A parody on Cracked opens up with Black Widow saying “Then I’ll get right on it. Just as soon as I change into a slightly tighter leather outfit, this one doesn’t quite show the outline of my sphincter.”George R.R. Martin, author of Game of Thrones, complains that Scarlett Johanssen looked great in that outfit, but she seemed to be there only as eye candy. The shot in the middle of the battle where she pulls out a pistol was silly” after criticizing Hawkeye in terms of personality and characterization. Because a bow and arrow isn’t as silly as a pistol, if the pistol doesn’t have a big, black, throbbing barrel with a vein running down it and maybe a piercing if you’re into that?  Now, “She was just… there,” he continues. Now, I have great respect for GRRM and his work.

Which is of course delivering presents to good little boys and girls every Christmas,

But I do not want this attitude spreading through male fandom. So fellas, this is something you need to remember. Sexism is more than just an accusation you throw against something you already dislike. It’s not just the tax evasion in the case against Catwoman, the Al Capone of cinema. There are real women who this really matters to.

So, how do they feel about Black Widow? Well, I know it’s rigorously unscientific, but I’m pretty active in fangirl circles on LJ and Tumblr. And among the women I’ve been reading—you know, females, the whole point of feminism—the response to Black Widow is overwhelmingly positive. They went gaga over the prospect of a Black Widow movie. They drew pictures of Black Widow as a seal! (In case you’re not on tumblr, that’s a compliment.) The quintessential Black Widow fan, Alex, who runs Fuck Yeah Black Widow (and who I did a review of a scrapped Black Widow origin movie with), loved it aside from a few caveats.So where did this idea that Black Widow is just fanservice come from?

Look at this slut and her plunging cleavage. You can see her *collarbone* and everything! Ugh!

Well, we’ll get to that, but I’ll admit that Black Widow’s introduction in Iron Man 2 made it easy. Director Jon Favreau tried hard for a strong female character, but like a lot of things in that movie, it wasn’t cooked long enough. There were good ideas. Instead of being in a love triangle with Pepperony (sorry, that ship name is too awesomely bad not to use), Black Widow had no time for Tony and ended up forming a bond with Pepper. And she was competent, professional, all the things you’d want from an action movie character.

The thing is, she wasn’t much more. She was just a Strong Female Character, with no humanity or flaws. She was just positive traits, and putting those together doesn’t make an individual, it makes a boring invincible hero. She’s like the understanding girlfriend in a comedy or the black authority figure on a cop show. If you were interviewing them for a job, they’d probably get it. But we don’t go to movies as work, we go to be entertained, and these characters aren’t part of the fun. They’re the boring vegetables the screenwriter feels he has to eat before getting back to the meat and potatoes of da boyz acting crazy.

For those who say that potatoes are a vegetable, I looked them up on Wikipedia and they're actually a kind of mineral.

Now look at Black Widow in Avengers, where she has characterization beyond headscissors takedown. Whedon really rescued the character; he knew Black Widow had the odds stacked against her, a sexy woman with no superpowers. He had to make her valuable to the group without being a Mary Sue. The solution was elegant: he made her the Batman of the team–just not a Mary Sue. Batman is an asset because he’s a master detective, Black Widow because she’s a superspy. They called her that in Iron Man 2, sure, but all we really saw of her was a good martial artist.

In Avengers, she’s damn good at her job. She’s able to manipulate gunrunners and trickster gods because they don’t take her seriously. They see a beautiful woman. Fan service. The token chick. That’s why she’s confident. She always has an ace up her sleeve, room to maneuver. And here’s the master stroke. She doesn’t have that advantage over the Hulk, so she’s rightly scared of him. Hey! An understandable, relatable character flaw! One that does double-duty by helping sell the Hulk as a rampaging monster.

And the hits keep coming. Black Widow is able to game Loki. In the ensuing scene where everyone is squabbling because of Loki’s scepter, she’s the only one who stays on task in getting Banner to safety. And during the war, she’s able to get actionable intel from Dr. Selvig and close the portal. In another movie, that’d be a triumph for the token chick’s token compassion. Not here. Her superpower is manipulation.

Could you imagine Batman hiding in fear because of a run-in with the Shaggy Man? No, he’s a Mary-Sue. A good one, but still—

"Woe is me! I lost my parents! Now I'll have to grow up with no more comfort than their billions of dollars of wealth, their vast commercial empire, and having Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, and Liam Neeson as mentors!"

