Hero of Women, by Women, for Women Cinematizing Women’s Liberation from Patriarchy in Black Widow

by Won Il Lee

I. Introduction

As Christmas is fast approaching, families now plan for a traditional family dinner. There is a pertinent question: where does the father sit at the dining table? In a famous winter holiday film, Home Alone, the father occupies the head seat while the mother and the grandmother are away from the table preparing the drinks (Home Alone 00:09:03). Owning a dining table symbolizes power, typically reserved for the male head of the household (Griffin 1). The media has been amplifying patriarchal viewpoints, even through a representation of family companionship. Under this male gaze, female characters become passive, indecisive, and subordinate to men. Women are everywhere in films, but most of them are far from being in positions of authority.

Cate Shortland’s Black Widow is a superhero movie that subverts the male gaze to challenge treating women as powerless and submissive characters. The film depicts Natasha Romanoff’s (Black Widow) tangled web of past, family, and secrets. The spy-turned-Avenger encounters a mysterious assassin tied to her questionable past. Young Natasha was raised and trained by the Red Room, a secret Soviet training program that abducts and brainwashes women to become General Dreykov’s obedient soldiers, known and the Widows. Believing that the sinister Red Room is still active despite dismantling it years ago, Natasha reunites with her faux family to confront the archenemy and free victims from his total control.

This essay argues that Black Widow tells a story about women’s liberation from patriarchy by centring the female gaze and recognizing women as political subjects. It will first examine the oppressive patriarchal system portrayed in the film to discuss how patriarchy harms and hinders women. The essay will then analyze the film’s cinematic elements to explain why women having control of the viewpoint is a welcome perspective that rejects the norms of patriarchal culture. Finally, it will identify methods in which female characters reclaim their political power to oppose the patriarchal control of women.

II. Women Under Patriarchy: Powerless, Objectified, and Dehumanized

Popular movies can tell politically significant and socially revealing messages without blatantly political contexts (Haas et al. 14). This essay began with the pertinent question: where does the father sit at the dining table? In Black Widow’s family reunion scene (Black Widow 01:11:45), undifferentiated from other films, the father, a former Russian superhero known as the Red Guardian, naturally occupies the head seat despite being portrayed as an ineffectual and dishevelled man. In English, the phrase “a seat at the table” is a metaphor for having a voice or power to make decisions (Griffin 1). The film’s dining scene reflects a contemporary society where men have a seat at the decision-making table and women want a seat.

General Dreykov, the main villain in the film who oversees the Red Room, makes his first appearance casually sitting on a leather couch, implying his power and confidence. This Russian man fits the political figure’s stereotypes defined by Phillip L. Gianos: “male, white, at least middle-aged, and overweight” (Gianos 29). Thus, Dreykov is the man in authority, and hence he has complete control over hundreds of women, those he believes as the “only natural resource that the world has too much” (Black Widow 01:42:40). The film reinforces the theme of patriarchy through this abhorrent antagonist who objectifies and dehumanizes women.

Women on screen almost always represent sex as if they are sexual commodities (Heath 85). Hollywood films, especially, portray women as sexual objects for masculine consumption (Haas et al. 315). However, the objectification of women represented in Black Widow is more extreme than the traditional way that sexually admires female characters and treats them with reverence (Haas et al. 101). Dreykov’s submissive soldiers are far from being praised for their bodies; they are instead his disposable tools for violence. Based on the patriarchal assumption that all women desire to be mothers, the Widows undergo forced sterilization, transforming them from human women into heartless killing machines: “things,” “toys,” and “trash” are words that Dreykov uses to describe them (01:30:43). The most apparent way films send political messages is via screenplay (Haas et al. 52); Black Widow intentionally tells the story of the Widows with cold detail to create emphasis on patriarchal violence against women.

III. Female Gaze: Rejecting the Norms of Patriarchal Culture

The cinema offers several pleasures, including scopophilia—sexual pleasure involved in looking (Mulvey 835). Female characters adhere to the male sexual fantasy to satisfy the audience that fetishizes women. This male gaze is a facet of the patriarchy because of its inherent inequality. Being framed by male desire, women’s feelings and thoughts receive less attention from the audience. Men, by contrast, empower themselves by objectifying women. Although powerful and capable, female superheroes in popular culture are also victims of such ravenous perspective; they are often hyper-fetishized and hyper-sexualized (Avery-Natale 72).

