by Jaypreet Dhaliwal
The superhero film industry has long been dominated by male protagonists with little to no adequate female representation. The current representation of women in Marvel movies are subjected to a power structure, with males taking the lead and women falling into traditional gender roles. Black Widow is one of the most anticipated female superhero movies of the Marvel Universe and is now being analyzed under the feminist perspective in relation to politics. The representation of women in film is significant to deconstruct, evaluate and legitimize existing or past notions of feminism, femininity, and power structures.
Cate Shortland’s Black Widow follows Romanoff and her foster sister who are placed in the hands of an organization used to train young girls into becoming assassins. This organization is called the Red Room and is controlled by Dreykov. Twenty-one years later, Romanoff encounters a red dust that she discovers is a mind-control counteragent. With the help of her foster family, she learns that Dreykov is mind-controlling the other members of the Red Room for personal power and gain.
The film Black Widow is politically significant as it plays a role in reinforcing the notion of submissive femininity as it contributes to the sexist dichotomy of women being depicted as helpless or rebellious, reinforces sexist power structure by displaying women as accessories to men and it reaffirms traditional notions of femininity shown through the relationship between Romanoff, the other widows and Dreykov.
2. Protagonists reveal the underlying dichotomy of women’s roles in film.
Women in film, much like women in real life are subjected to the opinions of society and are labelled either “good” or “bad” based on how closely they conform to gender norms. This has created a dichotomy in the way women are portrayed in films. Particularly, if women aren’t submissive and give in to their male counterparts, they are seen as a threat and rebellious in nature. It is evident that films use, “plot devices to punish independent women [and] women all go through extended trials-by-fire to prove themselves worthy of their institutional authority and the trust of their predominantly male colleagues” (Haas 15). In this case, Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff, is seen as a fugitive running from the US government for violating Sokovia accords (Black Widow 16:58). Although she is aiding her male counterpart, Captain America, in making sure the soviet super-soldiers aren’t weaponized, she is seen as a threat and forced to isolate herself from society. Her choosing loyalty to her team over the government results in society changing their perception of her from a heroine to a fugitive and enemy of the country. This betrayal on Romanoff is swift and showcases the overall two positions that she is meant to play and the conditions that each comes with: she’s a heroine when being obedient to the government and an enemy when following her own principles. As a result, like Marked women, Romanoff displays gender conflict between being a heroine and on the other hand being perceived as cunning and violent; thus, placing the film in a contradiction (Rushton, 91). The underlying message behind her character reveals the sexist nature of politics in film. As she is not shown to be domesticated, she is viewed as rebellious and an outsider of society. The conclusion can be made that women who do not follow traditional gender roles disrupt exploitative social systems and are consequently villainized by the government and society.
The women in Black Widow are shown to only fall into two archetypes, they are either seen as helpless damsels or violent rebels. The archetype of the helpless damsels is evident through the orphaned females forced to go through the Red Room training. These are vulnerable children that are unable to fight for themselves and thus exploited. Romanoff as a child is placed in a family with surrogate parents and a surrogate sister by the Red Room for years, due to a mission. Romanoff and her surrogate sister, Yelena Belova, find comfort and trust in their surrogate parents. Due to this trust in specifically their surrogate father, they are placed back in the hands of Dreykov, the creator of the Red Room and forced to undergo torturous training. Romanoff’s surprise and vulnerability is shown when she and her Belova blindly follow their father into the hands of Dreykov (Black Widow 11:31). Their trust in their father comes from “the active roles of the protector[s] [being] masculinized [and] having strength and power [being] the foundation of masculinity” (Pennel & Behm-Morawitz 212). As their mother is injured, they are forced to rely on their father’s guidance. Following the guidance of their father, they are subdued by injection and swiftly taken by the Red Room (Black Widow 12:51). This emphasizes female vulnerability and helplessness by placing their father as their protector and their only line of defence against Dreykov. In addition, the mother was in an injured state, unable to help or provide the role of a protector. These widows that come from the Red Room transform from orphaned girls forced to go through excessive training to soldiers and weapons of Dreykov. The widows are trained assassins, used for the purpose of violence. This is especially emphasized using Dreykov’s own daughter Antonia. Antonia was in an explosion that was set by Romanoff, this explosion left her frail and incapacitated, which forced Dreykov to put a chip inside her head and turn her into the weapon Taskmaster (Black Widow 1:34:37). Dreykov shifts the blame for the condition of his daughter to Romanoff. This further expresses how females can only be seen as innocent or weapons. When revealing Antonia as the taskmaster he says, “do you find it hard to look at her, because I do” (Black Widow 1:35:41), further showcasing that Dreykov made the decision to turn his daughter into a weapon as she doesn’t appear and act as his little girl anymore. Overall, this reinforces the dichotomy of women only being able to fall into two types of categories depending on the views and conditions put on them by their male counterparts.