Black Widow isn’t, but I’d definitely argue for her being a fantasy figure for women. She looks good, but in the same way Hawkeye and Captain America look good, not in a sexualized way. Compare to Iron Man 2, where the movie seems to be mocking Tony for sexualizing her, but is also trying to have its cake too by literally putting her in Maxim magazine poses. In Avengers, she gets to be in a hurt/comfort fic with a hot leather-clad archer without being his girlfriend (in fact, by narrative rules, Clint is Black Widow’s—he’s the damsel in distress). She hints at a cool, dark backstory like Wolverine. She beats Hawkeye in hand-to-hand combat and Loki in a battle of wits. In the final battle, she gets to make quips and have fun with the big boys.

Also, this is how Black Widow is often drawn in the comics. Trust me, I would've remembered seeing that much Johansson.

So why are people seeing her as nothing but a sex object who can’t be taken seriously? Because that’s what they’re used to seeing. If you have ‘this is sexist’ goggles on, you never need to engage with a female character because you dismiss them out of hand. There are plenty of bad male superhero characters, but no one approaches Ryan Reynolds’ Green Lantern as bad because he’s literally wearing light over his abs. They look at his character arc and his acting choices and how he’s presented within the story, and then they combine that with how he’s presented visually to come to a full, rounded look at the character. It’s not just “oh, an attractive man – obviously he’s just there for sex appeal and the actor is shitty and all I ever need to say about this character is ‘lol sexism!'”

We need to stop approaching female characters as inevitably misogynistic disappointments.  Not just because it lets the truly dire portrayals of women off the hook, of which we’re in shortage of. Not just because not taking a woman seriously because you’re attracted to her sexually is a really bad habit to be in. And not just because it’s willingly damaging your own enjoyment of a work to turn a blind eye to legitimately strong female characters. But because seeing female characters as nothing but an excuse to make jokes about sexism is as bad as seeing female characters as walking tit jokes.

Cracked parody: http://www.cracked.com/article_19841_if-avengers-was-10-times-shorter-100-times-more-honest.html

GRRM Quote: http://ohnotheydidnt.livejournal.com/69082252.html#comments

  • Right on!  I loved BW in the gunrunner and Loki scenes, and it had nothing to do with how good she looked.  Plus the part when she goes up to the tower on her own was awesome, because she had no powers to defend her.  BW kicks ass and anyone who thinks otherwise can just go watch Transformers again.

  • John Wao

    I don’t have a problem with either Black Widow or Scarlett Johansson’s performance.

  • The thing that baffles me is how people are so willing to say ‘Oh she was just eyecandy.’ I’m like… WTF did we even SEE the same movie?! If you remove her character it would have been a -very- different movie. The portal never would have closed because everyone would have been too busy punching aliens. There never would have been a place to throw the nuke away into and Loki’s plan to unleash the Hulk would have actually worked much better. She was a strong, capable AND beautiful woman but the movie never lingered on her looks. I think I saw 10X more Captain America ass they I did Black Widow butt or boobs combined!

    Mmmmm… Cap’ ass….

    • kelly_warrior_princess

      I’ agree. I was not aware that you could get a black belt in the martial arts apparently known as “eyecandy”. Maybe its a oriental form of martial arts & we’ve just been writing it wrong… Maybe its written “I’ Kan-D.” The ancient mystical martial arts of combat & deception.

  • destronomics

    This post is fantastic.

    Seeing the extreme lengths self-proclaimed progressives go to dismiss Black Widow’s worth in the narrative (the number of times I’ve seen “her leather catsuit” — guys. Guys. That did not happen in this movie. Watch the movie before opening your mouth.) in a misguided, shallow application of feminist theory BLOWS MY MIND. Everything she achieved in the film had zero to do with her sexuality, both her techniques (she tricked Loki with stories of her past, she made her way to the top of the tower by physically wrecking aliens with their own weaponry and tech) and her aims (saving the world) and yet that is ALL she’s described as, and deemed her function to be. GRRM’s response was especially telling, as Natasha’s role as a “sexy spy” was the exact opposite conclusion of her arc (Clint noting that being a soldier is not her style, etc.)

    The willingness to ignore, reshape or dismiss entirely her story as having little to no worth it just so frustrating, especially since the film actually went a long way to rewrite the traditional female character narratives in these types of films.

    • kelly_warrior_princess

      The only reason the feminist are pissed is because a male audience was the target audience. You can depict a woman or man stark naked in a movie for women & not even have the character introduced & its A-Okay. But have it in a movie where more then 49% of the audience is male & its a capital crime against all women.

  • Robofish

    Nice article. I think Joss Whedon did about as good a job as could be asked for with Black Widow. He made her a cool, competent hero without being a boring personality-free ‘positive role model’ (I liked that potato analogy.) And let’s not overlook Scarlett Johansson’s performance either. 

    Just one complaint – if there’s one phrase I’d like to see excised from fan vocabulary, it’s ‘Mary Sue’. I realise you’re just using it here to mean ‘boring flawless hero’, but I don’t think it can ever escape its misogynistic associations – many fans just use it as a pejorative for any prominent female character.

