For those of you that don’t know, Black Widow is a member of Marvel’s Avengers: an elite team of superheroes who fight to defend the universe from various evils. Fighting alongside gods, time-travellers and a guy with a bow and arrow, Black Widow’s exploits have been detailed in a series of phenomenally successful films. While she may not have been at the centre of these films, the character has nevertheless gained a substantial fan following, which is only partially explained by how good Scarlet Johansson looks in a catsuit. Hailed as a progressive character and as a breakthrough for feminism in comics, Black Widow has become an incredibly popular character and a staple of the Marvel franchise, despite being the subject of recent controversy.
But does she live up to her reputation? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
NOTE: Just so we’re clear, I’ll be focussing on the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s interpretation of the character. I know that her character is a lot more detailed in the comics, but as much as I’d like to read them I simply don’t have time.
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
In most of Black Widow’s cinematic appearances, she’s acting on someone else’s orders. We see her fulfilling missions that somebody else (usually Nick Fury) has given to her, and while she does get to use her own initiative when she’s out in the field she’s not the one making the big decisions. But this is actually pretty normal when you consider her role within the movies: she’s a spy and assassin, so it stands to reason that she’d be following orders a lot. While she may have been recruited by someone else (Hawkeye), she makes it pretty clear that she joined S.H.I.E.L.D. as a means to atone for her past. This establishes that following orders is pretty personal for her, as it helps her come to terms with what she did.
There’s a couple of reasons why this gets a little problematic. The first is that we almost never see Black Widow do anything outside of her missions. When she’s not beating someone into a bloody pulp, she seems lost, and none more so than when she contemplates leaving S.H.I.E.L.D. For a brief moment, she considers running away with the Hulk and even starts to plan it, but it ultimately fails when he runs off after the final battle. The second is that while the Avengers are all still working as a team that receives its orders from someone else, all the other members of the team get to strike out on their own every once in a while. Black Widow is never given this opportunity. Her team members get the chance to pursue their own goals and develop their characters separate from their role as Avengers, but Black Widow’s role is so caught up in her identity as an Avenger that it’s very difficult to separate her from it. It’s implied at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier that she goes off on her own to figure this out, but as we don’t see any of this it kind of falls flat. As I mentioned earlier, there are some pretty serious mitigating circumstances, but I can’t let her pass this round with flying colours.
SCORE SO FAR: 0.5
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
We know absolutely nothing about Black Widow’s hobbies. The most we get is a line in Iron Man 2, where Tony Stark mentions how many languages she speaks, but this could just as easily be a requirement for her job as a spy. This can be chalked up to the mystery surrounding her character – which is really emphasised in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – but it would be just as easy to show Black Widow enjoying a book or something without compromising her air of mystery. We don’t get a lot about her goals and beliefs, either, but the two seem to be intertwined. She believes that she can make up for her past as a Soviet agent by working for an agency that wants to protect humankind, and this forms the basis of her motivation for most of the films.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Black Widow’s personality is pretty consistent: she’s resourceful, practical, doesn’t back down, has some serious emotional walls in place but usually finds it relatively easy to get along with people once she’s gotten to know them. Her skills follow a pretty similar pattern. She’s consistently shown to be a very skilled fighter, good with computers and vehicles, and various interrogation/infiltration techniques. This is all pretty plausible, considering her extensive training as a spy, so she passes this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A mysterious and resourceful spy, determined to make up for her past by doing good.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
For the most part, Black Widow doesn’t really have much of a love life – but then again, as I already discussed, she doesn’t make a lot of her own decisions, either. The calls of judgement she makes during the field – who to chase, who to fight, which part of the enemy’s plan she wants to foil – are influenced by her desire to make up for her past, but could just as easily be influenced by her rigorous spy training.
Crucially, one of the big decisions that she makes (aside from joining S.H.I.E.L.D. in the first place) is hugely influenced by her love life – the decision to stop being Black Widow and run away with the Hulk. This is one of the few moments that we see Black Widow really take control of her life and move away from her endless missions, and her motivations are purely romantic. This carries some unfortunate implications about gender which I’ll discuss in the appropriate section, but because it’s one of the few big decisions she makes for herself, wholly unconnected from her work as a secret agent, purely motivated by love and drastically goes against her pre-established goals, I’m going to have to withhold the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Over the course of her many on-screen appearances, Black Widow gradually starts to open up to the people she trusts. In her first appearance in Iron Man 2, she’s got some pretty serious walls in place, but by the time she gets round to Avengers: Age of Ultron she’s comfortable enough to tell her friends about her past. This is actually a huge deal for both her character and the audience. The details of her pre-Avengers activities are only hinted at, to keep her air of mystery, but it’s pretty clear that she’s done some things she really regrets and finds it difficult to talk about. That’s some solid and believable development for a character in her position, so I’m giving her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she have a weakness?
