Why Do People Hate Black Widow?
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.
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?
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.
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—
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.
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.