Strong Female Characters

Strong Female Characters: Black Widow

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.

 

  1. 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

 

  1. 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

 

  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.

And she'd totally mace me if she didn't. (image: giphy.com)
And she’d totally mace me if she didn’t. (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

  1. 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

 

  1. 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.

As seen here. (image: giphy.com)
As seen here. (image: giphy.com)

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

 

  1. 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

 

  1. 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

 

  1. 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

 

  1. 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.

You too, Gran. (image: tumblr.com)
You too, Gran. (image: tumblr.com)

  1. 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.
  1. 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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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

 

  1. 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.

Strong Female Characters

Strong Female Characters: Buffy Summers

For those of you that don’t know, Buffy Summers is the protagonist of Joss Whedon’s hit TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Set in the American city of Sunnydale, the show follows Buffy’s attempts to rid the world of evil – although she mainly limits that to the undead. The show has been credited as a total game-changer, particular with the way that female characters are written – so naturally it was only a matter of time before I started ranting about it. Many viewers see Buffy as a feminist heroine, and as a role model for young girls everywhere.

But does she live up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

It’s explained in the very first episode that Buffy is the Chosen One – armed with supernatural abilities and destined to try to rid the world of evil. So from the outset, it’s pretty clear that Buffy has not chosen her own destiny in a larger sense. Because of her ‘Chosen One’ status, all sorts of evil entities are going to be seeking her out and trying to kill her, so she’ll be fighting the forces of evil whether she wants to or not. She does question the fate she’s been given – she runs away from home in the season two finale, and alters the way that Slayer powers are passed down in the series finale – but she ultimately accepts it. She is very aware that pursuing her own goals could result in thousands of people dying; she will never really be free to take control of her own life.

However, this is not necessarily a problem specific to her character. The ‘Chosen One’ narrative is very common, and often involves the hero/heroine being forced into situations that they wouldn’t ordinarily seek out. It’s tied up with a lot of other ideas about the inevitability of fate and the question of free will, and while these problems do surface in Buffy, they surface in many other narratives like it due to the nature of this kind of story. With that in mind, I’ll give it a half point.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

When she’s not turning centuries-old vampires into powder, Buffy enjoys ice-skating, cheerleading, and making fun of terrible movies. Some of these hobbies are remnants of her pre-slayer life, some of them are not, some she shares with her friends, some she doesn’t – all in all, it’s a very realistic mix of pastimes.

However, as far as her beliefs and goals go, most of them are dictated by her destiny as a Slayer. She wants a normal life, but does not know how she would spend it. She wants to stop vampires from harming people, but there’s no way of knowing if she would still want that if she had not been made the Slayer. When you boil it down to its most basic principle, all she really wants to do is survive. This is made very clear in the episode where Buffy and Willow discuss their plans for after school. Willow has a list of universities she wants to apply for and is already thinking about what she wants to study; Buffy hasn’t even considered it.

Buffy’s goals and beliefs are a direct result of her destiny as the Slayer. It’s impossible to separate them from her wider destiny, and with that in mind, I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

I TAKE IT BACK (image: giphy.com)

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

For the most part, Buffy is a pretty consistent character. Her supernatural strength is present through most of the series – and on the occasions where it isn’t, there’s usually a very good explanation for it. Her personality does change over the course of the series, but as all the seasons of Buffy cover her life from the ages of about fifteen to twenty-three, a little change is to be expected. The core elements of her personality are consistent, and so I’m giving it the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

A young woman determined to rid the world of supernatural evil, without losing her own identity in the process.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

Most of Buffy’s decisions are influenced by the Monster of the Week. Occasionally, this does turn out to be one of her ex-boyfriends, but we’ve all been there once or twice. Overall, Buffy’s love life does factor into some of her decision-making, but certainly not the majority of it, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

Does she EVER.