Black Widow doesn’t really have much of a weakness. As I mentioned in question six, she does struggle with emotional intimacy and takes a long time to open up to people, but I can’t really call this a weakness because it doesn’t hold her back. She doesn’t struggle to form bonds with people, or constantly question her friends’ motivations, or forgo social situations because she thinks she’d be safer that way. It takes a long time for her to trust people, but this is often portrayed as a sign of her strength, and it never affects her personal life. When she starts pursuing the Hulk in Age of Ultron, she’s actively trying to start a relationship with him; there’s no sign of her trust issues at all.
I can’t help but wonder if the reason why she hasn’t been given any substantial weaknesses is because for most of her on-screen appearances, she’s the only female Avenger. When she’s the only female character with a significant amount of dialogue and screen time, she becomes a much more representative character: she’s not so much herself as she is a representation of ‘women’ as a larger group. As such, when you give her flaws it makes stereotypes a much more pressing consideration – as a writer, you’re always wondering how giving her certain character traits would be received in a wider social context, and this tampers with the development of the character.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
For most of her movie appearances, Black Widow drives the plot along without getting captured or killed. As I’ve already discussed, she doesn’t always make a lot of the big decisions but she is nevertheless a key player in the films. Whether she’s beating up the bad guys, interrogating the bad guys, or simply jumping about on the bad guys’ cars and/or planes, she’s an active player. The only time she does get captured is in Age of Ultron, but it’s not for very long and she manages to get a message to the Avengers – including the location of the bad guy’s super-secret lair. This kind of balances out the fact that she got captured, as it didn’t stop her from influencing the plot, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
As far as relating to gender stereotypes goes, Black Widow is a pretty complex character. In some ways she can be quite subversive: she’s good with weapons, technology and most kinds of vehicles, and can quite literally kill a man with her bare hands. Most importantly, she uses other characters’ pre-existing assumptions about gender to her advantage, exploiting the way that other characters see her as vulnerable. These are not exactly traits you would associate with women, so it’s very easy to look at Black Widow and automatically assume she’s a feminist character when you see her punching sexists in the face.
But gender stereotypes – particularly modern ones – are not that obvious. They influence our perception of both fictional characters and real people in some very subtle ways, and sometimes can only be spotted when you’ve thought about their implications in quite some detail. They’re a much more insidious problem and are often pretty difficult to pin down.
STRAP IN, KIDS.
- Black Widow isn’t really in control of her own life. I’ve already discussed this in earlier questions, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but it still bears repeating because of what this implies about gender stereotypes. I’m going to focus on her decision to join S.H.I.E.L.D. – arguably the biggest decision she made of her own free will. In Avengers, Black Widow states that she joined S.H.I.E.L.D. when Hawkeye was sent to kill her, and he ended up persuading her to join the good guys instead. Basically, he rescued her. We don’t even know if she wanted to be rescued: it’s implied she was brainwashed by the KGB and we have no way of knowing if she went along with him willingly. If she sought out and joined S.H.I.E.L.D. of her own free will, this would lend a lot more weight to her motivations as a character (and make for a really interesting movie), but as it stands, it’s just another story where a woman can’t get herself out of trouble until a man comes along.
- She’s always presented as a sexual character. She spends most of her time swanning around in a skin-tight black catsuit with a very low neckline, and while tight costumes are standard superhero fare, none of the other Avengers look quite so bondage-y. What’s more, her sexual attractiveness is commented on by other characters in all her films. In Iron Man 2, Tony Stark even finds pictures of her modelling in Tokyo (which is frankly terrible cover for a super-secret spy). She’s fully prepared to use this when it suits her, which does lessen the impact a bit, but the audience is never once allowed to forget how hot she is. It gets a bit ridiculous at times – just look at the way she fights:
She strikes poses during fights, and the way she moves is constantly emphasising her figure and flexibility. I can tell you from experience (I’m actually a black belt) that it’s really difficult and inefficient to fight like that. It’s also a way of fighting that leaves a lot of your really vulnerable parts (namely, your groin) exposed – and I think we can all agree that’s the last thing that anyone would want in a fight.
- She always takes a back seat to the other characters. Black Widow’s character development isn’t really given the same amount of screen time as many of the other characters, and so her role in the story is often more of a facilitator for another character. Granted, this may just be because there is no Black Widow movie, but it can’t be denied that for a lot of her screen time she’s helping other characters along with their stories rather than exploring her own. She’s also been minimised in the marketing, the merchandise, and the interviews with the cast. This is a huge problem, as it basically implies that women’s stories aren’t worth telling.
- She’s inexplicably good with kids. You might think that someone who’d been trained to kill from a very young age, had seen and done some horrible things and had been trained to respond with violence at a split second’s notice would be pretty nervous around children. Prior to Age of Ultron, we get no indication that Black Widow likes children or is even comfortable with them, but when we meet Hawkeye’s secret family there’s no sign of any awkwardness on her part. It’s a minor detail, but it’s loaded with the implication that women – despite everything else they may have gone through – are natural-born mothers.