3. Conflict between Dreykov and Black Widow reinforces sexist power structure
The conflict between Romanoff, the other widows and Dreykov emphasizes the enormous power Dreykov holds against all widows. Romanoff is unable to physically harm Dreykov because of the pheromone lock inside them that prevents them from being able to attack him. In turn, this indicates the lack of autonomy of women. In addition, a male character is given the power to have complete control over Romanoff and the other widows which also contributes to the popular yet outdated narrative that demeans women. While Romanoff freed herself from Dreykov showing some progression in the plot, her heroism was dependent on showing resistance and proving her strength unlike many of the other male superhero epics. Rushton asserts the position that women can define their struggle against “subordination and exploitation” only after a male is demonized (106). For instance, it was only when Dreykov was demonized that the struggle of the widows was revealed. This solidifies the notion that politics is only present when there is a division between classes. In other words, the division between men and women is closely related to class struggle and how they interact with these existing power structures.
This film is not inclusive of effective feminist perspectives which is illustrated through Romanoff’s disappointing battle with Dreykov. Dreykov shows Romanoff the damage he has done to the world through controlling the widows all around the world via his control desk, while doing so he says, “these world leaders and great men answer to me now” (Black Widow 1:41:01). He showcases the amount of power and control he holds over these women. Romanoff breaks free from Dreykov’s control by provoking Dreykov into punching her in the face multiple times in order to sever the nerve in her nasal passage to make the pheromone ineffective (Black Widow 1:40:10).
She uses her wits and intelligence to formulate this plan, but it is still done in a demeaning and non-heroic way. Her heroism as a leader was limited to the characteristics of real-life women, instead of those of a hero. Rushton reflects that “… much of the film can be said to be about how and why the women discover their own power to resist, and they discover such a power of resistance in response to political struggle but the way in which it was delivered was ineffective (97). The representation of a women heroine versus that of a male hero differs greatly as males have often portrayed warrior-like, indestructible and independent. Her confrontation with the main villain of the film isn’t accompanied by dramatic, intense music as many other ones on ones with the superhero and villain are as well, further undermining her heroic attributes. While Belova ultimately kills Dreykov which took away from Romanoff’s role as a modern heroine said to empower women. While this movie was supposed to focus on Romanoff, she ended up being a supporting character with Dreykov being the center. The idea that Romanoff does not actually hold any real superpowers reinforces the idea that women are not fit to be superheroes. Arguably, this makes her undeserving of the superheroine title. Males have been so overrepresented in films that women have had to identify with male protagonists. This film is closely related to the real-life political structures which benefit men thus reinforcing an exploitative power structure.
4. Emphasis placed on maternal characteristics
Much of the satisfaction of a superhero movie comes from the superhero or super-heroine saving the day. “On the whole, these movies reinforce the status quo, telling us that all is well in America and that any little problems can be worked out, usually with the help of a heroic leader (Haas 18). Romanoff doesn’t focus on directly saving the widows and the world from Dreykov, she requires the allegiance of her foster family and other widows to accomplish this. Melina, Belova and the other widows help free the rest of their kind across the world by using the mind-control counteragent. Romanoff concentrates solely on saving Antonia as she feels it’s her duty to help the innocent mind-controlled daughter. When the building is burning down, she tries to talk to Antonia by saying “I know you’re still in there” (Black Widow 1:52:36) and releases her from her jail cell to give her the mind-control counteragent. In turn, her character is reduced to gender stereotypes.
