Spoiler Alert; comic books can be really, really sexist. The majority are edited and penned by white dudes, and the films, too. So when a wild female character appears, it’s important for the future of comics and their cinematic counterparts that we take a proper look.
One character, and the representation of that character can have far reaching effects on any minority group they belong to. Astronomy’s Neil deGrasse Tyson talked about seeing Peter Parker chat to a young black man in a comic book panel, and Oprah Winfrey ran around the house screaming when Nichelle Nichols appeared in Star Trek. Representation is important, okay?
So when [The Avengers](movie:9040) had three named female characters* - there were three times that many men**, only one of whom is an Avenger, I wasn't holding my breath for a feminist agenda underneath Whedon's action epic. Others disagreed - Whedon’s done great work with (white) female characters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer! Why would he screw this up?
After the film’s release, a lot of people stuck to their preconceptions. After her role as a glorified sidekick in [Captain America: The Winter Soldier](movie:254973), even more people flocked to the ‘Black Widow Is A Feminist Icon’ bandwagon. She’s a female character, she’s bad-ass and she doesn't even get naked. Three strikes, ding ding ding, bat’em up, and other Americanisms I’m not familiar with.
Well, no. It’s a lot more complicated than that, and I’m here to explain to you why Black Widow is not a feminist icon.
Firstly, she’s isolated. This isn't her fault - in fact, none of this is her fault. Natalia Romanova, aka Black Widow, may be a card-carrying feminist who always donates to trans-inclusive women’s shelters and assassinates aggressively sexist Republicans. In the comics, in fact, she does beat up some men who abuse their partners.
However, the way she is written in the films means that the character, and the success of that character, is not a victory for the representation of women on screen.
For a start - she’s the only one. None of her films pass the lowest of feminist expectations: The Bechdel Test requiring two named women to discuss something other than a man. She doesn't interact with Maria Hill or Pepper Potts in The Avengers - she’s a little Russian island amongst a sea of men. This is never referenced or commented on; Hill doesn't wander up to Widow, inviting her to the S.H.I.E.L.D. Feminist Society keynote on increasing diversity within the department. She chats to Pepper and they’re ‘friends’ in Iron Man 2, but we don’t see enough of it separate from Tony Stark or Justin Hammer for it to count.
Her presence in The Avengers doesn't go against the norm in any way; Whedon didn't use her isolation to make a point, or to critique the patriarchal order within S.H.I.E.L.D. and/or the superhero genre in general.
From her first appearance in IM2 to her latest outing as a supporting character in TWS, the Black Widow is pretty one-dimensional. She started as a supporting character in the comic books; her first appearance in Tales of Suspense #52 introduced her as paramour of Hawkeye and saboteur of Iron Man. But her popularity grew, and this year she’s enjoying another successful solo series, this time penned by Phil Noto. In the comics, Natasha has got character in abundance. She’s tortured and introspective. She’s clever and ruthless. She’s manipulative and strong. We see flashes of it - when she interrogates Loki on the Helicarrier, when she uses Steve Rogers’ mission to steal intelligence without any of her superiors knowing in TWS. But there’s potential for so much more.
Her backstory, for example, is one of the most interesting in comic book lore. She was brainwashed as a Soviet Spy, for goodness’ sake. She’s had more husbands than Liz Taylor - including Bucky Barnes, and was rescued by Wolverine from Nazis. Her origins in the USSR and the ‘Red Room’ may not have the same ‘oh well, y’know, terrorism’ zeitgeist of Iron Man, but they’re still interesting - and the success of Captain America shows there’s an audience for a 20th-century, conflict-based story.
But her rich, complex backstory was erased in TWS with one throwaway line; her date of birth. Instead of being a similar age to Captain Rogers, she’s born in 1984, not 1928. So she can’t be a Soviet Spy; she was five when the Wall came down. So - who is she? We don’t know anything about her! She’s reduced to a ‘strong female character’ trope, where we don’t have a fully-realised, complex character - just a male fantasy with a few smart quips.
Having a range of well-developed, elaborate female characters is feminist, is progressive. And it’s happening more and more in television; look at Battlestar Galactica, [Orange Is the New Black](series:761587) - even early seasons of [Game of Thrones](movie:817617). But film is lagging behind, and the writing of Black Widow is, too.
Giving us a solo movie would signify a move in the right direction, especially if it included other, more diverse superheroines. Until we have a fully representative Marvel cinematic oeuvre, it won't be truly progressive in any way.
*Maria Hill, Pepper Potts, Natalia Romanova.
**Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Thor Odinson, Loki Laufeyson, Nick Fury, Erik Selvig, Bruce Banner, Clint Barton and Phil Coulson.