Buffy’s character development is astronomical. She grows up over the course of the series, but in each season she has her own character development arc. Her worldview changes from largely optimistic to much more pessimistic, she indulges – and then learns to avoid – self-destructive behaviour, and she goes from challenging her destiny to accepting it, but on her own terms. That’s some pretty hardcore development, right there.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Buffy has a superiority and inferiority complex all rolled into one. She knows she’s been marked out for greatness, yet she believes she deserves to be socially ostracised because of it. She hates authority figures – which really gets her into trouble with The Initiative – and is convinced she must have total control over her own life (and, in the later seasons, everyone else’s). What’s more, she’s also prone to some pretty serious lapses of judgement, particularly when it comes to her relationships.

Buffy falls for two vampires over the course of the series – Angel and Spike. Both of them repeatedly try to kill her and drink her blood, and yet she still doesn’t really see a problem with jumping into bed with both of them. Call me crazy, but when a guy stalks, murders and eats my friends, HE KIND OF LOSES HIS CHANCE TO BE MY BOYFRIEND. Yet Buffy consistently engages in relationships with vampires, knowing that they must eat people in order to survive, and that some of them have killed her friends. When it comes to her love life, Buffy sometimes forgets that her boyfriends are not always as human as she is, and doesn’t seem able to face up to the reality that those relationships will never work out. It’d be like me dating a bowl of spaghetti – sooner or later, I’m going to get hungry, and that delicious pasta is going to suffer for it.

Me and bae ❤

However, her flaws are consistent, and they impact both the plot and her relationships, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

Most of the series revolves around Buffy kicking ass and taking names. While the overall plot of the series is heavily influenced by Buffy’s destiny as a Slayer, her actions dictate the majority of the plot for every single episode, so she passes this round with flying colours.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

For the most part, Buffy subverts a lot of stereotypes about gender. In many ways she’s a typical teenage girl who enjoys shopping, cheerleading and talking about cute boys – but she’s also the unquestioned leader of a team of people dedicated to ridding the world of supernatural evil, and destined to save humanity from whatever demonic end the Monster of the Week has planned for it. Such a huge responsibility is rarely given to teenage female characters, and in that respect she’s a very subversive character.

However, this doesn’t necessarily apply to all aspects of her personality. Buffy is frequently used as a means of taking down the more overt forms of sexism. We’ve all seen this before: every so often a sexist caricature will underestimate Buffy – usually using the words ‘little girl’ in the process – and she kicks him in the face, everyone cheers, and then they all go to the Bronze for tea and celebratory crumpets (or whatever else they serve to underage teenagers in a place that is CLEARLY A BAR).

They’ve even got those red plastic cups that all Americans are legally required to have at all frat parties (image: fanpop.com)

This doesn’t apply to the more insidious forms of sexism on the show. Xander – one of Buffy’s best friends – consistently whines about how Buffy won’t have sex with him, yet Buffy never once challenges his behaviour, or asks him why he thinks he’s entitled to her body in that way. One of Buffy’s boyfriends, Riley, has a huge problem with her being physically stronger than him, and hates that she doesn’t depend on him, yet she never asks him why his need to be a ‘big, strong man’ means that she has to be weaker. As I’ve already mentioned, Buffy consistently makes poor decisions about her love life, and actually never finds a fulfilling relationship, reinforcing the idea that young women make terrible choices when it comes to men. In some ways, Buffy is a breakthrough character that shattered expectations of gender, but in others, she falls in line with some really dated stereotypes.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Much like Hermione and Katniss, Buffy has a range of different relationships with a range of different characters. She adores her best friend, Willow, has a strange rivalry/camaraderie with her fellow slayer, Faith, and has a strange mixture of hatred and pity for the vampire Drusilla. All in all, it’s a very realistic mix of relationships that is usually handled pretty well.

FINAL SCORE: 8/10

 

Buffy Summers is a well-rounded character who develops over the course of all seven seasons of Buffy. She is hugely influenced by her destiny and, at times, this calls aspects of personality and free will into question, but nevertheless she has her own strengths, weaknesses and abilities that remain largely consistent throughout the series. She’s certainly passed my test!

Next week, I’ll be venturing into the Disney universe – and in the spirit of all things wintry, I’ll be looking at Frozen. Elsa, I’m coming for you.