- And now we come to her romance with the Hulk, which is loaded with so many unfortunate implications that I’m tempted to write another list – but I’ll cut it down to two main points because this post is getting long. First of all: she’s into someone who could literally rip her apart when he gets angry. In Age of Ultron, she’s learned a weirdly touchy-feely technique to calm him down and help him turn back to his normal self, but the amount of tender eye contact and hand-holding means that it’s clearly supposed to be interpreted as a romantic moment. Also, it’s shown as something that only she can do: no other character in the film attempts it, and so it’s implied that it only works because of their special connection. Take out the superpowers and you’ve got a woman who feels it’s her responsibility to calm down her boyfriend when he’s in a homicidal rage. This is loaded with unfortunate implications, the most serious one being the belief that women are responsible for their partner’s temper – something that’s often used to justify abusive relationships. Secondly, the second she and the Hulk confirm their feelings for each other, Black Widow decides she wants to pack in being an Avenger and run off with him. All her previous motivations pretty much evaporate; the second she falls in love, there’s no more mention of her wanting to redeem herself for her dark past. Not only does this skip what could be a really interesting moment of conflict for Black Widow’s character, it also implies that all women really want from life is a good relationship, and that once they’ve got one, everything else they were working towards is completely forgotten.
- And now we come to the real kicker. In Age of Ultron, Black Widow tells the Hulk that when she was training to be a spy/assassin, she was sterilised. She says that knowing she couldn’t have children made it easier for her to go out and kill people, and that she considers herself a monster. I’d like to make it clear that I am by no means suggesting that being forcibly made infertile is a walk in the park; sterility is a real problem that many people struggle with, and I can only imagine just how awful it would be to have that forced upon you. But there’s a few problems with this I have to raise.
- It’s a very narrow definition of motherhood. Having a family doesn’t always mean that you have to have the physical capability to have children – and conversely, being able to physically carry a child doesn’t always make you a suitable mother.
- It reduces women down to their most basic biological functions. When Black Widow describes herself as a monster seconds after admitting she’s sterile, she’s effectively saying that she doesn’t consider herself human. Losing the ability to have children can be devastating, but it doesn’t stop you from being a woman – or a human being, for that matter.
- It reinforces the ‘baby-crazy’ stereotype. Black Widow’s ability to have children was taken away from her, and it was this – more than any other aspect of her years and years of brutal brainwashing and assassin-training – that let her go out and murder people with no qualms. This ties into another stereotype: that all women want children, and will go nuts if they can’t get them. This is exactly what happens to Black Widow – she can’t create life, so it’s immediately easier for her to take it away from other people. We’ve all seen eye-gougingly terrible rom-coms with psycho girls who are determined to go to any lengths to have a baby – how is this any different from Black Widow using her sterility to justify murder?
- It makes her backstory all about her biological gender. In The Avengers, Black Widow’s dark past is hinted at when the villain, Loki, lists some of the atrocities she committed. It’s made pretty clear that Black Widow has killed a LOT of people, and because only a few little details were given it really piqued the audience’s interest. But then, in Age of Ultron, it’s revealed that the one part of her past that makes her cry, the one thing that she regrets the most, and the one thing that she thinks made her into a monster is the fact that she can’t have children. She’s done terrible things – burning down a hospital, for example – and yet according to Black Widow, those aren’t the things that made her a monster. The script is effectively saying that all those things she did pale in comparison to her sterility; her actions don’t matter compared to her biological capacity as a woman. This ties into another stereotype that influences the way women are treated – some people simply cannot see women as human beings with achievements, abilities and accomplishments: they will only ever see them as ‘women’.
This is actually a problem with a lot of Joss Whedon’s works, and something that I brought up in my post about Buffy. He makes a point of having his female characters triumph over the more obvious kinds of sexism – often personified in a really arrogant male character – but doesn’t always allow his female characters to confront the more insidious sexism that a lot of women have to put up with on a daily basis.
That was exhausting. Basically, she doesn’t pass this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- How does she relate to other female characters?
For the most part, Black Widow just doesn’t relate to female characters. She rarely speaks to a female character on screen; most of her significant relationships are with male characters. We do see her interact with a few female characters – namely, Pepper Potts, Maria Hill and Hawkeye’s wife – but these conversations are often pretty forgettable and get brushed aside pretty quickly. We don’t see her develop a significant relationship with any other female character, simply because there aren’t many of them to begin with.
FINAL SCORE: 5/10
Black Widow is a consistent character with some interesting weaknesses and a pretty solid development arc, but she hasn’t passed my test. She doesn’t make a lot of her own decisions, doesn’t have significant relationships with any other female character, and relates to gender stereotypes in a way that frankly makes me uncomfortable.
But does this mean that she isn’t a worthwhile character? I don’t think so. She might have failed my test, but that doesn’t erase the fact that she’s still the first capable female superhero that we’ve seen in a long time. She’s clearly a role model for millions of young girls out there, and while her character definitely has flaws that doesn’t mean that her contribution to her story isn’t valuable.
Next week, I’ll be going back to the classics. Jane Eyre, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.