I realize that a lot of people have already talked about Joss Whedon’s portrayal of Black Widow in the smash hit The Avengers (and that I’m coming to this quite late). Jim Hines has an interesting response here that is worth reading. Much of the discussion has dealt with Loki’s insult (“mewling quim,” which more or less translates to “whining c-word”) and the fact that much of Black Widow’s screen time involves being subject to the authority of men. Most don’t seem to have a problem with the fact that Black Widow is under the jurisdiction of Nick Fury (a man); neither do I. They do have a problem with the way in which power is distributed when Black Widow is on screen, and
particularly when she’s doing her “spy” thing: namely, that it appears as if men mostly have power in all situations, leaving Black Widow to navigate the patriarchal power dynamic that structures her society (and, in other words, ours).
On the one hand, I do not have a problem with this portrayal. For me, The Avengers takes place in an alternate reality whose only difference from our own is that super powers and aliens exist and directly impact the lives of average people. Comics always reflect our present in some way, whether through allegory/metaphor (think the parallel between anti-mutant movements and anti-black movements) or literal representation (the recent announcement that Canadian superhero Northstar will have a gay wedding is a good example).
In that sense, I think we need to take a quick look around us, particularly in the United States, where pretty much all Marvel comics are written and where the focus is almost always put (even when the characters are not Americans). If we look at Black Widow, we realize that what we’re seeing is a reflection of the reality we’ve presented women, whether we like it or not (this from the perspective of the film and not the comics). She does not exist in an equal world anymore than she is part of a military or similar organization which reflects equality in its members. In other words: Black Widow’s actions, unfortunately, must work within this system. That means using what others perceive as her weaknesses to achieve her goals (even if those goals are S.H.I.E.L.D.’s and not her own). It also means being subject to the patronizing gaze of her “male superiors” (in scare quotes for a good reason).
On the other hand, arguments for a more subversive feminist movement in The Avengers are ones for which I have sympathy. On some level, Black Widow really should be treated more equally by her fellow “heroes,” regardless of gender. She is an accomplished spy, strong (emotionally, intellectually, and physically), and obviously completely capable of matching up with men, except where super powers give them the edge (let’s be fair: she’s not going to overpower Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, or Iron Man, but only, I suspect, because they have things she does not — powers or wicked technology). With all that in mind, why would Whedon choose to portray her as less-than-equal? Is it because men still have not moved well enough ahead, even in the fairly “progressive” realm of Hollywood, to see women as figures who subvert patriarchy?
To be honest, I do not have an answer for this question. Personally, I do not have a problem with her portrayal, at least insofar as I can reflect upon my own reality. My hope is that perhaps discussions like these will make us think about how our society is structured, because to change representations, we have to change the the society it reflects.
Anyone have thoughts on all this? The comments are yours.
P.S.: On some level, we should also acknowledge that some of the superheroes and leaders who are men in this movie also come from an older era. In particular, Captain America spent the generations after WW2 as a Capsicle, which means he did not have the benefit of time to change with, well, time. I don’t know how much we can attribute this to the sexism of the film, but it’s something to consider.