Another example of this is where many of the other protagonists are physically fighting and in an intense battle, Romanoff is attempting to have an emotional moment with Antonia. This undermines her role as a heroine as emphasis is placed on the emotional impact of trying to get through to Dreykov’s mind-controlled daughter. D’Amore finds that, “the superheroine’s performance of maternity empowers the maternal, accepting motherhood—and the feminized qualities associated with it” (1226). This further plays into the stereotype that women are driven by emotions which is also typically discussed in topics relating to women in politics. Female intelligence is often questioned and downplayed due to narrow- minded reasoning that women are “too emotional” to make informed decisions. D’Amore goes on to further express that, “recognizing maternal performativity in superhero comics that do not overtly represent the traditional family is key to making the claim that they maintain conservative gender roles, especially given their temporal intersection with growing consciousness about women’s liberation and the equality of the sexes” (1240).
Limiting Romanoff to the maternal role takes away from showcasing her as a power force which would have made this film far more effective in representing women. Rushton (81) speaks about populism as the understanding of how political alliances are formed and how certain parts of the population assume greater power while other sections are deprived from it. Male superheroes embody heroic characteristics and are not analyzed based on their ability to nurture the way women are. While male heroes are accompanied by a narrative in which they are set to save the world, Romanoff, one of the only female “heroines” is shown to focus on saving one child. Rushton (83), states that this very division is the precondition of politics and the class struggle between men and women. Cinematic films are essential in advancing these traditional notions of femininity and masculinity. The film Black Widow seems to be purposeful in the way that women are presented in the film and play on their nurturing, submissive roles while asserting its position in ‘political modernism’.
The film industry has played a significant role in societal conformity of social norms and roles while embedding political messages that do not typically endorse healthy outlooks of femininity and women empowerment. Black Widow is no exception, while it may seem that women are finally being represented as protagonists, not all representation is good representation. The film industry is able to manufacture consent by popularizing dangerous notions of femininity. The political significance of endorsing such power structures has adverse consequences in relation to gender and other social institutions. For instance, the film advances the narrative of women being helpless and on the other hand, they are considered rebellious if they disrupt the social norms. While Romanoff was supposed to be the central character, her story is unravelled through a male character; Dreykov. This reinforces the sexist power structure by depicting women only in relation to male counterparts, in turn being accessories to men. The film industry can play a significant role in changing narratives that seek to disempower women by including effective representation of women. The film failed to adequately challenge traditional notions of femininity which was further emphasized by Romanoff’s maternal nature towards Antonia. Films are often engaging in which many people spend their recreational time viewing which can contribute to the way they view certain social institutions and observe the world around them. Further efforts need to be made to ensure a proper and diverse representation of women from the production of the film, the plot and the actors chosen as films contribute to the knowledge and views people hold surrounding women and politics.
Black widow. Directed by Cate Shortland, performances by Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David
Harbour, O.T. Fagbenle, Rachel Weisz, Marvel Studios, 2021.
D’Amore, Laura M. “The Accidental Supermom: Superheroines and Maternal Performativity,
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Haas, Elizabeth, et al. Projecting Politics: Political Messages in American Films, Taylor & Francis
Group, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/lib/ryerson/detail.action?docID=2011203.
Pennell, Hillary, and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz. “The Empowering (Super) Heroine? the Effects
of Sexualized Female Characters in Superhero Films on Women.” Sex Roles, vol. 72, no. 5-6, 2015, pp. 211-220.
Rushton, R. The Politics of Hollywood Cinema: Popular Film and Contemporary Political
Theory, Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/lib/ryerson/detail.action?docID=1431445.