  • rhymeswithchaos

    As a person who generally goes out of his way to avoid reading internet opinions, a lot of this dismissal of Black Widow in the movie is news to me. I agree with your take, and in fact went in assuming she would be a very good character because of Whedon’s history of excellent women in his work. I got what I was looking for. Is that of a piece with the people who assumed sexism and found it? I don’t know, but like many internet denizens, I think I am right! (Obviously.)

  • doubtthat

    I thought Black Widow was a great character.  Weadon is someone to study for consistently developing great female characters in a non-patronizing way.

    The only thing that amused me about Black Widow was the same thing that always makes me laugh at Batman and Aquaman in the Justice League: the hell are you guys going to do in the big fight?  They have plenty to do leading up to the climax-as did Black Widow-but I will agree with Martin that the shot with her pulling out the gun was ridiculous–so was the bow and arrow.

    You’ve got a Hulk and a Thor, not sure what the pistol is going to add.  They did a decent job of finding ways for the weaker members to participate, but it always strikes me like, “Green Latern, make some magic green shit and destroy that mutant dinosaur-dragon-Voltron.  Superman, you go fly around the planet and turn back time, Aquaman…talk to some fish just in case Lex Luthor falls in that stream over there.”

  • Robert Haynes

    If you are looking for superfluous characters, look no further than Captain America. I mean, what did he actually bring to the table? Sure, he’s tough and in the final scene he’s some kind of leader (which sort of came out of no where), but he’s got nothing that the other characters don’t have more of.

    By contrast, Black Widow was far more integral to the avengers success. I especially enjoyed her kicking Hawkeye’s butt.

    I think the issue is actually that she was a strong female character who excelled at manipulating men, and that makes alot of men uncomfortable. This, I believe, is whats driving so many to try and dismiss her as just “eye candy”. Because they feel threatened.

  • maverickman874

    GRRM’s disappointment seem to stem from the fact that the movie deviated from comics he read a long time ago growing up.He has stated before that Stan Lee/ Kirby Marvel was instrumental in developing his reading and writing. There is a scan out there of a letter he submitted to Marvel/ Stan about roster changes or some such. I doubt he even gets the time to read comics now. People need to cut him some slack. His only issue was that it’s not faithful to the source material.

    Funnily enough, that is my main gripe with HBO’s show as well.

  • One of my favorite articles on this site. Good work! :-)

  • ramses tavares

    this is a BS article.
    and u cant expect anything else from a fembot.
    she is useless for the same reason hawkeye is useless, they are normal humans. dont try to spin it into something that isnt just to move forward your feminazi way of thinking.

  • Nicholas Collinson

    I’ll caveat this by saying I have yet to watch Iron Man 2 and am not a
    comics person, so my context for this film is different from the
    author’s. Also, I will probably misremember some bits.

    That said, I still do not see how Black Widow can be considered a strong
    or impressive character in the film. Her two main accomplishments that
    you list, “She beats Hawkeye in hand-to-hand combat and Loki in a battle
    of wits”, are in their own way seriously undermined by the film that
    surrounds them.

    Hawkeye is not presented as particularly impressive in hand-to-hand. For
    me, at least, the memorable things he does are all at range, silently,
    and with arrows. Though he certainly looks bigger and stronger I do not
    remember any feats of strength or hand-to-hand combat to make him seem a
    serious threat to her, especially since we had seen her defeat multiple
    men of similar build earlier, with her hands tied behind her back. Yet
    even this earlier act was in its own way undermined, as she makes the
    point that the actual threat to her person was in itself an illusion, so
    the fight feels deflated, the tension slackened.

    The second claim, that she beats Loki in a battle of wits, is valid at
    first glance, but this too is cheapened by the movie around it. For me,
    at least, Loki’s plan was pretty bloody obvious from the first clue,
    making her achievement, while impressive when taken out of context, an
    act that undermines her intelligence simply because she felt it
    necessary to undertake in the first place. More crucially and
    universally, however, her success provides little-to-no dividends. Bruce
    Banner still transforms into the Hulk, Loki still escapes with the
    staff, and ultimately the invasion commences unimpeded. She still winds
    up caught very seriously off-guard, and Loki still manages to outsmart
    her in the end.

    Additionally, in the final battle she seems largely redundant. Even
    Captain America, whose role is relegated to support, at least manages to
    maintain an air of importance by going out of his way to save people
    and act as a leader. It felt artificial at times, but he at least took
    on a role to which he was more suited, or at least one which the other
    Avengers could not undertake. Black Widow simply does what 3 of the
    other 5 Avengers do, but is worse at it.

  • neshta

    What th- Where does this come from! I love Black Widow and am genuinely mystified that there are fans who think this of her! Hubbawha!?