The Black Widow – A feminist future or a bleak return to the Hollywood Femme Fatale?

  1. Heya, I just hopped over to your web page through StumbleUpon. Not somthing I might typically read, but I appreciated your views none the less. Thanks for creating something worth reading.

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  2. It may be worth noting that she’s the one truly human character among a group of nonhuman and superhuman giants. No other shield agent goes face-to-face with The Hulk, not even Hawkeye. She – among all the others – is the only one to outsmart Loki – god-like if not an actual god. She saves her man, Hawkeye. She infiltrates Iron Man’s organization. And finally, she replaces an original Avenger, Ant-Man, in the movie. Ant-Man sucks, but supplanting a male superhero with a female non-superhero is no small feat.

    Compare her to Batman, arguably the most bankable hero in comic-book culture. She’s in good company.

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      • I hate to break this to ya but a woman’s primary identity is her ability to incubate and bare children hence nature has programed men to see women who are fertile as desirable while those who aren’t fertile {either too old or physically unattractive} as undesirable.

        Besides just as Nick Furry was played by a black man to bring in black movie goers and deflect any accusations that the Avengers movie was racist. The Black Widow character played by Johansson was brought in to add a splash of male bashing to bring in women viewers as well as deflect any accusations of sexism. Other then that Johansson was just a distraction that didn’t add any real value to the movie or plot yet wasn’t offensive enough to make men {like myself who are well aware of the feminist war against the male gender but aren’t radicals} not want to go see it.

        The so called sexualization of women will end just as soon as women stop judging and valuing men for their status and bank accounts and end the practice of selling {prostituting} themselves to the highest male bidder.

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  3. The Black Widow is the perfect representation of what today’s woman has chosen to become and fantasize of becoming: sexually manipulative to get what they want and cowering when she wants and expects to be protected from the consequences of her own poor choices and actions.

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    • Again, I think that’s a generalization and not all women function in that way. Like I said, I’m sure there are some women who do that, but likewise for men. But you’re entitled to your own views. Thanks for the comment. Peace x

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      • Unfortunately far too many women do indeed act this way to make those women who don’t extremely rare. Which is why the Men Going Their Own Way here in America and the Herbivore or Grass Eater movement in Japan: Men who have decided that it is in their best interest in avoiding being taken to the cleaners through marriage and divorce and chose to avoid intimate relationships with women altogether. Are growing all the larger as time goes on.

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      • I feel as a female, and one that has studied gender theory and who whole-heartedly believes that gender itself is a social construction, that your comments are short sighted and require a lot more research into these areas. Also, some more life experience thrown in there. You seem to have a very narrow minded view of what a woman is and how she acts. Perhaps it is because of the limited social circle you function in. However, I can tell you, as a woman, with many female friends, none of whom act according to how you claim they do, that I am in a better position to talk about the status of woman. There is no natural gender, there is no natural selection process – we’re all designed to think there is but it all derives from the need to appear like we have stable gender identities. I could be getting too philosophical/psychoanalytical here, so I’m just going to refer you to Judith Butler’s work entitled “Gender Trouble”. If you really do have an interest in such issues, I advise that you read up on the current theory at work regarding them before you further comment.
        Also, according to your logic, I should generalize on my experiences of men and assume all fall into some all consuming stereotype – which is never a fair way to judge anybody, regardless of what type of identity we’re discussing. Unless you have conducted research on a large part of the female population with results that conclude that females are without a doubt some kind of gold-digging creature, I think your experiences have clouded any objective judgement that you can give at the moment.

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  4. What I love about the Black Widow is that she uses the fact that she is a woman against her enemies….and NOT in a sexualized way, at least not in The Avengers (she does so in Ironman, though). Her usual tactic is to present herself as vulnerable and then strike. In short she uses the perception of society that woman a physically and emotionally vulnerable against them. It’s like a big middle finger in the direction of everyone who ever claimed that women are controlled by their emotions or to weak to win in certain situations-
    Another aspect I love about the way she is written that those who know her are very aware of her abilities and trust her to deal with certain situations. Coulson just waits at the phone not worried at all if she is able to defeat her enemies, Captain America throws her in the air, believing her to be able to win a fight in the air. And the fact that she isn’t superhuman, meaning that she’ll most likely die if she should fail, makes her actions even more awesome. Never mind that she is the one who eventually closes the portal.
    Her character only gets better in The Winter Soldier. Just the fact that she managed to be in three movies without getting reduced to the love interest is a miracle in the world of Superhero movies.

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