Expect this post to have SPOILERS A-PLENTY for The Avengers. No complaining.
After the underutilization and literal objectification (Tony Stark: “I want one”) of the Black Widow in Iron Man 2, I was looking forward to seeing what would happen with her character in The Avengers under the directorial lens of Joss Whedon. As with most female comic book characters, the Black Widow has had a checkered, sexualized, very naked past, but she’s also a badass, and early clips and the presence of Buffy’s creator at the helm gave me great hope. I was not disappointed. Twice (once in IMAX).
What did disappoint me? The same things that pissed off Fempop’s Kickpuncher, who found that no amount of badassery on the part of the Black Widow could direct men’s attention away from her (minimal) cleavage.
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 Johansson 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[.]“
According to movie reviewers, she’s also a “token sexy female,” who “spends a lot of time looking puzzled or confused” and “clench[ing] her brow,” “repels invading aliens through the sheer force of her corsetry,” and provides “images of Scarlett Johansson in a black bodysuit.”
The funny thing is that that very reaction is one of the things that makes the Black Widow so effective at what she does. She’s a sleeper–constantly underestimated and manipulative. She acrobatically defeats a team of Russian arms dealers–with both hands and a chair tied behind her back–because they had no idea what she was capable of. While normally I’d find Loki’s derision of her as a “mewling quim” to be utterly horrendous, I kind of liked it here because it underscored the fact that our alien demigod villain was falling for her act and giving her everything she needed.
Except it’s not funny. It sucks. Whereas the guys in the movie fell for her bit because it’s in the script, salivating moviegoers watched what she was capable of in 3D IMAX and THX sound and still saw her as cleavage and fan service because she’s a female character in a comic book movie.
In the movie, not once does the Black Widow use her wiles; she uses her wits (and her fists, and feet, and guns). When we first meet her, she’s wearing a relatively modest knee-length cocktail dress that is less suggestive of seduction than it is of light hors d’oeuvres and watered-down drinks. When we see her again on the Helicarrier, she’s in jeans, a t-shirt, and a black leather jacket that I covet. When the team suits up, her costume (brazenly unzipped all the way down to her collarbone) is no tighter than Captain America’s star-spangled catsuit and less skin-baring than Thor’s and Hawkeye’s competing gun shows.
Granted, all she does in the movie is fight off captors while tied to a chair, stay mature and focused while the other Avengers are bickering like children, draw on her personal traumatic history to trick the god of tricks into revealing his plan, take a punch from the Hulk and keep on ticking, cure a teammate of his scepter-hypnosis through the wonders of head trauma, fight off an army of aliens on hoverscooters with nothing but two handguns and snark, ride one of those aliens up to the top of Stark Tower using a knife in its back like a joystick, and beat the necessary information out of a hypnotized scientist so she can shut down the wormhole and save the day. But at least she didn’t get brainwashed by a supervillain, Hawkeye.
While The Avengers may not pass the Bechdel Test, and the Black Widow may not be the comic book heroine that dreams are made on, she’s still a female character women can watch without flinching. Her power comes from hard work, not technology or magic. She has her demons, and she works around/through/with them to get the job done. She experiences fear (in the face of a rampaging Hulk)** and sucks it up and performs. She holds her own and kicks righteous ass as a non-super among supers. And you don’t have to have followed her since Tales of Suspense #52 to know this about her–it’s right there in the movie.
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.
One great thing about the Black Widow is that the penalty for dismissing her and making assumptions about her generally involves blood loss. Now, far be it from me to say that violence is the answer (although I’m also not saying it isn’t…), but it would be nice if the real world had more tangible penalties for sexism. Like criticism by one’s peers, censure in the public arena, or a reflexive expectation of public apology for misogyny. Or the public calling-out of idiot movie reviewers who obviously struggle with viewing comprehension. Or being hung upside down by one’s ankles. Whatever.
*Unlike our first introduction to Cap(‘s clenching buttocks) in the movie:
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**If you want to talk about a character driven by emotions, by the way, try the guy who turns into an enormous green rage monster and lays waste to Manhattan when he gets ticked off.