Likewise, Black Widow fell into the trap of the male gaze in her debut movie, Iron Man 2. When she encounters Iron Man and Happy Hogan for the first time, the audience sees the female hero who wears a tight shirt and high heels through the eyes of two men (Iron Man 2 00:23:22). The male gaze of the camera never switches; it takes another long shot of Black Widow erotically bending her body to enter the boxing ring (Iron Man 2 00:23:52). This scene portrays her as a dominatrix, a shallow character who may initially lure spectators (Gray II and Kaklamanidou 91). The female hero never manages to escape the male gaze, even in action-packed scenes (Iron Man 2 01:42:00). Rather than her dynamic movements, the camera focuses on her body in overtly sexual positions, a fantasy fulfillment of the male gaze. Such sexism has been an issue since Natasha Romanoff’s first appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Black Widow in Cate Shortland’s film breaks out from the deeply rooted sexism. Her film subverts the male gaze that the female hero was consistently under in the previous series. Black Widow begins with the scene containing only women: young Natasha and her sister Yelena Belova (Black Widow 00:01:35). Accordingly, events in the film also unfold from the duo’s point of view, unlike in Iron Man 2, where the audience viewed Natasha from the viewpoint of men. Introducing her family and past humanizes the superhero, emphasizing her feelings and thoughts while preventing her from being objectified. Under this female gaze, Black Widow’s bodysuit is no longer sexualized nor reveals her skin. The suit mainly protects and supports her body—comfortable and functional, just like any superhero outfit. Her new costume reaffirms that she is framed as a person, not a fetishized character for the male audience. The epic fight scenes are also recreated under the light of the female gaze. The camera avoids lingering on the female hero’s body; it takes full shots to solely focus her dynamic actions and martial skills. The film prioritizes Natasha’s fighting ability, not sexual images aroused by fighting. The unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form (Mulvey 833); Black Widow evokes the female gaze to tackle this toxic masculinity.

IV. Antidotes: Names and Choices

Villains in a superhero film utter a threat that the hero must confront (Muñoz-González 70). In Black Widow, Dreykov abducts young girls and annihilates their reproductive rights and individual autonomy. The film plays a slow-down and emotionally complex song in the harrowing scene where the despicable villain kidnaps young girls whose terrified faces are closed-up (Black Widow 00:14:20). Serious music cues the audience to prepare for a political message (Haas et al. 38) and the use of close-ups also serves a political purpose (Haas et al. 42). Thus, the political theme in Black Widow relates to women’s rights issues. Dreykov eliminated political power from the Widows; they are voiceless and choiceless. Accordingly, the superhero’s mission is rescuing women from exploitation and reclaiming their independence. Natasha Romanoff accomplishes this task by presenting names and choices to women.

Names of movie characters are used to project a political message (Haas et al. 49); nameless Widows fail to exert any political power and remain subordinated. Under Dreykov’s chemical mind control, female agents are restricted from expressing thoughts and feelings; their only objective is to follow his order. Stereotypical underdog characters are often used to emphasize the struggle against the system (Haas et al. 48). Natasha, however, frees these women from the oppressive system by reclaiming their names. The superhero encounters the mysterious assassin confined in a glass prison cell and says her name, Antonia (Black Widow 01:52:15). After being called by her name, Antonia finally expresses her emotions and liberates her from the oppressive systems constructed by the villain (Black Widow 01:57:12).

Dreykov exerted complete control over Widows in every aspect of their lives. From their childhood, female agents were under his oppressive eye. In contrast, Natasha escaped from the Red Room and gained control over herself, becoming the first female Avenger. Thus, even the simple act of choosing her clothing was a memorable event for Yelena, a former Widow, as it gave autonomy over her body for the first time. When Natasha frees the Widows in the film’s ending, she tells them to make their own choices (Black Widow 01:48:35); her words present the autonomy to those women and reclaim their power to make decisions.

V. Conclusion

Dreykov’s actions toward his female agents are an utter horror. However, this sinister character is derived from real-world figures that oppress and exploit women. The film tells the story of the Widows with cold detail to expose atrocities that women face in the real world: violence, sexual exploitation, and human trafficking. In the final scene, Black Widow explodes the antidote bomb to free mind-controlled Widows from their subjugation. The film Black Widow is an antidote to the patriarchal culture that harms and hinders women. The film describes how women are oppressed and exploited under patriarchy and provides methods to challenge treating women as powerless and submissive characters in media. Unlike other superhero films that simply present gender-filliped versions of famous male heroes, Black Widow tells a story of the female hero who liberates women from patriarchy by prioritizing the female gaze and reclaiming women’s political power.

Scarlet Johanssen as Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow)

Works Cited

Avery-Natale, Edward. “An Analysis of Embodiment among Six Superheroes in DC Comics.” Social Thought & Research, vol. 32(2013), pp. 71-106.

Gianos, Phillip L. Politics and Politicians in American Film. Westport: Praeger, 1998.

Griffin, Mackensie. “A Seat at the Table: The Western Dining Table as a Symbol of Power.” Gastronomica, vol. 21, iss. 1,(2021), pp. 1-6: https://doi.org/10.1525/gfc.2021.21.1.1.

Haas, Elizabeth, Terry Christensen and Peter J. Haas. Projecting Politics: Political Messages in American Films. Routledge, 2015.

Heath, Stephen. The Sexual Fix. London: Macmillan, 1982.

Gray II, Richard J. and Kaklamanidou, Betty. The 21st Century Superhero: Essays on Gender, Genre and Globalization in Film. Jefferson: McFarland, 2011.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 833-844.

Muñoz-González, Rodrigo. “Masked Thinkers? Politics and Ideology in the Contemporary Superhero Film.” KOME: An International Journal of Pure Communication Inquiry, vol. 5, iss. 1 (2017), pp. 65-79.